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February 23, 2010


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Tom Russell

Having never been to college (and, in fact, barely graduating high school), I never went through these Film Studies classes that seem to engender so much resentment towards Sirk, Ford, and a host of other worthies (I actually got into an argument with A Certain Online Film Critic who said Stagecoach was boring).

I never found a Sirk film to be anything less than entertaining-- but I'm also a ginormous Rock Hudson fan, finding him to be a captivating screen presence and solid, at times subtle, actor.

... What?


When LexG has become the de facto "Way to go" guy on Wells blog, you can rest assured that a once great film site has devolved into the "The Man Show." But really Glenn, you know Wells is a sociopathic bully with some of the worst taste to ever grace a computer screen. Folks who can't find some value in Sirk or at the very least his compositions are simply not operating a mutual level of film respect. They are Entry-Level Eloi.


That Wells post is pridefully shallow, and the homophobia and sexism that crops up in comments almost immediately is pretty telling. Not to mention that saying "I happened to watch this earlier today" and then "it's just about unwatchable" is just bad writing. Nonetheless, in general, the watered-down cultural studies "it might look like crap, but it's actually subversive" school of critical interpretation can be wearying and applied almost infinitely. But I have no idea if that applies to Sirk because...yikes...I've never seen any of his films despite reading about him for years now. Any advice on which one to start with?

Michael Adams

The mouthbreathers at HE should look at some of Sirk's earlier films. Shockproof, his unlikely collaboration with Sam Fuller, is a hoot. It shows up occasionally on TCM. Lured, Sleep, My Love, and Thunder on the Hill are all a lot of fun. Wish Tarnished Angels, condemned by Hudson as a dirty movie, was more readily available.


Three things:

What happens to subtext when you read it? Doesn't it become...text?

Lots of people really aren't as perceptive as they need to be. Not all of them are bad people. I'm one of them, in fact. When did humility go from "virtue" to "not okay"?

Who in the world is Jeffrey Wells?

Okay, I know the answer to the third one. But rather than being baffled by his existence, I'm baffled that otherwise perfectly rational human beings continue to justify it by acknowledging his insanity. Remember Chuck Stephens? Feed the troll, and it grows.

Stephen Whitty

Appreciate all your comments, Glenn, there and here.

What I personally found most disturbing there, I guess, was the misogyny and (not-so) latent homophobia that seemed to run through many of the commenters' anti-Sirk screeds.

Yet not surprising.

In so much current reviewing, on and off the web, paid and unpaid, it seems that the mostly male, loudly heterosexual writers have two standards -- one for popular movies aimed ostensibly at females, one for popular movies aimed ostensibly at males.

The former -- with their lush settings and romantic stories -- are castigated for being "mindless," "consumerist," "daydreaming" trash.

The latter -- with their over-the-top action and male bonding -- are praised for being "escapist," "exotic," "genre-bending" pleasures.

But why is a "girls" movie dismissed out of hand and a "boys" movie given serious consideration? Romantic entertainments seen as immature, and shoot-em-up thrillers seen as edgy? Why is one totally absurd and the other a fine night out?

The girl-haters-club will accept dewlapped action heroes singlehandedly taking on entire gangs, but have a movie show a rich middle-aged woman in love and they start snickering and throwing their popcorn. Both movies provide wish-fulfillments. Why is only one wish valid?

I have my problems with various Sirk works. But you know? I have them with John Ford movies too. (His sense of humor is particularly cruel and crude -- but that's another thing.) I guess I just believe that you take a movie as a whole -- style AND content. And limiting your appreciation to one, rigidly-ruled kind of content only limits you.

Terry McCarty

Saw THERE'S ALWAYS TOMORROW at the Telluride fest in the late 80s and am happy that it's finally getting a DVD release.


I actually DID take a film class in college that had a Sirk film on the syllabus -- WRITTEN ON THE WIND. It was my first Sirk, and all I remember, really, was thinking Rock Hudson and Robert Stack were really good, and finding much of my professor's blathering to be white noise (at least as it concerned the actual film -- is it applied to my actual grade is something else).

I have to admit that my appreciation for Sirk's brand of melodrama has been slow to evolve, but it IS evolving, and I think Sarris's quote is pretty much hitting the nail on the head. You have to be open to the sincerity of Sirk (and the Nicholas Ray of JOHNNY GUITAR, which I saw recently) to "get" it, and freeing yourself from several rock-hard layers of irony for the two hours it takes to watch one of these movies is a bit much to ask of some people. Still, of the few Sirk films I've seen, my favorite is, in my experience, his least typical: LURED. It has Boris Karloff AND Lucille Ball, so...

Also, the reveal of Hudson on the beach in that crucial scene in MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION is brilliant.

Glenn Kenny

I dig "Lured" lot too. AND "A Scandal In Paris." AND the recently released-on-DVD "Summer Storm."

Hell, I love "Has Anybody Seen My Gal." I guess I am a Sirk freak after all.

Bruce Reid

Probably an oversimplification, but I'd say the "film studies" crowd and the "manly men" dissenters are both displacing onto Sirk their own contempt. Since neither apparently think a melodrama pitched solidly at mid-century moviegoers could possibly convey such rich themes and character portraits without in some way deliberately going over the head of its intended viewers, they invent a director who cunningly tripped up or desultorily pandered to his audience. Whereas the glory of Sirk is precisely that his engagement with genre was without condescension or embarrassment.

Irony was one of his tools, naturally. Several of his endings fadeout on smiles and warm embrace without taking step one to resolve any of the underlying fissures that led to tragedy barging its death's head through the door in the first place; his titles are often magnificently double-bottomed, lushly romantic at first read but increasingly grim (Sirk identified All That Heaven Allows as actually implying "stingy") when you think back. But to consider that his dominant mode ignores so much of what makes his films so wonderful.

I don't revere the wisdom of crowds as unassailable, but the 50s women drenching their handkerchiefs (and the husbands, dragged protesting to the theater, wiping some irritant from their eye) had it right and the academics and (perhaps especially) the flippant misogynists have it wrong. Sirk's films are direct and sincere, sometimes brutally so. They don't have to be everybody's cup of tea, but they're too immediately human to be boxed up behind a scaffolding of theory or dismissed as silly fluff.

Tom Russell: "...I'm also a ginormous Rock Hudson fan, finding him to be a captivating screen presence and solid, at times subtle, actor.

... What?"

You'll hear nothing from me. Among my non-film-geek friends, few of my opinions receive quizzical stares more than my admiration for Hudson. (The winner, sadly, remains whenever Jerry Lewis comes up.)

Rob: "Any advice on which one to start with?"

Short answer, The Tarnished Angels.

Rambling, contradictory answer, since he's one of my favorites: There's plenty to love in the early thrillers Michael Adams and Bill mention, as well as Sirk's comedies (seconding Glenn's love for Has Anybody Seen My Gal); and Sirk's war pictures are very underrated I think. But you should start with the melodramas, because no one has filmed domestic dwellings as brilliantly as Sirk, cataloging how clear paths, crossroads, and dead-end traps can be framed by the objects we've surrounded ourselves with while our lives were going on. If the TV set and perforated screen in All That Heaven Allows, the windows to the back porch in There's Always Tomorrow, or the staircase in Written on the Wind don't make you a Sirk fan, nothing will. Not, again, because of set design; because of how perfectly Sirk captures the humans walking those sets.


Hudson was a very good actor. There's nothing strange about that opinion. His abilities were plain as day. The tabloid-fodder he became, through no fault of his own, make people think he's some camp figure, but he wasn't. The guy could act, and had an amazing presence on screen.

Also, isn't Wells a big James Dean fan? I don't know that I believe Wells has ever had a single, sincere opinion that wasn't wrapped in several layers of defensiveness and bad faith, but I'm pretty sure he's claimed an affinity for Dean in the past. Is he so obtuse that he can't see the clear line between Sirk and, say, REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE?

Answer: probably!

Bruce Reid

Yeah, that defense of Sirk's face-value immediacy didn't read so pretentiously till after I posted. Sorry about that.

Jon Hastings

Bruce - It didn't read pretentiously to me (maybe because I agree with most of it ;) ).

I second The Tarnished Angels as the best Sirk for Beginners movie.


Wonderful respnse Glen - well said. Thanks so much for writing this.


Excellent stuff, everyone -- well said and well worth saying.

Errol Morris gave a most eloquent, thoughtful introduction to THERE'S ALWAYS TOMORROW when he screened it at Telluride in 1989; I wonder whether he ever published any of his remarks. It's good that Universal is finally bringing this out on DVD.

Michael Sicinski

As a teacher of some of those horrible Film Studies classes, I should note, Sirk is always my hardest sell in Intro to Film Studies (where I show him alongside Eisenstein, Vertov, Renoir, Hitchcock, Rossellini, and other titans); students are like, "Wha...?"

But all it takes is two hours of intelligent, considered group discussion to recognize the power of Sirk's films. He knew what he was doing. He played certain blinkered ideologies to the hilt, to exploit their ridiculousness. (The man was a German Brechtian.) He was a political progressive who also understood the capacity of filmic space and mise en scene to communicate power relations, emotional states, subtle shifts in the meaning of language.

But so what?!! If you have to discuss it in order to arrive at it, I guess it's just a lot of hot air an elitism, yes?

Victor Morton

Best defense I can manage of Wells:

It IS easy to be turned off by academic discourse, especially when it DOES have as subtext, if not outright text, that "you're too stupid to see the subtext and subversion" (something that *some* hosannahs to Sirk do do; e.g., the remark above about "mouth breathers").

Especially since Sirk doesn't need such tactics. I've only seen three Sirk films, but the two I do think are great -- ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS and IMITATION OF LIFE (MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION is the "can-take-or-leave" third) -- are as straightforward as they come. And even Gen-X'er moi enjoyed them as the melodramatic weepies that they are.

Craig Kennedy

I'm glad you posted this Mr. Kenny. I saw your original comment yesterday and thought it was great but didn't feel like wading in at H-E nor did I feel like making a post of my own and drawing more attention to Wells.

The dude has soul cancer and it depresses me he's taken at all seriously, not just by twit commenters, but by actual industry types who haunt his blog and lend the joint credibility.

What irritates me is his presumption of holding some kind of cultural higher ground (his constant rants about the Eloi and the popcorn munchers) when in fact his own tastes are about as middlebrow as they come. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but spare us the superiority routine.

The Sirk post is especially funny because his two main paranoias collide. On one hand he's repulsed by the middle class housewife audience Sirk's films seem designed for, but at the same time he feels inferior to the film dweebs who remind him he's just another popcorn muncher himself.

He wants it both ways. He wants to be a man of the people and he wants to hold the keys to the high culture castle. He wants to have his cake and eat it too, but in this case he chokes on it.


Miller Chill. 'Nuff said.

Craig Kennedy

MarkVH: HAH! He's never going to live that one down.

Victor: Yeah, it IS easy to be turned off by the academics, and Wells isn't entirely off base in this regard (he often has a kernel of sanity in his rantings), but as Kenny points out, Wells isn't interested in debate or discussion. He's content to toss out stink bombs and stir up the shit. This is why he's the AM Talk Radio host of movie bloggers...and also why he's successful at it.

The Siren

So here I was, curled up on the divan in my Jean Harlow feather-trimmed robe, nibbling at the bottom of the bonbons to make sure I was getting only the good ones, and then I have to go and click on that link and get Jeffrey Wells barging in like Wallace Beery to harsh my mellow.

I wasn't going to respond--I'm convalescing from the blogathon, after all--but the HE comments thread was the deciding factor.


The Siren

Oh, and good comments all here, but a particular "amen" to Mr. Whitty.

John M

Siren, that's an awesome post. Thank you, Madame.

The Derelict

I was desperately hoping The Siren would write something about this and then, lo and behold, she does! Awesome.

And thank you, Glenn, for this post and your responses over at Hollywood Elsewhere. I have nothing to add to the discussion because everyone here has already said everything that needs to be said in response to Wells and his gang, but I just wanted to offer an atta boy.


Hudson was a terrific actor as anyone who's seen SECONDS can validate. And he is just awesome macho fun in PRETTY MAIDS IN A ROW.

Bruce Reid

Michael Sicinski: "But all it takes is two hours of intelligent, considered group discussion to recognize the power of Sirk's films."

Since the power of Sirk's films is pretty much immediately apparent--he's no invisible stylist--isn't the resistance of your students based upon their own preconceptions of the possible merits of a glossy Hollywood women's weepie (assuming that's what you show them) rather than their inability to discern Sirk's meaning? A robot doll marching in lockstep to the table's edge or a second-floor landing that constantly barricades daughters against mothers are the type of imagery so crisply lucid they come across as inevitable, despite the obvious care put into their beautiful composition.

Sirk should be discussed, absolutely, and there's plenty to plumb for in his films. But there is a strain of Sirkian who thinks it isn't enough to look below the surface; that, in fact, the "real" story of what's going on in his films is all subterranean, a cunningly concealed strata that rails against the melodramatic conventions pinning Sirk's characters down to their cruel, helpless fates. That's what I disagree with, not the notion that these films aren't worthy of serious thought and study. (Such as the Siren's typically perfect comments linked above.) If any previous comments of mine seemed broadly anti-academic enough to offend, I apologize.

John M

Bruce, I'm afraid your assertion that the "power" of Sirk is "pretty much immediately apparent" suggests you haven't been around college kids in a while. For someone born in 1990, there's very little that's "immediate" about Sirk. I get your point, but in my limited experience Sirk remains the one of the trickiest of filmmakers to get students to connect with.

David N

The MoC "Theres Always Tomorrow" came out on Monday, and it is lovely.

I studied Sirk in College in a Film Studies class, and yes, he was sold to us as a smuggler of subversive themes into straight melodrama. But we were shown the film ("All That Heaven allows") first and allowed to think about it. We were, more or less, adults, and the post-screening debate was interesting because Sirk's command of the medium allows for, or even demands arguments over interpretation. Crucially, we were all able to make up our own minds, indeed we were expected to. I don't think anybody with any wit walks away from a lecture or tutorial 100% in agreement with their teacher, and thats is what University is supposed to teach to some extent, isn't it? How to think for yourself?

The whole HE thing is depressing, and I don't really want to read that site anymore. But it may have been what originally led me here, so Glenn, you should reconsider, perhaps. Maybe one day your comments can be filled with idiotic rants and name-calling, too...


One of my fave movies by Sirk is "Has Anybody Seen My Gal," with its early appearance by James Dean. I saw it on the American Movie Classics channel, back when they used to show American Movie Classics.

When I was an undergrad at NYU, I took a course with Donald Bogle called "Images of the Other: African-Americans in Film and Television." This is the only Film Studies course I've ever taken, by the way. One of the movies we watched for the class was the Sirk version of "Imitation of Life." The way we approached the film was completely at odds with the "subversive" angle. Rather, we looked at "Imitation of Life" as a statement on race in the 50's. If anything, some of the students found the picture too sincere. I wish the "subversive" meme had not been planted in my brain before I'd encountered Sirk's films themselves. It actually stands in the way of my appreciation of the work.

It's been a long, long time since I last saw "Rock Hudson's Home Movies." Honestly having trouble remembering how the Sirk collabos are treated in Rappaport's film essay.


I need to see more Sirk, by golly. "Imitation of Life" was screened in a film studies class, and as I recall the professor did a decent job of pointing out some of the intricacy of mise-en-scene and camerawork. "Subversiveness" may or may not have come up, but I do recall (this might be my own naivete speaking) being mildly surprised by how explicit all of the racial politics were. Some of that sincerity business that Glenn writes of. In any case, it didn't send me out to see more, but reading posts like this sure get me in the mood.

That, and watching the clip over at HE, which is neither "unwatchable" nor "awful."

Which brings me to my next point - don't smoke Hollywood Elsewhere. I think my favorite line from the whole post is the bizarre passing jab at Ford:

"Aaaah, the old concealment game! John Ford used to do this also, but you can watch Ford's films, or at least savor what's good about them (despite the Irish sentimentality)."

In such a heady stew or nuttiness, two phrases in particular stick out: "concealment game" - in which I'm reminded of certain sexual euphemisms, and "Irish sentimentality," to which I can only reply: whatsatnow?

I'll be on the lookout for Concealment Games and Irish Sentimentality - a John Ford critical inquiry by Jeff Wells.

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