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Thursday, 5 January 2017

All that the Red Dress Allows - Bruce Hodsdon provides further matters for contemplation on Douglas Sirk and ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS


Issues can come to light almost accidentally on blogs and the net has the potential to give them added value in, let's say spontaneous exchanges, as an example between myself and David Hare ignited by an account in a post by David on a film about Fassbinder. This led to an account of a  discussion following a screening All That Heaven Allows at the NFT in London back in 1978 as related to David by a fellow cinephile who was present. Sirk was a central figure in seventies film culture, a seminal decade for the rise of screen (then film) studies. By coincidence I am currently researching Sirk's career - primarily the 29 films he made in America and their critical history. Next year will mark 50 years since the first Sirk retrospective accompanied by the publication of a thirty page special section in Cahiers du Cinema including (probably) the first serious interview with him and (almost certainly) the first publication of a complete filmography of his work, both events occurring in Paris, April 1967.

I will diverge here to acknowledge the ongoing contributions by both David and Noel Bjorndahl in their critiques of films they love in Film Alert (critical celebrations might be a better description). Noel Bjorndahl's most recent being his personal response to the film here in contemplation  - All That Heaven Allows in the context of Sirk's melodramas. Both of them mix eloquence and love of cinema with critical insight, David extending into close analysis of a restoration – usually on a Blu-ray disk.

While that NFT discussion on Cary (Jane Wyman) and the red dress might have run on too long, it seems to me quite relevant to raise this question following a screening of the film given the heightened role of dress, design, décor ( the role of objects such as mirrors) colour and lighting in Sirk's mise-en-scene which match those of other major auteurs in Hollywood at this time such as Minnelli, Cukor, Ray, Ophuls and Preminger. The claim made with apparent
intent from the floor  late in the discussion - that Cary wore the red dress to signify her desire 'to get laid' is seemingly so obvious, it is suggested, as to rule out other possible meanings as opaque, ideologically driven intellectual elitism ('gobbledegook'). To me the evidence on the screen suggests otherwise. Such a claim as the one above admits no irony, a hallmark of Sirk's cinema. He continually uses colour in dress, décor and lighting to coalesce with shadings of characterisation. In the Halliday interview Sirk repeatedly iterates his desire for ambiguity. In a divided character like Cary, richly understated nuances of barely repressed mix of desire and doubt, as played by Jane Wyman, is set against Rock Hudson's limited range as an actor almost reducing Ron Kirby to an 'immovable object'. The red dress and the varying reactions to it in the film both express and compound Cary's inner uncertainties and feelings of loneliness.

The politics of the adoption of Sirk by Screen (a special Sirk issue and the 20 film retrospective at the 1972 Edinburgh Film Festival accompanied by a booklet of essays) as a paradigm case for film  studies is something I will also not attempt to discuss here.  I do think some of the writing on Sirk   tended at times to be over-determined in politicising his role as a director of the films produced by Ross Hunter at Universal in the fifties - Sirk in a role akin to that of a cultural subversive. I can only go part way with David in rejecting these assumptions which is apparent in his refusal to recognise the value of  the few lines quoted in our exchange of comments from Laura Mulvey's “Notes on Sirk & Melodrama” in Movie 25.

These were days of pathbreaking critical and theoretical analysis especially in genre, feminist, mise en scene and textual analysis together with the role of authorship, Mulvey being a major contributor along with Paul Willemen, Thomas Elsaesser and Victor Perkins, to name just three of many, the case of Sirk being pioneered in English by Jon Halliday's book length interview and later by Michael Stern, the  author of the first book length study in English of Sirk's work published in 1979.

I simply want to suggest, in defence of cinephilia, that both forms of writing - personal (cinephilic) critical celebration and broader cultural, political and aesthetic analysis, while both can be the  subject of their own 'excesses', complement each other. Cinephilia rescued Sirk from unjustified critical obscurity beginning with Truffaut and Godard in Cahiers du Cinema the fifties and Andrew Sarris in the pages of Film Culture in 1963. Over five decades the meaning of “Sirk” and his films is still with us because despite repeated assertions of the validity of this meaning and no other, there has been no closure.


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