If you like your dramas melo, than Douglas Sirk is your man. Bringing weepy plots and lavish production design to the screen throughout his career, Sirk is frequently cited as also bringing subtle ironies into play.
I’ve always had a bit of trouble with Sirk. On one hand, his technical competence is unquestionable. He generally gets quite good performances, and it’s hard to argue that many of his casting choices (Rock Hudson, anyone?) aren’t meant to be tongue-in-cheek. But at the same time, his characters are frequently paper-thin in the development department and make huge love-boasting leaps on the regular.
Imitation of Life is Sirk’s last feature film, and is the second adaptation of Fannie Hurst’s novel to grace the big screens. The film was also made in 1934 with Claudette Colbert and Fredi Washington. The plot is, in any sense of the word, progressive. In a time of racial upheaval it deals with ideas of miscegenation and racial identity. Lana Turner plays Lora Meredith, an aspiring actress who takes in Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) and Juanita’s daughter, Sarah Jane (played by Susan Kohner who gives, for my money, the best turn in the film). Sarah Jane looks surprisingly white given her African American mother, and gradually becomes more and more resentful of her cultural identity.
As always, where Sirk succeeds is with his production design and color schemes. Remember Todd Hayne’s Far From Heaven (2002)? Well it was not only a remake of Sirk’s finest film All That Heaven Allows, but also patterned itself off of Sirk’s stylistic choices.
The tone is set during a fantastic opening credit sequence. Diamonds fall in slow motion on a black screen as the titles appear. It’s got the sobriety of Now, Voyager coupled with the decadence of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes:
Many of Sirk’s images are typical Americana. I’m reminded of Ray’s Bigger Than Life three years earlier. Both directors parody the middle-class American dream by making everything oh so perfect. Lora models a flea powder as she tries to climb the acting ladder:
Perhaps the most “Sirk-ian” shot (I see Blue Velvet in everything, but there’s no denying Sirk’s influence on Lynch’s small-town America. Remember those bright red fire engines and flowers at the beginning of that film?). Red pops in the foreground, not only giving depth to the image, but a reminder that, despite the dreary mise-en-scene and scene that is playing out, we’re still in the world of idealism:
Sirk’s women. That’s Kohner in the back with the pink-ish dress. It’s worth noting that Kohner plays the role that Fredi Washington played in the original version. Fredi Washington was a light-skinned black woman. Kohner was of Mexican descent
Sirk doesn’t often shoot through things, but here’s a look at one such frame. It’s a dark moment, perhaps the darkest and most poignant in the film, where Sarah Jane’s identity issues have come to a head. Sirk places us away from the action:
Two more frames that scream Sirk’s design to me. The candle in the foreground echoes that fire hydrant from earlier. A man looms, leering at the dancing Sarah Jane (in a great scene). The pink walls also echo a more risque/adult version of Lora’s daughter Susie’s (Sandra Dee) bedroom, seen to the right here. Comparing the two images is interesting. The left has more depth, but a forced depth (that candle, the man) and a low, intense angle. The right still has some depth, but is framed more traditionally, with an obvious divider. We’ve moved from the lurid underground to a barbie doll playhouse.
One year before Imitation of Life was made, Lana Turner’s daughter was caught in a scandal, having murdered her mother’s perhaps-abusive boyfriend Tony Stompanato. The casting of Turner in this film certainly plays on the real-life drama. While there’s no murderous rage, there is a man that may or may not come between mother and daughter. Sirk’s casting – similar to the homosexual Rock Hudson as the ultimate man’s man – is a wink wink to the audience that would be very aware of current events and be able to quickly equate fiction with reality and vice versa.
A few other things struck me about Imitation of Life. Lora Meredith gets her start as a comedian. We never see Lana Turner actually deliver a successful punchline on-screen. The only time we see her try is during an audition that she nearly botches with a terrible delivery. Seems pretty intentional to me. Does Lana Turner have a comedic bone in her body? I can’t think of any roles – to that point (I haven’t seen 1962’s Who’s Got the Action…though now I just might) – where Turner’s gotten laughs. More irony from Sirk.
As mentioned, this would be a pretty racially progressive film, but it can yield several reads. Annie stays pretty darn subservient for the whole film and is eventually eased into the role of maid (mammy) that Turner’s Meredith seems to keen to avoid. Is this just another black stereotype? Or is it a comment on the lack of actual progress and white ignorance?
Lots to like in here, for sure. Still, some of the script moments – Steve Archer’s (John Gavin) sudden profession of love (after what, two dates?); Annie’s poorly developed and inevitable illness (it reminds me of Mildred Pierce. Don’t cough in a movie. Or your dead.); ten years passing where – as Lora even says aloud to Steve – none of the adults really physically age – leave quite a bit to be desired.
I don’t know that one watches Sirk for his plot progression, clean narrative transitions, and character development. In some ways, to make a comment on, as here, race relations, it’s necessary to work with familiar cardboard cutout figures.
More From 2012:
I’ll probably get to separate posts on Snowtown Murders, Django Unchained, The Grey, Argo and The Master. I hope. In the meantime, here are a few more that I caught from this last year:
End of Watch (Ayer, 2012)
I had no desire to see this and really only did because a good friend liked it. I’m really glad I did. I mentioned this in an earlier post, but man, I was blown away – absolutely floored – by the performances from Gyllenhaal and Pena. Both of these guys deserve some serious recognition, and they aren’t going to get it. It’s the little things. The way they point, walk, joke. They nail that macho, cop attitude. I’m very impressed.
The script’s got a few issues. Some of the Mexican gang members are really annoying and over-the-top. A cutaway to the gang planning on the rooftop, and then another to the cartel giving some orders (as shot from what – a US DEA camera? Does that mean that the DEA knew and didn’t do anything…?) is completely unnecessary, only there for the truly slow audience member, kills some momentum, and makes less suspenseful an otherwise-strong conclusion.
The 1st-person camera gets annoying, but it holds its own better than some other recent entries in that mode.
Killing Them Softly (Dominik, 2012)
Man, I wanted to like this film. I really, really loved The Assassination of Jesse James. Killing Them Softly’s got some moments – a fantastic monologue from Brad Pitt at the end and a Velvet Underground-scored drug sequence with some imaginative camerawork, in particular – but it ultimately falls a bit flat on the plotting end.
A few things: I don’t have a problem with the (some have said ‘heavy-handed’) economic backdrop. It’s fine and even lent itself to some nice sound moments (more on that later). But the film is basically plotless. It’s sort of a revenge film with one or two funny moments, a great turn by Pitt, and no tension. It’s an angry film, but one that gets repetitive quickly, and really feels like watching a slow execution more than anything else.
James Gandolfini plays Tony Soprano yet again, and though he does a damn good job, it’s tired. A crazy slow-motion shooting sequence involving Pitt, Scoot McNairy (excellent here) and Ray Liotta (always great) is fun to watch from a digital glass perspective, but it’s over-the-top, and doesn’t fit in with the downbeat mood – isn’t killing supposed to be a chore? Isn’t it supposed to be not fun? Isn’t Pitt supposed to ‘kill them softly’? It doesn’t fit.
But…and this is a major but…the sound in Killing Them Softly is truly incredible. The opening of the film is really fantastic. A long crosscut between McNairy’s Frankie walking outside and the titles is also an aural crosscut between an Obama speech and moody roomtone. It’s so effective and sets the stage for (some of) what’s to come. Later, the sound in a Ray Liotta beatdown scene is just as effective – ducking and raising, with exaggerated raindrops and punch sounds. It’s great stuff.
Beasts of the Southern Wild (Zeitlin, 2012)
I don’t have much more to add to what I’ve said in past blogs and the review at the end of these sentences. Beasts isn’t a perfect film – it meanders a bit, plays to our sympathies to easily at times – but it’s really damn good. Performances, camera, storytelling…it’s all there. It’s inspiring and fun and avoids cheesiness – tough to do. Here’s that review: http://www.montgomerynews.com/articles/2012/07/22/entertainment/doc4ffc7e1933d58674751929.txt