“This, anyhow, is what enchants me about Sirk: this delirious mixture of medieval and modern, sentimentality and subtlety, tame compositions and frenzied CinemaScope.”
– Jean Luc Godard writing about A Time to Love and a Time to Die (Godard on Godard translated by Tom Milne, Da Capo Press)
In the same way that the gangster movie can be said to belong to the Hollywood cinema of the 1930s and film noir can be said to belong to the 1940s, the melodrama genre belongs more to the 1950s than any other decade. This is in part because the extreme stylization of mise-en-scene that we associate with the genre arguably required the “bigger than life” virtues of Technicolor and widescreen cinematography that didn’t become de rigueur until the 1950s. It is also in part because postwar societal changes saw more Americans rebelling against narrowly defined social roles, changes that were explicitly dramatized in melodrama masterpieces like Vincente Minnelli’s Some Came Running. These two facets can be seen as neatly dovetailing when the filmmaking innovations of the day proved to be ideal tools for critiquing the specific climate of postwar repression that now seems synonymous with the “Eisenhower era.” In writing about Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life, Geoff Andrew has noted how “At every level the banal props of ’50s prosperity are turned into symbols of suffocation and trauma, from the X-ray machine used to diagnose (James) Mason’s ‘disease’ to the bathroom cabinet mirror shattering under a desperate blow.” To which one might add that it was precisely Ray’s masterful ‘Scope compositions and bold employment of color that made his critique so effective. Ray knew how to use the latest filmmaking technology to highlight the nightmarish undertone of these new “props of prosperity.”
The medicine chest, a broken “prop of prosperity,” in Bigger Than Life:
The melodrama has its origins in theater and actually predates the movies as a genre (the word literally means “drama with music” and was coined in 18th century France), and film scholar John Belton has provocatively argued that all silent movies, even comedies, are also melodramas. But the melodrama didn’t come into its own as a cinematic genre until the 1950s when Universal Studios produced a cycle of films directed by the Danish/German emigre Douglas Dirk. Sirk was to the melodrama what Hitchcock was to the thriller, what Ford was to the western and what Minnelli was to the musical: its most famous and accomplished practitioner. The color melodramas that Sirk made for Universal between 1954 and 1959 are high water marks that virtually define the genre: Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind, A Time to Love and a Time to Die, Imitation of Life. Of these, All That Heaven Allows is frequently cited as Sirk’s masterpiece, largely because it was loosely remade not once but twice: by Rainer Werner Fassbinder as Ali: Fear Eats the Soul in 1973 and by Todd Haynes as Far From Heaven in 2002. A comparison between Sirk’s original film and Fassbinder’s similar-yet-different remake offers an object lesson in how a genre can successfully mutate from one country and era to another, offering filmmakers living in different cultural climates the same framework in which to create diverse social critiques, while still retaining the same core characteristics.
These characteristics, which can be found in spades in both All That Heaven Allows and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, include:
– the extreme stylization of not only mise-en-scene (as previously mentioned) but also dialogue and acting
– a foregrounding and heightening of the characters’ emotions
– the domestic sphere as a central location
– plots revolving around family tensions and romantic entanglements
– narratives involving incredible coincidences, accidents, last minute rescues and reversals of fortune
Sirk’s stylized mise-en-scene combines different color temperatures, cold and warm, within a single frame:
All That Heaven Allows relays the dilemma of Carrie Scott (Jane Wyman), an attractive middle-aged widow who unexpectedly falls in love with Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson), her much younger gardner. Their budding romance is frowned upon by the surrounding small town community, including Carrie’s grown children, because of both the age and class discrepancy that exists between them. The true subject of the film is the intolerance and hypocrisy of middle America, which Sirk shows as being rooted in prejudice and fear. This is best illustrated in two back to back scenes where Carrie is shunned first by her country club set friends at a party and then castigated by her son at home. The earlier scene offers some of the outrageously stylized, bordering-on-camp dialogue and acting for which Sirk’s movies have become beloved. When Carrie arrives at the party with Ron in tow, their “coming out” party as a couple, the reaction of her peers ranges from bemusement to envy to outright hostility. Mona, one of Carrie’s female acquaintances, references Ron’s tan from “working outdoors” before packing many layers of innuendo into a follow-up comment that he must be “handy indoors too.” Howard, a male acquaintance, likewise assumes that Carrie’s interest in Ron must be only physical and attempts to kiss her after drunkenly declaring “Line forms to the right!”
After leaving the party abruptly, Carrie returns home where she is confronted by her son, Ned, who minces words even less: “I think all you see is a good-looking set of muscles!,” Ned hisses disapprovingly. This scene, literally the darkest in the film, shows off Sirk’s stylized mise-en-scene to best effect. Both Carrie and Ned are cloaked in heavy shadows throughout their tense dialogue exchange, although Sirk also combines different color temperatures within a single frame in order to subtly comment on the characters: Carrie is bathed in a warm orange light while the light that falls on Ned is cold and blue. During this exchange, Carrie and Ned change places in the room and yet the light that surrounds them paradoxically remains the same. When the scene ends, Carrie pleads for Ned to not “let this come between us.” Ned replies, “If you mean Kirby, he already has.” Most directors would have isolated these characters from each other in separate alternating close-ups at this moment, in order to emphasize the emotional distance between them, but Sirk does something more interesting; he has the characters speak their lines to each other through a translucent Chinese screen-like room divider. By doing so, he creates frames within a frame that not only emphasize the distance between the characters but show them to be metaphorically imprisoned as well.
Frames within a frame in All That Heaven Allows:
One of the film’s most celebrated sequences (and one that Martin Scorsese chose to include in his Personal Journey Through American Movies before All That Heaven Allows had ever received a home video release) involves Carrie’s children presenting their mother with a Christmas gift of a new television. At this point in the movie, Carrie has called off her relationship with Ron, and her children clearly intend for the television to fill the new void in her life. This intention is made explicit when the television salesman informs Carrie “All you have to do is turn that dial and you have all the company you want . . . right there on the screen.” The scene ends with an image as clever as it is haunting, a somber Carrie staring at her own reflection in the switched-off television screen. Here, Sirk’s critique is twofold: as a prop of prosperity, the television is a poor substitute for a lover and, as a competing form of audio-visual entertainment, its image is inferior to that of the cinema!
The impact of Sirk on Fassbinder, while well-known, cannot be overestimated. Fassbinder’s earliest movies from the late 1960s and early 1970s were self-consciously intellectual, avant-garde-tinged works of political modernism. After discovering the films of Sirk, Fassbinder realized that not only could the cinema be simultaneously emotionally engaging and socially critical, but that audiences might be able to swallow such criticism more easily if it could be subversively couched within the conventions of a highly emotional genre like the melodrama. While many of Fassbinder’s best films from 1971 through the premature end of his career in 1982 show the obvious influence of Sirk, it can perhaps be most strongly felt in 1974’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, the one time Fassbinder actively remade the plot of one of his master’s movies.
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul updates the basic premise of All That Heaven Allows to the Germany of the early 1970s; it tells the story of Emmi, a middle-aged cleaning lady, who embarks on an unlikely romance with Ali, a much younger immigrant worker from Morocco. So not only does Fassbinder tackle agism and classism, a la Sirk, but racism and xenophobia as well. Similar to Sirk, Fassbinder’s unlikely scenario forces his disparate characters together in a way that will cause them to reveal prejudices that might otherwise remain hidden. But it’s worth noting that Fassbinder’s milieu is pointedly urban and multicultural (it takes place in Munich) so that the social ills he depicts, unlike those in All That Heaven Allows, cannot be seen as stemming from “provincial thinking.” Showing social prejudice to be a kind of disease underlying the facade of civilized German society is one of the links Fassbinder makes between the Germany of the time he made his film and his country’s Nazi past. This link is made explicit when Emmi takes Ali to a fancy restaurant to celebrate their engagement, one that she boasts was a favorite of Hitler.
Fassbinder’s mise-en-scene is likewise stylized along Sirkian lines with characters frequently framed behind windows or railings to suggest entrapment, although Fassbinder betrays his avant-garde roots by composing images that call more attention to themselves in their artfulness. This self-conscious use of form to explicitly comment on content was accurately and memorably described by Manny Farber as “snarl and decoration.” But taking a cue from his more urban milieu, Fassbinder also elaborates on the Sirk playbook in ways that are meaningful and original. For instance, he frequently shoots his characters from a distance, often through doorways, to give his scenes a more voyeuristic feel. Because these working class, city dwellers live in crowded apartment buildings and not, say, houses in New England, Fassbinder repeatedly makes viewers aware of the extent to which his characters are living in close quarters to each other, allowing us to read varying degrees of social prejudice into the silent gazes of his characters as they openly spy on one another.
“Snarl and decoration” in Fear Eats the Soul:
Fassbinder’s cleverest Sirk homage in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul comes in a scene that also includes a television as a prop; Emmi never bothers to inform her grown children of her relationship with Ali until after the two have married. She invites over her two sons, daughter and son-in-law (played by the director himself) with the promise of a big announcement. Once the children are seated in the living room in front of her, Emmi brings out Ali, wearing his best suit, and formally introduces him as her husband. A slow pan across the children’s faces registers their silent disgust. Then, one of her sons, stands up and proceeds to kick in the screen of his mother’s television set. The difference between the television scene in each film illustrates the extent to which the television ceased to be a prop of prosperity for the rich and had instead become a ubiquitous fixture of working class homes. In the earlier film, Ned sheepishly apologizes for only being able to afford a “table top” model. In the latter, the T.V. is no longer a status symbol and a novelty but a necessity that is both practically valueless and easily disposable.
One of the joys of raking through the history of cinema is to note the kind of explicit repurposing of genre conventions that I’ve outlined above. Fassbinder, a keen student of film history himself, was acutely aware of this impulse but also of the importance of elaborating upon and adding to that from which he borrowed. The radical nature of Fassbinder’s art is of the kind that can only stem from a true reverence for the masters who invented the very rules he intended to bend. I will leave the last word to him from his famous essay on Sirk:
“‘Film is like a battleground’ Sam Fuller, who once wrote a script for Douglas Sirk, said in a film by Jean-Luc Godard, who, shortly before he made A Bout de Souffle, wrote a rhapsody on Douglas Sirk’s A Time to Love and a Time to Die. But not one of us, Godard or Fuller or me or anybody else, can touch Douglas Sirk. Sirk has said: ‘cinema is blood, is tears, violence, hate, death, and love’. And Sirk has made films with blood, with tears, with violence, hate—films with death and films with love. Sirk has said: you can’t make films about things, you can only make films with things, with people, with light, with flowers, with mirrors, with blood, in fact with all the fantastic things which make life worth living. Sirk has also said: a director’s philosophy is lighting and camera angles. And Sirk has made the tenderest films I know, they are the films of someone who loves people and doesn’t despise them as we do. Darryl F. Zanuck once said to Sirk: ‘They’ve got to like the movie in Kansas City and in Singapore.’ America is really something else.”