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February 23, 2010


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The Siren

You can think of Sirk as subversive in that the movies offer sharp observations on middle-class society, within the confines of a genre that was always designed to appeal to that segment of society. But suburbanites have never been quite as prickly about being critiqued as some seem to think. In any movie theater in the 1950s there were doubtless many women watching that famous television scene in All That Heaven Allows and thinking "Oh god, that's a little too true." In fact, a 50s housewife probably had a much better idea of what Sirk was driving at than most critics at the time, sniffing at what they called overbaked melodrama.


It is depressing to see how Hollywood Elsewhere threads, more often than not, descend into a dick-measuring contest, as it were. I try now to only post in a few of them.

Having said that, as I said on the Sirk thread on HE back when it was still relatively free of that (emphasis on relatively), I'm afraid I'm not a Sirk fan. And no, I didn't have to watch him in college - the only film-related courses I took were "Music in Film and TV" and "Literature and Film," neither of which had the occasion to show any of his films (for the former, Frank Skinner's name never came up) - so I didn't have him shoved down my throat the way Disney films were shoved down my throat as a kid. I didn't watch a Sirk film until I moved down to New York City and started working in video stores. And while I can appreciate Sirk as a stylist, I do find the movies he did under Ross Hunter soap opera (and I have a problem with the idea a story in movies, particularly narrative-driven cinema, exists merely to be "transcended", but that's a whole other discussion), and I especially do not like the acting of the likes of Rock Hudson (nothing to do with "camp" - the only movie I've ever liked him in is SECONDS), Jane Wyman, and Lana Turner (I do like Dorothy Malone in WRITTEN ON THE WIND, and the parts of IMITATION OF LIFE involving Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner are justifiably praised, as is that film's treatment of race). The reason why I like FAR FROM HEAVEN isn't because of Haynes' meticulous re-creation of the 50's, and how Sirk created the 50's, but because Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert, and Patricia Clarkson, among others, are better and more emotionally direct than their 50's counterparts.

I do like the pre-Hunter Sirk films I've seen, like SHOCKPROOF and LURED. Still, if you want to talk about "women's" films and studies of middle-class suburbia, I think Max Ophuls' THE RECKLESS MOMENT (an aside: now that Criterion has put out marvelous editions of most of Ophuls' major French movies, I wish they'd do a couple of his American ones, particularly LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN and this) is better than Sirk's Hunter films in almost every conceivable way, as is the acting of Joan Bennett and James Mason in the lead roles.

Steve C.

As one who's only seen two Sirk works (ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS and WRITTEN ON THE WIND, both of which are terrific), I don't think I can throw anything out that hasn't already been said. Mainly, I just wanna agree with the guy above me, in that hell yeah PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW is awesome stuff. Worth digging up for Rock fans who haven't yet seen it - it's like a hippie-softcore drive-in flick colliding with LORD LOVE A DUCK.

Anyway, enough of that useless yammering.

Glenn Kenny

I recall a recent Wells post wherein he expressed an extreme distaste for "Pretty Maids." For some reason I find that amusing.

I remember when "Seconds" came out (when I was seven!), that the predominant tone of the press around it was that it was some kind of "breakthrough" work for Hudson. I like him generally—always have—but he is particularly good and offbeat in the Frankenheimer.

jim emerson

Jamie asks: "Who in the world is Jeffrey Wells?"

Answer: Nobody. Not in any world that matters, anyway. Just one of countless nobodies so fearful and resentful of "not getting" something that he doesn't even know what he's not getting. So he makes up incoherent crap that I would never read, except to find out what Glenn is responding to.

Now let's talk some more about Douglas Sirk: What consistently amazes me about his movies is how skillfully he orchestrates melodrama and makes it work, even on people who think they're superior to it and can't possibly be affected by it. Tell me the scene with the television in "All That Heaven Allows" (the picture Todd Haynes' remade -- straight as the original -- as "Far From Heaven") isn't devastating, even if you ARE inclined to view it as "campy." It can (and does) work both ways simultaneously. But Sirk's sensibility is the very opposite of ironic distance. As Glenn says, he's not standing back and playing "subversive" games. The critique of '50s & '60s consumer values is right up-front for all to see, not "coded" into the "subtext." (Those aren't scare quotes -- I'm actually quoting from what's been said above.)

I'm reminded of an interview I did with Walter Hill (a manly director, don't you know) years ago regarding "Johnny Handsome" with Mickey Rourke. He said when he was first offered it he turned it down because it was a "lurid melodrama." A few years later, it came around again and he found he wanted to make it -- because it was a "lurid melodrama."

Michael Worrall

Hmmm.... we should consider Gore Verbinksi the stylistic contemporary of Michael Curtiz because he makes adventure movies? I am still waiting for Eloi Manning --who is he?-- answer John M.'s question about who Mr. Manning is studying under.

The misogyny and homophobia of the comments on Well's thread are pretty horrible, not to mention a lot of the discourse on film to be found there. Wells' comments on Sirk are up there with Tom O' Neil's post on SUNRISE a few years back.


Eloi Manning sounds like Wells in disguise. I have no doubt he posts agreements under other monikers just as I know he edits people's comments when not banning them.


By remarkable coincidence, just reread Orwell's essay on Tolstoy's "respectful takedown" of Shakespeare: "But here there arises a difficult question. If Shakespeare is all that Tolstoy has shown him to be, how did he ever come to be so generally admired? Evidently the answer can only lie in some sort of mass hypnosis, or 'epidemic suggestion'. The whole civilized world has somehow been deluded into thinking Shakespeare a good writer, and even the plainest demonstration to the contrary makes no impression, because one is not dealing with a reasoned opinion but with something akin to religious faith." It's pretty obvious that this is a bad approach to ANYTHING, and invariably reveals more about the insecurity of the writer (Orwell suggests that Tolstoy is offended by King Lear because he recognizes himself in it).

Jeff McM

I'll give another atta boy to Glenn and the Siren (atta girl?) and say that I adored Sirk from my first viewing of one of his films (Imitation of Life, in an entry-level film studies class in college.)*

* Hi John Magary!

Giles Edwards

Can we get Jeffrey Wells in a room with Glenn, Alison Anders and Scorsese to duke this out and film the resulting melee? I'd pay good money to see that critical slaying.

Piqued the interest of a couple of UK critics while Twittering about this last night; needless to say, they were aghast.

Almost makes me love ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS even more (if that's possible).

Also, the MoC disc of THERE'S ALWAYS TOMORROW is, indeed, wonderful. Perhaps a "minor" release for them, but no less indispensible.

Michael Adams

Agree with lipranzer's comment about the wonderfulness of RECKLESS MOMENT, which prefigures Sirk's melodramas in many ways. Mason's quiet portrayal of desperation is heartbreaking, one of his best performances.

No one has mentioned the John Stahl IMITATION OF LIFE, which I've always preferred to Sirk's version, mainly because Colbert is more credible than Turner.

As for Wells being Eloi Manning, that would require him knowing who Eli Manning is, which I doubt given his professed ignorance of and indifference to sports. That doesn't disqualify him as a manly man, does it?

Glenn Kenny

I don't know, Giles, I never think of any MoC release as "minor!" And I think "Tomorrow" is one of Sirk's best.

Giles Edwards

Just in terms of size of the package (as it were, madam), I meant, not the picture itself, which is terrific.


If you've ever seen Wells in a real debate you'd be disappointed. He's a pussy. Look how he caved on Bill O'Reilly - -he had the chance to go on the air and tear this guy up like he does to right-wingers on his site. Instead he shriveled up and mumbled, "I;m just a guy with a big mouth and a blog." Way to man up!


My apologies to Eloi Manning for daring to presume he be Wells. He's worse, the kind of guy that chuckles at the hate Wells drop on people with different views, giggles as Wells bans them, high-fives Lex for his MAN SHOW rants, then j'accuses those who disagree with Wells as wimps and haters, etc. You're not Wells, you're a groupie.

James Russell

I did film studies at university in the 90s, and the sum total of all the Douglas Sirk films we got shown was two scenes from Written on the Wind, one of which was the opening credits. I didn't see the film in full until just a few years ago and I didn't like it. Though we *did* see Johnny Guitar (to use another example previously cited)... which I didn't like either. No accounting for individual taste... which doesn't stop the Wells piece from being an extended troll, of course, by someone apparently desperate to prove themselves a free-thinker by comparison with the rest of us sheep.

Michael Sicinski

I've been away fro the discussion, so I'm late in responding / clarifying. (Sorry.) But YES, I completely agree. Most of what makes Sirk profound IS right there for all to see. No excess deconstructive spelunking necessary.

I was speaking specifically of the skeptics. In (to take my most direct anecdotal evidence) my 101 classes, a good half to 2/3 of folks immediately respond to IMITATION OF LIFE and the clips of other Sirks I show. But there are some -- and I don't think this is completely due to their youth -- who are dumbfounded by Sirk. What is this guy up to? For THOSE folks, serious discussion and some careful formal analysis is almost all that's needed to bring them around.

(I mean, I never want to put the social/political OVER the formal with Sirk, because it's so all of a piece, and the formal is so self-evident, AND the films are so magnificent as "weepies" that reading against the grain is not necessarily required. But some students are so, you know, up their own ass with respect to racial privilege that certain aspects of IMITATION "don't make sense." Someone has to help them accept that, yes, white people can sometimes be self-absorbed douchebags, and some of the film's "ridiculousness" is just the result of Sirk's honest depiction of this sad fact.)


I agree with everything said above and am eagerly looking forward to my copy of THERE'S ALWAYS TOMORROW coming in the mail, but I have to say that I didn't get all the praise for MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION when it came out last year. That was a movie that didn't work for me even on its own very peculiar terms.

Damien Bona

I wasn't aware of Jeffrey Wells other than his name being familiar as an Oscar blogger until I was asked by another site for my opinion on his assault on Mo'Nique for "dissing" the New York Film Critics by going ahead with a long-planned family vacation (right before starting her TV show) instead of picking up her New York award in person. Actually reading the drivel that makes up his web page, I was appalled by his racism as well as his pathetic striving to come off as a macho kind of film reporter guy (Jim Bacon rather than Lawrence J. Quirk).

Put him out of mind again until I saw a link somewhere to his Sirk hissy-fit. When someone doesn't "get" Sirk it's telling me that on the most basic level, he or she when watching movies doesn't actually see movies. I mean how can you see the toy robot falling over in There's Always Tomorrow, the boy riding the mechanical horse in Written on the Wind, the boy stuck in the carnival airplane in Tarnished Angels, the newspaper headline in Magnificent Obsession declaring a world crisis or practically any scene in Imitation of Life and not see that this is visual symbolism that makes Bergman look like an amateur clod. And that's not even getting into his use of space and his Brechtian devices.

As far as I'm concerned, anyone who doesn't appreciate Sirk has no place in my life. (Of course I was fortunate to have a college professor -- Michael Stern who later traded in film studies for writing about Road Food -- who was an absolute Sirk devotee, so much so that in the comedy class he taught, he showed no Chaplins or Sturges, but made sure we became familiar with No Room For The Groom.

And I am grateful to Wells for one thing -- I hadn't previously known about this website, Glenn. It's great!


"I mean how can you see the toy robot falling over in There's Always Tomorrow, the boy riding the mechanical horse in Written on the Wind, the boy stuck in the carnival airplane in Tarnished Angels, the newspaper headline in Magnificent Obsession declaring a world crisis or practically any scene in Imitation of Life and not see that this is visual symbolism that makes Bergman look like an amateur clod."

Yea to the mechanical horse and carnival airplane (or the model of the oil derrick on Dorothy Malone's dad's desk), but now that I've seen There's Always Tomorrow, nay to the toy robot. The photography of the toys was probably my least favorite thing about the movie. And I think the difference is something very simple. When Stack looks at the boy riding the mechanical horse, there's a character in the film actually looking at and reacting to said boy, it's not just the camera-eye fixing on some piece of the mise en scene, unobserved by the people in the movie, that the director wants to tell us is symbolic of the plight of the characters. To me the stuff with the robot is the epitome of amateur clod.


"When someone doesn't "get" Sirk it's telling me that on the most basic level, he or she when watching movies doesn't actually see movies."

Excellent. This discussion had been so rational up till now (though obviously, I've disagreed with the majority of pro-Sirk posts here, they've all been reasonable and well-thought out), and then someone has to throw in old "If you don't like so-and-so, or such-and-such a movie, then you don't know movies!" canard. Auteurist critics of the 1960's tried that with HATARI, while Paulettes did the same thing with MISSION TO MARS this past decade. To paraphrase Woody Allen, that was wonderful; I love being reduced to being a cultural philistine.

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