Universal Sirk

Campy melodramas still carry some emotional weight.

A DRIVING RUMBA suddenly takes over the soundtrack of Written on the Wind after oil baron Robert Keith has been bluntly confronted with the tawdry affairs of his alcoholic daughter Dorothy Malone. She kicks up a storm, sashaying in her girdle, perversely proud of the indiscretions that have wounded her upright dad—who then pitches down the spiral staircase with a heart attack. The camera whooshes along as Rock Hudson and Lauren Bacall—the "good" kids Keith never had—rush to his side, while Malone obliviously rumbas to her private tune. It's a moment of pure baroque cinema that puts the opera back in soap opera, a delirious rush of melodramatic extravagance in hyper-real Technicolor gloss.

UNIVERSAL SIRK

runs November 26-December 2 at Grand Illusion

Douglas Sirk's most famous films are glossy, giddy melodramas. To the uninitiated, their clich餠plots, kitschy trappings, and absurd situations might seem like the director's private joke. Yet his movies provide an ironic and often surreal refraction of the American self-image. Rather than denying the overwrought emotions and mawkish sentimentality of his scripts, he pours on the exaggeration and irony in equal doses.

CRITICS HATED SIRK'S remarkable string of popular '50s hits, which is oddly appropriate. While the throngs of crying housewives didn't view his films as Brechtian engagements with middle class malaise and the crumbling ideals of the American dream, they understood them better. They're all about surfaces and social masks, and his style subliminally communicates the real stories in these pulp fictions. Sirk's impeccable compositions, portentous angles, and gaudy color perfectly compliment performances that ping-pong between simmering repression and overwrought emotional turbulence. His films aren't simply seen, they're viscerally experienced.

These five classic Sirks include Imitation of Life (1959), perhaps his most heralded picture; it's the story of an ambitious, self-loathing black girl who forsakes her mother—and her race—to pass for white. Sirk plays its themes closer to the surface than in his other works, helping audiences see his intentions beneath the gaudy melodramatic trappings. More perverse and nightmarish are his baroque masterpieces Written on the Wind (1956), with Malone and Robert Stack as white trash millionaires stewing in self-pity, and Tarnished Angels (1957), a noirish fable of gypsy flyers and the romantic newspaperman—Rock Hudson, in his best Sirk performance—who falls in love with them. Here, Sirk finally lets us in on his secret: He, too, loves all his tawdry, tortured characters.

 
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