Monday 22 May 2017

Bruce Hodsdon on the Cinema of Douglas Sirk - All that Sirk was Allowed (Part 8) - Critical Recognition - the Turning

Cahiers #1
The first serious appreciation of Sirk's melodramas was published in the fifties in Cahiers du Cinema. As Barbara Klinger comments “in the main the Cahiers critics “were attracted to the excessiveness and artifice of Sirk's style (without) unanimity as to what the vertiginous visual displays mean.” Only Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard found something more than empty formalism and self-reflexive play. Truffaut reviewed Written on the Wind as a commentary on the modern condition, praising Sirk's “frank use of the colours of the twentieth century, the colours of America, the colours of luxury civilization.”  Godard appreciates A Time to Love and a Time to Die for Sirk's spirited and irreverent contrasts, his “delirious mixture of medieval and modern, sentimentality and subtlety, tame compositions and frenzied CinemaScope.” At this early stage Klinger points out that the Cahiers reviewers “did not yield a systematic sense of what the personal visions tying style and narrative themes together would be - a major operation of later auteurist work.”

Pauline Kael
The heterogeneity between the Cahiers critics, while it cannot be taken to be representative of mainstream French film criticism, was in striking contrast to mainstream English language reviewing of Hollywood fifties melodrama of which Sirk's films are a paradigm. Two quotes from The New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, who became a fierce critic of Andrew Sarris's auteur theory, are submitted as a sample. There was nothing quite comparable in film journalism to Pauline on the warpath but nevertheless, without confirming it, I suspect that these quotes would not have been so far from the tone of the reviews of Sirk's fifties melodramas that would have appeared at the time, for example, in the BFI's flagship publications, Sight and Sound and Monthly Film Bulletin, condescension likely replacing vitriol.  The reputation of All That Heaven Allows, Kael contends, “derives from a slurpy, peculiarly glossy intensity of Douglas Sirk's direction...[his] blend of Germanic kitsch and Hollywood kitsch...a major influence...on Fassbinder, whose work is a formalization of Sirk's schematic sentimentality.” The Tarnished Angels, Kael warns, “is the kind of bad movie that you know is bad – and yet”, she concedes, “you are held by the mixture of polished style and quasi-melodramatics achieved by the director.”                                                                        

Andrew Sarris
Andrew Sarris in the late fifties and early sixties had been writing film reviews for Film Culture, The Village Voice and the New York Film Bulletin; the latter was printing translations from Cahiers as well as local auteurist criticism. In 1963, following “a long sojourn in Paris” in 1961, almost an entire issue of Film Culture, no 28, is devoted to what Sarris felt was “a pressing need for a systematic reappraisal of American cinema, director by director, film by film.” Included in “the second line” category (later “the Far Side of Paradise”) with ten other directors just below “the Pantheon” of twelve directors, is the first vindication in English, “for its formal excellence and wit”, of Douglas Sirk's work as director. Sarris's 1963 reappraisal reappeared in expanded book form in 1968 as The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968. “Time, if nothing else, “ writes  Sarris, “will vindicate Douglas Sirk as it has vindicated Josef von Sternberg.” In this elevation of Sirk, Sarris was anticipated by a small group of young auteurist critics in London in the first issue of Movie (June 1962) who, in breaking away from BFI critical orthodoxy, listed Sirk in the “brilliant “category of then working American and British directors along with Orson Welles, Nicholas Ray, Vincente Minnelli, Otto Preminger and six others just below the critical summit of greatness occupied only by Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks.

Original Cover
In 1967 eight years after Sirk had directed his last major film, the first retrospective of his films was presented by Studio-Action in Paris. Cahiers du Cinema simultaneously devoting 30 pages of the April 1967 issue to his work including an interview by Serge Daney and Jean-Louis Noames (Louis Skorecki), a filmography, and a thematic study by Jean-Louis Comolli titled “The blind man and the mirror, or the impossible cinema of Douglas Sirk.” While it was auteurism which was responsible for bringing Sirk to serious critical attention, the case for his work, as is noted above, was only tenuously based on praise for the excess and artifice of his style. Andrew Sarris finding himself defending the auteur theory from mainstream critical assault, seems to have decided that attack is the best form of defence in defending the likes of Magnificent Obsession and Imitation of Life by claiming them as “hilarious comedies transformed through the incisiveness of (Sirk's) dark humour.” (1) This was not solid ground from which to mount an auteurist defence of Sirk as a major artist. Such defence of Sirk at this time was based on identifying narrative themes rather than on claims of Sirk as a stylist going beyond Sarris's “essence of Sirkian cinema is the direct confrontation of all material, however fanciful or improbable.”
Louis Skorecki (aka Jean-Louis Noames)*
This uncertainty only began to be resolved with the publication in 1971 of Jon Halliday's book length interview, Sirk on Sirk in the course of which “Sirk was redeemed for exegesis (exposition) through the expression of his own intentions.” (Klinger 9). While this produced a variety of interpretations of his work the parameters established by the interview and Halliday's approach to his questioning were not fundamentally challenged.

The early seventies were watershed years for film and television studies. The sixties (in the US and UK) saw the emergence of auteur structuralism which 'academised' auteurism, adapted by Peter Wollen in Signs and Meaning in the Cinema from structuralism in France . Previously film studies, mainly in the US, focused on teaching the basics of film production in the academy together with the wider institutionalised focus of film culture on 'film as art', paradigmatically art house and experimental cinema. Bordwell notes that “before 1970 most trends in film interpretation originated outside the academy.” (p 21 Making Meaning). Halliday's interview with Sirk provided a means to seriously shift the focus onto ideological issues around Hollywood films as popular culture. Here was a European intellectual who was willing and able to articulate about his knowing engagement with genre, mise en scène and ideology drawing on his experience of working successfully as a “political auteur” at the centre of Hollywood's studio system. Furthermore, his engagement was with a genre - family melodrama - that had struck a chord with cinema audiences in the fifties and early sixties but the films were either ignored or dismissed by the critical establishment as soap operas or 'woman's weepies'. Christine Gledhill has succinctly summarised that “through the discovery of Sirk a genre came into view.”  A case for extending film authorship into a separate discipline of film studies anticipating literary studies by deploying post '68 continental theory (Marxism, semiotics, structuralism and psychoanalysis) was taken up to radically challenge ideological orthodoxy.  What was seen to be complacent assumptions about a canon based in a humanist realism epitomised by Italian neorealism had already been bifurcated by auteurism: the relative merits of Rossellini as auteur versus those of De Sica. Screen, the magazine published by the BFI-sponsored Society for Film & Television Education (SEFT), devoted an entire issue (Summer 1971) to Sirk edited by Sam Rohdie. This was followed soon after in 1972 by a twenty film retrospective at the Edinburgh Film Festival accompanied by a booklet of essays titled Douglas Sirk edited by Halliday and Laura Mulvey.

Peter Wollen
Auteur based cinephilia, in Elsaesser's words, was “always a gesture towards cinema already framed by nostalgia and other retroactive temporalities, even as they register as pleasures tinged with regret.” This provided a base from which to launch tertiary film studies. “Without cinephilia, Elasaesser insists, “there would not have been film studies” (p.18  Persistence of Hollywood). Momentum gathered by the early seventies around questions of auteur v genre, structural v thematic criticism, ideological v textual analysis. There was less emphasis on auteurist themes and more on style.  Screen theory's decade-long deconstruction of Hollywood in the seventies can be seen, Elsaesser suggests, as “an extended funeral service for cinephilia” which in turn tended to try and master this loss “either by an intensification of questioning or retreat into subjectivity.” Screen's discovery of Sirk as “a good auteur” in the context of Hollywood as “a good/bad object” in the Halliday interview, provided an ideological base through Sirk's ability to analyse his productive association with melodrama and the woman's film in the Universal Studios. The BFI Education Department's goal was to provide 'texts' and set the intellectual agenda “that enabled one part of a diverse film culture to enter university and establish a version of film studies in the face of academic distrust.” This coincided with major changes in Hollywood, the mid-seventies economic recovery being based on the blockbuster combining of a different sound-space (Dolby sound) with spectacle values for which movie houses (emerging multiplexes) became showcases. Love of cinema, Elsaesser points out, “was now called by different names – voyeurism, scopophilia, fetishism.” Laura Mulvey's agenda setting call was to “forget pleasure and dedicate oneself to un-pleasure.” Screen sought to forge a bond between theory and practice.  In the academy “rules were required to be set according to literary and realist or modernist discourses and a disciplinary conception of cinema as a body of texts- canonical masterpieces.” Films that aspire to be recognised as “art” in the 20th century had lost this cultural autonomy and specificity in the late sixties. “In this context film studies inherited the concept of the singular work from cinephilia.” Auteurism was sill alive as auteur-structuralism (auteur criticism based only on themes).

End Note

1. In what appears to be a typographical error in the 1968 edition of Andrew Sarris's The American Cinema there is a significant omission in the Douglas Sirk entry (p.110) when compared with the same entry in the first publication of Sarris's taxonomy of 200 directors in Film Culture no 28 (1963). The part of the entry in question (the omitted words in bold) should read: “Whereas John Stahl transcended the lachrymose dramas of Imitation of Life and Magnificent Obsession through the force of his naïve sincerity, Sirk transformed the same plots into hilarious comedies (my italics) through the incisiveness of his dark humour.”

Editor's Note: I am reminded here of my late-discovered admiration for Louis Skorecki. For many years he wrote a daily column  about a movie being shown on TV that night for the left-wing French daily newspaper Liberation. My final sentence still causes much nostalgia: Winter and spring 2004. Bus rides, cinemas, bouffant hairdos, Maurice Chevalier, Mamad Haghighat, Claude-Jean Phillipe, Louis Skorecki, Paul Langevin and, once or twice, snow as we walked from the bus stop to the 7th floor apartment. You can find my memoir if you click here

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