Tuesday 27 December 2016

On ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS and reading Douglas Sirk - A reproduced Facebook Exchange between David Hare and Bruce Hodsdon

Editor's introduction: I hope my editorial/headline captures the essence of the matter that follows.

In an earlier post which you can find here David Hare made mention of Laura Mulveys critical work on Douglas Sirk. Adrian Martin weighed in with a comment that he thought there was  No need to insult Mulvey on this though!!

Which lead to this exchange on Facebook which Ive pillaged and reproduced below.

David Hare Back in 1978 or 1977 an old friend who was then living and working in London went to an NFT screening and discussion of All That Heaven Allows. After the screening a debate ensued which spent over an hour on the red dress Jane Wyman decides to wear when she first goes to the country club. The - let's call them '"Semiologist deconstructionist" side, argued that this signaled or signified some subversion to the prevailing order, and the usual 70s British critique of Sirk as a subversive and sociological critic of the damnable 50s America which was wheeled out once again for intellectual stimulation. Towards the end of this another small group piped up, one saying, "for Chist's sake she's wearing a red dress because she's shed the widow's weeds and she wants to get laid." Exactly. 

The red dress...Jane Wyman in All that Heaven Allows
I couldn't imagine a more direct text for a movie, in which what is said, done and worn signifies precisely what it is. A middle aged woman, a red dress, and a bourgeois country club crowd who represent her presumed "class." The fact she finds a hunk like Rock's Kirby, and the fact he's a gardener is openly referred to in class terms over and over again in the scripted dialogue. What's really subversive in Sirk's text, and so embedded you seem to have to be gay to read it, is Rock's and Jane's confessional dialogue in his van about "what it means to be a man". Sirk's own bi-sexuality and Rock's own homosexuality are here almost openly referred to in the text for the "knowing' viewer, in one of Sirk's presentations of what he called "split" personalities. But none of this argument managed to surface at the 1978 screening. (My friend there back then was Arthur Austin.)

Bruce Hodsdon While Mulvey acknowledged in Movie 25 that the line of argument in Screen and elsewhere had been productive and revealing about the way "fissures and contradictions can be shown by textual analysis to be undermining the films {such as Sirk's melodramas} ideological coherence, there is a way it has been trapped in a kind of Chinese box quite characteristic of melodrama itself. Ideological contradiction is the overt mainspring of melodrama, not a hidden, unconscious thread to be picked up only by special political processes.

David Hare:  Bruce I am obviously still a peasant, I'm afraid I have not a clue what she's talking about.

Imitation of Life
Bruce Hodsdon: Contradiction and ambiguity are central to the pleasure. The audience didnt need left wing intellectuals to read the ending of All That Heaven Allows for them - they made of it what they will. Black audiences read Imitation of Life differently from whites. To continue Mulvey's quote: "No ideology can even pretend to totality: it must provide an outlet for its own inconsistencies. This is the function of fifties melodrama. It works by touching on sensitive areas of sexual repression and frustration; its excitement comes from conflict not between enemies, but between people tied by blood or love."

David Hare Well I thought it was conflict that created the drama, and mise-en-scene (including performance and screenplay) that gave the audience pleasure. The sheer notion of observing that black audiences derived different readings from whites so beggars credulity as to leave me agape. I have always thought this goobledegook basically pimped conceptualization upon directors like Sirk, whom the authors felt were working (Slumming) in genres that were unworthy of them (the authors) They clearly were not unworthy of Sirk et al and such pimping (appropriation) egregiously does them disservice.

Bruce Hodsdon Surely contradiction and ambiguity between and within characters as well as external circumstances create the conflict which immerses us in drama. If the conflict is primarily between central characters it is drama/melodrama. When it is driven from within - the divided self (Hamlet, Macbeth ) it is tragedy. Written on the Wind (Kyle Hadley) and Tarnished Angels (Roger Schumann) push into tragedy if with the stylistic 'tempo' of melodrama particularly the former. Time to Love is tragic romantic drama -external circumstances ensure happiness of the couple is only fleeting. In the case of Imitation of Life it would seem to be question of how black audiences identified with the characters. They accounted for 30% of the audience, almost three times their demographic because it provided a rare chance (probably for the first time on the screen) to engage with mother-daughter conflict in a racial-class context. Isn't the emotionalism of the funeral at least ambiguous in its implications and can be 'read' in quite different ways?

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