Douglas Sirk and his cheap (yet tempting) mythology

Jan Tracz

12 September 2022

All about kitsch

Imagine a lookalike fairytale, a conscious fable where the meaning is hidden behind a few peculiar compositional factors. Here, I’m talking about passionate poignancy, melodramatic features (somebody’s tragedy like death or sickness, identity and racial troubles), with the addition of lively colours, somehow striking with their artificial shades; the colours are not realistic, they’re pure, sometimes mesmerizing. It’s just like in a folktale which you try to picture in your little head while your grandma becomes a narrator for a good night as she tells you your favourite story…

Mentioned aspects are all linked by the distasteful idea of kitsch and its more or less quaint layers. And they all come from the unorthodox head of Douglas Sirk (1897-1987), an American director born in Germany, who always tried to reach the unreached surface of the film industry. His principal purpose was not to allure the spectator through the personal feeling of watching some kind of Sirkian guilty pleasure. Creating a grotesque which people would like to see only to laugh and have fun was too easy for him. I believe that Sirk, with the whole author’s self-consciousness, forced the viewers to accept the convention; that sweetened atmosphere developed through various cinematographic meanings. He was juggling with genres (from pathos to melancholy), he depicted simple symbols, allegories, and, what is more, he did not hesitate in doing so even once. Don’t call him a man without any proper taste. He had one, or, otherwise, he would not have been able to flirt with kitsch and use it for his clever desires. And never (!) title him a master of nonsense oddities (at least when I’m nearby). Try cynic author. Or an ironizing director. “Ironizing?” you may ask yourself. Stay with me a little bit longer, I’m your self-called saviour, and I’m coming with some answers.

“Kitsch” in this particular example is a tawdry type of art that uses all of these cheap features to achieve, through the stratification of emotional trash, a feeling of appreciation/respect towards the product (in this case: film) we are currently communing. For instance: google this exquisite (or trashy, choose your favourite adjective later) piece of art called A Friend in Need (1903) painted by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge. Give yourself a few seconds. After that, close your eyes for a while, then open, and examine again. What exactly do you see? Is it really an ignorant painting, a tasteless one for non-aware poker and dogs lovers? Or is there a second meaning, the one connected with the author’s humour and ironic approach? In Coolidge’s vision, the whole idea of playing poker, cultivated by white, rich men, might be as well encouraged by some random dogs. They drink whiskey (just like us), they smoke the same cigars, and they cheat too! I don’t know why I am so enthusiastic about this painting. Maybe because it is easy to decipher, or it just straightforwardly confronts us, through absurd, with our own egos?

So, again, imagine a film tale for adults, one having a crucial moral (as it is still a modern morality play), consisting of other details enumerated in the first paragraph and distinguishing oneself by incredibly pathetic, even dramatically conducted performances. Also, try to visualize that there is a lot of joy in this tragicomic cinematography.

I wake up screaming

For the record, this catchphrase is stolen from David Thomson’s epilogue to his book (The Big Screen), but yes, I don’t feel remorse. Because here I am, waking up screaming, thinking how exactly Sirk’s cinema has already taken over my nervous system. I wake up screaming, somewhere between 9 and 10 am, and the first thing I do is putting on another Sirkian film, which, for the hundredth time, will awaken my film demons. “I get attracted by kitsch” should have been the title of this small text, but I’ll stay with mythologies since watching Sirk is like opening an archaic volume with forgotten parables.

One of such parables is probably a film called Written on the Wind (1956). It’s an iconic melodrama starring Rick Hudson (a Hollywood, legendary gay figure) and Lauren Bacall, whom you may recall from The Big Sleep (1949), where she tried to tempt (successfully, by the way) harsh, stubborn, the one and only Philip Marlowe. To apprehend my positive attitude, you have to comprehend, and it is for your reader’s concern (!), that the whole film might be one of my favourite titles of all time. It’s like entering a television matrix: as viewers, we all participate in something that can be called soap opera’s ersatz. The issues built around the script are the concerns of the American upper-class. And that, from the start, might seem for the viewer as a dreamlike perspective, as not many of us can say they belong to the community portrayed by the film’s heroes. Their problems are not our problems. However, they quickly become ones. Due to the enormous number of sentimental moments, the audience cries when supposed to and gets thrilled in more gripping moments. To quickly sum up the plot (to be completely honest, I don’t want to spoil anything!): Hudson is a guy. A real chap. He loves his father, and he adores his best friend like a brother. And his companion gets engaged with this beautiful, intelligent woman. Her name is Lucy, and we are affected by her from first sight. So what happens to Hudson? Yes, you’re right, he falls in love with her. And we can see that the new couple does not match. Hudson’s character, Mitch, gets along with Lucy. Like really gets along. Unfortunately (for him, Lucy and us, viewers), Mitch hides his feelings cause he’s just a reasonable guy. Although, Sirk knows that you can’t live against yourself and your intimate feelings. He pictures the situation when you start living like that. And that’s the first lesson he will teach you all.

Just a piece of the jigsaw puzzle

It looks like Sirk’s mythology is cheap as the stories are built on cliches and effortless canvas, but it is still the cinema that makes you realize that even the most tasteless tricks might, sooner or later, be used towards further goals. The aim here is to picturesquely tell the story, to conclude it with some storytelling closures. Sirk is like an eccentric mentor who, firstly, imitates life and then invites us all to the worlds of prejudices, megalomaniacs and other monstrous characters who still believe they are decent human beings. Yes, a good lesson of humanism awaits you there. Just start with Written on the Wind. Or All That Heaven Allows (1955). Then try Imitation of Life (1959). And so on, and so on. After that, you’re gonna be just fine. Or even better.

Jan Tracz

Jan Tracz

A journalist with four years of experience in the cultural industry (film, music, literature, politics). Writer for respected Polish and English sites and magazines, interviewed most famous stars, writers, actors, talents, directors and musicians (incl. Alejandro González Iñárritu, Lasse Hallström, Matthew Lewis, David Thomson, Richard Dyer, Rachel Shenton, Tom Wlaschiha, Lena Olin, Jenna Elfman, Lennie James, Yannick Bisson, Ximena Lamadrid, Malcolm Storry, Alexandra Savior). Current Film Studies MA student at King's College London.

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