I went on a bit of a Faulkner reading jag recently, looking into As I Lay Dying, Sanctuary, and Pylon for the first time since college at least. The experience was both exhilarating and disquieting. I had forgotten what a stone modernist Faulkner was, and I was a little unprepared for by both the swampiness and the sharp focus of what he took from Joyce and adapted to an entirely American idiom. The compound words of Pylon, and there seemed to be at least two per page, are confoundingly inventive and/or unselfconsciously bizarre (plucked at random, from the first chapter: "murallimning" and "shadowlurked"). It was a pleasure to immerse myself in his multivalent style, and felt in a better position to appreciate it. Same for Faulkner's acute understanding of alcoholism and the alcoholic brain. It's a funny thing: of course there are events in Sanctuary and Pylon, indeed the events in Sanctuary are/were pretty infamous, but there's no way that you can cite these novels for their narrative momentum, nor call them plot-driven. For every one incident that occurs, there are pages and pages depicting drunken paralysis. Temple Drake wakes up in a strange room and it takes her a whole chapter to get to the opposite corner of the room. And it's a small room. I'm exaggerating of course. But not much, I think. So I was maybe a little too struck by what I perceived as Faulkner's personal tragedy, that his profound understanding of alcoholism came so early and was of so little use to him outside of his art.
Of course having finished Pylon I was compelled to rewatch The Tarnished Angels, the 1957 film adapted from that 1935 novel, directed by Douglas Sirk. (Sirk would direct only two more features after this, both masterpieces: A Time To Love And A Time To Die, and Imitation of Life.) In the book Sirk on Sirk, the director cites Faulkner as "a very early influence on my outlook" and says that he had a yen to adapt Pylon during his days at the German studio UFA. Working in Hollywood gave Sirk the chance to adapt the American book as an American director, to retain some of the idiom of the original. But a literal-minded movie version of Pylon was of course an impossibility in the Hollywood of the 1950s. But I think, I hope, we know this already. The point is that the Hollywood "auteur" of the era in which Sirk was at his most productive and most eloquent was a pragmatist as well as an artist.
And so, Sirk seemingly cheerily admits to his interlocuter Jon Halliday in Sirk on Sirk, "the story had to be completely un-Faulknerized, and it was." A very literal-minded person may well ask at this juncture, "Well what's the point of making the film from the book, then?" And here is where, within the system in which Sirk labored, the personal meets the pragmatic. Here, actually, lie the roots of what is sometimes called "the auteur theory."
In his essay on the comedies of director Allan Dwan, Kent Jones describes a mode of Hollywood moviemaking he calls the "proto-sitcom." He calls the majority of these pictures "attempts to mass-produce the form of romantic comedy that Cukor, Capra, Lubitsch, Hawks, et. al., had perfected in the 1930s" and notes their "new kind of impersonal zip, airiness, and lightness." Allan Dwan, the critic continues, "may have been the only director who knew how (or had the inclination) to harness this industrial beauty [...] [b]ut, very unlike the aforementioned machine-tooled items, Dwan's movies are inflected with little grace notes—sudden tiny shifts in speed or perspective or visual designe that gives the films a humming beauty." "Grace notes"—that's an important phrase.
A version of what Jones is talking about applies to Sirk, and it particularly applies to Sirk whether he is adapting Faulkner or Fannie Hurst. In his chat with Halliday, he notes that "while the book is completely transformed, the characters in the film are pretty close to Faulkner's." This might not seem readily apparent. The unnamed reporter co-protagonist in Pylon is described as looking like a ghost, and has a shambling, zombie-like air to his movements; The Tarnished Angel's reporter is given the studly name of Burke Devlin, and is played by Rock Hudson. (It's worth mentioning that Hudson gives one of his most sincere and direct screen performances here and is very fine.) But leaving aside the matter of surface appearances, Sirk is correct. In both the book and the movie, the reporter gives a speech to his editor in which he confoundedly describes the aerial barnstormers whose story he's dying to write as "not human." That is, as all to human in their isolation from themselves and from each other. And Sirk conveys that in the most refined but potent cinematic means available to him.
There's also the matter of the grace notes. "Having revealed how much you can take out and still have rock and roll, they now explore how much you can put back in and still have Ramones," Robert Christgau wrote of Rocket To Russia in 1977. Having de-Faulknerized Faulkner in the scripting process, Sirk judiciously chooses moment of pure Faulknerian pain and places them at key junctures in the picture, creating a network of exposed nerve endings for the picture. The first is in the "who's your old man" taunting of the young Jack Schumann—whether or not he's the child of pilot Roger Schumann is an issue in both the book and the movie, and the early revelation of the playful cruelty of this world is a defining one. Sirk frames young Jack's trauma economically and perfectly, in one unflinching, perfectly framed shot in which the kid (beautifully played by Christopher Olsen) flays at the right side of the frame with his short arms, sobbing and yelling, his face disappearing and reappearing in flashes as his head ducks and his arms fly before him. It's a remarkable distillation of the scene as written in Pylon.
Sirk and screenwriter George Zuckerman also introduce a fascinating bit of intertextuality, something not in the book, having Devlin and Jack's mother, Laverne (Dorothy Malone, brilliant and alternatingly haggard and ravishing, sometimes within a moment's notice), bond over Willa Cather's My Antonia. "My Antonia, there's another influence," Sirk said to Halliday, in the late 1960s. "As I remember it, My Antonia is a novel about circularity; the hero comes back to the place that he started out from. Today it would look passé, perhaps. But there was a time when I was deeply in love with America, a love that was shaken, though, to a degree, by wars and by Hiroshima, and by the things that happened afterwards, McCarthyism and so on." Though it is itself set in a time behind 1957, in The Tarnished Angels Devlin says of Cather's book, "Nostalgia in Nebraska. Lost farms and faded loves." Laverne counters, "It brings back memories of home. How I was. And who I was. When I first started reading it. Twelve years ago." She takes up the book again, to finish it, and the below shot is, in the context Sirk creates for it, heartbreaking.
As it happens Cather was an important influence of Faulkner himself; in her excellent study of Cather and her critics Joan Acocella notes that Faulkner "considered her one of the foremost American novelists." Whether Sirk was aware of that is maybe besides the point, and in fact if the connection is a happy coincidence that only bolsters a particular sense of affinity.
These other shots of isolation (above the actor is Robert Stack; below, Malone is seen with Robert Middleton) are exemplary minor key grace notes that underscore for me a feeling that while The Tarnished Angels does not transpose Pylon, it honors that book, and Faulkner's tragic, humane vision. The movie in its entirety, aside from being a beauty in and of itself, is an object lesson in the fact that when critics throw around the term "Sirkian" nowadays, almost none of them actually know what that word means.
Auteurism as formulated by Truffaut and Sarris and others instructed cinephiles not to be enslaved by genre hierarchies, and that's one thing. Current mutations of this perspective seem to be tending to a conclusion that quality itself is a hierarchical construct. As a non-academic, I can't speak to the extent to which this notion is useful on the higher plains of theory. In practice on the lower plain of film writing on the internet, it enables a particularly glib kind of perversity. In March of this year, the monetarily compensated writer Calum Marsh, who advertises himself as a "purveyor of criticism," contributed a piece to Film.com entitled "Tyler Perry's Defense: Why The Filmmaker Deserves Our Respect." The chatty essay leaves any number of questions unanswered, including "what do you mean 'Our'?" and what it is about the punitive sexist moralism of certain of Perry's film's is worthy of respect, but the issue of immediate concern is Marsh's declaration that Perry at his best is "making some of the strongest melodramas since Douglas Sirk." Again, we leave aside the curious fact that in seeking to legitimize Perry's work Marsh puts Sirk back into the pigeonhole that auteurist critics removed him from and concentrate on the fact that they were able to remove him from that pigeonhole because the work itself warranted it. It does not take a particularly acute critical sense to understand that any posited equivalence between Tyler Perry and Douglas Sirk is an absolutely fucking false one. It only takes a functioning pair of eyes, and a functioning pair of ears. Perry's actual cinematic forebear is Hugo Haas, a filmmaker I daresay many young cinephiles of the vulgar auteurist inclination are not familiar with. They might want to look into him. But it's just this kind of false equivalency that's the hallmark of ignorant, grandstanding, self righteous, ego driven opinion mongering that calls itself criticism today. For Sirk's sake, and for the sake of a lot of other film artists, one ought to be wary of it.