FILM with Mirko Stopar
(Written on the Wind, Douglas Sirk / 1956)
Douglas Sirk once said "theres 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
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 aint 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. Lets 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.)
knew that cinema was meant to be something different.
Another of Sirks statements summarizes this: "You cant
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 theres no difference
between real and false. Nobody can say that the Hadley are real people.
That town aint 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 directors 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, Sirks 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 directors 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 wouldnt work in any
The other director that was using similar strategies was Frank Tashlin,
who was for 50s 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. Im 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 Hayness homage "Far
from heaven" turns into a pastiche, because it reproduces Sirks
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 Sirks 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 Im 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 Caans Sonny Corleone. The action of fighting her sisters
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 Hadleys 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 wouldnt think at first of similarities between
Welles and Sirks films but there are a good many, starting with
the petrol business as the origin of the familys 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 Kanes 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", "Theres
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, its
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 40s or 50s 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 Fords
Stagecoach. If Welles film couldnt in a way exist without Fords
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 couldnt happen without Citizen Kane.
© Mirko Stopar October 2003
FATALE (new on DVD)
all rights reserved