Friday, December 7, 2012

Virgin Viewings 2012: Douglas Sirk and the Hollywood Heartache

A glimpse at my favorite discoveries of 2012, new and sometimes, very very old...

Douglas Sirk is a known cinematic master for his tales of instantaneous, requisite love and its tragic undoing. Due in part to this beautiful but cruel world and - far more cruel - characters own ugly needs and desires. Beyond the shimmering surfaces lie tales of stifling, rigid order, and matters of the heart too messy and cold to be shot in anything less than glorious Technicolor.

It's a strange spell Sirk weaves with his grand visual palettes, classic stars, and all those tawdry, teary-eyed revelations... Pure melodrama at its finest, and graciously, too, not without its "camp" value. Take for example the scene in Imitation of Life when Sarah Jane, a moody mixed-race teen who just wants to be white, is slapped mercilessly by her white boyfriend to the sounds of swingin' jazz. It's hard not to laugh at the odd, arch tone, yet it doesn't detract from the overall "tearjerker" status. I still shed a few watching Sarah Jane's self-destruction take its devastating, ironic toll on her poor, devoted, slowly dying mother. (And the MUSIC SWELLS!!!!) For all of the big story calculations, small and glorious subtexts consistently hover just outside the many blue, moon-swathed windows these characters so often gaze from in wrenching heartache.

In Written on the Wind, nefarious nymphet and scene-stealer, Marylee Hadley, does a solitary dance of seduction offset by her father's fatal fall down the family staircase -- ruined by the revelation that his son's a drunken lout and his daughter's being pumped more than his oil well. Dark, campy, bold and beautiful, it's moments like these that have seared themselves to my eye sockets. Sirk's best films blend idealistic imagery (and colors that POP) with emotional turns that magically tear through the artifice, bearing something almost depressingly human. He'll have you believing in the rapturous power of love and then cursing it to the Technicolor heavens that... just won't allow it.

(All That Heaven Allows is also, of course, requisite viewing for any fan of Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven or Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Ali: Fear Eats the Soul -- their joint inspiration. Each of them an eye-popping, soul-crushing masterpiece.)

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