Friday, August 10, 2007

A Little Known Love Affair With Douglas Sirk

Not too many people know I am in love with Douglas Sirk movies. I was introduced to them on Saturday At The Movies with Elwy Yost a Toronto local tv program. When I first moved to Toronto I didn't know very many people, I was a part time student at York taking Anthropology, Renaisance Humanities, and a course on how to write essays:I was late for classes in Fine Arts so I took a couple odds and ends classes till the next semester. I also took a film making workshop downtown at Ryerson University. Since I didn't know many folks, was in a strange town I would be at home on Saturday nights, no cable and all that was on tv was this sweet kindly looking man talking about movies. Hooked. Later once I figured out where to park for concerts, where the best nightclubs were and made a few friends...I would not go out on a Saturday night until after Yost's double feature was done.

One of the movies Yost introduced me to was Written On The Wind an elaborate, decadent art directed film about a rich Texas oil family starring Rock Hudson. Forgetaboutit. I was hooked...I'd never seen such gorgeous sets and juicy storylines.

Douglas Sirk was panned by many critics as "corny", "over-the-top", "melodramatic" who centered his movies around women. (what a crime huh!)

Last night I watched Magnificent Obsession and I realized, I don't know anything about Douglas Sirk, except I love his movies. Some Pulp fiction fans may have laughed like I did when Steve Buchemi mentions the "Douglas Sirk burger". Jesus, I thought...that is just how cool Tarantino is to have a Douglas Sirk riff. (of course, Tarantino also makes womens the way, I just picked up a Death Proof purse with Kurt Russell's car on the outside). But who was Douglas Sirk and how did he make such gorgeous movies I was wondering last night. I couldn't wait to wake up and start searching online...

Douglas Sirk was born in Hamburg but his family was Danish. (my grandfather was Danish) He made films in europe before moving to America before the Nazi's took over because his wife was Jewish. He only made films in America for five years...but these are some of the most distinctive films ever made. His first American project was Hitler's Madmen which Sirk described as not even a B-movie, more like C or D.
Douglas Sirk's Hitler's Madmen

Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman in Magnificent Obsession
This second film version of Lloyd C. Douglas' spiritual novel Magnificent Obsession is in its own way as successful as the first (filmed in 1935) in glossing over the plot holes and logic gaps in the original novel. Rock Hudson plays Bob Merrick, a reckless playboy who is indirectly responsible for the death of a kindly and much-beloved doctor. The dead man's wife, Helen Phillips (Jane Wyman), refuses to accept Bob's apologies. When Helen is accidentally blinded, Bob decides to "do right" by her anonymously, illustrating author Douglas' curious edict that the best sort of good deed is the one for which you're not rewarded. In record time, Bob becomes a brilliant physician, and it is he who performs the sight-restoring surgery on Helen. Rather than fade into the woodwork unheralded, Bob is at last forgiven by Helen, who has fallen in love with him during her sightless months without even knowing it. Luxuriously produced by Ross Hunter and directed con brio by Douglas Sirk, Magnificent Obsession was one of the most successful of Universal's big-budget "weepers" of the 1950s. ~ Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide

Rock Hudson is a self indulging rich playboy who once rejectedby his community for unknowingly killing a popular ashamed and gets very drunk and crashes his car outside the home of an artist. The artist welcomes the very drunk Hudson into the house where Hudson passes out. In the morning the artist makes him breakfast and Hudson is curious about his artwork...and the artist begins to explain that he was a hack until he was inspired to find his own talent and voice by a strange sounding philosophy. It is a secret cult of people who do good deeds. The way their lives change and become fully realized and meaningful is by doing secret good deeds...they must not tell anyone they have done the good deeds, and the recipient of the good deed must be sworn to secrecy as well.

The following dialogue could be a 1950's version of The Matrix, Oprah or Plato's Allegory of the Cave....

Merrick: "How’d he do that? How could a surgeon help?"
Randolph: "Well, he taught me…he showed me how to establish contact with a source of Infinite Power."
Merrick: "That sounds fine. What does it mean?"
Randolph, laughing: "Well, let me put it this way. [Turns to a lamp.] This lamp isn’t working now. It cold and it’s dark…all the parts are there. It’s a perfect lamp, but…"
Merrick: "It’s just not turned on?"
Randolph: "Right. But if I turn the switch [Lamp comes on.], and establish contact, the bulb will draw power from the powerhouse down at the Dam and it’ll do what it was meant to do. Which is to make light."
Merrick: "All right, so you’re saying that people have a sort of powerhouse, too."
Randolph: "Right. When you establish contact with that, you can do what you’re meant to do. You can fulfill your destiny."
Merrick: "I can turn on a light."
Randolph: "I don’t think that that’s your destiny. Do you?"
Merrick, starting to awaken spiritually: "No, I guess not. But assuming there is a, well, power of some kind, or whatever you want to call it. How do you establish contact with it?"
Randolph: "It’s very simple. Just be of real service to people. Find people who need help, and help them. But always in secret. Never let it be known. Never ask to be repaid."
Merrick: "But if you’re in service to people, then why does it have to be kept secret?"
Randolph: "That’s probably the most important part of his belief. Let’s go back to the powerhouse. If the wires in the dynamo are not protected by insulation, the power will be dissipated. The same thing goes for us. Most personalities are just grounded, that’s all that ails them."
Merrick: "I see. You mean keeping these good deeds secret is like insulating the power of your personality."
Randolph: "Yeah, that’s near enough."
Merrick: "Well, is it’s as simple as all that, why, I’ll certainly give it a chance."
Randolph: "Now wait, Merrick! Don’t try to use this unless you’re ready for it! You can’t just try this out for a week like a new car, you know! And if you think you can feather your own nest with it, just forget it. Besides, this is dangerous stuff. One of the first men who used it, went to the cross at the age of thirty-three..."

I remember Carol Burnett talking about her start in entertainment, she told a story of man who gave her money for an apartment, a part in a production but swore her to secrecy to ever reveal his help or name and to do the same herself one day. Searching google today...I found that this idea trickled throughout American society and is often a part of emotional trauma healing programs or addiction and abuse recovery today. It is a familiar concept in AA, and some volunteer community programs I have worked with..and is associated with the novel Magnificent Obsession which the movie is loosely based upon.

The novel Magnificent Obsession likely took it's plot from the following: "Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.....That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly." (Matthew Chapter 6:1-4.)
Douglas Sirk and Rock Hudson

Film critic Roger Ebert, in praise of Written on the Wind, has said that "To appreciate a film like Written on the Wind probably 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.

Most compellingly of all, forces of repression are signalled through Sirk's imagery. In his work, mise en scène is as crucial to meaning as narrative form, his often baroque visual style pointing to the ways in which human aspiration is largely determined by the tenor of its surroundings. Homes that are supposed to be havens start to look like prisons as the decor comes to dominate the compositions. Objects that are supposed to be items of support actually seem to be taking over the characters' lives. Their traumas become the logical extensions of the workings of the world around them. From here
Douglas Sirk
Sirk's melodramas of the 1950s were generally very poorly received by reviewers. His films were considered unimportant (because they revolve around female and domestic issues), banal (because of their focus on larger-than-life feelings) and unrealistic (because of their conspicuous style).Wikipedia

Terrific interview with Douglas Sirk
1954 New York Times review


Anonymous said...


I love Sirk, Fassbinder worshiped him.

Candy Minx said...

Oh L.M. I am glad to hind a fellow fan of Sirk...we're out here...but it's so much fun to watch his movies...I know let's you andI get together and watch a couple okay? Maybe I'll have a Douglas Sirk party in September? Well dress up!

I will post a photo of my new purse, it's actually like a courier bag. And it was on sale half price!!! I'm keep intending to make apost about the store I bought it in...I will later...

Stagg was laughing at the music in the movie last night he followed the story from the other room while he was messing online. I dragged him in to see the scene where the artist tells Hudson about the magnificent obsession. It's brilliant...because the movie has the ideal of "pay if forward" and the obsession of Hudson with Jane Wyman's it understands perfectly how humans confuse the material desires and emotional desires of the world with the souls desire for "attainment".

I had to get Stagg to see the artists house...which was lovely. A gorgeous comfortable house with a big windowed studio situated off the living room. As if. (our living room IS the studio!)

Red said...

Man, Rock Hudson was so hot! What a fine-looking man.

I haven't seen many Sirk films, but what I have seen, I absolutely adore. I love that melodrama, the music (I guess Stagg would be laughing at me too!)...

Imitation of Life was on TV here a few months ago at 2pm or something. Stupid time, no? As if it was a crummy TV movie... We started watching it lazily, thinking we'd have it on while we were having a bite to eat, then we were hooked! Couldn't tear ourselves away from the screen. And how many films make you say that, eh?

tweetey30 said...

Ineresting. I have seen the one. I think it was the Hitlers Madmen. Not sure. I have seen loads of old movies so its hard to say what I have and have not seen. My mom favors the older movies.

Joy Renee said...

i remember reading the novel Magnificent Obsession as a kid, probably pre-teen too. it was one of the few novels in my dad's collection and probably bought before he joined the sect i talk about in my TT. most certainly before he got married as i never knew him to buy a novel the whole of my childhood. i'm not sure if i ever saw Sirk's film of it.

i have seen that scene from Written on the Wind, in the youtube. but that doesn't mean i saw the whole film. i often surfed onto late night movies or afternoon matinées with no clue as to what i was watching.

i read all the way to the end of this post thinking it would eventually show itself to be your TT as it so often happens. but no. oh well. it was excellent as is. and now i've got another director to explore when i get a chance

i have loved that pay it forward concept ever since i read that book

Gardenia said...

Interesting post - doing good in secret - I never wondered why until now - now I wonder. Is it to keep us from too much pride? Or the receiver from feeling too much obligation? Hmm.

* (asterisk) said...

Like Red said. Though I had always wondered, since way back in '94 when Pulp Fiction came out, just who Sirk was and what he did. I think there has been a big surge in his work in recent years, with the likes of Far From Heaven clearly owing him a huge debt. I'd like to see more.

Jason Messinger said...

Wow, I am the Biggest Fan of Douglas Sirk on Earth! Sorry so late to reading this great post of yours!
The scene at the end of Written on the Wind when the daughter caresses the oil derrick! Or earlier when she dances madly while her father has a heart attack!
But you didn't mention my favorite of all time, the remake of Imitation of Life, with Lana Turner! How about when the daughter who passes for white mouths 'goodbye mama' to her black mother the last time she sees her! Gorgeous, over the top, incredible films, every one of them.

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