I’ve always considered Douglas Sirk (1900–1987) a bit problematic. Born Claus Detlev Sierck, of Danish parentage, he worked and lived in Germany perhaps longer than my comfort zone would permit. He actually directed his first film at Ufa in Berlin in 1935, more than two years after the Nazis came to power, although he atoned somewhat in 1943 with his first American film, Hitler’s Madman, from a script by a Yiddish playwright and starring an over-the-top John Carradine as Reinhard Heydrich, the torturer of Czechoslovakia.
My reservations, however, don’t stop with politics. Andrew Sarris wrote, “Even in most dubious projects, Sirk never shrinks away from the ridiculous, but by a full-bodied formal development, his art transcends the ridiculous, as form comments on content.” This formulation works for me with Josef von Sternberg, but I think Sirk’s films tend to be too talky and improbable. The Tarnished Angels isn’t helped by the fact that it is adapted from William Faulkner’s Pylon, a novel that I find almost unreadable and which a recent critic called “a seething melodrama about a family of daredevil pilots.” For my taste, The Tarnished Angels (like other Sirk films) seethes a bit too much. Faulkner had been in the Royal Air Force in World War I, and he claimed he had been in a crash landing a few days after the armistice. He had bought his own plane in 1933, and his brother, Dean, had been a barnstorming pilot. So, Faulkner’s rare departure from his usual circumscribed Yoknapatawpha County setting was understandable.
Michael Zeitlin, a Canadian historian, links all this and the sensationalism of potentially bloody plane crashes to “Faulkner’s stunningly overdetermined figure for modernity: the phallic pylons, the revolving airplanes, the inevitable smashing of machines, the burning of the pilot’s corpse, the crowd’s rapt fascination, the front-page, bold face publicity,” which Zeitlin compares to the rise of Fascism. None of this is meant to suggest that either Sirk or Faulkner were Fascists, but their work is very much a product of their times and reflects a peculiar effect on human relationships they depict.
Perhaps this may be made clearer by comparing The Tarnished Angels with the film Sirk made almost simultaneously, Written on the Wind, which is a kind of companion piece. To begin with, both films star Robert Stack, Rock Hudson, and Dorothy Malone (who plays it somewhat more slutty in Written on the Wind than in Angels). (I’ve always wondered at the fact that Marilyn Monroe got so much attention, while there were so many other fine actresses in the 1950s, from Ava to Woodward, including Malone.) The film is set in the 1950s, when Hollywood-ized women expressed their hyper-sexuality by driving red convertibles and doing provocative dances. It is a “modern” picture (with the Four Aces singing over the credits) that seals Sirk’s reputation as a modern director. It was as modern as 1956 permitted a film to be as the Production Code continued to disintegrate. Hollywood’s new maturity was not yet very mature, although the Hitchcock films of the era and John Ford’s The Searchers (albeit set 80 years earlier) tend to belie that. It remained for Otto Preminger to repeatedly puncture the sexual blacklist.
Sirk’s films are the product of movie melodrama where everything seems to hit the fan at once. The phallic pylons in Written on the Wind are replaced by gigantic throbbing Texas oil pumps erecting and descending rhythmically, and Malone even gives a final “hand massage” to a model oil well when it becomes clear that she will never have Rock Hudson. The film tiptoes around the language of how to express Stack’s possible infertility (“weakness”) and Hudson’s possible violation of his marriage to Lauren Bacall, just as The Tarnished Angels strains to both deal with and avoid dealing with the fact that nobody quite knows who sired Malone’s young son. In this case Hudson, as a mere reporter, albeit with the hots for Malone, is not the potential culprit, with that privilege going to, of all people, Jack Carson, an actor defined by one historian as playing “numbskull buffoons and backslapping pests.”
In a sense, Sirk cannot be faulted for a reasonably accurate depiction of American values of his era, when oil millionaires were unquestioned good guys, when someone declaring that “your daughter is a tramp” was grounds to kill (even though everyone knew she was), where child-bearing was not just the standard of normality, but of morality. From the perspective of more than a half-century later, America looks like a pretty sick society. If, as George Orwell says, “all art is propaganda,” Sirk seems to me too prone to accept the status quo, the falseness of the values of his age, to be just a passive reporter like Rock Hudson in The Tarnished Angels, non-judgmentally glossing over reality with his glossy stylization. So, Douglas Sirk, who had watched the Nazis rise, was again a pretty good observer. Whether he was also a significant artist is, I think, open to question.
For those of us who came to the Japanese cinema through the classicism of Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, and Akira Kurosawa, Nagisa Oshima will always seem something of an interloper. Oshima, who died last week at 80, had famously rejected the classical Japanese cinema as part of his rejection of all of Japan’s traditional culture. His films took him outside the conventional boundaries of geography and sexuality. This transgressiveness led historian Donald Richie to compare Oshima with Jean-Luc Godard. Sadly, but fortuitously, my colleague Josh Siegel’s current exhibition Art Theater Guild and Japanese Underground Cinema, 1960–1986 has afforded the opportunity to see a number of the director’s works. There still is time on Thursday, January 24, to catch Yunbogi’s Diary at 4:30 and Band of Ninja at 6:45. (I suggest you also keep an eye out in February, in the same series, for the films of Susumu Hani, another major director of the period.)