Sensing and Feeling What Is Invisible on the Screen: Close-Up on "All That Heaven Allows"

Douglas Sirk's 1955 melodrama, with deftly framed decor and flaring warfare of color, creates dense and heated meaning.
Peter Henne
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows (1955) is showing April 16 - May 16, 2018 in the many countries around the world as part of the series In the Realm of Melodrama: A Douglas Sirk Retrospective.
Perhaps it needn't stir surprise that the ongoing re-discovery of director Douglas Sirk's American oeuvre takes a layered course, as his films, which matured at the Universal-International studio where he arose to the status of "house director," typically invite viewers' engagement not only conventionally through the passage of time for telling a story, but, more pertinent to the filmmaker, in exploring stylistic and humanly emotional depths, which tend to converge together. We dig through strata of meaningfulness that underly colors finely tuned and placed for waging heated battles upon one another, layers of interior partitions, characters situated in emphatically rigid receding planes, amalgamations of reflective surfaces that at times compete with the very size of the film screen. Viewers assess household objects that without aid of extraordinary focal maneuvers discomfittingly yet aptly ape the size of the characters who own them, and shading that transforms interpersonal distances into cavernous gaps and which in the same shot throw subtle slants of key lighting that brutally dissect class pretension. All That Heaven Allows (1955) probably has more deftly framed elegant decor and flaring warfare of color—more Sirkian pizazz—than any of his other U-I films; but in tandem, more density and heat for us to productively sift through. 
The distinction of practically all of Sirk's U-I films is how he artfully renders the veneer of venal social jockeying, and in so doing pushs Hollywood spit and polish to a bracingly evident forefront. For All That Heaven Allows, Sirk, without precedent in his American career, plays expansive, "relaxed" space against his techniques for brusque editing, crucially often replacing constricted or squished spaces that previously supported his curt, often downright scathing cutting and pacing. Its aim reaching beyond almost all of his previous U.S. films, the film is not only a Sirkian critique of social presumption and artistic artifice, but adds a new positive factor: an unconditional affirmation of the love of its main characters, Ron and Cary. The measurably greater latitude given over to reposeful space allows this couple's affection to blossom, flounder, endure stormy weather, battle with mortality, and grow stronger and wiser for the effort. Ironically, the "space" afforded for love itself, however, can only exist in an interior bond, invisible to observers (both in the film and the audience), and it is not even always recognized by the two principals. Sirk goes to pains to demonstrate this paradox but also to shepherd this love, by lending qualities of social, moral and, indeed, metaphysical falsity to literally all that surrounds Ron and Cary—and for some moments, the bodies of one or the other, too—advancing to insinuate that this bond has earned its happy reward: their connection is, or maybe only might be, the one true, strong and dependable element in the milieu the director has chosen to place before us.
Sirk pushes the backdrop, as it were, of a small New England town deep into relief, better to throw a spotlight on what is unobservable—which nonetheless moves across the screen before our eyes. Painting and manufacturing a whole world that, at the least, resembles "everyday reality" but falls short of veracity, while conducting a light that is an implanted but unseen point through the complex shuttle that is Sirk's film style, is no small accomplishment.
Most of the director's 13 previous films for U-I habitually crowd but not clutter their visual fields: without dehumanizing, Sirk allows fair play with characters to prevail. Thus Sirk can work in a rebuke toward bourgeois bastions of decorum, by regularly squishing them in and "robbing" them of a minimal screen space for which they are nominally entitled according to social station. He clips their typical salutary moments to prevail upon viewers, while not slipping into dogmatic ploys, and lets humor have its way with the material.
The assemblage of people and objects representative of Sirk's visual compacting in this period often begins, depth-wise, ever-so-close to the camera plane, and the combination of cast and set runs back continuously to about the middle of a standard background, by the measure of Hollywood conventions. Occupying such close-up space is merely flitting, yet recurring; mise en scène starting from such an extreme foreground magnifies attention to the bare fact the screen contains but two-dimensional constructs. To concentrate his frame yet more, the director also introduces what could be called coupling devices: the numerous windows, mirrors, reflections and so on within Sirk's world wobble between doubling and partitioning, such as by his deployment of screens of varying translucency within a given film (one emphasizing a spatial divide, another revealing a strained or incomplete second self, with gradients in-between), and occasional TV sets, each placed—positively aimed—square at the viewer (seemingly partitioning from, and doubling with, the film's world and ours, simultaneously). There is no getting around that Sirk taunts his artistic universe with defacing or removing its fictional proprieties. Further riding the cusp of ridicule, Sirk in his capacity as director has a trenchant knack for shearing off the well-to-do, haughty chic and unblushing rubes from taking their airs by brusque cutting, particularly by treating cut-ins to them practically as though they were insert shots. Sirk rehabilitates this frequently awkward Hollywood editing practice of moving from an establishing shot to a closer view that, regrettably, gives practically the same information as was presented before. He appears to take such cut-ins for what they are, not only unhelpful but also "out of place" and "breaking the flow." He treats them as brief interruptions in time, and re-situates the new view to outside of the bounds for the drama, pulling toward the non-diegetic. Some substantiality of the characters may dissipate, by a quick yank out of the story; yet Sirk, true to his aversion to intolerance, can use that same technique to lend the impression of characters experiencing a privileged moment and inhabiting hallowed ground.
Week-End with Father (1951) evinces several of these traits. Brad (Van Heflin) and Jean (Patricia Neal), each widowers with children, live in New York, meet and fall in love. Driving up to the country together to visit their kids at summer camp, a muscled, insipid counselor, Don (Richard Denning), imposingly hops in their convertible at the gate and unctuously directs them to a station for unloading baggage. In a sly Sirkian cut-in, attention shifts to Don, whom the camera pans with as he approaches his underlings, flashing his indelible smile. In one of the film's few departures from the family-to-be's trajectory, we move outside of its sensible though often distressed orbit, and get a taste of life the insipid and two-dimensional Don way.
While courting, Brad and Jean visit a nighttime lounge featuring a large television, prominently encased in a wall. Sirk's camera takes in other customers who are seated at the bar, composed in a strict, step-by-step fashion from middle distance to the front of the frame, as well as the TV behind them which is situated on a plane exactly parallel to it, broadcasting a singer live facing her camera. While striking near-lurid placations, she seems to "observe" and exaggerate the more everyday, tacky chat-ups among the bar hounds—are her exertions done for us? flattening the patrons to her planar existence? 
Sirk also introduces a television in All That Heaven Allows, a film that likewise traces the tribulations and tenacity of a widow. Instead of depicting a studio broadcast from a bar's TV, the director's camera portrays the woman widow's living room; it catches her reflection "in" the tube of a brand-new console, after her son and an electronics salesman bring it to her feet, an unwanted gift for Christmas Day. Now, her moment-to-moment activity in daily life and her own apparition on television seem like they can converge. As the salesman begins his pitch she will "have all the company she wants," her shadow actually appears much more ghost-like than a cheerful mimicry of an entertaining television star. She had previously protested to several people that she didn't want a TV. Facing this object, its substitution for actual living reminds her of her present loneliness, and she peers straight into a vacuity. She tells her daughter, expressing the painful belief her love affair has fallen apart, "Don't you see, the whole thing's been so pointless." Perhaps in her despair, she entertains she might as well be a generic stick figure received in America's households for diversion. Sirk daringly raises the possibility she could be, since we see her in some sense manifestly "attached" to her set and duplicating (in reverse) the inset in its glass panel; the camera dolly zeroes in on the console, past her physical self and enlarging her reflection—on one understanding, calibrating the screen size for an image by tailoring it to what is just another image. Here is where All That Heaven Allows altogether surpasses the conception for the bar scene in Week-End with Father, widely expanding the possibilities for describing personhood, being and images. For a few moments, it is legitimate to ask, where is she, and what is she?
In All That Heaven Allows, Cary (Jane Wyman), a well-off widow in a New England rural town, flags the attention of her gardener, Ron (Rock Hudson), on what turns out to be his next-to-last visit to tend her grounds. Weeks later on his final round, they awkwardly make a date—she a little timid, he a little over-confident—and Cary visits Ron's home in the woods, where he owns acreage and plans to harvest ornamental trees. Their growing love faces challenges: outwardly, from the snooty milieu of the town's socialites disapproving Ron's social tier; and inwardly, Ron's implacable individualism and Cary's overstretched cordiality both strive for a purity that demands loneliness, where it is actually a vital dedication to integrity—touching bases with the honesty and sincerity implicit in love—that they have in common. 
The film departs from banking on crowdedness to throw wrenches into illusion. Right before Ron's first visit, Cary's friend Sara (Agnes Moorhead) pulls up to share what's new among their coterie. Sara walks to Cary's patio and in a medium close-up steps along its railing, turning her head and determinedly peering into a distance, in what amounts to looking long into Cary's well-groomed street as well as far behind the camera. Prolonging her scan encourages, discreetly, our taking notice of her gesture. We never learn her motivation, and maybe there needn't be one for what could be chalked up to curiosity-seeking. But, especially coming at the film's beginning, her forceful gaze is momentous, inevitably having the effect of pushing against and beyond the space immediately in front of the camera. Sirk's past strategy for pushing spatial limits, by directing people to walk and swing across the frame in what we may palpably feel to be dire proximity to the camera, is all but cancelled out by this strong look back. Claiming a large and indeterminate swath of area for the film, by reaching into insinuated space behind the camera, seems like a particularly wily, yet understated, move by Sirk for shifting from employing tight to broadening space.
All That Heaven Allows moves into a mode of gradually gaining space, and Sirk rather thrillingly submits its growth to how Cary and Ron's relationship progresses: it subsides and increases, as their connection falters, then strengthens for rising to an obstacle. Sirk fashions a cut-in within a cut-in, starting from Cary finishing a grocery stop, then moving to the door of Ron's car, then inside the vehicle, that gracefully brings us in steps closer to the couple's maturing world. By taking a gamble on deepening love and enlarging space, he also takes the false consciousness he finds in "regular society" to a logical conclusion and spreads it, as it were, all across the screen: he thus leaves us something of a paradox of love expanding, yet disappearing from visibility. The film is perhaps the most gorgeously and dynamically "painted" of his color films up to this time, with bold reds and hot turquoises ready to snare each other at a club social attended by Cary and Sara early in the film, for instance. The societal flipside isn't spared Sirk's misgiving. The folks showing up for a potluck attended by the couple ring phony: they enter in a lineup as though called up from Central Casting, too heavily typed for a drama. The hostess's leaden line to Cary, "I guess all of us are looking for security these days," clanks so loud that its hollowness can't be misheard by as sensitive an ear as Sirk's. The director's base color for all of the irreality swirling about the couple—and, as they struggle, sometimes landing upon them as well (for example, Cary at her window alone on Christmas Eve, framed from without)—is ice cube blue: it shows up behind  Cary's children expressing suspicion to her over Ron, at the Stoningham Country Club ball, and through the skylight during dancing at the potluck. The blue accompanies stagnation, doubt and charades. The compensation is that it beautifully models.
Finally, a humble note on the film's acting, which is as shaded and rich as this visually textured film demands. All That Heaven Allows could not take life without the vibrant and attuned performances of the ensemble, particularly Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman. Both signal their respective characters' change and growth without ever in the least announcing arrival at some stage in life's way. Their professionalism and sensitivity, and their fluidity in manner makes the difference between a work greatly dreamed and one eternal.


Now ShowingDouglas SirkClose-Up
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