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This article on the films of Douglas Sirk appeared in the Chicago Reader, April 14, 2006.
The Films of Douglas Sirk: The Epistemologist of Despair

If you're watching Douglas Sirk for the camp value, look deeper.

by Fred Camper

In the early 70s people laughed at me for writing lovingly about Douglas Sirk's "ridiculous" films. Rainer Werner Fassbinder lauded his fellow director's outrageousness, however, and a few years later, as Fassbinder's reputation grew and gay and camp sensibilities became more respectable, Sirk's melodramatic depictions of mainstream culture were also better received though often for superficial reasons. Sure, his colors are alluring, and his exaggerations have a certain bleak humor. But ultimately Sirk wasn't in it for the laughs: he was a fatalist, someone who once said that "happiness exists, if only by virtue of the fact that it can be destroyed." This emigre, who lived most of his life in Germany, located his general despair in the American materialism of his day, in our reliance on objects to fill the voids where once there were souls.

In Sirk's great 50s melodramas, six of which are showing in a seven-week series of matinees at the Music Box starting April 15, the material surroundings are so powerful they can seem to dictate the characters' actions and even their identities. Decorating schemes, flowers, picture windows, cars, and planes have a mysterious vitality and agency. In Written on the Wind (1956), about a Texas oil heir, Kyle (Robert Stack), and his friend Mitch (Rock Hudson), who are both in love with Lucy (Lauren Bacall), Kyle flies Lucy to Miami to impress her. A pan of her unimaginably opulent hotel suite creates a blinding labyrinth of glitzy details; colors that ought to blend, such as blues and greens, seem utterly disjunct, fragments of an incomprehensible world. Lucy flees. She doesn't want to be part of a cheap seduction, but also it seems no flesh-and-blood human could survive in that dizzying profusion of surfaces and reflections. For Kyle, objects substitute for sexual potency: he drives a sports car, flies a plane, and sleeps with a gun under his pillow. Even though he's been succeeding with Lucy by being himself, when it comes time to seduce her he again relies on objects, throwing his money at her. When his doctor tells him he has a low sperm count, he's devastated. Just afterward, on the sidewalk outside a drugstore, a little boy intrudes in the foreground, jiggling on a toy-horse ride in a decidedly sexual manner. Though there's black humor in the juxtaposition, it's more than a joke: it's a moment of terror. Boy and horse not only symbolize the potency Kyle desperately wants they replace him visually. In near surreal fashion, Sirk continues with a dissolve to the bare leg of Kyle's sister, Marylee, a shot that seems to render her more potent than her brother. But then the editing locks her into a grotesquely spasmodic dance in which she seems to copulate with a photograph of Mitch, whom she lusts after; since her love is unrequited, this too is an impossible dream.

Throughout Sirk's films, compositions fall into fragments. Cuts seem to split the space; camera movements alienate rather than connect. Often this is accomplished with great subtlety: inside the drugstore, the shadows of passersby can be seen on the sidewalk, rhythmic disruptions that rob the characters of their power. In a similar scene in All That Heaven Allows (1955), the occasion is happier dancing after a dinner party in a warmly lit interior but a skylight shows leaves in silhouette blowing ominously across the roof. Later in the film, in which a well-off widow (Jane Wyman) is ostracized for an affair with her much younger gardener (Rock Hudson), she's seen from outside the house, standing alone at her window observing Christmas carolers. The camera moves in to engage us in her isolation, but it draws so close to the window that, as we become more aware of the glass, the space seems to fracture, leaving her profoundly distanced, even "walled up" the term one character uses to describe widows. Though All That Heaven Allows has a happy ending, it's undercut by the gardener's ongoing redecoration of his home to make it more suburban.

It's been argued that Sirk saw his adopted country as ridiculous, an appropriate object of satire, but he was less a sociologist than an epistemologist of despair, arguing that we can never really see or know anything. His irreconcilable visual paradoxes and fissures reveal a Germanic fatalism brilliantly applied to his new context. While the characters in Todd Haynes's Far From Heaven, the 2002 reworking of All That Heaven Allows, are denied happiness, it's because of racism and homophobia not because that's the nature of the universe. Sirk's films are devastating because so many of his characters are real people struggling against fate to find authenticity. In his 1958 black-and-white masterpiece, The Tarnished Angels, the characters seem trapped in a maze of objects and shadows. A carnival stunt flier, his wife, his son, and the reporter who befriends them talk seriously to one another about things like love, but from the opening carnival scene to a later image of a coffin emerging from a tent, intrusive background elements and baroque visual traps deny them autonomy. When an older man ogles the wife, who eventually agrees to sleep with him to help her husband, she's dwarfed by a field full of planes and their shadows, her attractiveness nullified.

Imitation of Life (1959), which Sirk said he would have made "if only for the title," repeats one of his central themes: characters discard true human connections, including with themselves, for material goods and the sake of appearances. African-American live-in maid Annie (Juanita Moore) watches as her light-skinned daughter Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) chooses to pass as white; in the process Sarah Jane also rejects her mother. Near the end, after flying across the country to see her daughter "one last time," Annie asks the girl, now living uncomfortably close to prostitution, if she's getting what she really wants. Of course she's not a fact reinforced by an interposed mirror shot that reveals Sarah Jane's alienation from herself. Yet unusual, deeply moving close-ups in that scene bring the two together, as the daughter inaudibly mouths the words "I love you, mama." After Annie dies, there's a long take that might be the most devastating in all cinema, a high crane shot showing a late-arriving Sarah Jane trying to break through the crowd to her mother's hearse. The camera moves in closer and closer until it arrives at a mockery of the classic two-shot: Sarah Jane faces not her mother but a coffin, grasping at the flowers on top while she wails "I didn't mean it" and "I did love you!" Surface triumphs over substance in the funeral procession that follows, seen from the vantage point of one baroquely detailed setting after another, until authenticity is decisively entombed. Sirk never made another commercial film, moving back to Europe and returning to an earlier love, theater directing.


Copyright © Fred Camper 2006.

Im 1970-71, I wrote a long article on Douglas Sirk, one of the first to treat his work in depth, that appeared in three parts, the first two, a general article and an analysis of The Tarnished Angels, in Screen, Volume 12 No. 2, 1971, and the third, on A Time to Love and a Time to Die, in the Edinburgh Film Festival book on Sirk, edited by Laura Mulvey and Jon Halliday. Both the Screen issue and the Edinburgh book are out of print, but the first Screen article was reprinted in the book Imitation of Life, edited by Lucy Fischer. If you really want to read the other two parts, write me.
Selected Douglas Sirk Links:

Wikipedia page.
Articles in Bright Lights Film Journal.
Survey article by Tom Ryan.
White Melodrama: Douglas Sirk, by Tag Gallagher.
Article, mostly on early films, by Henry Sheehan.
Article on All That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind by Gary Morris.

These are just a few sites I've found useful; more can be found via Google and the Wikipedia sites for Sirk and for his individual films.


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