Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Famous Last Scene

Another piece on Douglas Sirk...

The Famous Last Scene - Douglas Sirk, Imitation of Life 
The last scene of Imitation of Life is a piece of anthology. 
There are those who didn’t know the film. Until then, we felt sorry for them. Now, we can say: “Go! Go see it.” since it’s released again (at the Action Christine). There are those who have seen it, once, and who saw it again, more than once, or have been told about it. Imitation of Life? Ah, yes, the final scene with Mahalia Jackson that no one - whether animal, plant or mineral - can remain unmoved by? The moment when whoever hasn’t already been transformed in a human mop feels he’s sobbing? The famous last scene of Imitation of Life? Let’s talk about it. 
So, Annie Johnson dies of sorrow because her daughter Sarah Jane has disowned her (and her race) and has decided to live away as a white girl. By the deathbed, a few seconds ago, we were already crying: Lana Turner was devastated, Sandra Dee looked like a little old lady, the expressionless John Gavin looked despondent. Then suddenly, change of scenery, low-angle shot on a (big) black woman: Mahalia Jackson sings Trouble in the World! Known Cinephile Shock (KCS). It’s the funeral of Annie Johnson with great pomp and music: four white horses pull a black carriage loaded with a mountain of white roses. The bad daughter arrives almost too late to embrace the coffin screaming “I killed her.” Tears. 
This famous last scene is strong. This great moment of American Melodrama is also a tour de force. The last time I saw the film, overcoming my pain, I had the strength to ask myself if Douglas Sirk’s secret wasn’t precisely here. This final scene is overwhelming precisely because we are suddenly wondering if it’s the same film that continues. We remember a short scene where Annie, already sick, mentioned proudly having sorted every details of her funeral. Of another scene where Lora Meredith, as an aside to a conversation, discovered (with the great idiocy of sympathetic white bosses) that Annie, the good and faithful Annie, existed outside her household. And what did Annie Johnson do? She looked after religion, she was baptist, she belonged to several congregations, was good and bigoted, a bit Auntie Tom but with many friends. 
And the friends are all here. From the children in Sunday clothes to the priests with their serious look as professionals of spirituality. Gospel, dignity, the black people in mourning: Swing high, swing low, sweet chariot. And the suspicion gets confirmed: what if she was the main character of the film? Annie Johnson. What if we had known and seen nothing? But then, what film did we see? 
Let’s be honest, the resistible rise of Lora Meredith, the platinum blonde queen of the stage and the screen, is of little interest. Worse: few films have shown with so much polite indifference the mediocrity of the American Dream, its silly romantic fury, its stupid bravura. It required the gaze of Detlef Sierck. It required the talent of Douglas Sirk at the end of his Hollywood career so that Lora Meredith, with her twenty four costumes and her Woolworth-style bovarism generates a suspicion in the audience. What if all this care to make up, dress and dress again, age and make look young this imitation of a star that then was Lana Turner was only there to deceive? Or to suggest that one should have looked elsewhere, where the black people is. 
For Annie Johnson is the pivotal character of the film. A mother was hiding another mother. The black one was the right one, the other only an artefact. But the black mother comes with a problem: she’s black. In true Hollywood logic, she needs to at least die so that her friends, the black people, have the right to be in the image. In extremis, the thirty seconds of Mahalia Jackson cancel an hour and a half of Lana Turner. This is why, in this “famous last scene”, a bit of regret joins our tears. We cry for the other film, the one we haven’t seen, with Lana Turner in a small role. 
Mirror = abyss 
The hypocrisy of Hollywood is without limit. In 1958, Universal could accept a film about “the racial question” but if possible without any blacks. Only one filmmaker could handle such a contradiction: Douglas Sirk. As any good film critic will tell you: Sirk is the filmmaker of the mirror. Nothing puzzles him more than the abyss between the thing reflected and the distorted reflection. An abyss with no end. A mirror only ever gives us the image of an image. An image hides another, comes instead of another. There’s no way out (that’s the kitsch effect). 
It’s precisely because she has had this immodest and vengeful idea of a grandiose funeral that Annie Johnson accedes (post-mortem) to the status of image. The famous last scene of Imitation of Life is also: welcome to the kingdom of imitation, dear Annie. And fake needs to be fabricated. It’s a whole profession, and not one of the worse ones. Sirk’s films are a bit like Charon’s trip. Any character transported to the bank of the screen has become an imitation. Like the cascade of fake diamonds in the title scene. There’s no exception. The art of cinema is only the barge and the tears the consequence of a light heartache.
First published in Libération on May 3rd 1982. Reprinted in La maison cinéma et le monde, 2. Les années Libé 1981-1985, P.O.L., 2002, pp.320-322.

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.