Douglas Sirk: Harvester of Sorrow
n the exhausting effort to keep ahead of the tides, young friends, Stylus has a new column to offer you. We’re calling it A Kiss after Supper, and in it we’ll be tracing the expert use of pop music through some of the more music-friendly films of the past thirty years. With directors like Spike Jonze, Quentin Tarantino, and Wes Anderson using their robust appreciation for music in novel ways to document their stories through music as well as cinema, soundtracking is perhaps more critical to a film’s emotional tone than it’s ever been. As such, we thought it about time we wrote a little something on the issue...
When Todd Haynes crafted Far From Heaven, a painstaking homage and cinematic sestina dedicated to Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, he demonstrated how little America has changed socially speaking since the Fifties. In some respects, Haynes’ own strict adherence to the mundane minutiae in his production—a perfect costume for Julianne Moore, from to the ribbon in her hair to the buckles on her shoes—reproduced metaphorical strictures analogous to genteel suburbia’s choking refinement. Those facets recreated the uncertain feelings that Betty Friedan would articulate as the feminine mystique, an unspoken condition shared by the society women who never worked outside the home and were left to entertain themselves with gossip, party planning, and drinking cocktails.
Perhaps it was on account of domestic exile that second wave feminism borrowed the images and rhetorical flourish of the wave that had preceded it, fashioning a theoretical geography of the home, whether it was seen as the liberatory escape to a room of one’s own, or held in the imprisoning wallpaper adorning the room itself. After all, it was within that sacred place that a woman could remain the chaste stalwart of moral education, imparting the Good and the Proper to her offspring as a “natural” division of gendered labor, like Harriet Beecher Stowe for Ozzie and Harriet. Life for these women in postwar America was one bereft of meaningful contact with the outside world, a world of headier ideas and the everyday challenges of waged work. The term “housewife” itself certifies a woman’s usefulness in a damning, functionalistic tautology. These conditions were for some the terms of indentured servitude to their husbands wrapped in a leisurely disguise.
Haynes, like Sirk, astutely observed the paranoid hypocrisy of polite society: the contempt for work and workers; the tawdry fascination with money; and the erotic, propulsive force of conspicuous consumerism creeping everywhere. While it’s unclear whether one critique is more incisive than another, Sirk built his reputation during the studio era, under the spell of Eisenhower’s postwar Utopia, a time during which ideas like safety and danger were conflated to achieve political aims. Sirk’s pitch perfect melodramas grew to be commercial and critical successes by delicately balancing maudlin convention with superb technical flair and good storytelling.
Moreover, his best work drew inspiration from the comedies of manners that overlooked the more sinister aspects of daily life. A film like Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game teased at class distinctions and was banned for its questionable morals, while George Cukor kept it light and bubbly in The Philadelphia Story, but screwball comedy proves a confusing vehicle for satire, often dulling its sharpest points for a cheap laugh. Sirk sought to infuse his progressive politics into star-laden vehicles destined for wide release, and within each film managed somehow to subtly communicate themes Hollywood might have otherwise considered taboo.
Not only was Sirk a man of considerable talent, he also had good luck. Having cast Rock Hudson for a lead role in his 1954 film Magnificent Obsession, Sirk found a face and a malleable talent in him. His good-natured, all-American appearance and plain, understated approach to roles made him Cary Grant’s less animated heir. In the following two years Sirk produced two of his best known and regarded films: All That Heaven Allows, starring Hudson and Jane Wyman (who costarred in Magnificent Obsession) in 1955 and Written on the Wind in 1956, also starring Lauren Bacall and Robert Stack. Both films are a testament to Sirk’s understanding of American literary history, his stories prevaricating between the realist school of the late 19th century and the Ashcan school that flourished in the aftermath of the First World War. Sirk drew inspiration from W. D. Howells, putting a “smiling face on realism,” to use a phrase credited to Mark Twain. Rather than cast the audience into a pit of despair before the end credits, Sirk labored to manufacture hopeful endings, the hallmark of Howells backlash against the literary naturalism in pages of Norris and Dreiser. As often as not, Sirk’s characters suffered from impoverished imaginations, and in All That Heaven Allows he introduced characters like Cary Scott as the emotionally paralyzed Eveline from Joyce’s Dubliners to Ron Kirby, as Thoreau’s detached, self-sufficient man, who once partnered defied the gendered assumptions that theatergoers may have had about a woman’s proper role once her husband has died.
Sirk’s sophisticated appreciations would be wasted were it not for Frank Skinner’s inspired score. As a frequent collaborator and co-conspirator, Sirk’s gendered genre-bending allowed subversive spaces and opened up realms of creativity in a market-tested formula, something Skinner understood and used to great advantage. Skinner’s scores were knowing winks at Sirk’s piquant takes on melodrama, his music punctuating the deeper meaning present. Sirk needed a playful spirit to guide his pictures down the acceptable narrows in order to reach as broad an audience as possible; as any director working in that epoch knew only commercial success would be rewarded. The music’s potency conveys the predictable responses, the critical necessity being a soundtrack brimming with optimism that quickly hushes with any bad news. Frank Skinner endeavored to make an unbelievable story believable
Were it not for such lush presentation, Sirk might’ve created something like the postwar films Italian directors had been making for almost a decade. Instead of the crumbling backdrop of Rossellini’s Italy, Sirk paints his own Rockwell portraits in the gorgeous, but sterile New York suburbs as suitable a place as any to vilify, not unlike Luchino Visconti’s portrayal of the plutocratic Italian upper class in all its finery. All That Heaven Allows was Sirk’s first attempt at unveiling the archaic inhumanity of Victorian virtue in postwar America. He establishes an antiquated myth as fact, positing the notion that good country people lead simpler lives, free of the provincial concerns of their urbane counterparts. In response to Sirk’s polemics, Skinner’s orchestrations limn the tenuous connections between light and dark, confident one moment and tentative the next, alternating as Sirk creates moods only to have them evaporate, or be reflected in the many mirrors that provoke the audience’s imagination.
The mirrors that appear throughout his work represent his craftsmanship as a filmmaker and as a not so subtle reminder of some Platonic conscience. The lofty notion of a greater good permeates his work. All That Heaven Allows offers lovely insights into Sirk’s belief in serendipitous events and most of all hope; two qualities that grant him license to accomplish more political feats in his films, such as upsetting traditional expectations without offending his audiences. Rock Hudson gives credence to his story, and is as good a face as any to represent old-fashioned commonsense, something that had propelled the Progressive movement among people like Upton Sinclair and Lincoln Steffens a generation before. Wyman, for her part, plays an aggrieved widow who finds herself tossed about by the social tempest of falling in love again, contrary to the sexual mores of her community. As she begins to toy with the idea of an affair with her gardener, she also realizes how her friends and children treat her like property, and even her daughter, a precocious social worker who preaches Engels and Freud, falls prey to the mob consciousness despite her repeated protests.
When Cary Scott decides that the pressure is too much, and foregoes her relationship to preserve her family, Sirk lays bare her decision; her insensitive son, as proxy for his father, explains to her that the house should be sold as he’ll be overseas on business and his sister will be married off. Her desperation resounds in the action and music as she races to the countryside to find comfort in Kirby’s company. If that weren’t enough, Kirby suffers a fall as he calls out to her from a nearby cliff, and as the tragedy reaches new heights, Skinner measures each note to its expiration, chasing every emotional extreme. As the film ends, a white-tailed deer appears at the window, and Kirby and Scott declare their love for each other, the music swells to drown out the joyful weeping.
But it’s difficult to describe melodramatic music. Skinner’s job is to be tonally consistent with what’s happening on the screen, something he does exceedingly well, but not overdo it and debase the film’s loftier intentions. By creating an ambience at once lush and tense, the audience forgets the music and the score becomes something else entirely, a naked set of emotional cues that spur the suspension of disbelief. The subtler, imperceptible games that Sirk and Skinner played were on the actors, most notably Hudson, whose lines and performance nearly betray his identity as a closeted gay man. There’s something beneath his performance that identifies Sirk as a shrewd psychoanalyst, whose cunning as a director elicited nuanced performances akin to Skinner’s appeals to a film’s pathos.
Some auteur critics would deny such allegations. Despite understanding the close bond actors and directors form either in cooperation or over the course of an antagonistic professional relationship, those critics would praise Kinski’s partnership with Herzog as a pair of madmen defying comprehension in pursuit of larger artistic goals, while simultaneously downplaying the torment a closeted man must face while playing the love interest to throngs of adoring women. To be sure, it would be a stretch to say that Sirk’s work expresses a radical feminism—Hudson remains a catalyst and a savior, thus adhering no doubt to certain Disneyfied conventions, and Wyman regains her senses and realizes that he needs her to care for him through his recovery unto death do they part.
Gradually Sirk and Skinner would combine to push against the socially acceptable boundaries that existed before the phrase “politically correct” was coined. In spite of this the unlikely pairing of two likeminded individuals nevertheless constitutes no small act of defiance at a time when McCarthy made humanism a crime, and rocking the boat was evidence of Satan’s hand. It comes as no surprise then that they should attempt to understand the breadth and depth of all that heaven allows.
By: J T. Ramsay
Published on: 2005-04-28