Bright Lights Film Journal

Sarris on Sirk

The very strange, controversial career of Douglas Sirk raises perplexing questions about form and content in the cinema. For one thing, Sirk’s literary source material has ranged from Anton Chekhov (Summer Storm) and William Faulkner (Tarnished Angels) to Lloyd C. Douglas (Magnificent Obsession) and Fanny Hurst (Imitation of Life). For another, he was associated in the last decade of his career with Universal, a studio singularly inimical to the interests and intentions of high art even on the Oscar level. Hence, when I started my pretentiously Griersonian critiques for Film Culture in 1955, I didn’t know Sirk from Adam. In addition, I hardly ever saw movies made at Universal, and I had even walked out of a Fort Devens movie house in the middle of Magnificent Obsession to register my aesthetic disapproval. Like many aspiring literateurs of my generation, I had been conditioned to believe that the acme of high art had been achieved in Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain. Only much later did I decide there was more mountain than magic in Mann’s achievement. By then I had become enamoured of the relative tolerance of French culture, and my tastes had broadened to encompass the Sirkian ironies I had once rejected sight unseen.

Sirk’s art then is more magical than mountainous. It is an oblique art of mirrors and windows and compassionate contemplation. The often glossy plots and threadbare themes are the givens with which Sirk works his wondrous spell. The problem with givens has never been resolved in the cinema. Much of the problem is caused by the enormous discrepancy between what a film actually is and the words we use to describe it. I am not talking now about the spurious conflict between visual and literary, a conflict for academic supervision of cinema being waged in colleges from coast to coast between the English and Fine Arts Departments. Film as we know it is both visual and literary, and yet neither. It is rather a field of light, event and experience, active at its inception, and passive in its projection, mixing the personal with the collective, the documentation with the fantasy. That is why my tendency in teaching film history is descriptive rather than prescriptive. Above all, I stress the importance of historical perspective. Douglas Sirk’s career ranged from the mid-thirties to the late fifties. He might never have achieved any recognition, however, had there not been a dramatic shift in critical perception in the mid-fifties. This shift has been oversimplified by such labels as Cahierism or auteurism. I am less sure than ever that this shift had any precise political or cultural motivation. Rather, there sprung up in a new generation of film critics a desire to analyze films stylistically rather than thematically. In this respect, Sirk’s work had a profound impact in Europe because it provided a coherent response to the technical challenges of widescreen and color. In the past few years there has been a great deal of visual analysis of Sirk’s films, virtually frame by frame. Without divorcing myself completely from the frame-by-frame school, I do wish to acknowledge that there is in this approach the danger of seeming to preach exclusively to the converted. Since I myself still preach journalistically for a decidedly mixed parish, I must defend my admiration for Douglas Sirk on other grounds besides the purely visual.

First and foremost, I admire his audacity in confronting his material directly, no matter how fanciful and improbable it may seem. In this he descends from the Germanic tradition of Murnau, Lang and Ophuls with its mystical feeling for the subjective impressions of the mind rendered as objective images. There is a distinctively Sirkian mood — reflective in its reflections, fatalistic, world-weary — which I recognize in most of his films.

Nonetheless, I would not rationalize his career as trash transcended or corn camped up. There is irony in the tension between his style and his basic material, but it is an irony that is neither condescending nor dialectical. When Jane Wyman looks bemusedly at her own reflection on a blank television screen in All That Heaven Allows, Sirk makes a social comment without compromising the feeling in the individual predicament. The little mechanical man in There’s Always Tomorrow antedates Antonioni’s in The Red Desert, but is used with a much more classical force in expressing the emotional helplessness of a character. Many of Sirk’s films — Summer Storm, A Scandal in Paris, Has Anybody Seen My Gal?, Take Me to Town, and Captain Lightfoot — attest to his grace and skill as a storyteller. Others — There’s Always Tomorrow, Written on the Wind (above), Tarnished Angels, A Time to Love and a Time to Die, and Imitation of Life — strike deeper chords of concern for lost souls in unfashionable genres now rediscovered and re-evaluated. Sirk’s is a popular cinema fashioned with exquisite taste during what we now know as the twilight of Hollywood’s self-enclosed grandeur.

Sirk’s American Filmography

» Hitler’s Madman (1942)
» Summer Storm (1944)
» A Scandal in Paris (1945)
» Lured (1946)
» Sleep, My Love (1947)
» Slightly French (1948)
» Shockproof (1948)
» The First Legion (1950)
» Mystery Submarine (1950)
» Thunder on the Hill (1951)
» The Lady Pays Off (1951)
» Weekend with Father (1951)
» Has Anybody Seen My Gal? (1951)
» No Room For the Groom (1952)
» Meet Me At the Fair (1952)
» Take Me to Town (1952)
» All I Desire (1953)
» Taza, Son of Cochise (1953)
» Magnificent Obsession (1953)
» Sign of the Pagan (1954)
» Captain Lightfoot (1954)
» All That Heaven Allows (1955)
» There’s Always Tomorrow (1955)
» Written on the Wind (1956)
» Battle Hymn (1956)
» Interlude (1956)
» The Tarnished Angels (1957)
» A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1957)
» Imitation of Life (1958)