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FILM with Mirko Stopar

HIGH ART TRASH
(Written on the Wind, Douglas Sirk / 1956)

D
irector Douglas Sirk once said "there’s a very short distance between high art and trash, and trash that contains craziness is by this very quality nearer to art". This statement defines his cinema, a very unique body of work that includes classic stage adaptations, adventure and war films, westerns and of course, his famous melodramas.
Sirk’s melodramas were, as the very word signifies, dramas with music. The music sets the tone for his masterful style, and every stroke of his brush (Sirk was also a painter) leaves a powerful image on the screen-turned-canvas. But this ain’t life but its representation, an imitation of life. Sirk never tried to show reality, on the contrary. None of the directors of his generation made a better use of all the technical devices provided by Hollywood (most notably Technicolor) to distinguish the artificial from the real thing. Let’s remember that his golden period coincides with the time when Hollywood films turned its attention into the social drama (Blackboard jungle, Rebel without a cause.)

Sirk always knew that cinema was meant to be something different.
Another of Sirk’s statements summarizes this: "You can’t reach, or touch, the real. You just see reflections. If you try to grasp happiness itself your fingers only meet glass". I defy anybody that has seen Written on the wind to count the amount of mirrors and images reflected that appear on screen. One ends up giving up.
Therefore, we are in a hall full of mirrors where there’s no difference between real and false. Nobody can say that the Hadley are real people. That town ain’t real either, with those hideous oil pumps all over the place. So in this realm the acting is affected, the decore is fake, the trick is visible. Everything is pushed a little bit off the limit (the sexual connotations of Dorothy Malone with the oil tower, for example). Sirk was criticizing and theorizing at the same time.

"The angles are the director’s thoughts; the lighting is his philosophy". In Written on the wind we follow the fall of a traditional way of life both in a geometrical way and in terms of light and shadows. The Hadleys house, with its different levels connected by the spiral staircase operates in a strictly metaphorical way. A house that resembles a mausoleum that no party can cheer up. As tragedy progresses from luminous daylight to shadowy night, Sirk’s photography becomes an extension of the inner state of his characters, and so are the colours of the clothes they wear. Drama is thus incorporated to every element at the service of the director’s craft.

Sirk considered himself a "story bender", because he bended the standard material he was assigned with to his style and purpose. Written on the wind is a good example. It wouldn’t work in any other hands.
The other director that was using similar strategies was Frank Tashlin, who was for 50’s comedy the same that Sirk was for melodrama. Their films are full of the machinery of american life –advertising, TV sets, jukeboxes, washing machines, sport cars, vacuum cleaners- to depict its emptiness and decay. I’m inclined to think that their films were regarded in a different way by their contemporary audiences. The game was played by both sides, so it was camp. Now we regard them as "cult" or "bizarre", because we are not those spectators anymore. That is why Todd Haynes’s homage "Far from heaven" turns into a pastiche, because it reproduces Sirk’s work nowadays as if nothing happened in between. Then Sirk turns exactly into that painting hanging in the art gallery that Julianne Moore and the gardener discuss in the aforementioned film.

Sirk understood the elements of melodrama perfectly. There were always immovable characters (Rock Hudson and Lauren Bacall here) against which he could assemble a series of split ones. His balance through antithesis is remarkable and not surprisingly we root for the split characters, because these are the ones Sirk is interested in too. When Robert Stack flies the plane and "tempts" Lauren Bacall with all sorts of mundane comforts of the world below them (obvious Faustian echoes) we are strangely fascinated with him too, as we are when the devilish nymphomaniac little sister painfully evokes her past with Mitch alone by the river.

In the Sirk’s universe the studio often-imposed "happy ends" have no negative impact. In fact they worked ideally. Sirk was fond of Greek tragedy and considered happy endings the Deux ex machinea of his day. Thus the final courtroom scene fits well and one must also remember that the whole film is told in flashback, so we know from the very beginning that tragedy will fall nevertheless over the Hadley feud.

It was pointed out the many similarities between Written on the Wind with the Godfather saga. I absolutely agree and I’m sure the parallel is not incidental. Both share the theme of the old powerful father head trying to keep his empire going while protecting his family. The temperamental son portrayed by Robert Stack has an amazing physical resemblance with Jimmy Caan’s Sonny Corleone. The action of fighting her sister’s male friend is symmetrical. The non-son in which the old man put his trust is also common in both films, as the fact that both families carry the names of their town. Even details as the gate that gives access to the property, and the surroundings of the house covered by leaves, suggest that Coppola had Written on the Wind in mind while setting his masterwork. Because both films deal with the subject of Power: the acquisition of power, its manipulation and legacy (even Kyle Hadley’s sterility, the event that hastens the turmoil, is an issue easily tied to the central theme of Power, in this case, a weakness in sexual power). The other great film that deals with power and uses american life as its representation is Citizen Kane. One wouldn’t think at first of similarities between Welles and Sirk’s films but there are a good many, starting with the petrol business as the origin of the family’s fortune and ending in the fact that Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson), as Charles Foster Kane, was adopted by a tutor, having his own father alive. Amazingly, the same actor (Harry Shannon) performs both Wayne and Kane’s fathers. This detail is cannot be a coincidence*.

Written on the Wind is a masterpiece in every aspect, in execution and vision, in style and technique, a highlight in the career of this wonderful director. Some say that this is his best film. In my opinion, "Magnificent obsession", "All that heaven allows", "There’s always tomorrow" and "Imitation of life" are just as good. And for those who put Sirk in the level of Dallas or Dinasty I wish them no happy end.* If Welles’ Citizen Kane established a "before" and "after" in film history, it’s less because of its technical achievements rather because of the introduction of self-consciousness to film. Welles made a movie about himself and about cinema itself. In 1941, the still fairly young art of the pioneers lost its innocence, and from now on, all directors will integrate to their work not only the footsteps of their predecessors, but also the idea of cinema as a representation and thus the awareness of an audience to whom address their films. Welles’ generation of filmmakers changed intuition and craft for cinephilia. Can it be said that they invented "classic" cinema? This landmark in film history also affected the work of the masters that were making films before Welles. Certainly, any 40’s or 50’s picture of Capra, Hawks or Walsh is significantly different to the ones they made before Welles’ apparition. Their themes became darker, their construction somehow more abstract, their light universes were covered by shadows. It is well known that before starting CK, Welles made himself project over and over John Ford’s Stagecoach. If Welles film couldn’t in a way exist without Ford’s classic, then it should be say that any film by Nicholas Ray, Anthony Mann, Joseph H. Lewis, Vincent Minelli, Joseph Mankiewicz, Sam Fuller and of course, Douglas Sirk couldn’t happen without Citizen Kane.
© Mirko Stopar October 2003
mistopar@hotmail.com
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