The success of Far From Heaven is likely, if it hasn’t already, to spark a new wave of revivalism for its artistic source, Douglas Sirk (the NFT showed All That Heaven Allows (1956) in February to go with the preview of Far From Heaven). Not that the cult of Sirk’s unique legacy has ever gone away – he was a major influence on Fassbinder (who remade All That Heaven Allows under the title Fear Eats The Soul (1974)) and the cinema of Pedro Almodovar bears clear traces of Sirkian ironic kitsch. On top of that, he’s a major staple of the authorship theory taught in film studies courses.
It wasn’t always so, though. Much derided by his contemporaries for working in that ‘lowliest of genres’, the woman’s melodrama, Sirk was rediscovered by film scholars in the early 70s when from the perspective of the auteur theory pioneered by Andrew Sarris, the subversion and social critique underlying his work was brought to light. The film journal Screen published essays on Sirk’s work in 1972, which was followed by a retrospective of his films at the Edinburgh Film Festival in that same year.
Sirk’s quotations – such as ‘the angles are a director’s thoughts, the lighting is his philosophy’ – shed light on a thinking artist with a social conscience who used mise-en-scène and aesthetic unity as a way to criticise, via the cinematic apparatus itself, the oppressive American way of life of the Eisenhower era. Of course, it took an European outsider to do that. Sirk, born Claus Detlef Sierck in Hamburg, was a successful stage director in Germany between 1922 and 1937, when he left the country because of his disagreements with the Third Reich. In America he reinvented himself as a film director. Signed up to Universal Pictures, he was assigned the task of making the Technicolor melodramas he’s remembered for: Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows, Written On The Wind (1956), A Time To Love And A Time To Die (1958) and Imitation Of Life (1959), the latter usually deemed as his masterpiece for the complexity of the way he deals with issues of race and identity. It was also his most successful film and the one that saw Sirk say farewell to America and film-making and retire to Switzerland and Germany.
For those unfamiliar with the Sirkian universe, his films are characterised by an operatic and artificial style, steeped on an acute sense of irony and stylisation. Theoreticians always resort to the Brechtian concept of distanciation to refer to his work: by deploying cliché, parody and exacerbating the Hollywoodian rhetoric, he drew the viewer’s attention to the methods and purposes of Hollywood illusionism. In his films, the colours of walls, cars, costumes and flowers harmonise into a nearly hallucinatory aesthetic unity to provide a visual comment on the American way of life, even though his films do have a universal appeal in terms of pathos.
It is also very common to find allusions to his use of mirrors and window frames that enhance the psychological disturbance of his characters or the social restrictions they find themselves hewn in. This is all quite evident in Todd Haynes’ meticulous, theory-informed study of Sirk’s cinematic vision in Far From Heaven. But apart from all that, his films also make for compelling entertainment – if you get it, it’s a double whammy; if not, just grab the handkerchief.