Douglas Sirk, Written on the Wind (1956)
Douglas Sirk was the master of 1950s Hollywood melodrama. While highly commercially successful, his films were panned by critics at the time as unimportant, overly emotional and unrealistic. Attitudes have changed in decades since and Sirk’s films gone on to inspire generations of filmmakers who emulate his thematic irony and technique.
Today’s guest blogger, Zach Clark, is a student of the Douglas Sirk School of Filmmaking. He talks about being exposed to some of Sirk’s contemporaries as a teenager, the lessons he soaked up and how they inspire his work today.
When the Buddy Holly waiter tells Vincent Vega he can have his Douglas Sirk steak “burnt to a crisp or bloody as hell,” it’s a dig and it’s the truth, too. Sirk’s films, often simple stories about women (but sometimes men) who step just beyond socially acceptable boundaries in a hopeless pursuit of happiness, operate in extremes. When tears flow, they flow hard. When the camera moves, it moves with an assured purpose. When he points a light at something, he really points a light at it. Sirk was an avant-garde theater director in Germany before moving on to filmmaking, and he brought those sensibilities fully to the melodramatic “women’s pictures” he became known for in Hollywood. Which is to say, he sees the emotional complexities bubbling under the script’s surface, and he uses heightened aesthetic choices to point to them.
Sirk’s work has left an indelible impression on art-house and independent films since, though it took a little while for them to catch on. Rainer Werner Fassbinder was the first major filmmaker to explicitly carry the torch, followed soon thereafter by John Waters. Thanks largely to these two filmmakers, and their writing, Sirk’s methods, lessons and style have spread through the indie/art-house film scenes from the ‘80s on. Aside from being name dropped in Pulp Fiction, his mark can be seen all over. His unique ability to achieve emotional truth through artifice birthed the earnest camp of Pedro Almodovar (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!) and Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine). His expressive lighting and masterful camerawork looms over the lurid hues of Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. But there’s one movie from Miramax’s canon which I discovered young, and which lays on the Sirk so thick so you could cut it with a knife.
- Ricky looks on as Marina confronts her on screen demon. In this scene: Ricky (Antonio Banderas), Marina Osorio (Victoria Abril)
- After Brian comes out at a press conference, his agent, Jerry Devine, takes the opportunity to turn his new notoriety into star power. In this scene: Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), Mandy Slade (Toni Collette), Jerry Devine (Eddie Izzard), Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale)
I first saw Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures when I was 14 or 15. On a whim, my parents and I rented it from Suncoast Video. Teenage me had just started thinking about making little movies and learning about cinema, and my experience watching this was transformative. Jackson’s camera is nothing short of operatic – grand, simultaneously purposeful and freewheeling. Despite being based on a true story, the film is full of artifice – from the hot pink and neon blue lighting schemes, to the hyper-pitched performances, to the epically surreal dream sequences. These techniques didn’t distance me from the material, they draw me helplessly into it. Without style, without artifice, the movie doesn’t work. It’s bloody as hell and it’s burnt to a crisp. And like Sirk’s work, it’s designed that way.
- Pauline and Juliet decide to run away together. In this scene: Pauline (Melanie Lynskey), Mrs. Rieper (Sarah Peirse), Juliet (Kate Winslet)
- Juliet tells Pauline about "The Fourth World," her version of the afterlife, where celebrities are saints and there are no Christians. In this scene: Pauline (Melanie Lynskey), Juliet (Kate Winslet)
- Pauline revels in her time with Juliet and her loose, liberal family. In this scene: Pauline (Melanie Lynskey), Juliet (Kate Winslet), Hilda Hulme (Diana Kent), Dr. Hulme (Clive Merrison)
Rewatching Heavenly Creatures recently, which I saw almost a decade before learning about Sirk’s oeuvre, I was struck by how much it’s effected me, and how much I continue to rip it off. I owe just as much to its expansion and re-appropriation of Sirk’s techniques as I do to Sirk himself. In writing and directing my movie White Reindeer, I wanted to deal with an emotional experience I had been through – the end and fall-out of a long-term relationship. I also wanted to make a Christmas movie. Christmas is my favorite time of year, but there’s a sadness and a strangeness to it that’s rarely put on film. Because this is a movie, I heightened the situation. Instead of a break-up, there’s a death. The main character, real estate agent Suzanne Barrington, acts with a level of bravery and a lack of rationality that I could never muster. Todd Haynes’, the Sirkiest of all contemporary filmmakers, said it best in the instructional card that opens Velvet Goldmine: “What you are about to see is a work of fiction, it should nevertheless be played at maximum volume.”
And because I wanted the audience to care about Suzanne, but to also see how strange and sad her circumstances were, I took a page from Peter Jackson by way of Douglas Sirk. I did my best to rip-off their grammar, moving the camera in to deepen the audience’s connection with the characters or to accentuate a point (“Motion is emotion,” Sirk said.) I took their expressive use of color and lighting to heart, washing the screen in blue and pink during a sexy-party set piece, dousing it in red and green during a coke-fuelled night club freak-out. And lastly, I did my best to carry out their greatest lesson, to never let style get in the way of sincerity. Despite their ironies, their exaggerations, their sometimes flat-out craziness, these characters are all living, breathing human beings, trying to do what’s they think is right, clinging to a sliver of hope.
At Q&As and in interviews, I’ll often get asked to talk about the style of the movie. The implication is that it’s unique to see a microbudget independent film whose style is not “naturalistic.” What people are ultimately responding to when they say “style” is that I make aesthetic decisions in a way that points to the fact that a decision has been made. The stock ingredients of so-called “naturalism” – hand held camera, long lenses, minimal lighting, improvised dialog – are no less aesthetic decisions than my own. Naturalism is a hoax. It’s about as close to real life as “Reality TV.” Not like that’s a bad thing. Douglas Sirk knew that, and so do Peter Jackson, Todd Haynes, Pedro Almodovar, Peter Greenaway, and Quentin Tarantino. Let us never forget that movies are fake, and let us never forget that is what gives them their power.
Watch the trailer for White Reindeer.
Zach Clark is the director of MODERN LOVE IS AUTOMATIC, VACATION! and WHITE REINDEER. His films have played across the United States and Europe at festivals including SXSW, Edinburgh, Outfest, BAMcinemaFest, and Stockholm. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.
For more on White Reindeer, visit the film’s website.