Saturday 22 April 2017

The Cinema of Douglas Sirk - Bruce Hodsdon contemplates All That Sirk Was Allowed - Part One of a Twelve Part Series

The intention here is to first provide an outline of Douglas Sirk’s work as a director. It is comprised of notes on Sirk's 29 American films preceded by a brief summary of his career in German theatre and cinema. A primary resource for these film notes was Jon Halliday's interview which in the words of Thomas Elsaesser  “is the nearest thing to a vindication of interviews as a valid form of film criticism” which will not in its very success “present any danger of easy assimilation of Sirk's work and personality.” In addition to my own (incomplete) viewing I have drawn on selected critical comments from sources listed in the bibliography.

Then follows a summary of the evolution of Sirk's cinema and Sirkian criticism and a consideration of his cultural legacy. A definitive critical biography has yet to be written. It most likely will require two or maybe three “volumes”, the first on Detlef Sierck, the second on Sirk in America and the third bringing the two together, dialectically, as we might say.

Douglas Sirk
 My own engagement with Sirk's films goes back to the sixties when, having absorbed Andrew Sarris's opening volleys in the cause of American directors in Film Culture 28 (1963), a small group of cinephiles in Sydney participated in privately organised screenings over a couple of weekends including four or five of Sirk's Universal melodramas: memorably a couple of pristine 16mm technicolor prints including All That Heaven Allows. Myself and my brother Barrett, being involved in programming term screenings of the Sydney University Film Group, included three of Sirk's films in 1968-9 programs, beginning with Imitation of Life  (on a double bill with Stahl's Magnificent Obsession), Written on the Wind (with Visconti's Sandra) and The Tarnished Angels (with Rossellini's Vanina Vanini). Barrett wrote a note for the SUFG Bulletin comparing the Sirk and Visconti family melodramas. In 1970 there was a 10 film Sirk retrospective in Brisbane organised by the Brisbane University Film Group and attended by Barrett (who led an informal discussion on the films) and Noel Bjorndahl. Barrett recalls that screening and discussing films like Magnificent Obsession and All That Heaven Allows was greeted with some derision from the students.

Thanks to Catherine Gillam and Alex Gionfriddo in the AFI Research Collection at RMIT for their invaluable assistance   

Content guide
Part 1    Foreword; Why Sirk?
Part 2    Sirk in Germany: Weimar theatre and Nazi cinema
Part 3    Sirk in America 1943-59 summary; the indie years 1943-51– notes on the films
Part 4    Sirk at Universal  1951-3– notes on the films
Part 5    Sirk at Universal 1953-9 – notes on the films
Part 6    Critical Recognition : the turning
Part 7    Klaus Detlef Siereck
Part 8    Critical Recognition - The Turning
Part 9    Sirk Auteur - 1
Part 10  Sirk Auteur -2
Part 11  Drama/melodrama/tragedy
Part 12  Post Sirk: mass camp; genre and the woman's film
Part 13  Sirk; the critical backlash
Part 14  Sirk the legacy?
Part 15  Afterword: American family (melo)drama on screen – a selection.
Part 16  Sources

                                                                     Part One: Why Sirk?
It will be fifty years in April since a ten film retrospective in Paris of the films of Douglas Sirk was accompanied by a special section in Cahiers du Cinema devoted to his cinema.  Cahiers included the publication of a full filmography, the first such acknowledgement of his work. It marked the first stage in the long overdue recovery of a creative identity and the historicising of a genre, the American family melodrama. In the films Sirk directed at Universal in the fifties the conventions of the 'woman's weepie', it was claimed, are 'bent' through the mise en scène into a critique of American society, outwardly complacent but morally corroding within. With his deep understanding and experience of theatre and art (especially painting and classic theatre), Sirk developed a dialectical relationship between genre conventions, design, mise en scène and performance maintaining a covert ironic distance in a form of social commentary without betraying his sense of indebtedness to, and personal fascination with American culture. As the most striking example of a European intellectual working in the classical studio system, Sirk's work as director is neither clearly subversive, in a cultural sense, nor passively accomodating. In this, there are links with the work of other European emigres especially Max Ophuls, Otto Preminger and Fritz Lang. This marks them as key figures in the formulation and adaptation of La Politique des auteurs to classical American cinema pioneered by Andrew Sarris.

Sirk seemed almost always to find paths to a degree of engagement beyond that of a mere journeyman with what were little more than assignments in a variety of genres - comedies, thrillers, romantic melodramas (six produced by Ross Hunter at the Universal studios), a western, an historical epic, an adventure film, musical comedies, a war film, dramas with religious themes and celebrations of Americana. He was both a true professional and engaged intellectual, his detractors say more of an opportunist, in his ability to consistently inflect genre requirements while working around and within studio imposed requirements. In making films for general American audiences Sirk had to deal with the problem that, as he said, “irony doesn't go over well with the American general this public is too simple, too naïve - in the best sense of these terms - to be susceptible to irony. It requires clearly delineated positions for and against.” Paul Willemen concludes that “as a European left-wing intellectual, Sirk surprisingly enough, found these new circumstances very stimulating.” He embraced the rules of the American genres, especially those of melodrama, variously both in command, for example in the deployment of lighting, colour, décor, the widescreen and camera mobility and placement.  He was compliant where  necessary with the conventions of Hollywood genre eg, in the filming of action and the representation of violence.

Sire's credit on Imitation of Life, USA, 1958, his last American film.

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