Saturday Nov 06, 2021
Saturday Nov 06, 2021
Saturday Nov 06, 2021
Douglas Sirk (1897 - 1987) - All That Heaven Allows (1955)
Sirk was a Dane born in Germany and became very successful in Germany as a theater director. His 1st wife joined the Nazi Party. He left Germany primarily because of the danger the rise of the Nazi Party created for his 2nd wife who was a Jew.
The core and substance of Sirk’s oeuvre was created in Hollywood in the 1950’s in so-called women’s films. Sirk’s greatest works depicted social constraints from the woman’s point of view and offered full-bodied characters to his female stars. Sirk uses sweeping music, vivid technicolor, and lush scenery in opposition to emotional suppression and the heavy hand of systemic oppression. He hides his true anti-fascist message behind the tissue-thin glamor of Hollywood.
At the time of their release, Sirk’s movies were critically sneered at for their swollen emotions and woman-centric themes. It was, per usual, the French New Wave directors and Cahiers du Cinema who embraced, lauded, and raised to the pantheon Douglas Sirk’s 1950’s films. Perhaps, the French could appreciate the films in depth because they were not afraid of the romantic stylistic grandeur and the anti-bourgeoises subtext.
ATHA stars the almost forgotten Jane Wyman (Ronald Reagan’s 1st wife in real life) opposite the younger Rock Hudson. Wyman is an upper class widow in love with a younger, working class man. And all the forces of her class, family, and larger social circle put pressure on her to forego an alliance with an “unsuitable” man. Her family and society’s discomfort come from her crossing the class barrier and more, fundamentally, her implicitly asserting her sexual desire by making this choice. Sirk uses lighting, imagery, and mise en scene to evoke Wyman’s inner life, which she keeps buttoned up as required by her training and social position.
To my mind, Sirk’s greatest film is his last, Imitation of Life (1959). It is a remake of the equally good 1934 black-and-white version starring Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers as two women whose lives are bound together. They are bonded emotionally and economically, yet divided by race and class. Sirk’s remake starring Lana Turner and Juanita Moore is more stylish and emotionally febrile as he builds an edifice of intersectional inequality with gowns by Jean Louis. The major difference between the films is that in the 1934 version Louise Beaver’s black maid character plays a major role in raising the family’s fortunes by her own talents.
Sirk retired in 1959 after Imitation of Life. But continues to influence and inspire filmmakers, particularly male filmmakers.
Todd Haynes (b. 1961) - Far From Heaven (2002)
Todd Haynes has a strong sympathy and insight into the female point of view. He has directed films in many genres but he brings a complex compassion no matter the form he is using. Far From Heaven is a remake of All That Heaven Allows (1955) with a large dollop of Imitation of Life (1959) folded in.
In FFH, Julianne Moore is not a widow but a woman married to a closeted gay man, who falls in love with a straight, working-class, black man; thereby, challenging all the taboos. Haynes adopts all the hallmarks of Sirk’s style - oceanic musical score, colors so rich you can taste them, and pulsating, barely expressed emotions shifting the tectonic plates of the character’s lives.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945 - 1982) Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)
This is one of the best out of Fassbinder’s enormous catalog of 44 films directed during his 18-year career. Fassbinder lived an openly queer lifestyle, indulged in, and eventually died from drugs. Basically, Fassbinder did not give shit what conventional and middle-class morality dictated. All of his films were political in that they spit in the face of the establishment.
In Ali, Fassbinder has the courage to cast a man and woman whose demographics really challenges normative attitudes about heterosexual relationships. Brigitte Mira is actually 25 years older than her love interest played by El Hedi Ben Salem. She is not cosmetically enhanced with surgery, weight-loss, or special undergarments. Salem is a man of color, originally from Morocco, making him an immigrant and non-white. Every element is spectacularly transgressive in the 1970’s and still challenging today.
Unlike Douglas Sirk and Todd Haynes, Fassbinder had no ties to the filmmaking establishment. He rebels stridently in his raw, unlovely mise en scene. Yet, at the same time, he pays homage to Sirk’s visual vocabulary.