We need more directors willing to take risks with films like Get Out.
Opinion on the melodramas of Douglas Sirk has flip-flopped since his key films were released in the 1950s. At the time, critics ridiculed them and the public lapped them up. Today most viewers dismiss them as pop trash, but in serious film circles Sirk is considered a great filmmaker--a German who fled Hitler to become the sly subverter of American postwar materialism.
One cold night this winter, I went up to the Everyman Cinema in Hampstead, north of London, to see a revival of a restored print of Sirk's “Written on the Wind” (1956). This is a perverse and wickedly funny melodrama in which you can find the seeds of “Dallas,” “Dynasty,” and all the other prime-time soaps. Sirk is the one who established their tone, in which shocking behavior is treated with passionate solemnity, while parody burbles beneath.
All the reviews of this movie seem to involve lists: It's about wealth, alcoholism, nymphomania, impotence, suicide, and veiled elements of incest and homosexuality. And the theme song, by Sammy Cahn, is sung by the Four Aces. The pieces are in place for a film you can mock and patronize. But my fellow audience members sat in appreciative silence (all right, they snickered a little when Rock Hudson is told it's time to get married and replies, “I have trouble enough just finding oil”).
To appreciate a film like “Written on the Wind” probably takes more sophistication than to understand one of Ingmar Bergman's masterpieces, because Bergman's themes are visible and underlined, while with Sirk the style conceals the message. His interiors are wildly over the top, and his exteriors are phony--he wants you to notice the artifice, to see that he's not using realism but an exaggerated Hollywood studio style. The Manhattan skyline in an early scene is obviously a painted backdrop. The rear-projected traffic uses cars that are 10 years too old. The swimming hole at the river, where the characters make youthful promises they later regret, is obviously a tank on a sound stage with fake scenery behind it.