Thursday 13 July 2017

Bruce Hodsdon on the Cinema of Douglas Sirk - All that Sirk was Allowed - Part 18 – The American Family in the cinema: the seventies and after

Editor’s Note: This is the eighteenth and final part of a 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
27 June 2017  The Legacy
4 July 2017  Sources
12 July 2017 Afterword: American family (melo)drama and comedy on screen. The forties and fifties
13 July 2017 Afterword: The American family on the small screen

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. It is planned for the complete text to be published as an e-book.

Family centred drama, notably presaged in a horror-sci-fi hybrid with The Birds (see above) began to return in different guises. Over more than four decades, in style and treatment, the diverse selection of films below mostly represent points of departure, often crossing generic boundaries. Viewed retrospectively, fifties family melodrama signified a break with classical Hollywood, the disintegrating nuclear family becoming a seemingly mandatory subject for family focused films for older audiences. The drama and humour are predominantly dark.

Five Easy Pieces
In Five Easy Pieces (1970) Bob Rafelson introduced a form of realism, through dialogue then rare in American cinema, in the portrayal of Jack Nicolson's alienation from the elitism of his intense, artistic family of musicians. The Godfather (1971-74) is simply the most successful family melodrama in cinema history; despite our better judgement the heroic dimension is irresistible. In part II we see a representation of origins “how desperate innovation grew into the most baleful and conservative measures.” The postwar ascendency of the American Mafia is personified in the Corleone “rejection of chaos and disorder, and its paranoid insistence on the family as that dark, mysterious home where all strangers are enemies”(1). 

A Woman under the Influence
A Woman Under the Influence (1974) is an R.D.Laingian inflected drama set in a working class household. Gena Rowlands/Mabel is 'under the influence' of mercurial schizoid instability which her husband (Peter Falk) struggles to handle. At times the film might be seen to be hovering on the edge of melodrama through the sheer force of Rowland's improvisations in family-like circumstances, in collaboration with John Cassavetes writing and directing, in the cause of real life simulation as drama. Ordinary People (1980) is, in effect, a psychodrama about repressed feeling in a family living in suburban Chicago and the harm such repression can do. In The Shining (1980) Kubrick, drawing on Freud's correlation of repression with the supernatural ('the uncanny'), focusses on a classic oedipal triangle isolated in a hotel labyrinth,“a cartoon of family life” invaded from within.

Daughters of the Dust
Black writer-director Charles Burnett's To Sleep with Anger (1990) blends hallucination and waking nightmare in a parable pitting tradition against modernity. A family is portrayed in turmoil, divided by a visiting friend (Danny Glover), a malevolent charmer who claims allegiance to forces of darkness. The first film to be directed by an African-American woman, Daughters of the Dust (1991) is set on a South Carolina island in 1902 where history and emotions - the legacy of slavery- run deep. The matriarchal Peazant family are about to split as the younger generation is impatient to migrate to the mainland. Julie Dash creates a tragic vision moving in what has been described as a “dance-like flow” which is at times dreamlike. Dash has continued to work on film and tv projects other than features, combining her political commitment with experimentation.

Winter's Bone
One might expect that there would be more opportunity for women to direct family centred drama than has been the case. Winter's Bone (2010), an indie production written and directed by Debra Granik, is a bleak naturalistic thriller centred on a teenager (Jennifer Lawrence) who struggles to support her destitute family of two siblings and a mentally ill mother.  Of necessity she goes in search of their lost father. The Kids are Alright (2010), co-written and directed by Lisa Cholodenko, a critically and commercially successful comedy-drama involving a brother and sister, IVF born to and lovingly raised by lesbian parents (Annette Bening, Juliannne Moore), who decide they want to meet their donor father (Mark Ruffalo).

The Ice Storm (1997), a richly observant blend of drama, wit and melodrama, is centred on two middle class families in small town Connecticut in the Winter of 1973. American Beauty (1999) satirises suburban conformity with the central character in mid-life crisis, despised by his wife and daughter, familiar themes and potentially stereotyped characters given life through the performances (Kevin Spacey is a standout) and the script. Direction by Sam Mendes shows few signs of his theatre background in his first film.  When one of the most calculating of directors (Spielberg) takes on a project originated by one of the most ironic (Kubrick), AI:Artificial Intelligence (2001) is the outcome: the escalating consequences are imagined for a couple in adopting a robot child programmed to show unconditional love.  Donnie Darko (2001) ranges across genres, the realistic portrayal of family interaction in the troubled suburban life of Donnie, specifically grounded in October 1988, is important for the accumulation of the the film's uncanny mysteries. 

In The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) a prodigiously gifted family's fall from grace in a series of episodes spanning more than two decades in a fictionalised New York, ironic whimsicalities masking something deeper about family ties that bind. The Squid and the Whale (2005) is more naturalistically observant of a New York family in which these ties are at a breaking point. 

In Revolutionary Road (2008) Mendes returns to middle class suburbia this time in the mid fifties, the time of “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit,” with a marriage (DiCaprio and Winslet) under strain. The film expresses a dread of the destructive hollowness of American suburbia, at times finding expression in brutally naturalistic dialogue. Alexander Payne in The Descendants (2011) blends comedy and drama in the collision of family and male mid-life crises, dysfunction and disturbance ending ambiguously in a cliché-free Hawaii, George Clooney paralleling Jack Nicholson's and Bruce Dern's portrayals of ageing vulnerability in About Schmidt and Nebraska. Payne has the ability to eke humour out of dire situations. In Manchester by the Sea (2016), although involving a man emotionally punished by family tragedy, writer-director Kenneth Lonergan shares with Payne the ability to at times find humour that, amidst such desperation, we might feel as viewers we haven't a right to expect. At the other end of the spectrum to family melodrama Richard Linklater in Boyhood  (2014) defines family life not by the big moments but unsentimentally by the subtle accumulation of increments filmed over a decade.

Like Sirk, Todd Solondz is an ironist, if of a different order. For both, their fatalism is leavened with ambiguity. My guess (2) is that Sirk would have endorsed Happiness (1998) and Life During Wartime (2009) by indie Solondz centred on a dysfunctional family, droll humour gradually assuming an intensely serious edge. Both Sirk and Solondz share compassion for their characters. Both directors also share a precise 'mapped out' commitment to the role of the mise en scène. While Sirk at Universal was obliged to maintain the appearances of melodrama - an imitation of life - Solondz works away at the facade of irony, none more so than in a father's confession of pedophilia to his son in Happiness as the irony that he is also a psychiatric counsellor fades into the background.  One of Solondz's characters questions the genuineness of a proposal by querying whether the proposer is being ironic “like performance art or something.”  In Happiness and its quasi-sequel Life During Wartime (set ten years later with different actors playing the members  of the 'Happiness' family), everyone is unhappy - or on the verge.  While seemingly involuntary, delusion in Solondz's conflicted middle class world is something of a synonym for Sirk's 'imitation'. Endings for both Sirk and Solondz are for posing questions rather than offering relief.

Along with Neil LaBute and Peter Berg, Solondz has been accused of “the nihilism of a generation of filmmakers” (do three filmmakers constitute a generation?) who have created an ethos of having “gone too far” where “lust for the grim precludes the good.” (Kenneth Turan, film critic, LA Times). One might ask whether Solondz's compassion is devoid of a moral compass in, to quote Xan Brooks, “a dreamscape where alienation dovetails into shocking recognition, where disgust and delighted laughter exist side by side.” (Sight & Sound, April 1999). A kind of coda for family (melo)drama to date might be seen to be delivered by a documentary, Capturing the Friedmans (2003), in which the dark mysteries in the life of a family are ambiguously poised, documented by Andrew Jarecki with the more or less involuntary assistance of the family itself.

End Note
1. David Thomson, Have You Seen..? 328; The New Biographical Dictionary 213.
2. This guesswork for me is particularly prompted by Sirk's reassessment of No Room for the Groom many years after it had been assigned to him at Universal - an uncomfortably bleak 'family entertainment' that he had by 1971 all but forgotten. On re-viewing he was impressed that “it never becomes doctrinaire...that it never preaches values,” something Sirk remained most clearly committed to in his personal films ranging from Summer Storm and Scandal in Paris through The First Legion to The Tarnished Angels and A Time to Love and a Time to Die.  See note on No Room for the Groom in part 4.        

Douglas Sirk

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