Thursday, June 26, 2008

Douglas Sirk: Imitation of Life

Douglas Sirk's 1959 classic melodrama Imitation of Life is that rare thing - an intellectually provocative film which is also an excellent exercise for the lachrymal glands. Be prepared with at least half a dozen hankies before you watch it. It didn't make me cry (but that is only me) but left me feeling quite bitter. I still prefer his earlier film All that Heaven Allows more which not only has a satirical tone which is missing in this film but also exhibits a more self-conscious critical intelligence in its expose of the hypocrisy, shallowness, cruelty and materialism of social and family life in suburban America of the 50s. Imitation of Life is actually even more bitter and the picture it presents of American society even uglier, which is all the more powerful and effective because it is presented to us through remarkably glossy and shiny images. It is this stylistic irony that makes Sirk so beloved of critics and directors, specially those who use popular genres and employ irony as a tool of social criticism. As I have mentioned many times before on this blog, I really love the Fassbinder and Todd Haynes versions of the Heaven story.

Imitation of Life tells the story of four women who struggle to make their life more than just imitations of life. Lola is an aspiring actress who has been struggling hard and having a rough time at it after her husband's death. By chance she meets a black woman Annie Johnson, mother of a daughter herself, who is herself desperate for finding a job of a housemaid because no one wants to employ a maid with a child. Lola reluctantly agrees to take her into her household. The story then follows two different threads. First is about Lora and how she navigates the sexually opportunistic world of show-business and finds success. The second thread follows Annie's daughter Sara Jane who tries to deny her racial identity (she is light-complexioned) in order to find fulfillment in life. For her denying the racial identity is same as denying her mother which is the main source of dramatic conflict, specially when the mother is so super-humanly angelic and self-sacrificing. The scene where she goes to meet her daughter in California (where she works as a backstage extra in a sleazy variety show) for the last time must be one of the saddest in the all of classical Hollywood.

The way Sirk takes the thrust of the story away from Lana Turner (the film's obvious star attraction) and the white protagonists is another subversive element which distinguishes it from other soapy-melodramas. To give black characters autonomy and their own subjectivities must have been revolutionary at that time, when they were mostly consigned to supporting and stereotyped roles. Also the way he deals with the thorny question of racial (and in general any persecuted minority) identity is pretty sophisticated. Sara Jane can't understand why she can't live like a white person when she has a white skin. In a society which is racist and discriminatory identity is not something one can just simply choose. And in such a society repudiating who one is is an unethical and politically reactionary act, even when one doesn't identify explicitly with the group. It is Sara Jane's tragedy that she can't fathom the true ethical horror of her decision, at least not until it is too late. The actors who play Annie and Sara Jane (Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner) are also both astonishingly good. They were deservedly nominated for Oscars though they didn't win. There is also a brilliant and very moving rendition of a gospel song at the end of the film by renowned gospel singer Mahalia Jackson (billed prominently in the credits). The film was also a huge box office smash but was dismissed by critics as being too soapy and melodramatic. It was only in 70s that Sirk's films grew in reputation with european critics and directors like Fassbinder started championing him. Sirk had retired long before, in fact it was his last film in hollywood, he went back to Europe and lived a life of retirement and occasionally teaching at film school).

I need to see some of his other films too - specially The Magnificent Obsession. In any case Imitation of Life and All that Heaven Allows are two of the finest melodramas made in Hollywood. Just keep those hankies ready.


puccinio said...

''Imitation of Life'' is my favourite of Sirk's melodramas. It's really a very novelistic film. In the sense it has the density of a grand novel.

I DID cry at the film and always do so both during the final meeting between Annie and Sarah Jane and during Mahalia Jackson's song(one of the great musical moments in film history). The title of the gospel song is "Trouble of the World". It's about leaving the trouble of the world, the pain, the sorrow and essentially finding the long sought peace with the Lord, at death. It has obvious resonance with Annie's character.

Much of my feelings about the film is beautifully described in this piece on Sirk and this film by Tag Gallagher:


It's also a good description about the reaction of general audiences at the time towards the film.

I'm surprised that you think the film shows Juanita Moore's character as "angelic". Certainly very noble and kind but deeply sad. Her character can only be happy in that society by being pragmatic, by accepting the limitations which her daughter refuses and hates. That's the whole pathology of her wanting to be "white".

Sirk doesn't pass judgment on her for doing that although he certainly doesn't think that's right or should ever be right. Like that scene where she carries that tray on her head and basically runs the stereotype of African-Americans is certainly meant for the audience to understand why she does it.

More than any other film ''Imitation of Life'' shows how truly awful it was for black people to live in a pre-Civil Rights society. And it's also penetrating because it doesn't present a cliched politically correct picture of racism. Like Lana Turner's character never really understands that she's been a racist all these years even if she never really hurt either Annie or Sarah Jane deliberately during their time together. The fact that she took for granted their status as second-class citizens is what Sirk really underlines.

And also beautiful was the fact that the Sandra Dee character becomes more mature than her mother when she decides to go to college on her own and especially in that bit when she says that Annie was more a mother to her than Lora.

''Imitation of Life'' emotional exuberance might do with the echoes it had to Sirk's personal life. Sirk had a son with his first wife and when they divorced, she became a Nazi-supporter and refused to allow Sirk to see his boy. Sirk and the woman who became his second wife(a Jewish lady) stayed back in Germany and Sirk made movies in the Nazi era(though himself never a Nazi) in an attempt to rescue his son(who was also a child star). He failed and eventually escaped Germany for the states. Years later he learnt that his son died during the war, shot in Russia. Sirk didn't have any more children. You can sense that he related to Annie's pain near the end of the film. Because that's an only child too.

I need to see some of his other films too

My favourite of his films is ''A Time to Love and A Time to Die'' whih Godard noted had the best title of all time. It's also an example of a kind of film that was made in Hollywood by big studios moreover, in the 50's that just can't be made today. It looks at Germany in the final stages of WW2 but tells it entirely from the perspective of Nazis and a Nazi soldier on furlough.The film is a heartbreaking love story but also doubles as a critical examination of Germany's complicity with the Nazis during the war all done without a whiff of political correctness and all the more asking the audience what could they have done if they were in their shoes.

Jean-Pierre Melville(director of ''Army of Shadows'') said that it was his favourite Sirk film.

''Written on the Wind'' is also great among his melodramas. Not a big fan of ''Magnificent Obsession''. Other great Sirks include ''The Tarnished Angels''(the only Faulkner adaptation liked by the author) and two B+W films starring Barbara Stanwyck, ''All I Desire'' and ''There's Always Tomorrow''.

The bad news, save for ''Written on the Wind'' none of this is on DVD in the US. Get an All-Region DVD player or a computer, get Amazon France and watch 'em.

puccinio said...

The Tag Gallagher article didn't link right.


Maybe this'll solve the problem.

Alok said...

thanks for the comment as always!

That "troubles of the world" song really left me stunned and haunted. It is so incredibly powerful. I agree, it is one of the greatest uses of a single song in film ever.

"Angelic" wasn't the most proper adjective perhaps. It is clear that she has suffered a lifetime of indignities and hardships with a resigned sadness, and her death seems to be like an ultimate stage of her resignation and a despair barely concealed under the stoic exterior. Like in many other melodramas passivity and resignation are meant to spur us into thinking about the real causes.. it certainly doesn't celebrate her sacrifices in this sense, we are supposed to see it critically.

Also I missed pointing this out in the post... the film also very subtly criticises the idealistic evasion practiced by people like the Lana Turner character...people who use shallow sentiment in order to avoid thinking about the real troubling questions. They may not be racists but certainly played a big role in the continuation of systematic racism in society.

Thanks for the link to the senses of cinema article... I am reading it now. Also thanks for the tips to the Barbara Stanwyck pictures (always welcome)... will see if i can find a dvd somewhere.

puccinio said...

They may not be racists but certainly played a big role in the continuation of systematic racism in society.

Yeah. Which makes it's phenomenal box-office success all the more surprising. It made more money than ''Psycho'' and was the biggest hit at Universal until the ''Airport'' movies in the 70's.

The funny thing about a film like ''Imitation of Life'' is that unlike ''All That Heaven Allows'' or ''Written on the Wind'' where a fair bit of reading-between-the-frames needs to be done, is quite direct in it's concerns.

Take that shocking scene where the two little girls(in the childhood section) are told about Jesus during Christmas and Sarah Jane asks "Was Jesus white or black?" and Lana Turner says the usual stock safe answer, "he's any colour you want him to be?" and then the two girls ask if that means Jesus wasn't a real person and more like a fairy tale. And then Annie says that Jesus was a real person. And then Sarah Jane says, "I bet he was me!" and essentially goes unchecked for that remark and it's never brought up again.

Imagine pitching that scene to bosses today and there would be huge uproar about political correctness and upsetting religious and racial sentiments.

They may not be racists but certainly played a big role in the continuation of systematic racism in society.

Yeah. But at the same time they aren't bad people and Lana Turner really does care genuinely for Sarah Jane even though she doesn't(or can't) understand her. ''Imitation of Life'' looks at racism intellectually and the film really digs deeper in highlighting the fact that racial discrimination is really a result of patriarchal oppression. Like Lora in the start faces all the problems a widow has to face in a world before the feminist movement.

In fact most of the men are either stiffs like John Gavin or Dan O'Herlihy at best or lechers or brutal punks like that guy who beats Sarah Jane up when he finds out that she's mixed-race(really shocking bit of violence, graphically and emotionally).

That bit I cited about Sandra Dee saying that Annie was more a mother to her than Lora was is really an optimistic point on Sirk's part. That maybe the next generation can break out of that cycle, that curse. Sandra Dee plays essentially a sweet but bland girl(like much of her career) for much of the film but in the final section after talking a lot with Annie she becomes more mature and pretty witty like in the iconic, ''Oh mother, stop acting!'' bit.

And what the great deathbed scene(worthy of Dovzhenko) underlines and drives home is that Lana Turner realizes that somehow Annie despite her suffering and the like has known more people than she did and essentially run her house and that it was more her home than hers, the owner. And despite her sad life, that might be her sole consolation, a kind of victory in defeat, that somehow she's the only character who managed to get a sense of real life rather than an imitation of it.

puccinio said...

By the way there's this excellent interview with Sirk on the web site "Bright Lights Film Journal"

km said...

Sirk is one of my favorites. (Though I am more partial to "All that heaven allows")

Alok said...

puccinio: that Tag Gallagher article was very good. thanks.

Yes, that christmas scene was on my mind when I mentioned idealistic evasion. Any regular writer-director would have stopped at the Lana Turner's answer (Jesus is what you want him to be) but Sara Jane's reply is what makes it clear that how pessmistic is Sirk about political solutions which are based entirely on individual human sentiments and noble intentions. And I agree, it will probably raise a lot of eyebrows even now...

This is also one of things that keep coming to my mind when I watch a Frank Capra film (Mr. Smith, Meet John Doe and specially It's a Wonderful Life)... Capra is aware of and can see straight through the dark heart of American capitalism and politics but thinks that it can be transformed by appealing to human sentiments. He of course makes it so powerful (and sincere) that it becomes almost impossible to deny... but there is a contrast in political thinking there. Of course Fassbinder as a Sirk-acolyte is at the other extreme..

I didn't know the real life story of Sirk with his lost son. Really sounds like a plot of one of those melodramas... "Life is the most melodramatic story of all" As he said!!

km: These are the only two of his films I have seen so far. They are both my favourites too.

puccinio said...

Capra is aware of and can see straight through the dark heart of American capitalism and politics but thinks that it can be transformed by appealing to human sentiments. He of course makes it so powerful (and sincere) that it becomes almost impossible to deny... but there is a contrast in political thinking there.

Well Frank Capra never claimed to be a political thinker. Sirk obviously is one. A university man as he said so himself. The book cited extensively by Tag, "Sirk on Sirk" is a work of film-criticism by a film-maker much more it is a Hitchcock-Truffaut style biographical-interview. Sirk was the most vocal of major directors to open the lid on the fact that most American directors ended their films with fake happy endings like the one in ''All That Heaven Allows'' as a way of appeasing the censors and keepers of good taste.

Capra's thing is that his artistic instincts were more progressive than his own political beliefs. A bit like Leo McCarey or Howard Hawks. Outwardly he may believe in the American Dream with all his hearts but his films show the complexity and difficulty of that dream, of those ideals, of reality. He tells you the truth and sells you the dream with equal sincerity. Much like Charles Dickens.

At the same time Capra doesn't think that the Capitalist system can be "transformed" by sentiments. Only individuals. Like in ''Mr. Smith'', the thing about the "only causes worth fighting for are lost causes" gets Claude Rains to confess but the millionaire running that political machine who no doubt suffers a setback is curiously absent in that resolution. At the end of ''It's A Wonderful Life!'', George Bailey is helped out by family and friends, individuals of a select community who he has helped but Mr. Potter is unpunished and unrepentant.

And of course the fact is that small towns like Bedford Falls did become exactly like Pottersville in real life. The message of Capra is that at best you can bring a change in individuals and inspire them to be better. It's not at all socialist or revolutionary, in fact it's likely conservative but that's the extent of Capra's optimism.

that Tag Gallagher article was very good. thanks.

You're welcome. He's one of the best film best writers. Film criticism closer to philosophical tracts than banal reviews. Has very eclectic tastes as well...Ford, Rossellini, Sirk, Ulmer, Renoir, Sternberg, Vidor. He's not a big fan of Hitchcock, unfortunately, but he's written a great article on him on that website, search it out.

I didn't know the real life story of Sirk with his lost son. Really sounds like a plot of one of those melodramas... "Life is the most melodramatic story of all" As he said!!

Yeah. I was shocked when I learnt that. But it made sense why ''Imitation of Life'' felt so personal compared to the more famous melodramas. He urged interviewers not to mention that during his lifetime and that's only come out after his death and not mentioned by most commentators either.

''A Time To Love and A Time To Die'' is highly autobiographical in that regard, since the character played by John Gavin(who acts for the first time in his career there) is essentially his own son. That's not a big spoiler since the film is bigger than his tragedy. It's a completely forgotten film and it's definitely a major film of that period.

It's based on an Erich Maria Remarque novel of a similar title,(a time to LIVE instead of LOVE) and the author himself acts in the film as a university professor and gives a beautiful performance.