Sunday 4 June 2017

Bruce Hodsdon on the Cinema of Douglas Sirk (10) - All that Sirk was Allowed - Sirk, Auteur, Part 2

Sirk mused that “the angles are the director's thoughts, the lighting is his philosophy.”  His on-going collaboration with lighting cameraman Russell Metty memorably realise Sirk's belief that the film's theme should be expressed through the lighting, prefigured by images often framed in darkness in The First Legion and in the melodramas at Universal with Metty and Glassberg, the interiors in black and white (All I Desire, There's Always Tomorrow, The Tarnished Angels) or in colour (Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind, Imitation of Life), his 'thoughts' expressed in ironically low camera angles in Written on the Wind.

Using Adrian Martin's distinction (Encyclopedia of Film Theory, 295-6), Sirk was a master of both expressive and excessive mise en scène. His mise en scène in There's Always Tomorrow, All I Desire and A Time to Love and a Time to Die is expressive – narrative based, integrated, systematic ensemble of stylistic choices based on classical aesthetics.  Magnificent Obsession, Written on the Wind and The Tarnished Angels can be termed excessive, heterogenous and hybrid in the combination of elements including music, “filmic texts that can easily lose control of themselves.”

Laura Mulvey identifies how the director can allow for interaction between the spectator's perception of an incident, channelled through an aspect of mise en scène so that the protagonists read their dramatic situation with a code similar to that used by the audience. This can be used to establish points of character an example in All That Heaven Allows being the giving by Ron of the golden rain tree branch to Cary at their first conversation that becomes a medium for sharing with the audience of Cary's feelings of desire. This is a means of direct communication which does not include other elements of more privileged discourse (less consciously engaging the audience in elements such as camera movement and lighting). Far from being symbolic affirmation, the figure of the deer in an idealised snowscape in the final scene of  Heaven, can be seen as an example of “excess of transparency” producing an effect in Sirk's 'intensified' use of symbols through the film (the rain tree branch, the wedgwood cup, and overt actions like Ron's transformation of the mill into a more tastefully 'natural' installation of bourgeois comfort) amounting to a form of distancing, their love “being in some sense a dream” against which the realities of their situation are set in relief (1).  Figures – objects and even animals - can mock: Marylee with the miniature oil derrick in Written on the Wind, the dance card at the end of Summer Storm, or a monkey with cheeky irony at the end of Scandal in Paris. Bizarre objects like a carnival mask in The Tarnished Angels bursting into the frame enclosed in blackness to mock the characters.

On the widescreen, images are 'excessively' cluttered with a multiplicity of objects, the density evoking a self-enclosed world of multiple events with the characters, as also those in Written on the Wind, “all in some sense...aware of their blindness.” (Fred Camper) In Magnificent Obsession despairingly facing the prospect of permanent actual blindness, Jane Wyman/Helen is enveloped in blackness with a distanced figure in sharp focus framed in light. The lighting and framing of characters through windows create traps. Sirk's camera is very rarely static. He spoke of “the loosening of the camera.”
His mise en scène was not built around characters' movements but from “imperatives that seem to come from inanimate objects” (Stern).  He told Stern that he laid out his camera moves before plotting the actors “to maximise use of inanimate objects and patches of colour for claustrophobic effect.” The strongly materialist nature of his cinema - the tangible qualities of his visual style - “form a dialectic with the abstract dilemmas with which his characters grapple.” Sirk's mirror images gain some of their power, Camper suggests, from what they can reveal - that of oneself - “is only a reflection.”  In All I Desire and There's Always Tomorrow shadows and interior fixtures, windows and mirrors are expressively used as frames to suggest separation and isolation, space a means of escape or for surveillance.

“Towards the Sirkian System.”  It should be noted at the outset that Paul Willemen, in elaborating a politically driven mise en scène, argues for Sirk's systematic recalibration of style with covertly transformative intent. For Willemen in this system the Sirkian dialectic is to be found. In analysing his American films, it became apparent to Willemen  (his Screen essay “Distanciation and Douglas Sirk”) that Sirk adopted elements of the theatrical revolution that immediately preceded his career as a stage director in Germany, “specifically in echoes of expressionism in his magnification of emotionality, his use of pathos, choreography and music reverberating within the mirror-ridden walls of a Sirkian décor ” to intensify rather than overtly subvert generic conventions.  This was not immediately apparent in the stylisation of his films in which subject matter and the general narrative outline were imposed upon him by the perceived demands of the American audience. Surprisingly in these circumstances Sirk, as a European intellectual, found it stimulating to draw upon his theatrical experience “to intensify rather than break genre rules.” Willemen points to Sirk's deliberate use of symbols for emotional stimuli (as in All That Heaven Allows and The Tarnished Angels); his keeping the camera at a distance continually emphasising both the spaciousness and confinement of the décor (as in Imitation of Life); his use of choreography as a direct expression of character (Written on the Wind and Imitation of Life), and his deployment of lighting and colour schemes, baroque as in Written on the Wind, or for contrasting effect in All That Heaven Allows.

In these various ways Willemen contends, Sirk placed a certain distance, without undermining affective engagement, between the film and its narrative pretext, what Willemen calls a 'through a glass darkly' technique signified for example in the figurative use of 'glass' diamonds behind the credits in Imitation of Life. Sirk's aim, Willemen suggests, is not to distance the audience from the emotional engagement it is seeking, evident in the great success with the public of his melodramas, but to set-up the layering effect, a secondary reality behind the surface reality. In the red dress Jane Wyman wears for her 'coming out' from widowhood at the country club in All That Heaven Allows, a conventional presumption of her 'availability' becomes a counterpoint to Wyman's nuanced playing, her underlying ambivalence towards assumptions made at the country club dance adding to the pathos of her position. This element of stylisation is used for parody or what Sarris refers to as Sirk's “dark humour,” in confronting improbable material as in Magnificent Obsession.

Willemen relates Sirk's films to a Marxian system of representation referring to Sirk's remarks to Halliday about Brecht's influence on his work in the theatre. Gemunden points out that there would seem to be little evidence that Sirk was a Brechtian before Halliday asked him about it. Most contemporary reviewers regarded Sirk as “a humanistic director” who did not distance the audience. When he directed The Threepenny Opera a Hamburg reviewer commented on Sirk's toning down of Brecht's disruptions in style. He told Halliday that Brecht acknowledged to him that his conception of The Threepenny Opera was “indeed different” (Film Criticism p.3). Sirk repeatedly comments in the interview on his use of “split characters” and “unhappy happy ends” as distancing devices. He tends to literally keep his camera at a distance in long or mid-shot often continually in motion. What is debatable is how much this is at the service of a  political dialectic derived from Brechtian concepts on Sirk's part, as Willemen is disposed to claim, rather than a more piecemeal, less radical intensification of generic conventions without significantly undermining the pleasure principle, even augmenting it through aesthetic and structural enhancements such as the use of colour schemes “made strange” through excess in characterisation, non-conventional plot construction, ironic use of camera placement and framing, the use of unnatural lighting, pathos, choreography and music in a dialectic between distancing and emotionality.  Many of his films also contain strong elements of parody evident in his use of cliché. The essence of Willemen's claim for his Sirkian system is that while emotionally charged middle class narrative (the level of content) remains complicit with prevailing ideology, at the same time, as Klinger puts it, at the secondary level, “form attacks the content from within.” (p15)
Seeking to uncover disunity and lack of closure in the narrative through a close reading - textual analysis by the sophisticated 'reader' -  carried a seeming condescension towards actual viewers of the melodrama seen to be susceptible to the manipulations of the genre's conventions and contradictions. Sam Staggs in his book length telling of “the untold story of Imitation of Life” dismissively refers to Sirk “becoming some sort of a Sun King (Sirk du Soleil) to a coterie of auteurists and academics, many of whom,” he opines, “write bad-posture English that slumps on the page.” (92) This implied academically based critical hierarchy was also a source of cinephilic alienation from the then emerging Screen based 'film studies' agenda with the 'recovery' of Sirk as a path breaking case study in the 'political aesthetics' of popular cinema. In light of this theoretical approach, what many of these critics were concerned with, at least initially, was reconciling Sirk with a tainted genre, something a pioneer advocate for Sirk, Andrew Sarris, seemed concerned to do in his entry in Film Culture in 1963. Cultural politics aside, most cinephiles simply found pleasure in “the formal excellence and visual wit” of his work, as at least nominally celebrated by Sarris, while insisting that style is profoundly integral to meaning as is assumed in criticism of the other arts.

End Note
1. In connecting the rise of bourgeois melodrama to the rise of capitalism Chuck Kleinhans emphasises melodrama's flexibility and malleability in the artistic presentation of genuine social problems that are close to real life, the source of melodrama's popularity with critics and with audiences. At the same time Kleinhans sees bourgeois melodrama as a profoundly conservative form with social contradictions displaced by the raising of problems in the family itself – such as keeping the family together – that can be dramatised through maternal self-sacrifice but never solved. He sees a film like All That Heaven Allows dramatising and attenuating symptoms while leaving structural problems - the problems of age, class and lifestyle – ambiguously unresolved. Fassbinder in Fear Eats the Soul and Todd Haynes in Far from Heaven, 'remakes' of Heaven, go further in exploring, hence resolving, the contradictions.  To some extent oedipal questions are muted in favour of sexual desire by Jane Wyman's relatively youthful attractiveness as the older woman minimising the age difference which Fassbinder exacerbates in his reworking of her as an unattractive older woman in his remake, Fear Eats the Soul, introducing a radical dissonance in the conventionalised representation of such relationships in movies which Fassbinder further complicates by making the younger man a Turkish immigrant. By centring race Haynes suppresses class and age in Far from Heaven.

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