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Douglas Sirk's "Magnificent Obsession": We poor devils.

"The angles are the director’s thoughts. The lighting is his philosophy."
— Douglas Sirk
We do not have to believe Sirk—we may desire to replace “the director” with “the film” for our purposes—but we should do well to appreciate the angle he’s playing in this, his personal and metaphysical sense of mise-en-scène. Or, it’s as good a place as any to start with an object such as a 1950s melodrama of this order: hyperbolic, anachronistic, beautiful, plastic, nigh abstract, primary, “fake” and, even, basic. The common problem our age faces in the face of a film this fake is the often undesired, and often impossible, struggle to believe. Lucky, then, that Magnificent Obsession is all about faith. Being something of a Sirk neophyte (an earlier Ali-inspired viewing of All That Heaven Allows lingers faint in my background), this new Criterion 2-disc/2-film release has proved a fine primer, a tender invitation.
Let’s get this out of the way: Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession looks and sounds dated, sure. Our current remove from its moment, formed by tradition’s mutations, will forever defer (some like to say “displace” and others “deny”) simply “buying into” the way these people talk or the way this story’s coincidences tumble out on screen. It’s easy to see how a film such as this is championed as camp, as kitsch, as simple: everything props up outsized (especially the dialogue), forever signaling symbols. This should clash like a cymbal—the real is never the question. Sirk does not seek to represent nor document the world in tidy one-to-one expressions of some form of "reality" but, rather, point at the world, hint at our day-to-day. His cinema, like good theatre, reminds that the "real" is a malleable term and concept. Or, the only real we should be concerned with is real sentiment, which is, of course, nothing material and every bit as abstract (to say as difficult to describe) as a color. In the light I choose, Magnificent Obsession is best seen, as are many melodramas, to play out in the realm of the concept. There is surely a story, and there are surely characters, and the film is surely committed to them, but the abstract design of the film, forever artificial, nurtures our attention away from (or perhaps in tandem with) the film’s moral drive towards a charitable and faithful way or form of life.
Based on the first novel by Lloyd C Douglas, and updated from a 1935 John M. Stahl picture of the same name starring Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor (included on the second disc), Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession springs unabashed into an inquiry on the perhaps necessary movement towards faith. However, as much as the Christian symbols crop up, the word “God” is hardly spoken, if at all, and it becomes a film explicitly about absence, about the unknown, about specters. Faith, here, is not just a devotion—and it’s not Soren’s leap—but an either/or practice. So the film's interest in faith has become an argument for itself as worthy of faith, of that generosity it preaches; it asks, “Please, believe me,” all while jamming your signals with the unbelievable. This seems the crux of cinema: whether or not we “believe” a film often dictates our level of involvement, of openness, of genuine engagement.
I don’t think either version of Magnificent Obsession is a great film. But they are a fine pair for pedagogical purposes, and Sirk’s compositional kino-eye is often dazzling: his sense of motion along different planes of activity, as crucial to his cinematic brawn as vibrant color, translates somewhat poorly to these accompanying still images. Were I less busy, and more inclined, which is to say if I was the ever-erudite (and consummate journalist) Dave Kehr, I can see how fascinating it would be to look at the novel these films spring from and then form an argument about adaptation as translation, about the value of the archive, or simply an archive (such as a DVD library), that affords us these new opportunities to encounter odd barometers of history. As I sit now, I have not read the novel, nor have I spent that much time with Stahl’s version, and my enthusiasm for Sirk’s film only abates as I look at his other films, but there’s still some work to be done here, and plenty of plain strange images to investigate.
To begin (at the end of the beginning), I’ve been calling this “the sunbrella punctuation shot”—
—because the umbrella becomes a sun unto itself, and, like our star, it lingers in the eye’s mind as the screen fades to black. The world is transformed as Jane Wyman’s Helen Phillips walks from her house with the grave knowledge that her young marriage is over, cut short by premature heart failure, thanks to the coincident boat crash across the lake (at the hands of Rock Hudson’s Bob Merrick, resident ne’er do well), which starts to turn upside-down bad with this terminal spray—
—across the frame. Again, the power lies in the emergence that motion allows an image. Yes, even still images move, as these two grabs may illuminate (look at their different velocities!), but my words cannot convert the weight of the slight pan across the Phillips’ back yard vista nor the rush of Merrick’s race towards nothing, his heedless fording forward.
So here’s a driving dialectic: our man flies through the frame (the world) while our lady only rests restricted. Of course, this is complicated by the film’s progression: Helen’s path winds from social spectacle to hidden memory and back into an optimistic and joyful participation; Merrick changes his wayward aims eventually (as if he wouldn’t) and begins to build a life as, as he puts it early on with incredulity, “a human being,” not ignorant (hell, he may be too enlightened!) of his place in the world’s weave. As Kehr notes in his Times DVD review, the “spirituality” of the film may bring to your modern mind that dive-bomb dummy-fest Pay It Forward; and, indeed, it teeters on the edge of that brand of silly-headed idea of charity. Yet these laced conversion tales are grounded, however zeitgeisty and (I’m tempted to say) foolish, in another metaphor: health. Another concept, like faith, that desires diffusion, Magnificent Obsession’s preoccupation with bodily frailty, often exposed by alarming and unexpected events, converges with its drive towards faith by arguing that, yes, faith is healthy. That learning how to see is learning how to believe—in the world, in yourself, in those you choose (and those who choose you) to love. If you’re willing to grant this weepy thing those premises, and find therapeutic value in such (obvious?) lessons, the film opens up and fireworks into something lovely. That generosity, though, we know, is tough. Talking to a floozy while drunk, Merrick-Hudson says, “Principle difficulty seems to be that the anesthetics you get in these bars are never as effective as the customer hopes.” Such is the plight of the cinephile junkie, too: gotta keep looking because one of these days there will be something to really believe in—beyond the consistently reorienting geometry of people birthing new lights, and new life.
***
Just our New York luck: to close out January, Anthology Film Archives has programmed a Stahl/Sirk series pairing the three films Sirk adapted from Stahl originals. You can see this film, Magnificent Obsession, take two different forms Thursday, January 29th or Saturday, the 31st. On Friday, the 30th, they will be showing both versions of Imitation of Life (Sirk’s opens with one of the most delicious credit sequences around), with repeat screenings Sunday, February 1st. The series opens, however, with Stahl’s When Tomorrow Comes and Sirk’s re-imagining, Interlude, on Wednesday, January 28th. For all the information, including helpful synopses, please click here.

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