Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Imitation of a Takedown


When it comes to Internet squabbles, the Siren has been on the wagon for a while, give or take an occasional flare-up.

And then she comes across something like this, where the inimitable Jeffrey Wells does a "respectful takedown" of Douglas Sirk using, of all things, the director's masterpiece, Imitation of Life.

Now the proper thing to do is make like Clark Gable: "I apologize again for my shortcomings," and for being a "film dweeb" who appreciates Douglas Sirk.

Then again, screw propriety, when someone is waving a bloody-fire-engine-red cape like this in my face.


Sirk is generally regarded as a pantheon-level guy because the film dweebs have been telling us for years that the dreadfully banal soap-opera acting, grandiose emotionalism and conservative suburban milieus in his films are all of an operatic pitch-perfect piece and are meant as ironic social criticism. (Or something like that.)...


Now why, I wonder, have people been doing that? Just to irritate Wells? Come on Glenn, fess up. You too, Filmbrain.

Wells illustrates his post with a scene from Imitation of Life. Trouble is, the scene is enthralling, and it isn't even a high point of the movie. It's a relatively simple sequence wherein ultra-blonde Susie (Sandra Dee) finds out that mixed-race Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) is seeing a white boy in the town. Wells says this is bad acting. The Siren raises the point, once again, that there are different styles of acting that are appropriate to different movies. Sirk films work with artificiality; they show how people play roles. Kohner is just beginning to grasp the power of her beauty. Watch her take off her shirtwaist almost like the stripper she will later become, turning to give Dee a good look and sashaying over to the bed as if to say, "I'm better-looking than you, white girl, and I always have been." See the flick of hatred, rising up and quickly suppressed, as Sarah Jane looks at her privileged friend. And look at Susie's clueless reaction to Sarah Jane's secret, the hasty way she tries to cover up her gaffe about the "colored boy," the platitudes she mouths while knowing on some level that Sarah Jane has a point. There's nothing wrong with the acting; it isn't naturalistic, and nor should it be. It's perfectly in keeping with the style and themes of the movie.

And the visuals--how in the name of Lana Turner's hair dye can anyone who loves movies not love the visuals? The angle through the railings as Dee knocks on Kohner's door. The shot through the window of Kohner hiding from her mother. Kohner taking off her dress. The impeccable framing. The way the conversation is blocked, the camera moving at just the right moments and the two girls positioned in just the right way to convey their relationship.

Mr. Wells flatters himself when he styles this as a takedown. Rather, it is the lament of a schoolboy--a dweeb, if you will--forced to watch icky girl stuff instead of the manly men doing manly things in manly ways who form the proper study of all serious critics. Sirk's subject matter, it seems, is a large part of the rap against him:


Sirk was mostly dismissed by critics of the '50s and early '60s for making films that were no more and no less than what they seemed to be -- i.e., emotionally dreary, visually lush melodramas about repressed women suffering greatly through crises of the heart as they struggled to maintain tidy, ultra-proper appearances.


Four assumptions lurk here. One, that contemporary critics are a good yardstick by which to measure a film's worth. Because if you want to know how time is gonna judge a director, the first place to look is Bosley Crowther. Second, that the sufferings of tidy, proper women are somehow a lousy subject for a filmmaker. Surely this argument was put out of its misery by Virginia Woolf all the way back in 1929. Three, that "visually lush" is a negligible quality. The Siren has nothing to say to that; it's on the level of the Emperor complaining to Mozart about "too many notes." Four, that there is nothing below the visually lush surface of a Sirk film. That is the shakiest assertion by far.

You see, when we film snobs have the secret clubhouse meetings wherein we plot ways to force people to watch movies about boring girls and their poky old mothers, we come armed with the words of Douglas Sirk, who gave some long interviews late in life after he went blind, a fate he bore patiently. And in those interviews he shows, repeatedly, that he knew precisely what he was doing:


The stories that I got were, without exception, very trite, without any element of life to them. But still the content of the trite novel could be vivified--you could wake it up--you could put something into it.


It isn't particularly difficult to grasp what is going on in a Sirk movie. Just because there is depth to the movie doesn't mean you need the secret decoder ring they hand out in film studies to find it. In fact, the Siren could introduce Mr. Wells to a whole flock of people who get teary over this movie; it still plays to the emotions, if you watch it with an open mind. Imitation of Life is a shattering statement on American attitudes about race, about working women and their relationships with their children, about how children and mothers are often fated to bring one another agony. It's all right there on screen. You just have to get past the fact that the movie is done in a style that has disappeared--much to our loss, I'd say.

As the Siren has always said, the only rule at her own place is "No dissing Citizen Kane." Some of her commenters dislike Sirk. And (here the Siren adopts her Stuart Smalley voice) that's okay. But please, Mr. Wells, don't try to make your case by pretending a filmmaker was all surface, when even a cursory glance at the films and the words of the filmmaker shows otherwise. Most of all, please don't insult those of us who do like him.

And now I really need that ice pack.

61 comments:

Craig Kennedy said...

I loved how you rebutted nonsense with...you know...actual facts and junk.

You also managed to remain calm and polite! Nicely done.

Dave said...

I've found Wells to have some annoying quirks in the past. He made an argument for digitally touching out the wires in "The Wizard of Oz" by citing Hitchcock's dislike of artificiality -- the same Hitchcock who constantly mixed actual backgrounds and rear projection in the same scenes. I take any of his comments with a mountain of salt.

Flickhead said...

What's up with the Wells link? I click, half the screen is the Jeff Bridges movie, and then the Wells article in mid-sentence ("operatic pitch-perfect...").

How can anyone take this seriously when you can't even read the fucking thing?

The Siren said...

Flickhead, Wells has some sort of weird Flash setup for his page; I had to read it in Firefox myself. Can't say you are missing much.

I can't remember Ray, are you in the pro or anti Sirk camp?

Mary Hess said...

Ah, I'll bet you feel better! I didn't know Sirk went blind -- how terrible. A film friend of mine said that's only part of his physical he really worries about. Wells is taking a quick, cheap shot. I think it's a reluctance to accept the tangle of emotions Sirk presents so elegantly. And perhaps just a bit of misogyny. OK, more than a bit. Well done!

Kendra said...

Don't hate me, but I can't stand Imitation of Life. I get second-hand embarrassment from watching it, and I was a film student, and consider myself a "film snob." I think your post and Wells' are perfect examples of film spectatorship and what we take (or don't take) away from certain films. I guess kudos to Douglas Sirk for making a film you either love or hate.

Matt said...

What a boneheaded piece of writing. Don't like Sirk? Fine, I get that. But to claim that people that see "social criticism" in his films are trying to put one over on everybody else? How can anybody that's seen "All That Heaven Allows" possibly miss the social criticism? I mean, it's the whole movie!

Baffling.

The Siren said...

Mary, it was very much like a scene from one of his movies, as Sirk told it. He went to switch on a bedside lamp thinking the light had gone out, but it was his sight. "It's goddamned ironic," he told his biographer, recalling Magnificent Obsession.

The Siren said...

Kendra, Matt pretty much sums it up for me. I can get not liking Sirk, although I do think anyone who cares about film has to acknowledge his visual mastery. But Wells is basically saying that film snobs are just trying to foist off a second-rate director as a first-rate talent, because...I don't know, that's how we roll?

Flickhead said...

I'm no gushing sycophant, but All That Heaven Allows would probably find its way in my All-Time Top 20, and I'd gladly watch Written on th Wind any time, any day.

I don't dare go beyond that. The knee-jerk reactions on the internet are horrifyingly fast and brutal, and can bury someone without a moment's notice. There are snipers out there waiting for something like Wells's piece to use as target practice.

It's not like print media, where parties can develop witty, educated arguments or even some erudite name-calling over a period of time. Online it can get ugly and hostile incredibly fast. I've been on the receiving end of it -- although in my situation it had to do with misunderstanding on the part of people who believed they were capable of speed-reading when, in fact, they weren't. (They're probably loading their rifles and taking aim at me as I speak.)

The few lines of Wells's I read sound like something written on Sirk fifty or sixty years ago. Rather than use him as a punching bag (after all, he's just an online critic, right?), I'd be willing to call him Old Skool and let it go at that.

Marilyn said...

Farran, why do you fall for Well? He's a provocateur for its own sake and those other blogs you mention enjoy a good fight. I read about this and thought, oh, somebody was bored when they sat at the keyboard today... I prefer basking in our awesomeness for a few more days. :-)

The Siren said...

Flickhead, I know what you're saying and that's why I hesitated to post about this. But Imitation of Life is a touchstone movie, and the war-dance in the comments section bugged. A lot. For a long time now I have tried not to get personal when arguing with someone; that would be dumb anyway, I know almost nothing about Wells, and the topic is Sirk. I have to point out, though, that Wells started it (he did too, Mom!) by calling ME a dweeb. When everyone knows that the preferred term is "film NERD."

Written on the Wind is GLORIOUS.

The Siren said...

Marilyn, it was also the implicit denigration of the whole genre that got me. You know how I am about women's pictures...

Flickhead said...

He called YOU a dweeb?!?

Well that does it. I'm going right over there and settle this man to man.

The Siren said...

LOL Flickhead, not me by name, just all us who pretend to love Sirk. :)

Flickhead said...

...do you think he'll find my Boy Howdy cartoon bottle icon intimidating?

The Siren said...

Well Ray, you notice that *I* never mess with you...

Mythical Monkey said...

But Wells is basically saying that film snobs are just trying to foist off a second-rate director as a first-rate talent, because...I don't know, that's how we roll?

Yeah, why would anybody say they like Sirk if they don't, in fact, like Sirk? Fear of losing a lucrative film blogging gig? Mesmerized by Roger Ebert's George Clooney-like looks? Or maybe it's the hot new pick-up line in the local bars?

Or maybe we're just part of a vast pro-Sirk conspiracy and don't realize it ...

DavidEhrenstein said...

Oh yes, the unaccountably Lauded Jeff bridges movie -- a Male Weepie of the most egregiosu sort.

But It's OK to go potty over that tripe because it's about a REAL MAN -- not this girls stuff that Sirk does.

Being of mixed race, though not so light-skinned as to be able to "pass<' Imitation of Life was a devestating experience to me. I saw it first-ru with my mother -- who of course adored every nanosecond. It's emotional power hasn't diminished in all these years.

Extra bonus: Susan Kohner and Juanita Moore struck up a friendship as a result of making this film, and have fequently appeared together at screenings of it here in L.A.

Marilyn said...

Farran, how else can he get a rise out of you? By being respectful? Guys like that don't deserve an audience, and they love knowing their cherry bombs have blown a few cools.

Vanwall said...

"A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing" - some Wells just fit the billing so well, it's sad.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Sorry about the typos, but I'm really upset over this.

The Derelict said...

Siren, you rock! I was hoping you'd weigh in and, boy, did you ever!

I think it really comes down to what you wrote about Wells' antipathy to all that "icky girl stuff."

It all goes back to the prejudice some critics have against so-called "women's pictures" or any film genre that is geared toward the issues of women (i.e.: romantic comedies, melodramas, etc.). Westerns, war movies, and gangster pictures are all "cool" and suburban melodramas that housewives and grandmas like to watch are "lame."

I think that's what it really comes down to here, for Wells and some of his readers. It's a trend I've noticed in some quarters of the Internet (is it because online film writing is dominated by twenty and thirtysomething males?) to not give much critical consideration at all to films that seem like they are "for women." "Chick flicks" (which, btw, is a nickname I loath) can't possibly be of any cinematic quality, so the thinking goes by the Wellsian type, so let's just dismiss them with some snark and get back to writing about "Spiderman 4."

Maybe I'm being unfair to these guys, but that's how the whole thing strikes me.

DavidEhrenstein said...

It's not unfair at all. Women's experiences -- be they historical or contemporary -- are undervalued.
Men's experiences are WILDLY over-valued.

Maya said...

Extra bonus: Susan Kohner and Juanita Moore struck up a friendship as a result of making this film, and have fequently appeared together at screenings of it here in L.A.

Which I hear they're repeating for TCM's upcoming Classic Hollywood Film Festival. It was one of the first announced events that made me take notice. I am thoroughly jacked about seeing Imitation of Life at Grauman's or The Egyptian, with Kohner and Moore reminiscing onstage. Have you seen any of their appearances, Dave?

I confess to even liking the Supremes riff "Living in Shame."

DavidEhrenstein said...

Unfortunately I haven't seen any of their joint appearances, though I've met Juanita Moore.

The Siren said...

"Women's experiences -- be they historical or contemporary -- are undervalued.
Men's experiences are WILDLY over-valued."

Word.

Maya, I like Living in Shame too--never thought of it as a riff on the movie but now that you point it out I'm sitting here thinking, "well, duh!"

Dan Leo said...

Splendid and elegant as usual.

(Hmmm, kinda like the best of Sirk...)

The Siren said...

Derelict: "It all goes back to the prejudice some critics have against so-called "women's pictures" or any film genre that is geared toward the issues of women (i.e.: romantic comedies, melodramas, etc.). Westerns, war movies, and gangster pictures are all "cool" and suburban melodramas that housewives and grandmas like to watch are "lame.""

This too. Absolutely.

swhitty said...

I already weighed in on this over at Glenn's Some Came Running blog, so won't repeat myself at length here. But I was glad you spoke up.

Actually when I first saw the post at HE I thought, I hope that the Siren sees this. And then, I almost sort of hoped you didn't. Too blood-pressure raising.

As I wrote over at Glenn's -- and DavidE has already written here -- I'm very tired of the misogyny that's so prevalent in popular film writing (one of the reasons this site is such a treasure). It ran throughout the comments over at HE.

ALL popular entertainment deals in vicarious joy and tidy catharsis. So? I happen to enjoy both Sergio Leone westerns and John Stahl melodramas. Some people don't. But PLEASE don't try to make the case that one is somehow worthier of respect simply because it features men with guns.

Isn't "Shutter Island" as stylish -- and over-the-top -- as Sirk, in a different way? Aren't the "Godfather" films, or "Zodiac" or De Palma as dependent on "big" emotions, decor and melodrama?

If you want to get all Dogme-atic about it and insist on utter, plain-spoken realism, fine. But don't worship at one operatic altar and sneer at the other. It's all make-believe. It's all the movies.

The Siren said...

Craig and Dave, I neglected to say thanks for the support. Mythical Monkey, the line about losing the lucrative film-blogging gig cracked me up. Yep, no seven-figure bonus if you don't like Sirk.

Steve, I completely agree and it was the stuff in the comments as much as anything that made me hot under the collar. Honestly, is this as far as we've come, that some of us still have to point out that women's lives and concerns are worth dramatizing? That a movie about women's feelings isn't automatically trivial? It was heartening, however, to see a number of men in that thread speaking up in defense of women's pictures, and of Sirk too.

Ehsan Khoshbakht said...

I read that incredible piece by Mr. Wells. Now I understand what's wrong with the United States. Obviously it's a piece written by an ex-butcher who has rent his first pre-2000 DVD and is trying to make something out of it. Even in Iran there is an atmosphere of high respect and some notable analytical work around master Sirk. Why these people attach themselves to something that they really don't belong?

Coincidentally, last Tuesday I was watching Sirk's German made Accord final (1938)and I found the early sketches of his many famous "mise en scene" in this great early effort:
http://notesoncinematograph.blogspot.com/2010/02/stairways-sirk-style.html

Ignorance alone is not that bad that ignorance of ignorance, in Wells case, is. Rumi, the Persian poet, calls it "hybrid ignorace"

peace

Arthur S. said...

I saw Imitation of Life at a screening last year of a triple bill. It was third in the slot after Hallelujah and Carmen Jones. It was obviously auteurist in intent and the subject is obviously representations of African-American culture in classic films. I was blown away by the Sirk, the beauty, the decorative surface and underneath it you have a profoundly tragic vision of society. Juanita Moore's death scene is worthy of Dovzhenko, the great film-poet from Ukraine and that Sirk could evoke that level of emotion in a "trite" story is what makes him so great.

Personally I never understood what people mean when they talk against melodrama and soap opera. Greek tragedies were essentially soap opera and melodrama(and a crucial Sirkian reference) and Shakespeare is the greatest huckster there ever was, as was Dickens, Dostoevsky, Stendhal. One reason why Imitation of Life is so unique a film is how it looks at the world through the eyes of women. In this case double pairs of mother-daughter.

And I don't know what people mean when they say there's nothing underneath the surface. Take that scene when they talk about Jesus and Sarah Jane asks what colour was His skin and Lana Turner predictably says, "He's any colour you want him to be!" and Sarah Jane says, "I bet he's White, like me!" Imagine putting that line in a film today with the same amount of casualness. What's subtle and under the surface about that? It's out in the open.

Juanita's Journal said...

And then she comes across something like this, where the inimitable Jeffrey Wells does a "respectful takedown" of Douglas Sirk using, of all things, the director's masterpiece, Imitation of Life.


Wow! This guy Wells must have a talent for pisses people off. He made some negative comments about INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS last summer that led Dennis from the "Sergio Leone" website to write a three or four-part article criticizing him and defending Tarantino's movie.

Peter Nellhaus said...

"But please, Mr. Wells, don't try to make your case by pretending a filmmaker was all surface..."

Not that there should be anything wrong with that either. Some of my most pleasurable movie watching has been of films that were nothing but surface.

Noel Vera said...

Wells in the past:

David Poland writes about Wells 6/20/00: "Variety's Jonathan Bing credits Wells with the first reviews of Gladiator, The Patriot and Me, Myself & Irene. He's simply wrong about Irene. After sitting with Jeff at an Irene screening, I beat Jeff to print by days on the film. And his new attitude about the film, printed last week, reads an awful lot like my opinion. Hmmm… But in the cases of Gladiator and The Patriot, Wells' "scoop" was nothing other than a willingness to break the embargo without regard to anyone but himself. Sony made the mistake of not demanding an agreement from Wells to embargo his comments on The Patriot when they allowed him to see it. I feel somewhat responsible because I am the idiot who let him know there was a screening. Sony let him see it as a gesture of good will. And they got screwed for their gesture, as Jeff disregarded a series of post-screening calls asking that he not write about the film when he did. He also screwed me directly, as my post-screening comments made up much of his "buzz" review. Yes, I was the unnamed journalist who suggested that a Steven Soderbergh version of the film would have been an improvement and that Warner Bros. would be pleased by the length and slowness of the film. Little did I know that Wells would "scoop" me with my own thoughts. He has since agreed out loud not to pull that kind of stunt, stealing my thoughts which I use for a living as his column fodder ever again on threat of never hearing a thought of mine again.

"Wells will honor an embargo if you make it 100 percent clear with him. He has, at times, worked around the embargo and rationalized that he was reporting on the opinions of others and not himself. But if you nail him down, Jeff won't screw you. Not that I'm offering a guarantee."

David Poland writes 6/22/00: "I have been forced to face the end of my relationship, professional and personal, with Jeff Wells. I do not take this step blithely. Despite whatever perception of rivalry we have on the 'net, we have been friends. But in the process of losing his mind over this Patriot issue, he was edging close to "the line" I drew for acceptable, if irritating, behavior. And then, he crossed it. I won't get any more specific than that, other than to say that my decision has nothing to do with anything he's written lately, including his theft of my thoughts and his public lack of remorse for doing the same. It's not even about Sony banning the entire Internet community from long lead screenings because of his selfish behavior. It's about honor between friends. There's little point in trying to convince you that Jeff did something wrong or that I did something right is not the point. But for all his insanity--and remarkable memory lapses--I mourn the loss of Jeff's friendship as a colleague in a very small circle of movie columnists. In fact, it's not even a circle. It's barely a parallelogram. He will be missed."

David Poland carries on an ongoing battle with Jeff Wells on www.thehotbutton.com. This from 10/31/01: "[I]f Jeff wants to write another word about Scorsese losing his edge, he should be forced to give up his column and to go work for the Enquirer, where nonsensical combinations of ignorance and pandering are the key ingredients to success. You know, I love Jeff, as completely whacked as he is sometimes. You won’t meet many people who want to do right in this world as much as Jeffrey. But he knows as much about movie directing as a monkey in an astronaut training program does. I know Jeff cares about his subject, film. But like so many of us in this side of the business, he forgets that the art form is bigger than the game. And a hell of a lot bigger than him… or any one of us, for that matter."

Maya said...

Yowch!

Yojimboen said...

My reaction to Mr. Wells’s hissy-fit is perhaps less one of annoyance than yours, chère Madame, I find myself leaning towards charity and pity. Thing is, I’ve been there (in Mr. Wells’s clown shoes), I used to dislike/not understand Sirk, but I like to think I’ve matured (in no small measure because of the blog company I’ve been keeping this past year) and become a man and put away childish attitudes.

During our last
Sirkiana go-round (Sep 17 2009) I posted the below comment – it’s still pretty-much how I feel:

A British reviewer of a Douglas Sirk DVD box-set opined that in Written on the Wind Robert Stack was “never better”. I have to agree; but in truth he was also “never worse”. He is one of the more puzzling Johnny One-Note success stories; a rich man’s Bob Cummings with a skeet gun. I don’t know why Sirk used him more than once. But then again, the more I learn about Mr. Douglas Sirk, clearly, the less I know.

The Dorothy Malone banner BTW is exquisite, but pale in comparison to the shot which introduces her in Tarnished Angels: the propeller-driven blast on platinum hair and Persil-bright virginal white dress is pure, jaw-dropping sexuality written large on the wind. There simply isn’t a better shot in all of Sirk.

Thanks are due to Arthur for the link to the superb Sirk interview; what a brilliant man he was – a classic European intellectual – before the word lost its meaning.

“Intellectualism came very late to America. That's why Americans are so proud of it. I found very few real intellectuals in America...”

But if I’m reading him correctly, the selection of melodrama as a vehicle for his life’s work was, if not completely cynical, certainly at least partially, a pragmatic choice.

”As a theater man, I had to deal with high art. I would play farces and comedy to make money, and classics for the elite. But we were trying to escape the elitaire. So slowly in my mind formed the idea of melodrama, a form I found to perfection in American pictures. They were naive, they were that something completely different. They were completely Art-less.”

Which sort of throws everything up into the air for me; and I have to look around carefully to see where everything lands. Just who the hell was Douglas Sirk? In other words, get ‘em all down from the shelf and start again.

I’ve always gone back and forth on Sirk. Sometimes I lose patience with myself, wondering why in reason’s name am I watching this… dreck, this… pap; every goddamn plot point, every nuance is telegraphed a week in advance of its arrival; so why the hell is my gluteus still stuck to the settee? Then I remember: it’s called melodrama; better yet, it’s a Sirk melodrama, and that requires, nay, demands its own unique brand of suspension of disbelief.

We’re all familiar with that occasional phenomenon of the sequel outdoing the original, Godfather II? And then there’s that singular instance where a goddamn hommage called Far From Heaven (which I still insist is the best American film of the last decade) outshines that which it imitates. (But I could be wrong.)

Fucking Sirk! I hate him, I love him.

(Don’t bother me for a while, I have some re-screening to do.)

Arthur S. said...

What Sirk means is simply that he was against the idea of art as something elitist and inaccessible and wanted to make works of art that dealt with people in their language yet touch them as profoundly and immediately as the Ancient Greek and Elizabethan masterpieces of theatre do.

In that interview,
[http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/48/sirkinterview.php] he invoked a certain idea touched on in some academic circles but one that(to my knowledge) none has fully explored - the idea that Golden Age Hollywood Cinema is as close the modern world has come to the Golden Age of English Theatre where again you had censorship and repression and popular works of high and low art. Where aesthetes like Ben Jonson, radicals like Christopher Marlowe and populists like Shakespeare worked side-by-side. So you had Welles, Sternberg, Ford, Ray, Hitchcock and Sirk.

The Siren said...

Juanita, it's so true; Dennis is one of Greater Blogistan's (David E's phrase) sweetest souls and to piss him off takes a certain talent, I gotta admit.

Noel: I have no words.

Peter, very true! The Fox musicals are a perfect example of that.

The Siren said...

Ehsan, welcome and thanks for the glad tidings that Sirk is revered in Iran too. Also everybody, I recommend popping over to his site for some great screen grabs of staircases in Sirk.

Arthur, all I can say is that yes, I see what you see there.

Yojimboen, I was looking forward to your comments on Sirk because I enjoyed them last time. I don't deny that he is problematic for a lot of people because the level of artifice is so high. But then again, one would never catch you implying that a movie is unimportant because it is about the feelings of women in a drawing room.

Larry Gross said...

Thanks Siren for your perceptive description of the effects achieved in this scene from IMitation of Life.
Isn't one of the problems here, an ambiguity about the status of different performance styles. An ambiguity, which by the way, Sirk understands and comprehends completely. He knows and utilizes the fact that Susan Kohner has certain gifts that Sandra Dee lacks,and he orchestrates those differences into the emotional texture of the scene (no subtext here!). It's the same use he makes of say the difference in technical acting skill, say between Dan O'Herlihy's director-heel and John Gavin's good-guy hero in IMitation. O'Herlihy is a gifted actor and Gavin is not but Sirk utilizes the differences and the counter-currents in their visual presence for every nugget of meaning they are worth. This of course, replays in the sublime opposition between Bacall and Malone, in Written on the Wind where the canonical 'star' Ms. Bacall, theputative "heroine" is emotionally blown away by the trashy but sublimely talented performance of Ms. Malone. Sirk uses acting talent to reverse moral certitudes as clearly and effectively as Hitchcock does with Granger-Walker Junior in Strangers on a Train. But this can be mistaken for good-and-bad acting coexisting in the frame in some chaotic way. It's not chaos. It's art. (Among other insufficiently commented upon examples of this melding of acting abilities: In Altman's Nashville, clearly Ned Beatty, Michael Murphy, Allen Nichols, Geraldine Chaplin, Allen Garfield, and Lilly Tomlin, are not all equally "good" as actors-- and Altman knows it--he is syncopating the different styles, voices, talent-levels, to complicate the character' interplay at the narrative level...and if you want to see an even more sublime orchestration of this effect, of course there is always Renoir's Rules of the Game, where the complication is further enriched by having superb actors interact with non-professionals.

The Siren said...

Larry, welcome. I don't have much to add to your superb comment, except to say that I think Dee was better than she is generally given credit for being; if you check out most of her teen-queen rivals of the era you see that Dee had a sincerity to her acting that they lacked. Her roles were usually thankless goody-two-shoes but Susie in this movie has a real arc. In the clip Wells posted I like to watch the way her eyes shift when she's trying to play the angel on the shoulder to Kohner.

Raquelle said...

You tell 'em sister!

DavidEhrenstein said...

Dee also has in Imitation that peerless moment when she turns to Lana Turner and says "Oh mother, stop acting!"

The thing to remember about the film is that it was the climax of Ross Hunter's career as a producer. He had worked for many years on many projects. But he took special pride in the fact that he realized that Lana Turner -- "over the hill" in ageist Holywood terms -- was a potential box office bonanza. Not only did she have the noteriety of the Johnny Stompanato killing behind her, but her career as a star. He knew there was an audince out there that had grown up with Lana. So why not find an age-appropriate part and dress her in the most lavish wardrobe known to man. Sirk woudl do the rest -- just as he had when he made a cotnract player named Rock Hudson (whose contract was about to run out) the biggest star for Universal since Deanna Durbin with Magnificent Obsession. Rock's co-star was the "over the hill" Jane Wyman -- who became an even bigger star via such "mature" roles.

Ross had the magic touch -- but came a cropper with his musical remake of Lost Horizons, despite songs by Barharach and David and a screenplay by Larry Kramer.

Anyhoo with Imitation of Life everyone came to see Lana and Sandra -- but discovered Susan Kohner and Juanita Moore. The climac scene where Kohner throws herself on Moore's coffin pleading for forgivemness is quite simply one of the greatest things in all of cinema.

Kohner's sons are now moviemakig Big Deals, BTW. Their films include About a Boy with Hugh Grant and little Nicholas Hoult (who now thankfully is past the 'Jail Bait" stage.)

Arthur S. said...

Sandra Dee's other key moment when she accepts that Annie has been more of a mother to her than Lora has and the fact that she's ultimately going to college and create her identity is affecting.

What makes Imitation of Life is that it really touches on how women are oppressed across class and race barriers. Like Lana Turner and Juanita Moore are initially on an even keel but the moment she gets theatrical "success"(which Sirk does deal with considerable irony) but money changes everything even if Lana Turner is basically a decent sort.

Kimberly Lindbergs said...

Love your defense of Sirk, Siren. I find Jeffrey Wells indefensible and make it a point to avoid "Hollywood Elsewhere" but I'm glad you decided to respond to his absurd claims. Keep up the good fight!

Dennis Nyback said...

Since no once else has brought this up, I have to mention the Kuchar Brothers. Both George and Mike loved the Douglas Sirk films and used them for inspiration. Just as Brian DePalma, Martin Scorcese,John Waters and many other directors admitted that they were inspired by the Kuchars, it is good to know about the Kuchar's inspirations. How else can you explain: "The Naked and the Nude," "A Tub Named Desiere," "Lust for Ecstasy,and many others. If you have not seen their work, especially George's "Hold Me While I'm Naked," and "Color Me Shameless," and Mike's "The Craven Sluck," rush out an do it.

The Siren said...

Arthur, I wrote in a post I did about Lana Turner, for whom I have a soft spot, about the scene on the beach which in some ways is the key to the movie--Lora's reaction to her first sight of Sarah Jane is unforgettable. And later, you can see Lora getting more and more comfortable the more that Annie takes on the caretaker role of cook and maid. It's been argued that the Stahl version is more progressive in that Louise Beavers is a business partner, and that's true. (The Stahl version is brilliant, btw; I love it almost as much as the Sirk.) But I think the later film is more hard-edged in the way it shows how some people, even well-meaning ones, clutch at the roles doled out by society because they are safe, they are familiar. Lora is much more comfortable having Annie take over the kitchen than she is on the beach with her as an equal, wondering why Annie's daughter looks white.

Kimberly, I am always very happy to see you in my comments and I am glad you approve. Marilyn is right that Wells is a bomb-thrower of the first order. But he's also a well-known blogger with traffic that totally dwarfs mine, and I don't want a widely read post of his to filter out as a meme without some correctives going up. I can trust Glenn for that, but with this movie, and this genre, I had to speak up myself.

Dennis, it is also a pleasure to see you. I am not familiar with the films you name but the titles alone make them intriguing as all hell.

The Siren said...

And Raquelle - I see you! Thanks, sister.

Lou Lumenick said...

The irony of all this is that Mr. Wells has been wetting his pants over "The Hurt Locker'' because he thinks Kathryn Bigelow directs in such a testosterone-friendly style. Guess who did the very last interview with her idol, Douglas Sirk?

The Siren said...

Lou, Tarantino also has stated his admiration for Sirk, as well as Scorsese. I think real talent tends to have eclectic tastes.

Gosh this is all making me SO IMPATIENT to see There's Always Tomorrow at last!

DavidEhrenstein said...

What you should also be impatient to see are the three short films Sirk made post retirement in 1979 and 1980: New Year's Eve (an adaptation of an Arthur Schitzler play starring Hanna Schygulla), Talk to Me Like the Rain a Tennessee Willaims one-act atarring Margaret Trissenaur) and Bourbon Street Blues (an adaptation of Tennesse Williams' The Lady Of Larkspur Lotion starring rainer Werner Fassbunder -- under whose audspices all three short films were made. )

Arthur S. said...

I for one would love to see those Sirk-Fassbinder collaborations.

Fassbinder after he made Beware of a Holy Whore took the longest gap in his career before returning with the first film of his populist melodrama phase - The Merchant of Four Seasons. It was during that period he revisited Sirk's films and realized that he could use popular forms of entertainment to express what he felt about society.

To Siren, I haven't seen the Stahl version. I think what Sirk is doing with Imitation of Life where Annie starts out as Lora's equal and then becomes her servant without protest is politically defeatist and doesn't make his film in any way a progressive film as we know it. It's not a political film that people would want today. Jonathan Rosenbaum is a particularly strong critic of Sirk(and Fassbinder) on that front.

Rather what Sirk does is show them as people. Lora isn't some plantation owner, she's a middle-class woman trying to make her career in a sexist society. In other words she could be like any decent white woman in the audience. That Sirk shows how good people can become part of an unjust system without seeing the flaws of that system is what makes it more powerful and what makes it last all these years.

Brian said...

Great post, even if it made me click on Hollywood Elsewhere, which I've promised myself not to do.

Having seen only a handful of Sirk films (and considering Imitation of Life his greatest of those, though I'm perhaps more familiar with All That Heaven Allows and Magnificent Obsession) I'm very excited that the Stanwyck set will contain a couple previously-unavailable ones I've never laid eyes upon. Though I may want to see his comedy No Room For The Groom most of all- I hear it's tremendous!

Arthur S. said...

Of the two films with Stanwyck, There's Always Tomorrow as essential a Sirk title as any, is a masterpiece, in some ways more incisive in it's critique of middle-class life than the films in colour and Fred MacMurray who co-starred often with Stanwyck gives maybe his best performance.

All I Desire is not quite top flight but again a great Stanwyck performance, including one powerful scene with the actor playing her son.

The major Sirk films still left to be released in America is The Tarnished Angels and above all, A Time to Love and A Time to Die an autobiographical exploration of Nazism.

DavidEhrenstein said...

The Stahl is OK. Freddie Washington plays the daughter who passes for white (called "Peola" in that version) But Claudete Colbert and Louise Beavers go into business together. The pancake business. Beavers ebcomes literally Aunt Jemim. We even see a neon sign of her flipping pancakes. That wouldn't have worked in the 50's. The fact that Moore becomes Turner's maid rather than her bsiness partner may be a "step back" in some respects but it's more realistic than the Stahl version -- which she's a business partner who ACTS like a maid.

Yojimboen said...

Of course there was a real-life parallel in H'Wood when Hattie McDaniel moved in with Tallulah Bankhead as part-time domestic, full-time bedmate.

I'd have paid money to see that.

Yojimboen said...

Damn, I miss New York!

bitter69uk said...

I'm not even tempted to read the Wells blog -- it would just make my blood pressure explode! If anything I think Sirk is more relevant than ever at the moment. You can see his influence in contemporary directors like Almodovar, David Lynch, Todd Haynes, and also every week on Mad Men. There's Always Tomorrow has just been reissued on DVD by Eureka here in the UK. I got my review copy last week: will be reviewing it for the website Nude. In the meantime my review of Sternberg's Shanghai Gesture is on there (it too recently got reissued on DVD here). Scroll down past Betty Page!
http://www.nudemagazine.co.uk/filmreviewsmainpage.htm

Karen said...

Catching up after being away: and I have to stop to give you mega-kudos for this post. SO much to love in that scene (and in that movie). I like the blocking when Kohner is briefly hidden from the viewer by Dee, only to reappear on the other side, hugging her pillow. Poor Sarah Jane WILL always be blocked by those blonde girls.

A brilliant takedown of Wells, who clearly doesn't deserve Sirk.

VW: purlist. Capcha's on a roll.