The Epistemologist of Despair
April 29, 2006 11:56 AM   Subscribe

Drama is impossible today. I don't know of any. Drama used to be the belief in guilt, and in a higher order. This absolutely cruel didactic is impossible, unacceptable for us moderns. But melodrama has kept it. You are caged. In melodrama you have human, earthly prisons rather than godly creations. Every Greek tragedy ends with the chorus — "those are strange happenings. Those are the ways of the gods". And so it always is in melodrama.
His career as a film director lasted more than 40 years, but Douglas Sirk (1900-1987) is remembered for the melodramas he made for Universal in Hollywood between 1954 and 1959, his "divine wallow": Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955), Written on the Wind (1956), The Tarnished Angels (1958, William Faulkner considered it the best screen adaptation of one of his novels), Imitation of Life (1959) -- all considered for decades little more than a camp oddity. Now audiences are beginning to look deeper at the films of Douglas Sirk, at how, in megafan Todd Haynes' words, they are "almost spookily accurate about the emotional truths". Now, lucky Chicagoans can enjoy "Douglas Sirk at Universal", matinees at the Music Box. More inside.
posted by matteo (14 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Sirk and the Critics

Sirk's touch:
Where it is a common fault of both liberal problem pictures and soap operas to talk their issues to death, Imitation of Life excels in explicit directness. When Kohner's boyfriend (Troy Donahue) discovers that she has been passing for white, he beats her mercilessly. Instead of underplaying the melodramatic scene in the name of "good taste," Sirk intensifies it.
Douglas Sirk once said: “This is the dialectic—there is a very short distance between high art and trash, and trash that contains an element of craziness is by this very quality nearer to art.”

Douglas Sirk's Manon

A synopsis of some of his most famous films.
posted by matteo at 12:00 PM on April 29, 2006

The quote at the beginning of the post comes from this 1977 interview
posted by matteo at 12:02 PM on April 29, 2006

fantastic post.
posted by chococat at 2:03 PM on April 29, 2006

Melodrama is so pervasive in kitsch, and canonical high art, it's almost taboo. Most everyone enjoys some form of melodrama, be television, lyric poetry or opera, but it makes us feel vulnerable because when that lump forms in our throats, or our eyes begin to tear up, in away the artist has won: she or he has made the characters real to us.

I have to admit, most of the films I really hate, I hate because they've manipulated me and made me feel cheap. They've won my heart and let me down, like some cheap floosie.

I'll definitely try a few of these films.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 2:08 PM on April 29, 2006

fantastic post.
posted by chococat at 5:03 PM EST on April 29 [!]

matteo post.
posted by rxrfrx at 2:09 PM on April 29, 2006

Melodrama was actually the basis for modern realism -- because of the stuntowrk required in melodrama, onstage doors had to actually open, snow had to fall, and saws on sawmills had to turn. And, of course, contemporary films and television is, for the most part, a realist medium (even science fiction, which attempts to fool us into believing in its fanciful world through an "accumulation of surface detail designed to give the illusion of reality;" my college textbook definition of realism).

So it's not too hard for contemporary films and television to revert back to melodrama, and some melodramatic conventions are still very popular. Melodramas tended to strongly identify their characters as heroes or villains, and cillains were often aware of their villainy, as an example, which is still often the case in action films. Villains also frequently had huge deathbed realizations about the futility of their lives and, confessing it, were absolved, which was a technique Darth Vader seemed to notice.

Many melodramas also addressed themselves to social issues (obviously, the most favous of these being the antislavery-themed Uncle Tom's Cabin. I liked that Sirk's melodramas continued to address these issues, and, frankly, I think it's an effective dramatic form for doing so. For those who missed it, Far From Heavn was directly inspired by Sirk.
posted by Astro Zombie at 2:31 PM on April 29, 2006

Todd Haynes' "Far From Heaven" is a 2002 tribute to Sirk. It's well done and garnered an oscar nomination via Julianne Moore's performance.
posted by jne1813 at 2:33 PM on April 29, 2006

Thanks. Maybe I will make it up to Chicago for some of these.
posted by washburn at 2:33 PM on April 29, 2006

matteo post

posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 3:19 PM on April 29, 2006

the kind of post i wish i wrote!
posted by ori at 6:20 PM on April 29, 2006

One of my favorite directors, bar none. Thank you for posting this.
posted by blucevalo at 9:00 PM on April 29, 2006

Dorothy Malone in red, dancing like a fury to a portable record player blasting pop music while her father has a heart attack outside her bedroom door.

What's not to like?
posted by Wolof at 9:08 PM on April 29, 2006

> Drama used to be the belief in guilt, and in a higher order. This absolutely cruel didactic
> is impossible, unacceptable for us moderns.

Just dropping in late to let you all know I still believe in guilt and in a higher order. As long as a handful of us are left, high art and intensity of life remain possible. But eventually the last of us will shuffle off. Then, the mediocrity, the moral ennui, the universal Institut d’Etudes Politiques of the soul.
posted by jfuller at 6:22 AM on May 1, 2006

posted by matteo at 8:23 AM on May 2, 2006

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