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Ray Pride

By Ray Pride

That Sirkian someone: a lovely extended anecdote about art, politics, melodrama and movies

sirkiansomeone.jpgDouglas Sirk’s last interview may have been one conducted by Kathryn Bigelow and Monty Montgomery for Interview magazine in the early 80s, if memory serves, just before or just after the great director of melodramas went blind. I couldn’t find that piece, but instead, stumbled upon an epic piece at Bright Lights Film Journal by Jane and Michael Stern, about a two-week visit they made in 1977 visit to Lugano, Switzerland to meet Sirk and his wife, Hilde. (The bracingly smart “Sirk on Sirk” stands alongside “Melville on Melville” as models of extended conversation between directors and journalists.) I still treasure my years-ago memories of two of the three shorts he made late in life teaching film in Germany, the Fassbinder-starring Bourbon Street Blues (1978) and the serene, stunning Tennessee Williams adaptation, Talk to Me Like the Rain (Sprich zur mir wie der Regen, 1975) (based on Williams’ short play, “Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen”). Someday, these crisp shorts ought to resurface. For the moment, a couple of bits of scene-setting from the Sterns’ extended introduction, followed by one extended disquisition by Sirk on his experiences with art and commerce in his career as a European theater director, and then as an American studio hand. “Swooshing up the elevator shaft of Condominio Vall’Orba in a mirrored elevator to meet Sirk: He is still Sirk, never Douglas. Not yet anyway. You search your mind for an appropriate image of him. There are few to choose from: black and whites on the back of a book, a few auteurist articles with pictures decades-old, showing a man with a tweed jacket, piercing pale blue eyes and wavy hair. He is awesome-looking, aloof. Best forget these pictures… We eat at the Grotto, a favorite restaurant, a restaurant only Douglas Sirk would take you to, where Rock Hudson might take Jane Wyman. There is a warm Italian innkeeper, there are soft-hued walls, a special pasta, a flow of Chianti. Douglas impetuously drinks wine and eats roast pork. We know this is a special time for all of us. We have fallen in love with Douglas and Hilde… He is describing Lana Turner’s work in Imitation of Life. He describes their rapport. But one listens too casually, Sirk's imitationcredit.jpgrelaxed as with an old friend, and the mind wanders. But something strange starts to happen. You are off-guard. The old man starts to direct. He is showing you how he manipulated Lana Turner in her scenes. But instead of the Golden Goddess, he is doing it to you. The hooded blue eyes unfurl, revealing beneath the lids an unquenched intensity. They fix on you, the voice hypnotically cajoles and shames. “You like that, don’t you? You like that feeling,” he asks seductively. “Well, then, you are a fool!” Back and forth, changing your face, pulling the adrenalin to the surface. You aren’t an actor, so what is to explain these emotions shooting through you as he talks? You remain riveted, in confusion accepting the reality that you are now seated twelve inches away from Sirk the director on a couch somewhere far away from home. Douglas has vanished, and has been replaced by two ice-blue eyes and a commanding voice.

You sit stiffened, the bones in your spine locked together until a hoarse laugh and a cough end the game. Sirk has receded and there again is Douglas, leaning back into the cushions on the couch, offering you a piece of cake.”
In Magnificent Obsession, Rock Hudson has a line: “As far as I’m concerned, Art is just a guy’s name.”
SIRK: “Exactly! In Hollywood, the producers said, “Never say Art. Nobody wants to know about it.” Arty is okay, but Art is for crazy painters, or sculptors, or what-do-I-know. Now after the war, we were looking for something completely different. Artaud’s essay in ‘The Theater and Its Double’ describes a completely new era for the theater. It explains simply, “No more masterpieces,” for God’s sake, no more Art. We are really not interested. Together with Marxism, this was to be something populistic—this is different from the American term populism. It would be something the average man could understand, but with something additional—style. There arose a belief in writtenonthewindaffiche.jpgstyle—and in banality. Banality encompassed politics, too, because it was a common belief that politics were not worthy of art. As a theater man, I had to deal with high art. I would play farces and comedy to make money, and classics for the elite. But we were trying to escape the elitaire. So slowly in my mind formed the idea of melodrama, a form I found to perfection in American pictures. They were naive, they were that something completely different. They were completely Art-less. This tied in with my studies of the Elizabethan period, where you had both l’art pour I’art and you had Shakespeare. He was a melodramatist, infusing all those silly melodramas with style, with signs and meanings. There is a tremendous similarity between this and the Hollywood system—which then I knew from only far away. Shakespeare had to be a commercial producer. Probably his company or his producer came to him and said, “Now, look, Bill, there’s this crazy story—ghosts, murder, tearing the hair, what-do-I-know. Completely crazy. It’s called Magnificent Ob… no, Hamlet it was called. The audiences love this story, Bill, and you have to rewrite it. You’ve got two weeks, and you’ve got to hold the costs down. They’ll love it again.” So, my God! A director in Hollywood in my time couldn’t do what he wanted to do. But certainly, Shakespeare was even less free than we were. But let’s go deeper into drama. How was it with the ancient Greeks? I have studied pieces of the Periclean period, and all of them are crazy situations. But there is a difference there. The role that style plays today was then taken by religion. Take Oedipus, for instance. The Freudians don’t like this, but in reality Oedipus is a detective story, a mystery, nothing other than that. The mother thing, the complex, is bullshit, because he didn’t know. He’s not guilty, really. It’s sheer melodrama, for the masses. Now I talked with Brecht about this, and I told him that it was religion that made such crazy melodrama possible for the ancient Greeks. That, of course, is not possible any more. He agreed. But he was at a complete dead end. L’art pour I’art offered nothing, so finally he escaped into Marxism. There is no doubt that this is what made it possible for him to continue. It was politics that made his art possible, as religion did for the Greeks. Now my idea of the melodrama he carried into the “drink and smoke theater,” where there was nothing sacred. The idea was, Let’s forget, for God’s sake, the word Art. In this theater, there is really something going on. Beer is served; you meet a few whores. Of course, we were conjuring the Elizabethan theater. Slowly into my program in the theater I was sneaking in the melodrama—popular plays—and I discovered they were making lots of money. At the time I belonged to the socialist party, and Hitler came to power. The intellectuals were all saying, “Give him a year. Give him two years. It will all blow over. He’ll go away.” I wanted to escape. But what did I know? I knew Law, and I knew theater. I didn’t, of course, know American law, and in America the theater did not exist, except for Broadway. But America to us—especially to Brecht—was raw and rough. That was our idea of it—boxing, triviality, banality, killing, and the American melodrama, which was the American cinema. This goes for Stroheim, for Sternberg. All of it was melodrama; but in their hands, given a style. When Brecht was there he tried to sell his ideas as a literary man, which didn’t work. Not in America. And for movies he had no feeling. He was not a visual character. He didn’t see. In his movie scripts he didn’t catch movie style or technique. It was only theater. Furthermore, he insisted on his Marxist way of thinking. Of course, McCarthyism finished any possibility of that.”
SIRK ONCE REMARKED, “The angles are the director’s thoughts. The lighting is his philosophy” is very close to Murnau: “They say that I have a passion for ‘camera angles’… To me the camera represents the eye of a person, through whose mind one is watching the events on the screen. It must follow characters at times into difficult places, as it sirkonsirkonsirkonsirkonsirk.jpgcrashed through the reeds and pools in Sunrise at the heels of the Boy, rushing to keep his tryst with the Woman of the City. It must whirl and peep and move from place to place as swiftly as thought itself, when it is necessary to exaggerate for the audience the idea or emotion that is uppermost in the mind of the character. I think the films of the future will use more and more of these ‘camera angles,’ or as I prefer to call them these ‘dramatic angles’. They help to photograph thought.” This is what Sirk did in the boldest, most outrageously stylized moments of his commercial successes of the 1950s: how transparent can I make this and not condescend as a European intellectual to American life? (The illustration to the immediate right comes from the last shot of Written on the Wind. Joseph H. Lewis placed daring sexual imagery in pictures like Gun Crazy and The Big Combo, but this takes the ache.)
Walter Donohue considers the perspective on race in his final feature, Imitation of Life, ending with an extended excerpt from “Sirk on Sirk.”
Reid Rosefelt was at a screening Sirk attended long ago. “One of things that is so great about Sirk is how he has inspired so many filmmakers to adapt and shape his work to their own talents. During the Q&A, somebody asked him, “Mr. Sirk, what do you think makes a good director?” Sirk stopped to think and then answered quietly: “Making movies is very hard. Very hard. In my opinion anyone who makes a movie… is a good director.” I’ve always loved that he said that. It was so unexpected. If he had said the usual baloney I would never remember it today. Most people would find the idea crazy, ridiculous, filled with false humility, or even dangerous, but if you had been there, you would have known he was absolutely sincere.” Two pieces from Senses of Cinema: one-and-a-two.

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