Saturday, 23 May 2020

My Heart, and the Melodramas of Douglas Sirk

For over three years, I have been in a romantic relationship that — deeply fulfilling, passionate, and transformative though it’s been — has not been uniformly accepted and supported by the people around me. My joy has been attended by moments of shuddering anxiety, numbing sadness, and shocks of pain, unpleasant moments that are inextricably linked to the happy memories and circumstances that brought them about. I know from my own experience that no movie gives real solace for these kinds of feelings, and I didn’t turn to movies for solace (I have the good fortune of great friends that I can rely on), but there are some movies that, as enduringly great and insightful works of art, can depict some of our most intense emotions with a force of truth so keen and so powerful that it stops our hearts.

No overtly gay drama or romance ever felt similar to my personal experience, and I wasn’t ever looking for a movie that would. But as I watched the 1955 romantic melodrama All that Heaven Allows, directed by Douglas Sirk, the realisation gradually bloomed that I was watching a dramatic depiction that felt like something I’d lived through myself, that Jane Wyman’s character was burdened by the same tangle of feelings and ideas that I had carried.

In the movie, Jane Wyman plays a wealthy widow in a small, suburban New England town, with two college-age children no longer at home, except during the holidays. Her social circle is made up of the members of the town’s country club, which she grudgingly joins under duress from her friends, and one or two eligible bachelors vying for her affection, in whom she has little interest. Rock Hudson plays her new gardener, a calm, quiet, younger man, with a passion for farming trees and living in the great outdoors. After a few interactions, Wyman and Hudson fall deeply in love. He introduces her to his friends, who don’t live in the town but on farms, and who don’t set store by social standing or wealth, but by the free discussion of ideas and the pleasure of one another’s company. (The movie silently makes much of the societal constraints Wyman faces in indoor scenes, at home and the country club, contrasted with the great bursts of desire and carefree delight in scenes that take place on farms, in the woods, or in cosy cabins nearby.) Hudson proposes marriage, and Wyman gladly accepts.

The affair exposes Wyman to gossip and scandal in the town, even (or especially) among her friends, and a dismaying disapproval from her own children, who look down on Hudson and his friends and reveal a shocking strain of self-centred snobbishness and more than a little insecurity. It’s in the conflicts that Wyman faces here that I felt keen fellow-feeling: her sudden and unexpected new status as an outsider in her own community, her fear that she’s betrayed her family and their values, her abiding concern for how her whole life will change if she follows her desire. Wyman does what I couldn’t; she breaks the engagement and ends her romance with Hudson. The plot develops in ways that lead to a reconciliation and a rekindling, and I recognised her anguished guilt for caring far too much about what other people will say and do in response to her decisions. Of course it matters what people think, and of course I care what they think, but it doesn’t matter enough to cost us our truth and happiness. (I also identify with the mutual physical desire that is so ardently expressed between the two lovers, and Wyman’s confusion that this could cause such abiding controversy.)

Douglas Sirk started as a stage and film director in his home country, Germany, and left for America in 1937, due to his opposition to Hitler and the danger to his Jewish wife. He settled in Hollywood, where he made nearly 30 feature films, including comedies, westerns, and war movies. But he became best known for his lush melodramas of the 1950s, of which All That Heaven Allows is a prime example. Watching one of these movies today may be highly disappointing for viewers with certain expectations, following a diet of contemporary television shows and saturation in today’s media-savvy irony and self-consciousness. Sirk’s dramas may seem awkward, or bland. In his day, they were described deprecatingly by reviewers as soap operas for the big screen. They run the risk of coming across as highly artificial, or absurd, or banal, or all three at the same time, and this artistic risk is one of the things that draws me most deeply to them.

Melodramas map larger-than-life emotions onto ordinary settings, and the high tragedy that Sirk draws from mainstream suburban life is what made his movies so popular and successful, and also such easy targets for high-minded critics. Sirk’s images are conspicuously stylised, and defy any expectations of realism or naturalism. The vivid and even garish colour palettes (impossible splashes of deep red and blue across the entire frame) are not only marks of Hollywood affectation, but of feelings as concentrated as the colours that surround them. What Sirk’s critics saw as banal fabrications, or as products synthesised by the industrial system to stoke cheap emotions, have struck me with a force of feeling much truer than that of just about any more “realistic” movie I’ve seen.

I’m happy to admit that these emotional melodramas light up my heart; earlier this week, I watched Sirk’s last movie, Imitation of Life, for the first time, and as the final scenes were rolling, I was dabbing my eyes. Imitation of Life is one of the astonishing peaks of a director’s career, and now that I’ve seen it and I know what a success it was at the box office, it’s all the more surprising to know that Sirk never made another movie afterwards, despite living for nearly another 30 years. (He did spend some time later in life teaching at a film school.)

Imitation of Life will be especially jarring, over and above its melodramatic aspects, to those sensitive to the racial politics of today. Even when dealing with the disparities of experience between the white and black women in the two main roles (played by Lana Turner and Juanita Moore), it can only discuss them in (what I take as) decidedly unnatural and manufactured terms, those of the very best white woman in the world, and the very best black woman that she could be fortunate enough to employ. Of course, this isn’t Sirk’s doing, but the result of the strictures of the Hollywood studios of the time. No Hollywood producer at the time would dare put up what might be taken as a radical stance against the injustice of racial inequities; any cause taken up would have to be neutered, and delivered in muffled tones, in a strictly mannered way that mirrors many of the social conventions of the time that today seem ridiculous.

Sirk’s Imitation of Life is an adaptation of a novel from 25 years earlier, of which I know nothing other than what I read on Wikipedia. In that story, the white woman, struggling to make ends meet by selling her homemade syrup, takes in a black woman to look after her child. The black woman turns out to be a master waffle-maker, and when the white woman capitalises on this resource, she ends up building a prosperous life for all of them. In the 50s, such a story would have been intolerable to black moviegoers, and so Turner’s eventual prosperity in the movie is written to have nothing to do with the arrival of Moore; she would have succeeded in her career as an actress whether she ever employed Moore or not. This leaves Sirk to examine the themes he’s more interested in: the nature and experience of the outsider, and the exertions of people eager to realign their place in society, or their very identity.

A large part of the drama arises from the fact that Moore’s daughter, Sarah Jane, is light-skinned, and does her best to pass for white wherever she goes. She hates her mother’s racial identity, and she lives in abject fear of being identified in the same way. The movie presents her story without psychological inspection, which will also disappoint viewers who have come to expect well delineated character studies. Sarah Jane’s story is marked by the emotional violence between herself and her mother, and the violence from the outside world of which black people are known to be in danger (and which the movie depicts in a very limited way), but not by specific factors to which her feelings are straightforwardly ascribed.

There are plot points that seemed absurd to me: How can someone immediately become best friends with a person they just met on the beach? How can a playwright change his entire conception of a play because of some first-time bit-part actor? Why would this suburban family put on a funeral of such grand proportions? Above all, how can two single mothers living together be so good-natured and friendly at all times, for 10 years? But the absurdities can point to real-world matters: Maybe it’s not that Moore is suddenly and solely devoted to the white woman she meets on the beach, but simply that Turner never images that Moore has a life outside of her employer’s home.

Sirk was dismissed in his day by the industry and by critics alike as an insignificant artist, because his movies were what were known as “women’s pictures,” the same way the publishing industry relegates certain novels to the shelves of “women’s fiction”. In the 50s, how a mother treated her daughter, how a daughter felt about her mother’s identity and her own, how she might suffer through her own identity-shifting, how an actress might experience degradation from a predatory agent, and how a woman is made to feel conflicted in choosing between a career and a family life were all pigeon-holed as “women’s issues”; in the 2020s, they’re justly recognised as the universal political issues that they are. In setting up his stories as pastel-coloured, synthetically stylised melodramas, Sirk didn’t conceal or subordinate their political substance; the political threads are woven in with the emotional content to make up an essential and indivisible part. In Sirk’s movies, as in the best movies of any time that deal with political matters, the discussion of those matters are shown in their rightful place: as a direct and inseparable part of the personal experiences of people living with their impact.

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