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 as Rhett Butler: "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 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, rather than 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 Joseph II 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, during which 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.