Video Essay. Sirk/Anti-Sirk

A video essay on the antinomies of director Douglas Sirk.
Christopher Small

MUBI's series, In the Realm of Melodrama: A Douglas Sirk Retrospective, is showing April 2 - June 20, 2018 in the United Kingdom and many other countries.

The mythos of director Douglas Sirk—cold leftist emigré subverting hammy melodramatic conventions and sickly Hollywood homilies from within—has never been in alignment with Sirk himself, let alone the thirty-some movies he made for UFA, Universal-International, Columbia, and the independent companies that belatedly, unceremoniously greeted him several years after his prewar arrival in the US. In Sirk, who lived another 28 years after his health forced him to retire from cinema, there likely existed the same antinomies as are evident in his films. What makes him a fascinating figure is that it is possible to see the guy, in interviews and press materials for the movies, as the articulate iconoclast, the aloof and erudite artist who found himself at the helm of many of a prolific Hollywood studio’s most opulent productions, as well as to encounter Sirk the canny commercialist, Sirk the star director, Sirk the shrewd mentor of Rock Hudson and Barbara Rush. The Sirk whose reputation was one of consummate professionalism, of solid, reliable work in a variety of movie genres, well-liked by moguls for his fast, lucrative output. That he was equally at home working both sides of the street is a source of continuing confusion and consternation among admirers and detractors respectively. 

In taking a deep dive into Sirk’s contradictions, a picture emerged of somebody obviously drawn to “demonstrative” leftist theatre and the dramaturgical subversions of Greek tragedy as a way to survive in the Hollywood production system—as has been explicated and speculated upon at length by many overeager defenders elsewhere. But he also worked harmoniously with gaudy showmen like Albert Zugsmith and Ross Hunter, the latter of whom pleaded with Sirk as they remade Magnificent Obsession together, “Douglas, please, please make them cry.” In the same moment, in the act of watching one of his masterpieces or listening to him talk about their genesis, one experiences both the Sirk and the anti-Sirk pulling in two directions. In retrospect, his temperament appeared a natural fit with the commercial interests of Universal-International’s canniest producers, and it is this startling synergy, or irreconcilability, that continues to make Sirk movies so hypnotically idiosyncratic—and misunderstood.

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