Douglas Sirk:
Only Semi-Detached


This great director, whose film career spans Germany, France and America between 1934 and 1959, made many kinds of movies – musicals, mysteries, high art dramas – but Douglas Sirk is associated foremost, now as then, with the genre of melodrama.


Today, Sirk's legacy can be conjured through a mental montage of the paroxysms of passion and despair which his heroes and heroines invariably suffer: Jane Wyman desolate and alone, reflected in a blank TV set in All That Heaven Allows (1955); Dorothy Malone, dancing hell-cat on a death-driven binge in Written on the Wind (1956); Rock Hudson reduced to bed-ridden helplessness in Magnificent Obsession (1954).


Sirk's career parallels that of Michael Powell (The Red Shoes, Peeping Tom) in many respects. Although both enjoyed immense popular success with some of their films, it took much longer for critics, scholars and cinephiles to recognise the quality of the work.


Both Sirk and Powell were rediscovered in the 1970s, and feted with interviews, books, retrospectives and cultural honours. Both taught filmmaking in universities, and became mentor figures to such eager disciples as Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Martin Scorsese.


In Sirk's case, all this unexpected acclaim came at a certain cost – one he was only too happy to pay. In the ‘70s, the director was hailed as a subversive, and praised for his vicious ironies, his Brechtian distance from Hollywood stereotypes and conventions, and his merciless, deadpan parody of forms such as the woman's weepie.


Sirk, in his twilight years, lapped it up. He played up to his new fans' anti-American resentment, their privileging of critical reason over raw emotion, and their distaste for syrupy, supposedly feminine forms of mass culture.


Another, subsequent turn of the critical wheel has tried to find the middle ground between what made Sirk's films popular in the first place, and the special, sometimes biting sensibility he undoubtedly brought to the formulaic rules of the American system.


The fact is that many of Sirk's greatest films – from Distant Shores (1937) to Tarnished Angels (1957) – are not really all that distanced. These furiously intelligent works scarcely even try to block our emotional involvement with the grand passions of their flaying, doomed, often deluded characters.


Rather, Sirk's films plunge us into a whirlpool of lived contradiction – where personal desire and a hunger for justice always collide with social obligation and conformist behaviour.


Sirk has often been praised, since the ‘70s, for the qualities of excess in his films – the florid, overwrought histrionics, the wild colour schemes, the plots overflowing with soap opera intrigue. Directors including David Lynch, Pedro Almodóvar and George Kuchar have taken their cue from such melodramatic excess.


It is too easy, today, to take such excess as a lordly display of moral superiority or camp amusement on Sirk's part – and to join in with the brittle laughter. Yet the oceanic, difficult, sometimes embarrassing feelings that Sirk's films prompt were surely the very key to their initial success with large audiences.


Watching Sirk's cinema openly and empathetically, one enters into the same maelstrom inhabited by the characters, the same wrenching emotions and shifting identifications. Sirk's films long to break free of the shackles of dominant ideology, but they also dramatise the enormous difficulty and risk inherent in that very freedom.


Sirk homages: 8 Femmes, Satin Rouge, The Deep End


© Adrian Martin July 1999

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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