Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Tarnished Angels

For those watching the Douglas Sirk retrospective on MUBI (UK), here's a short extract of a review of The Tarnished Angels by Serge Daney.
The Tarnished Angels, Douglas Sirk   
(...)  We know Fritz Lang’s (mean) small phrase on Cinemascope: “it’s only good for snakes and funerals.” Strictly speaking, there aren’t any snakes in Douglas Sirk’s films (although there’s a lot of crawling and an abundance of venom) but there are first rate funerals and wakes are pieces of bravura. Sirk is perhaps the filmmaker that Lang wasn’t thinking of, the one that was good - naturally good - with Cinemascope, and The Tarnished Angels was the film we were burning to watch again. We did watch it again. We were right to burn.   
Lang was right too. It was wrong to believe, as in the mid-Fifties, that Cinemascope would give the audience more to see. Experience proved the contrary. More things, yes, but less to see. The Cinemascope-gaze opens wide too quickly on the image; and too wide a reach means smaller grasp, drifting and spoils. From a deformed world, it only brings back magnified cattle and emptied space. Lang, as a surveyor, had no use for a curved space that treats gaze like a boomerang, but it’s this curve that Sirk, as a Baroque, loved, like his friend and disciple Fassbinder. In his great films of the Universal period, between 1954 and 1959, the ex-Detlef Sierck always knew why Cinemascope was beautiful. Beautiful, yes, but like an unkept promise.  
Beautiful like an unkept promise, the Sirkian world - a circus - meets the Faulknerian world - a mess. The history of film is full of great writers betrayed by small film directors. Not this time. Legend has it that, of all the films adapted from his writings, Faulkner only tolerated The Tarnished Angels, a film that Douglas Sirk, inversely, said he didn’t like. Perhaps it required a non-American (Sirk is German) to reconcile, for the duration of a film, Hollywood and the opposite of Hollywood, Literature that is. Perhaps it needed a Baroque to use Cinemascope in that way: never to add space, but to remind that at the heart of this silly merry-go-round, space is missing ad nauseam. Sirk films airplane competitions like routine flights and he films intimate scenes like air raids. 
What takes a lot of space in The Tarnished Angels is not the plane that twists and turns in the sky and crashes in the sea, but Dorothy Malone on a sofa, folding her legs before telling her life story; a child sleeping at the foot of a bed; Roger Schumann throwing the dice to abolish chance; Burke Devlin walking on the runway like a bear with his popcorn and newspaperman’s notepad. Short, meaningless movements that are suddenly endowed with space: unforgettable. It’s this promiscuity made of confessions, monologues, stories and text. It’s this light (Irving Glassberg was in charge of photography) that doesn’t come from the sky but from a night-light that still burns at dawn when all other fires have been put out. It’s this black and white that only means the colours have ended up deserting this world grown pale. Promises (of space, of light, of colours) unkept for so long that we have forgotten to have one day hoped something from this gloomy hell. (...)  

First published in Libération on 1 April 1985. Reprinted in La maison cinéma et le monde, 2. Les années Libé 1981-1985, P.O.L. editions, Paris, 2002, pp. 339-340.

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