Tuesday 27 June 2017

Bruce Hodsdon on the Cinema of Douglas Sirk - All That Sirk Was Allowed - Part 14 - The Legacy

Editor’s Note: This is the fourteenth 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)
18 June 2017 (Post Sirk:Mass Camp; Genre and the Women's Film)
26 June 2017 The Critical Backlash

Click on the dates to access the earlier posts. 

To come shortly: Sources (15), An Afterword: The American Family on Screen (16).

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.  

Douglas Sirk
The central part of the Sirk story in Hollywood near the end of the studio era, is set in relief by an extraordinary personal history of self-exile and discovery, of experiment and adaptation also marked by personal tragedy (1). Sirk was not discarded by the system but knew when he was done with Hollywood (apparently there were also health problems) and quietly withdrew at the height of his success in the industry. He could not then have foreseen his critical transformation, via cinephilia, from industry journeyman to master of mise en scène.

In addition to Sirk on Sirk and the ever increasing number of journal articles and academic papers, there are four books on Sirk's films in English. A path breaking, auteurist study of Sirk's American films published in 1979 by  Michael Stern, gives emphasis to continuity of theme and consistency of style. Barbara Klinger's Melodrama and Meaning (1994) is an histographical study of Sirk's place in the development of film studies expanded into a history of the critical reception of his films, both academic and popular, with chapters on the marketing of Written on the Wind, star publicity and the changing image of Rock Hudson, and the “institutionalised” camp response (“mass camp”) to Sirk's films. In light of this contextualising Klinger qualifies her endorsement of academic claims “about the ipso facto subversiveness of the 'sophisticated' family melodramas of Sirk, Minnelli and Ray” while not denying that they served certain ideological functions. The other two books, by Lucy Fischer and Sam Staggs, concentrate their focus on Imitation of Life, Staggs claiming new revelations for his book. James Harvey (who like Stern and Fischer also interviewed Sirk) has several chapters on Sirk's films in his book  Love in the Fifties  (2001). (2)

Of his major films at Universal, Sirk at 70, other than for matters of style, initially claimed to Halliday that he could not recall too much about All That Heaven Allows, and similarly for the now highly regarded (after early neglect) All I Desire and There's Always Tomorrow. By 1977, when Michael Stern interviewed him, Sirk had been able to re-view these films.  Unsurprisingly his most positive unprompted memories with Halliday were of Summer Storm, Scandal in Paris, Lured, Take Me to Town, Written on the Wind, A Time to Love and a Time to Die and Imitation of Life with The First Legion and The Tarnished Angels as his key American films, 'if only' disappointments being Hitler's Madman and Shockproof. What he did remember without prompting were the fundamentals he brought to what was assigned to him. He spoke of two key elements in his picture making.  First, what he called  'social awareness' in preference to 'social criticism'... just showing things... the criticism is in the audience.”  (in essence Sirk's much analysed distancing which does not equate to realism). Second, the type of character that he was interested in retaining in melodrama: “the doubtful, the ambiguous, the uncertain...the vagueness of men's aims ...in-between characters...an interest in circularity... tragic rondos, people going in circles.” This commitment to split characters pushes his family melodramas to the edge of tragedy.

It is nevertheless Sirk's melodramatic imagination, in its formal exploration of excess, that tested the critical strategies of containment of narrative by means of the happy ending, for example, and also forms of resistance to Hollywood's narrative conventions that could be rendered ambivalently through formal achievement. To put it simply Sirk knowingly tested assumptions about the boundaries of popular screen entertainment. His status as an outsider bringing with him a depth of knowledge and experience, allowed him crucial insights into Hollywood's idiom consciously, a concern of few if any native born and educated Americans working as directors in Hollywood. Central to the initial vindication of Sirk was the claim made for him as a subversive filmmaker in a politically focused Marxist sense. The subsequent counter claim was that he was, above all, an opportunist. I am inclined to think Michael Stern was right to question such interpretations which run the risk of making Sirk into either a politically committed didactic director, or a cynical pragmatist bent on survival “when in actuality he is provocative, poetic and critical.” (Velvet Light Trap, #16, 1976). Compared with the identification of Sirk's strategy at Ufa which, as indicated here, Koepnick refers to as the identification of a syncretic strategy (his attempt, particularly in his first 'independent' phase in America, to syncretise opposing schools of thought) would seem to strengthen Elsaesser's view, also supported by Klinger, of Sirk as more of a cultural pragmatist than has generally been acknowledged.

There is a sadness, even something akin to melancholic irony in key films at Universal (as in the endings of The Tarnished Angels and There's Always Tomorrow). Well before he came to America, Sirk said he found in Hollywood melodrama what he was looking for while still in the theatre, an artlessness that was for him “a perfect escape” from the elitism of high art. In Shakespeare there was a similarity; Sirk saw him as a melodramatist in the Elizabethan theatre, “even less free than we were in Hollywood.” In Periclean drama in ancient Greece there was “craziness” comparable to that in Magnificent Obsession which Sirk attributed to religion. Slowly Sirk said he sneaked melodrama into his “popular” plays. When he first arrived in America he did not know if he could continue in melodrama as he had at Ufa because he didn't know American audiences. Returning to Germany in 1950 Sirk said he “felt like a complete foreigner” while in Hollywood “there was an industry for a new art.” In Magnificent Obsession there was the opportunity “to realise my ideal for melodrama.” Yet ultimately Sirk didn't feel there was “very much to be proud of in his pictures...except in the craft, the style.” (quotes drawn from the interview in Bright Lights with Sirk by Stern in 1977) (3).

The multiple meanings of 'Sierck/Sirk' ensure his continued relevance (4).To go back to the beginning, Sarris was convinced, as quoted above, that “time would vindicate Sirk.” It was the perception of a politically aware duality, emerging in the Halliday interview, that engaged the interest of theorists and some cinephiles. Following initial cinephiliac recognition, Sirk scholarship has reflected the main trends in film theory from auteurism to structuralism to the influence of feminism and cultural studies. The question of ideological continuity/discontinuity between his melodramas at Ufa and those at Universal has led to repeated calls for the full historicising of his work, no easy task given the complexity of knowledge (political and aesthetic) and the access required. But some of this work has already been undertaken. There is renewed interest in the influence of modernist art and architecture on Sirk's work. His visual aesthetic arose from a detailed understanding of the artistic debates in Europe in the 1920s and in the US in the postwar years. In the preview of a forthcoming study we are advised that the author is concerned to establish a continuum between Sirk's German and American films - an issue that has oscillated between controversy and avoidance - in order “to illuminate the broader cultural context in which the films were made” (5).

End Notes
1. In addition to the loss of his son in the war, in later life Sirk suffered the tragedy of blindness, added irony for a man who had special empathy for the blind as evident in his direction of Jane Wyman's role in The Magnificent Obsession and an unfulfilled wish to make a film set in a home for the blind.

2. A biography of Sirk in German by Elisabeth Laeufer, Skeptiker des Lichts: Douglas Sirk und seine filme (Skeptic of Lights: Douglas Sirk and his films), was published in 1987 and has not been translated into English.

3. Sirk's general reference to his pictures here would, to a greater or lesser degree, have been to the many films assigned him at Columbia and Universal, special exceptions, based on what he had to say about them, being The Tarnished Angels, A Time to Love and a Time to Die and perhaps Written on the Wind and Imitation of Life.

4. In addition to Fassbinder's tribute, in the seventies there is the recognition of Sirk's influence by contemporary filmmakers as diverse as Kathryn Bigelow, Todd Haynes, Tim Hunter, Quentin Tarantino, Pedro Almodovar, Francois Ozon, Wong Kar-Wai, David Lynch, John Waters, Lars von Trier and Aki Kaurismaki.

5. Victoria Evans, Douglas Sirk, Aesthetic Modernism and the Culture of Modernity due for publication mid-2017.

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