Getting Away With It

Constricted by the social taboos of the Eisenhower era, director and master melodramatist Douglas Sirk explored the mores of more

The studio loved the title All That Heaven Allows. They thought it meant you could have everything you wanted. I meant it exactly the other way around.

--Douglas Sirk

 

The kitschy and the crazy: Rock Hudson and Dorothy Malone in Douglas Sirk's Written on the Wind
The kitschy and the crazy: Rock Hudson and Dorothy Malone in Douglas Sirk's Written on the Wind

From Orson Welles and Ida Lupino to Jane Campion and John Woo, any serious film artist who has ever taken money from a studio has pondered the question: What can I get away with? After all, the borrowing of funds in any field carries with it the obligation of reimbursement--and not least in cinema, the most expensive of all artistic mediums. To increase the allotted budget (or to ease the investor's mind, as the case may be), an A-list director might choose to cast, say, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman--at which point the director inherits an enormous debt to the stars' agents, to their personas, and to their audience. Now what can the filmmaker get away with?

If the master strategist Stanley Kubrick negotiated this business by selling both the actors and the audience on his patented form of unapproachable genius, a lesser-known auteur named Douglas Sirk got his own way through opposite means: Delivering a series of opulent melodramas to Universal-International in the mid- to late Fifties, Sirk dealt with the art-vs.-commerce conundrum by giving the public exactly what it wanted--and more. In Sirk's soap operas, the shadows are more dark, the colors more fiery, the characters more unhinged, the plot more implausible, the music more shrill, the symbolism more blatant (and often more phallic). Indeed, it's this extra something--call it lurid hyperbole, shameless sap, or American allegory, perhaps--that continues to distinguish intoxicating entertainments such as Magnificent Obsession, Written on the Wind, The Tarnished Angels, and Imitation of Life, all of which will be screening in newly struck 35mm prints at Oak Street Cinema through September 2.

For the first of these, 1954's Magnificent Obsession (Tuesday at 7:20 and 9:40 p.m.), the journeyman Sirk enhanced his profile by taking on a pet project of actor Jane Wyman, a well-regarded star with the privilege of choosing her own material. Wyman's Oscar-winning role six years earlier had been as a deaf-mute rape victim in Johnny Belinda, so it's no surprise that she'd had her eye on playing the blind heroine of Obsession. Begrudgingly accepting the assignment, Sirk embellished the movie's tearjerking hokum into cheeky surreality, telling the ludicrous story of a playboy (Rock Hudson) who undergoes medical training to operate on the widow (Wyman) whom he blinded in a car accident. As the playboy's transformation requires his adherence to the Christian beliefs of a divinely inspired artist (Otto Kruger), the director himself had a philosophy of the film's outrageous aesthetic. "It is a combination of kitsch, and craziness, and trashiness," he told an interviewer in 1970. "But craziness is very important, and it saves trashy stuff like Magnificent Obsession. This is the dialectic--there is a very short distance between high art and trash, and trash that contains the element of craziness is by this very quality nearer to art."

In navigating this aesthetic minefield, Sirk benefited immeasurably from the fact that the chief subject of his crazy cinema was postwar America. A left-wing intellectual theater and film director who emigrated from Germany in 1937, Sirk (born Detlef Sierck in Denmark, to German parents) was certainly no stranger to the cruel constrictions of society--which is also to say that he was right at home in 1950s Hollywood. On the one hand, the culture of Eisenhower-era conservatism kept the director busy making socially critical melodramas such as All That Heaven Allows and There's Always Tomorrow; on the other, Hollywood's need to compete with the small-screen threat at home (and to cater to the craven tastes of those burgeoning rebels without a cause) gave rise to a swell of sex and violence in cinema--and Sirk was happy to work this side of the street as well. Taking such contradictory impulses to their logical extremes, 1956's Written on the Wind (Friday through Sunday at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m.) is the obscene cautionary tale of a corn-liquor-swilling billionaire (Robert Stack) and his nymphomaniac sister (Dorothy Malone), who wreak havoc on a Texas town spilling over with erect oil derricks. Naturally, the film gushed millions at the box office.

Still, Written on the Wind was hardly a critical sensation (despite Oscar nominations for Stack and Malone)--and neither was Sirk's more sober yet characteristically soapy The Tarnished Angels (Monday at 7:30 and 9:20 p.m.), nor his racially charged, dizzyingly prismatic Imitation of Life (Wednesday and Thursday, September 1 and 2, at 7:15 and 9:40 p.m.). One of the many things Sirk's cinema did magnificently was to expose the banality of "objective," literal-minded film reviewing: To the New York Times's levelheaded Bosley Crowther, the climactic funeral in Imitation of Life was "a splurge of garish ostentation and sentimentality." The New York Herald Tribune found the film's white characters less convincing than its black ones, with actress Sandra Dee resembling "little more than a vaguely animated doll in comparison to the vivid, vital young Miss [Susan] Kohner." And Time noted that "certainly not one soap-opera cliché is missing." True enough on all counts--but to what end? Why should annoying characters, over-the-top visuals, and the use of age-old conventions automatically signal "bad" filmmaking? Aren't these precisely the components of Sirk's vision--his imitation of life as an imitation of Hollywood melodrama?

 

Douglas Sirk didn't introduce irony to American movies, perhaps, but he certainly deserves credit for putting them in bed together. Along with Frank Tashlin in comedy (e.g., The Girl Can't Help It), Sirk conceived the idea of using distortion as an aesthetic tool--pumping up the volume till the speakers pop, turning up the Technicolor till it bleeds. So too Sirk's narratives are cranked up to 11. Pioneering the deliberately unpersuasive resolution (despite appearances, that funeral in Imitation of Life isn't the least bit cathartic), the director brilliantly had it both ways: The appearance of perfect closure appeased the studio's desire for a happy ending, while the undeniable beauty of such privileged moments is also a sick sort of beauty, its flagrant excess suggesting the shallow triumph of capitalist cure-alls and the essence of America. Among the countless ironies of Sirk's oeuvre is the fact that his lavish spectacles spoil us for other movies, although his artistic m.o. clearly survives in the work of Pedro Almodóvar, Lars von Trier, Todd Haynes, and, more than anyone, Paul Verhoeven. (Watch Verhoeven's Showgirls again, if you dare, and tell me if its flamboyant sleaze isn't the spitting image of Douglas Sirk.)

Old as they are, the director's methods remain controversial to this day: Put an AMC cablecast of Magnificent Obsession before a group of co-workers and watch how it separates the cynics from the cineastes--or, in some conceivable cases, the girls (and the "girly-men") from the boys. Among Sirk's stigmas is the fact that he often worked in the marginalized realm of the so-called women's picture, which continues to pay 60 cents on the dollar when it comes to the valuation of "serious" cinema. No wonder film historian Jeanine Basinger wrote an essay called "How to Deal With Sirk Scoffers" 25 years ago: These are the rare works of popular entertainment that demand safeguarding.

As for this overprotective Sirk enthusiast (all of us are), I might concede that the director's ingenious replication of conservative social scripts is not the same as a progressive vision, and that his subversion may not be subversive if audiences can so easily fail to note it. (What does it mean if a teary irony drops in a theater, but no one hears it fall?) Yet I still disagree with the less conscientious objectors who seem unwilling to see Sirk's shiny surfaces as reflective of the polish applied by society to the real world. Diverting attractions and placating narratives aren't unique to the cinema, Sirk argues in Imitation of Life, a movie that vividly exposes the myth that the proverbial colors of the rainbow are somehow "natural"--either for the pictures or the people they represent. To Sirk, life itself is a construction--a carnival as elaborately art-directed as his sets, a production whose supporting characters are as subservient to the protagonists as any Hollywood movie's. Among Imitation's countless achievements (file under: race, class, gender, motherhood, religion, cinema studies, and the 1950s), the film depicts America as the cruelest kind of fun house while at the same time it critiques the aspirations of all its characters: a white actress (Lana Turner), selfishly imitating life onstage and at home; her vacuous daughter (Dee), taking after Mom; the daughter's friend (Kohner), a light-skinned black girl trying to pass for white; and the girl's mother (Juanita Moore), an African-American housekeeper who plays the martyr in this life so as to earn points in the next.

Ultimately, all that heaven (or Hollywood) allows appears just out of reach for these earthbound souls. The high-altitude carnival stunt pilots of Sirk's capitalist allegory The Tarnished Angels can't compete with the "flying billboards" of their well-sponsored rivals, nor do the idle rich of Written on the Wind extract anything from those oil derricks other than the grandest misery. As the final scene of Sirk's final movie, Imitation of Life's gaudy funeral procession is also the image of Sirk going out with a bang--his bitter farewell to a Hollywood whose conventions didn't allow for doing the right thing. "I had outgrown this kind of picture-making," Sirk said after retiring, "which...was typical of Hollywood in the Fifties and of American society, too, which tolerated only the play that pleases, not the thing that disturbs the mind." Still, as his work thrives on the tragic distance between what heaven promises and what it allows, the liberated context of the 1960s wouldn't have suited Sirk's art in the least--although it's safe to say that he would have made a hit in these fat but stingy times.

 

Oak Street Cinema's "Universal Sirk" series starts Friday with a three-day run of Written on the Wind, and continues through September 2; (612) 331-3134.

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