Tuesday 21 September 2010

In authenticity: Douglas Sirk and the Sirkian Melodrama

Image from Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk, 1959)
I first saw Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life in 1959 at The Yeadon, a neighbourhood movie house in a white working-class suburb of Philadelphia. I was 16. Imitation of Life was about four women, two of them black. When we came out afterward, most of us were crying. The theatre owner's wife was standing in the lobby with a box of Kleenex. Many people gratefully took a tissue to dry their eyes. This is what Sirk wanted, I believe. [Tag Gallagher, 'White Melodrama: Douglas Sirk', Senses of Cinema, Issue 36, 2005]
[W]ith the reconsideration of directors like Douglas Sirk and the application of (gasp) irony, “melodrama” isn’t the dirty word it once was. Initially, film studies criticism used the term pejoratively to connote unrealistic, pathos-filled, campy tales of romance or domestic situations with cliché-ridden characters intended to appeal to female audiences. Understandably, these were considered to be lesser films, sentimental pap churned out by the Hollywood tear-jerk machine. And if one couldn’t look beyond these tropes – if the viewer were unable to see through them – they might find themself (like many critics of the 1950s) unjustly unwilling to give credit where credit is due.
     Sirk, for example, a contract director working mostly at Universal, was known for turning out dizzy romantic fiascos; glossy and kitsch, excessive and (sometimes) silly, these dependable studio projects were routinely panned by critics and “sophisticated” audiences. What these viewers missed was the subversive strain running through Sirk’s art. He wasn’t just making a melodrama, he was using it. Even the critic James Harvey admits to “missing” Sirk the first time around, remembering his biggest hits, Written on the Wind (1957) and Imitation of Life (1959), to be “unredeemably bad”. But twenty years after its release, Harvey returned to Imitation of Life and found himself overwhelmed.
     My awareness of even a possible ironic intention seemed to transform the movie for me. As it had, it seemed, for the audience around me, who were responding to it in a way no imaginable 1950s audience could have: being alert and to and amused by every hollow ring in Lana Turner’s multi-costumed, leading-lady performance, for example, just as I was being. We had become an audience for the “Sirkian subtext”, as it was called. And we were no longer (as we had been years before) jeering alone. This time even the director was on our side.
     And so there is the Melodrama and there is the melodramatic. The trick is to figure out which is which. [Sam Wasson, Bigger Than Life: The Picture, The Production, The Press', Senses of Cinema, Issue 38, 2006]
The most important ironies in Sirk are those of so much film melodrama of the 1950s, namely the ironies of the failure of dominant ideology, the vast distance between how social institutions, gender roles, and other fundamental values are supposed to function and how they actually do function. Much of this “ironic” social critique of Sirk’s films is overt and uncomplicated (the country-club values in All That Heaven Allows or Lana Turner’s kitsch glamour in Imitation of Life [USA, 1959]). What the “irony in Sirk” debate is mostly directed to, instead, is the fact that the films often take up an attitude critical of ideological norms without overtly acknowledging that they are conducting such a cri- tique, and that they present characters in the grip of dominant values (therefore “good” characters) whose ideological conformity is objectively destructive but who are never overtly labelled by the film as hollow or destructive (the Rock Hudson and Lauren Bacall characters in Written on the Wind are a clear example). The melodrama of Sirk and his contemporaries is quite different in this respect from most earlier forms of cinematic melodrama (Griffith for example), where all the values inherent in the films are plainly depicted as what the films think they are. But although the hollowness of some of Sirk’s “good” characters does indeed interfere with the overt ideological work of the narrative, it hardly disables the melodrama of these characters’ sufferings, or the pathos of their entrapment in ideology. Indeed, the reverse is the case: they are rendered more pathetic by their impossibility, and the film’s distance from their “false consciousness” then functions much like dramatic irony, and not at all like any kind of scornful detachment. [William Beard, 'Maddin and Melodrama', Canadian Journal of Film Studies, 14:2, Autumn 2005, fn 6, pp.15-16]
[T]o understand what Imitation of Life is trying to do audiences have to trust in its distinction between authenticity and inauthenticity, between its evocations of real life and its manifestations of life’s imitations. The evocations of real life rely on emotional manipulation – the emotion of motion pictures. It is only by way of these moments of intense emotional involvement that the moments of authenticity in the film can be distinguished from those of pretence. And it is the moments of pretence, of escaping into falsifying theatres of one form or another, that Sirk is holding up for criticism. Finally, that is what is produced by Sirkian ‘ironic distanciation’: an acknowledgment of the inauthentic imitation of life.[Richard Rushton, 'Douglas Sirk’s Theatres of Imitation', Screening the Past, Issue 21, 2007]

Film Studies For Free today celebrates studies of the work of Douglas Sirk with an almost melodramatically long list of links to online scholarly items on this director's films and some of the films they have influenced. The list builds on Kevin B. Lee's very valuable, existing webliographical work.
FSFF knows, of course, that offering up such easy access to these resources means that there won't be a dry eye in the house. But if your tears are due to FSFF having missed a good Sirkian link, do please let us know by commenting below...

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