Near the end of Midnight Movies, the seminal book on cult film he co-wrote with Jonathan Rosenbaum, J. Hoberman recalls his early attempts to run a rep cinema of sorts. In 1972, in a "bombed-out old church on West Thirty-sixth Street," he and a pal founded the "Theater of Gibberish" and screened "mostly Sirk and Fuller" pictures, mainly to facilitate Hoberman's own education in those directors' oeuvres. "We used to get listed in the Voice," Hoberman recalls, "but we couldn't advertise the Sirk films by name. One of the sixteen-millimeter distributors mentioned that they were very popular in old-folks homes, rest homes, and hospitals, so we cited that and Rock Hudson in the ads. The local Sirk freaks—all seven of them—got the message and turned up."
How times have changed. These days it seems that just about every higher-education-aspiring American young person who signs up for a single Film Studies course—or, God help him or her, actually majors in Film Studies—has a pallette load of Sirk shoved down his or her throat, and some of the manly men who follow Hollywood Elsewhere seem not to have enjoyed the experience one bit. Nor do they like being told that they don't know what they're on about. "We understand them, but we think they're shit," one commenter notes of the Sirk work.
These commenters are responding to HE proprieter Jeffrey Wells' post called "Respectful Sirk Takedown"—and boy, is that title wrong on maybe five levels—in which, spurred on by a YouTube clip from Sirk's 1957 Imitation of Life, Wells unloads on the director. The acting in the clip—which features Sandra Dee and Susan Kohner—is "awful." The dialogue has a "comical phoniness." And so on. Sirk's critical rep constitutes some kind of shell game perpetrated by elitist dweebs who aver that "you have to be a serious cineaste to recognize Sirk's genius, and that if you don't recognize it then you need to think things through because you're just not as perceptive as you need to be."
I responded to Wells' post in several, probably too many, comments. Here's the stuff, I guess, that sums up my objections most coherently:
[Well]'s putatively "respectful" takedown of Sirk is so choked with resentment that it's simultaneously self-canceling and impossible to formulate a rationale response to. I happen to think that a lot of the critical response to Sirk takes the "subversive" angle too far. I don't think, for example, that there's anything particularly "coded" about Imitation of Life; it's a completely sincere statement on race in America that works within the conventions of a Ross Hunter/Fanny Hurst melodrama. Of course because Sirk was an absolute visual master he imbues those conventions with added value, employing a mise-en-scene that often expresse[s] exquisite irony, but I don't think that's same thing as putting anything over on the audience. I agree that one ought to check out The Tarnished Angels, There's Always Tomorrow, and particularly A Time To Love And A Time To Die to get a fuller measure of the artist.
But [Wells is] clearly not interested in having an intelligent discussion of Sirk. Tired of trouncing the Eloi, he arbitrarily decides to have a go at the "dweebs," or as he sometimes calls them, the "monks," the "cloistered" "urban" types he's got some sort of complex about because he thinks they're lording it over him or something.What's maybe a little bit genuinely interesting about Wells' attitude with respect to Sirk's reputation, and the attitude of the meat-tossers whooping it up in the comments thread, is the "these elitists are trying to con us" perspective. Wells makes no bones about letting everybody know how "progressive" his actual politics are, but in rants like these he exhibits pretty much the exact kind of resentment that's the lifeblood of Andrew Breitbart's entire career. To backtrack a bit to the sentiments that inspired some of the observations in my above-excerpted comment, Wells cites Roger Ebert as a proponent of the kind of obfuscation that gets Wells so riled up, to wit, Ebert's pronouncement that understanding a Sirk film "takes more sophistication than to understand one of Ingmar Bergman's masterpieces, because Bergman's themes are visible and underlined, while with Sirk the style conceals the message."The thing is, and no disrespect to Roger Ebert intended, I believe that he's precisely wrong. I reiterate: Sirk never speaks in code, and his "conceal[ment]" is not what makes him a great filmmaker...and the early champions of the director understood this utterly. In The American Cinema, Andrew Sarris wrote, "The essence of Sirkian cinema is the direct confrontation of all material, however fanciful and improbable. Even in his most dubious projects, Sirk never shrinks away from the ridiculous, but by a full-bodied formal development, his art transcends the ridiculous, as form comments on content." (For "ridiculous," read "Sandra Dee," and you've got a basis for a defense of at least some of what Wells finds objectionable about the Imitation of Life clip.) Not too many years later, in an appreciation of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Manny Farber and Patricia Patterson outlined Fassbinder's affinities with Sirk, whom the younger filmmaker revered and collaborated with: "He has taken a number of tactics from the Sirk melodramas (the flamboyant lighting, designing décor and costumes that indelibly imprint a character's social strata, being patient with actors and playing all the movie's elements into them, backing your dime-store story and soap-opera characters all the way) and stapled Sirk's whirlwind into a near-silent film style which is punctuated with terse noun-verb testiness." (Emphasis mine.) I infer that the "code-talking" Sirk is the one that's taught in Film Studies classes, then, which is too bad. I don't accept that as an excuse, though. Autodidact cinephile that I am, I came to Sirk my own way, and I'm very happy I did.The top screen cap is from Sirk's superb 1956 There's Always Tomorrow, out very soon in a wonderful U.K. Eureka!/Masters of Cinema edition, and shortly after that on domestic DVD in a Universal multi-disc set devoted to co-star Barbara Stanwyck, which will also include Sirk's All I Desire.