It is perhaps not entirely the fault of Generation Y college kids that they can’t all appreciate a good Douglas Sirk movie when they see it, the one in question being his 1956 opus Written on the Wind. Great melodramas of the 1950s and 60s are in a time capsule long since buried, resurrected only occasionally in films like Todd Haynes’ 2002 homage Far from Heaven (which has a design directly influenced by Sirk). Young film majors today are probably unaccustomed to the over-the-top soap opera style of Sirk’s glorious output.
When my class and I watched Written on the Wind, I loved it, even though it is not as emotionally overwhelming as Sirk’s masterpiece, All That Heaven Allows (1955). Allows is a film which induced me to weep buckets upon buckets of tears as I sat with a friend in the somewhat empty theater of the Museum of the Moving Image last December. Anyway, I love the Sirkian mode, and not in some pretentious and/or ironic way. I really get into the spirit of the thing; his kind of storytelling moves me.
Earlier tonight my class watched a few more examples of Sirk’s oeuvre: the beginning and end of Magnificent Obsession (1954), the trailer of All That Heaven Allows and a short clip from the black-and-white Faulkner adaptation The Tarnished Angels (1957). My professor gave a succinct overview of the career of Rock Hudson, who starred in all three films and also Written on the Wind, thusly: he was handsome, he was popular, he died of AIDS. End of story, as far as the class could tell.
The class collectively rolled their eyes at Hudson’s stoic line readings. Is that how they felt during Written on the Wind? Does nobody else enjoy Rock Hudson’s cinematic presence? Obviously these students have never seen any of the delightful romantic comedies he made with Doris Day, including Lover Come Back (1961), which has wit and charm to spare. Instead, while watching Magnificent Obsession, I heard a lot of guffaws and the plaintive wail of a confused girl in the back row: “But why is he prepping for surgery without clothes?” (Hudson plays a doctor and we were watching a scene where he was not yet in his scrubs.) Apparently the sight of a shirtless man only qualifies as pure visual pleasure in certain circumstances or decades of film history.
Maybe my issue is more with a lack of appreciation for Douglas Sirk than it is for Rock Hudson. Sirk’s films are so artfully composed, even if the stories are trashy. The mark of a true cinematic artist is when any one frame of a given film by that director can be viewed and admired as an expression of both beauty and narrative. Couldn’t you imagine the above shot as a painting? I know I could. Douglas Sirk’s films might be an acquired taste, but titles like the ones mentioned and others, including All I Desire, There’s Always Tomorrow, Interlude and Imitation of Life, are what I call necessary cinema.