Thursday, November 17, 2011

Written on the Wind

Having been weaned on Sirk's influences, it is easy to accept the brilliance of his filmmaking. I often hear that viewers have a difficult time swallowing the excess of these productions, that the acting seems over the top, as does the filmmaking itself. In this age where irony is the main currency, I think the importance of Douglas Sirk should be more immediately apparent, even to new viewers. You can recognize traces of his style in the works of Paul Verhoeven and David Lynch, who specialize in satire disguised as kitsch, much like their predecessor. I initially discovered Douglas Sirk through other filmmakers who he has greatly influenced, like Werner Rainer Fassbinder, and Todd Haynes. Then, some quick research would often reveal that much of what I admired in their films was an homage to Sirk. Far From Heaven, for example, is basically a retelling of All That Heaven Allows. And I discovered that much of what I love about Fassbinder's work-- his lurid colors and the performative power of his characters-- are also references to Sirk. You can see the power of these images reverberating outward into so many films that follow them.

All American movies seem to reflect the American Dream somehow. The the suburb genre describes the discontentment with wealth, and the anxiety that lurks behind immaculate suburban exteriors. I'm guessing that this genre began sometime in the 1950s when the melodrama reigned king, with Sirk at its healm. In Written on the Wind, wealth and privilege have practically made pudding out of the Hadley heirs. Kyle (Robert Stack) is an alcoholic, infertile playboy. Marylee (Dorothy Malone) is a borderline sociopath whose resentment is manifested in sexual mania. Meanwhile, their adoptive brother, Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson) represents all that an American man should be--hard working, laconic, honest, and virile, but not overtly so. Just the kind of guy who would pull himself up by his bootstraps, outperforming the adoptive siblings who have grown up in a bubble of privilege.

Not surprisingly, When Kyle learns of his infertility, he hits the sauce, hard. As he makes a speedy descent into debilitating alcoholism, his wife, Lucy (Lauren Bacall) becomes romantically drawn to Mitch. Since childhood, Annabelle has been in love with Mitch, paragon of maleness that he is. Years of unrequited affection have turned her into an oversexed harpy, filled with resentment of her brother, who is everything that Mitch is not. Female weakness, here in the form of Annabelle, is represented as a nymphomania. It is also notable that Annabelle is basically the diametric opposite of Lucy, who is gentle and demure.

I would summarize this movie by saying that at the pinnacle of the American Dream is the danger of complacency, the rotting of the human spirit, and the descent into wantonness. Only the hard working will retain their virility. It may be crass, but I'll take a histrionic, Technicolor fable over digital realism almost any day. It's a treat to watch a tale of such prurience filtered through the perspective of the 1950s.

The movie is not just one long penis joke, though there are plenty of those. At its heart, Written on the Wind is portrait of the upper class, and the destructive nature of wealth. I think impotence has always been sort of a hackneyed as a metaphor for male weakness, but that doesn't stop generations of male directors from regurgitating it, endlessly. Sirk keeps things fresh by throwing in some dangerous female sexuality, and salacious facial expressions to prove it. It's easy to yawn at impotence and nymphomania as metaphors, but, there is still something left over after the Freudians have had their go. The actors, however overblown their performances might seem, are amazing. Dorothy Malone strikes a perfect chord; you can see the tragedy in her eyes. The saturated colors reveal a sensual world. There are so many things to appreciate about this movie, even if you take it at the most basic, aesthetic value.

Thanks Criterion Contraption and Deep Focus Review for the images

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