Editor’s Note: This is the ninth part of a planned thirteen part series about the German and American master director Douglas Sirk (Detlef Sierck). The previous parts were published on
22 April 2017 (Introduction)
27 April 2017 (Notes on the Weimar and Nazi years)
2nd May 2017 (The American independent years, 1943-51)
7th May 2017 (Sirk at Universal 1951-53)
14 May 2017 (Sirk at Universal, 1953-57)
16 May 2017 (Sirk at Universal, The Last Films, 1958-59)
17 May 2017 (Klaus Detlef Sierck, 1925-1944)
22 May 2017 (Critical Recognition, the Turning)
Click on the dates to access the earlier posts.
Bruce is a long time cinephile, scholar and writer on cinema across a broad range of subjects. The study being posted in parts is among the longest and most detailed ever devoted to the work of Douglas Sirk. In the following text films in Italics are regarded as key films in the director’s career. References to authors of other critical studies will be listed in a bibliography which will conclude the essay.
Sirk's history as an auteur is centrally located in the last full decade of the studio system, producing films for consumption in a society still more or less complacently oblivious to the growing crisis at its core. In this climate of flux the on screen strategies of Minnelli and Ray and especially Sirk seem in retrospect prescient of the challenge to the conventions of classicism as the dominant story telling mode in Hollywood films (unrecognised at the time) and the end of the studio system marked by films like Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider, Chinatown, The Graduate, Nashville and Taxi Driver in the transition to the “New Hollywood” of Penn, Nichols, Altman, Pakula, Pollack, Rafelson, Ashby, Scorsese, Coppola et al.
|All That Heaven Allows|
Variations on Sirk's ironic 'happy unhappy' endings leaving the viewer to reflect further after the end titles, can be found in all of Sirk's Universal family melodramas with the exception of All I Desire (see note on the film above). One wonders how many of the audience actually mined below the affective emotionality of the surface in response to felt ambivalence which is perhaps most strongly ironic in Imitation of Life (see information about its reception in the note). Irony of a somewhat different order is given full rein in the endings of the early films in America on which Sirk had a free hand in both the making and choice of project and shaping of the script - Summer Storm, Scandal in Paris, The First Legion – later given a tragic dimension in the long dark night and the grey light of morning following Roger Schumann's death in The Tarnished Angels and the cruel yet tender end to Sirk's penultimate and most personal film, A Time to Love and a Time to Die. “Only things that are doomed,” reflected Sirk,” can be so painfully tender.” (144)
Mise en scène. Drawing on Thomas Elsaesser's melodrama essay (Motion 4), the Hollywood aesthetic maintains a priority of “invisible storytelling” through direct emotional involvement of the viewer, “a global strategy of the ideology of the spectacle that is essentially dramatic (as opposed to lyrical or dealing with mood or the inner self) and not conceptual (dealing centrally with ideas, perception and cognition),” requiring the creation or re-enactment of situations the viewer can identify with and recognise. Such a cinema depends on the way 'melos' is given to 'drama' by means of music orchestrated with lighting, montage, visual rhythm, décor and style of acting. This is encapsulated in the notion of mise en scène - the way character is translated into action - a strategy rarely more fully realised and generic limits tested than in the fifties by the visual rhetoric defined then by auteurs such as Sirk, Minnelli, Ray, Cukor and Preminger which links to the mise en scène of Renoir, Lang and Ophuls, for example. This involves what Elsaesser terms “the intensification of everyday actions, the heightening of the ordinary gesture and a use of setting and décor so as to reflect the characters' frustrations. Violent feelings are given vent on 'overdetermined' objects'.”
Symptomatic for cinephiles was the critical neglect of the importance of style in favour of the novelties of a 'new' realism that surfaced in American cinema in the fifties in b&w and the narrower screen aspects, a counter-programmed response, it would seem, to the widescreen in colour (1.85 -2.55) strategies of Hollywood 'illusionism'. In cinephilic circles the critical establishment was then seen to be more engaged by the mechanical tele-visuals and variable theatrical strategies of a Delbert Mann or a Sidney Lumet and the pedestrian mise en scène of then prestigious directors like J.L.Mankiewicz, Fred Zinnemann, Stanley Kramer and the impersonal descent into what David Thomson refers to as the “empty visual grandeur” of David Lean's later films.
As a student Sirk studied art history with Erwin Panofsky, a pioneer in relating form and content through iconography in painting and the other visual arts including film. Sirk's special interest was in painting and a career in theatre under the influence of German Expressionism from which he “tried to escape.” But he did so with a heightened interest in style and its relation to internal subjectivity and the importance of tone and mood. Character motivation was 'placed' through mise en scène - the role of the mobile camera, unnatural rather than realistic lighting, stylised décor, architecture, colour and music. Tom Ryan refers to Sirk's “boredom” with expressionism at that time and “dismay at the gradual shift to more realist forms.” He subsequently identified two nineteenth century painters, Daumier and Delacroix, as leaving “their imprint on the visual style of my melodramas.” (Senses of Cinema Great Directors)
Apparent in Thomas Elsaesser's exploration of Sirk's mise en scène, together with that of Minnelli, Ray et al (Monogram 4, essay on melodrama), is the use of historical analysis and theoretical modes such as psychoanalysis without giving up expressive accounts of films and while also maintaining the central focus on melodrama as a genre to illustrate “how ideological conflicts can be tailored into emotionally loaded family situations.”
Considered as an expressive code melodrama might be described as a particular form of dramatic mise en scène, characterised by a dynamic use of spatial and musical categories as opposed to intellectual or literary ones...The exaggerated rise and fall in the pattern of human actions and emotional responses is often referred to as melodramatic in the compression of lived time in favour of intensity in the form of a ' melo’ graph'...Within the bounds imposed by coherence, this can swing from one extreme to the other more than is considered realistic or in conformity with literary standards of verisimilitude...Specific values of cinema lie in the skilled deployment by the director
of concentrated visual metaphors and dramatic acceleration rather than the fictional techniques of dilation.
|Lauren Bacall, Written on the Wind|