Sirk played with a different set of cards: playboy millionaires groping for respectability, emotionally adrift widows, mothers, and daughters trapped in poisonous conflict. Danger was always present, but it was of a routine, almost dreary variety, without the showy fatalism of Westerns or noir. His films were melodramas, and unapologetic about it. At their release, these films--among the best ever made--were usually ignored as trashy moneymakers. Their critical rediscovery, from the early '70s till now, hasn't been all that much of an improvement. Now these humane, perceptive tragedies are often unrecognizably described as covert black comedies or shrill satires.
Looked at with open eyes, though (something Sirk's blinkered characters could rarely do), these movies deserve appreciation for exactly what they are: startlingly directed yet sympathetic portraits of people who are much less free and independent than they believe they are. Some of this intelligence, and yes, irony, derives from Sirk's highbrow origins--in Germany he was a stage director partial to the classics, and his interviews are full of references to Shakespeare, Euripides, and the like--but it also comes from his commitment to the rules of melodrama.
Though the plots and studio-imposed happy endings could be laughably absurd in someone else's hands, with Sirk there is always a respect for the material--and by extension the audience that watches it--that finds the human feelings in the most ridiculous situations. Magnificent Obsession races along with nary a single plausible moment; but the efforts of Rock Hudson to shed his reckless irresponsibility, and Jane Wyman to still move freely in a world she can no longer see are riveting and heartfelt.
Part of what drives that singularly odd film is its surreal, almost Brechtian use of artificial lighting and color. Some people, admirers and detractors alike, will tell you Sirk's films are about lighting, set design, and props. They're wrong. His films are emphatically about people. But the director was unusually attuned to space, and how people get trapped in it without realizing it. So many of his lovely homes, for example, are a series of mazes: Lana Turner on the stairway in Imitation of Life, looking down at her equals; another set of stairs, elegantly curved, that unites Robert Stack with sister Dorothy Malone in Written on the Wind; the darkened Swiss chalet in Magnificent Obsession that Wyman tentatively feels her way across, until she knocks a potted plant to the ground; Wyman--from All That Heaven Allows this time--entombed in her pretty two-story, her movements curtailed by mirrors, screens, bric-a-brac, the television.
Sirk was also smart enough to recognize that the people who think they're free are often the most completely caged. The barnstorming pilots in The Tarnished Angels are the director's definitive rootless, speed-obsessed heroes, content with the low pay and disrespect afforded fliers so long as they can soar through the air. Yet when Stack takes to the air to race, he's confined to ever tighter and tighter loops around the course's pylons, an inward spiral that becomes the more dangerous the closer he gets to the center.
Either extreme can lead to tragedy. ("Ladies and gentlemen," the panicked announcer practically yells to us as Stack seems certain to crash, "please stay off the field!") The conflict in Sirk's films is usually between two diametrically opposed modes of behavior, the opposite ends of the pole: carefree self-indulgence against heroic self-sacrifice in Magnificent Obsession; flying free without burdens or tying yourself down to responsibilities in The Tarnished Angels; pride in one's heritage or passing as white in Imitation of Life. The quartet of sexual dysfunction in Written on the Wind allows two oppositions: for the "good" couple, Hudson's stubborn reserve and Lauren Bacall's naive trust; for the "bad," Stack's impotence and Malone's nymphomania. Sirk never resolves the conflicts, nor does he even seem to hold out hope for the possibility of common ground.
This ability to embrace the complexity of his characters is the main reason these films are better than the '50s critics who dismissed them first thought, and even better than some of Sirk's most fervent contemporary admirers would have you believe. Again and again, Sirk employs the mechanics of melodrama to explore people too fearful, selfish, deluded, or self-loathing to truly appreciate what should be melodrama's ultimate reward: the love given them. Happiness is just out of reach, tantalizingly beyond the omnipresent mirrors and window panes. Sometimes his characters see this; sometimes they don't. Thus, these supremely artificial films are quite accurate reflections (not just imitations) of how nearly all of us behave in life. Scorn or laugh at them, and you're only admitting that you refuse to see how well Sirk has described you. Melodrama is currently making a long overdue comeback: Carl Franklin did a fine job with One True Thing; Pedro Almodovar is getting the best reviews of his career for his latest, All About My Mother. Still, I've yet to see a film that combines tried-and-true melodramatics with as sophisticated an understanding and compassion for people as Sirk displayed.
Sirk's use of melodrama is refreshingly free of condescension, either to his own characters or to all of us who are watching. Sirk's characters are allowed responsibility for their actions, and the possibility of self-awareness, if not redemption. We are never talked down to and told how to think.
The director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who was Sirk's most distinguished acolyte, was also a knowing critic; though some of his comments contributed to the refashioning of Sirk as the relentless ironist and glum social critic I lamented earlier, I agree wholeheartedly with his assessment that Sirk's films "liberate your head." You only have to be clear-eyed enough to see it.
Melodramas at a Glance
Magnificent Obsession (1954)Sirk claimed he was taken by "something irrational" in Robert Blees' adaptation of Lloyd C. Douglas' novel. This seems like polite understatement, for there's hardly a rational moment in the film. The tortured evolution of Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) from millionaire playboy to brilliant surgeon and philanthropist is ridiculous every step of the way, as is the love that grows between him and Helen Phillips (Jane Wyman)--especially considering Merrick is inadvertently responsible for both widowing and then blinding her. Yet Sirk, as always, fully believes in the moral implications he explores, however ludicrous the story that contains them. The film practically trembles with Merrick's desire for self-improvement. And visually this is the one of the director's (and cinematographer Russell Metty's) most stunning and surreal achievements, from the shadowed hallways of Brightwood Hospital to the touching chiaroscuros of Helen's Swiss sojourn. Plays Fri-Sun Nov 26-28 at 7:00 (Sat-Sun 2:30).
Written on the Wind (1957)The tale of the oil-rich but love-poor Hadley clan. Driven by their insecurities into the madness of domineering brutality (Robert Stack's Kyle) or self-contemptuous nymphomania (his sister Marylee, played by Dorothy Malone), Written on the Wind was a clear inspiration for the powerhouse nighttime soaps of the '80s, Dallas and Dynasty. If we were discussing any genre other than the still-derided soap opera, being two decades ahead of your time would count as inspired prescience. Sirk's sympathy for those tortured siblings is unmistakable, though it's wrong to suggest--as some have--that he therefore cares less for the film's purported "good" couple: decent, forthright Mitch (Rock Hudson), and Kyle's abused wife Lucy (Lauren Bacall). But they are as deluded and trapped-- by wealth, by desire, by the circular structure of the very film they're in--as anybody. Sirk's pity for his characters stems from his knowledge of how many cages people live in, and how blind we are to them most of the time. Plays Fri-Sun Nov 26-28 at 4:45, 9:15.
Has Anybody Seen My Gal? (1952)A witty portrait of small town decency and its limits, set in motion by Charles Coburn's decision to restore old wrongs by anonymously bestowing $100,000 to the daughter of the woman he once loved. She and her family behave abominably with their newfound wealth, but the film is not nearly so scathing a commentary as some critics would have you believe. Sirk, and his stand-in Coburn, respects the Blaisdells too much to ignore that they are, at heart, good, kindly people who respond poorly to extraordinary circumstances. Hardly a rare reaction. Historically of great importance not only as Sirk's first color film, but his first to explore and exploit the greatly underrated sensitivity and charm of Rock Hudson. Plays Sat-Sun Nov 27-28 at noon.
Tarnished Angels (1958)A unique example of how to adapt an unfilmable novel, in this case Pylon. William Faulkner's interesting but ultimately failed attempt to capture the feeling of flight through words is stripped down to its tragic narrative. Sirk films this exactly as if it came from one of his other, less reputable source novels. He recognized the reckless urgency that runs through Faulkner, and how suited it was to the heightened treatment of melodrama. The result is a masterpiece. There are more self-imposed, inescapable traps here, but at the opposite end of the economic scale. Sirk regular Rock Hudson gives his finest, most troubled performance as reporter Burke Devlin, but he is primarily an observer; the film belongs to Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone (both marvelous) as flyer Roger Schumann and his wife Laverne, as well as Jack Carson as Roger's mechanic. So many people trying to be heroes, but trapped in a film Fassbinder summed up best: "Nothing but defeats. This film is nothing but a collection of defeats." Plays Mon-Thurs Nov 29-Dec 2 at 5:00, 9:30 (Sat-Sun 3:00).
Imitation of Life (1959)A singular farewell to Hollywood, with the defining title of Sirk's career. See how neatly this title applies to Lora Meredith (Lana Turner), irresponsibly casting her sights on stardom and, bizarrely, succeeding; to her daughter Susie (Sandra Dee), naively convinced that her mom's boyfriend could possibly love a perky teen; to lifelong friend Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore), all smiles and cheer as she acquiesces to the servant role forced upon her by the color of her skin; and to Annie's daughter Sara Jane (Susan Kohner), seeing through her mother's demanding passivity--through Lora's self-involvement, and Susie's childish cruelty--yet still unable to envision a horizon wider than passing for white and performing at sleazy dance clubs. Or to anybody who's mistaken an illusion for reality, and a series of mazes and power plays for a home, then fought against waking from the dream--which is all of us. Plays Mon-Thurs Nov 29-Dec 2 at 7:00.