Sunday 18 June 2017

Bruce Hodsdon on the Cinema of Douglas Sirk - All that Sirk was Allowed - Part 12 - Post Sirk: Mass Camp; Genre and the Woman's Film

 Editor’s Note: This is the twelth part of a planned sixteen 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)
30 May 2017 (Sirk Auteur, Part One)
4 June 2017 (Sirk Auteur, Part Two)
12 June 2017 (Drama/melodrama/tragedy)

To come shortly: The Critical Backlash (13), The Legacy (14), Sources (15), An Afterword: The American Family on Screen (16).

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.   

Dorothy Malone, Written on the Wind
Mass Camp. To engage in the issue of camp sensibility in the reception of Sirk's melodramas is to move outside the academisation of Sirk criticism. Early critical advocates for Sirk, Willemen, Sarris and James Harvey, strongly rejected such readings as misplaced, as did most cinephiles. Camp has nevertheless been affirmed as a significant popular response to Sirk's melodramas further inflected by the dismissive responses as Hollywood kitsch by  mainstream critics like Pauline Kael (see above).  Susan Sontag in her 1966 essay “Notes on Camp” identified the essence of camp “is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.” She also insisted then that “Camp is esoteric-something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques.” While acknowledging that there are a varieties of camp response that are distinctly gay or otherwise subcultural which she does not seek to displace,  Barbara Klinger's focus in relation to cinema is “on forms of camp born from mainstream cross cultural conditions affecting the general population.”  The democratisation of culture in the 50s and 60s was accompanied by a growing awareness of convention and cliché with classic Hollywood movies assuming a campy perspective creating a growing audience “schooled in convention and primed by parody...Past artifacts were engaged with not to reconstruct them but to reconstitute them through a theatrical sensibility that modified them by focusing on their artifice.” (141) Klinger quotes Phillip Core on camp “as a form of historicism viewed histrionically.” Television and film greatly enhanced the expansion of camp. Melodrama, and more frequently science fiction and horror, were prime targets for reflexive plays. Generally melodramas most closely reflected the social mores of their time in their concentration on outdated romance and gender roles which made them targets for a 'hip' audience with conscious awareness of feminism and gay liberation. Melodramatic plots - dramatic conflict with their enhanced emotional affect accompanied by twists of fate and coincidence - alter perceptions of what were their original desired effect. That the self conscious artifice of Sirk in Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind and Imitation of Life was intended as an aesthetic distancing to connect with larger issues of ideology, even where there is a sense of the constructedness of romance and gender roles, does not necessarily outweigh the pleasure derived from  superiority to their outdatedness in the camp response (156 ) (1). This serves to highlight the gap between the meanings of 'Sirk' for theorists and historians in academia, auteurist oriented cinephiles and critics on one hand and the pervasive 'populist' sensibility of mass camp on the other (2).

Genre and the woman's film. The early seventies were peak years for the Sirk revival through retrospectives and the interest in what Klinger sums up as the British Screen based version of “textual politics,” the genesis of which is summarised above. Elsaesser broadened the theoretical base of authorship into psychoanalysis and melodrama as a genre. While focusing on the role of mise en scène Elsaesser neglected that of gender. At the end of the decade the turn in academia was to woman's film and maternal melodrama in feminist and cultural studies. At the same time auteur analysis followed a parallel path with, for example, Fred Camper's 25 page frame analysis of The Tarnished Angels, his essay on “The Films of Douglas Sirk” in the special issue of Screen in 1972 and the publication in the US of the first book length study in English of Sirk by Michael Stern in1979.

Other than as a pejorative term, 'melodrama' first seriously entered the film scene channeled through the notion of mise en scène and auteurism. Banal melodramatic scripts were seen to have the potential to be transformed by authorial vision expressed through the mise en scène of auteurs like Ray, Minnelli and Preminger. The discovery of Sirk provided the basis for a revaluation of Hollywood in terms of debates around the role of mise en scène in ideology and aesthetics. Critics in Britain and the US, in staking a counter position for Sirk, needed to redeem his cinema from the mainstream critics by identifying distanciation devices in his work which expose bourgeois ideology. Early feminist investigation of Hollywood dismissed much of this work based on mise en scène analysis as permeated by a male viewpoint. Feminist critics were eager to attribute critical effect not solely to the director but to the genre. It was Molly Haskell in From Reverence and Rape (1973) who first drew attention to the whole despised area of the woman's film of the 30's and 40's aimed specifically as a category of the women's audience distinguished for the first time from the family melodrama. The latter had in turn been “brought into view” by Halliday, Willemen and Stephen Neale centred on Sirk's melodramas. In this context Laura Mulvey in 1977 delivered a subsequently published discussion paper on “Sirk and Melodrama” at a weekend school on film education. She questioned the claims of theorists (such as Willemen and Neale) that textual analysis is the means of revealing contradictions in fifties family melodramas, so exposing the bourgeois ideology underpinning their production. Sirk's deployment of form and narrative was seen by them to be complicit in this unmasking process. While acknowledging that such analysis “can be productive and revealing,” Mulvey saw “a way in which it has been trapped in a kind of Chinese box quite characteristic of melodrama itself (since) ideological contradiction is the overt mainspring and specific content of melodrama, not a hidden unconscious thread to be picked up only by special critical processes.” Based on this claim then it would seem that Sirk is not so much a subversive agent uncovering cracks and fissures in the ideology, as an astute manipulator of family melodrama, a skilled deliverer of what audiences want from the form “as a safety valve for ideological contradictions centred on sex and the family which seems to deprive it of possible redemption as progressive.” But Mulvey then acknowledges that the position of Sirk is more complex, acknowledging that “the workings of patriarchy, the mould of feminine unconscious it produces, have left women largely without a voice, gagged and deprived of outlets .”

"In the absence of any coherent culture of oppression, the simple fact of recognition has aesthetic importance; there is a dizzy satisfaction in witnessing the way that sexual difference under patriarchy is fraught, explosive and erupts dramatically into violence with its own private stamping ground, the family. While the Western and the gangster film celebrate the ups and downs endured by men of action, the melodramas of Douglas Sirk, like the tragedies of Euripides probing pent-up emotion, bitterness and disillusion well-known to women, act as a corrective."

Mulvey identifies two initial standpoints for family melodrama. “One dominated by the female protagonist's point of view which acts as a source of identification.” The other “examines tensions in the family and between sex and generations; here, although women play a central part, their point of view is not analysed and does not initiate the drama.” Sirk's two Universal movies on which he had the clearest hand – Written on the Wind and The Tarnished Angels – deal with contradictions raised by male oedipal problems minimally gesturing towards the happy ending “with the complexities nearing the tragic.” All That Heaven Allows is told strictly from the woman's point of view (There's Always Tomorrow, unusually for family melodrama, is from the man's), whereas in All I Desire, Imitation of Life and The Tarnished Angels “Sirk complicates and ironises the theme of the continued sexuality of mothers...The few Hollywood films made with a female audience in mind evoke contradictions rather than reconciliation, with the alternative to mute surrender to society's overt pressures lying in defeat by its unconscious laws.”
 End Notes
1. What was at times intended as self conscious artifice by Sirk- a form of distancing- can be seen by camp audiences only as unwittingly outdated style.  Camp readings of lines of dialogue, in All That Heaven Allows, for example, like Ron's invitation to Cary to come over to his place to view his silver-tipped spruce, is a different order of distancing.  Other lines of dialogue are subject to the irony of the 1980s revelation of Rock Hudson's homosexuality inviting re-reading of such lines as Cary's to Ron: “And you want me to be a man?”   Klinger suggests that such droll responses, rather than inviting progressive re-readings of the artifice behind the conceits of romantic conventions, camp audiences cynically translate incongruities of sexual preference into the ridiculous (151). In connection with Hudson living out a dual identity which the studio had “a heck of a time hiding,” Sirk commented that at first Hudson seemed to him to be “middle of the sexual spectrum” until he met up with Ross Hunter. Yet in commenting on Hudson's powerful sexual attractiveness to women, Sirk said two of his leading ladies  “fell for him in a big way,” one asking Sirk desperately: “Doug can't you help him to kiss me properly?”

2. There is the obverse of the camp audience, ie an audience more or less aware of the Sirkian subtext, responding to it in a way no imaginable audience in the fifties or sixties could have been alert to. For a wider discussion of audience response to irony in fifties melodrama in which Sirkian irony and irony in Nicholas Ray's melodramas are compared see Sam Wasson, Senses of Cinema 37.  Chris Fujiwara in a piece in Moving Image Source in 2008 titled “Tears Without Laughter” compared the reactions of Japanese audiences with that of U.S. counterparts at screenings of Sirk's melodramas.  Screenings of films such as Written on the Wind in the US, Fujiwara notes, “can be turned into endurance tests by audience participation rituals fuelled by the urge to show off one's camp sensibility” while Japanese audiences viewed the same films in respectful silence. Fujiwara was attending a 10 film Sirk retrospective at a film festival in Tokyo.

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