Archive for the ‘Douglas Sirk’ Category

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“Far From Heaven,” dir. Todd Haynes

October 15, 2009
Dennis Haysbert (Raymond Deagan) and Julianne Moore (Cathy Whitaker)

Dennis Haysbert (Raymond Deagan) and Julianne Moore (Cathy Whitaker)

Going in, the concept felt odd. Unlike Fassbinder (who re-worked Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows into his own masterpiece, Ali: Fear Eats The Soul), Haynes retains the look and feel of Sirk’s films right down to the smallest detail. The result is neither derivative nor an ironic statement – it’s a loving homage that’s every bit as rich as its sources. And yet even as it keeps all the artifice and heightened drama of those pictures, it’s even more affecting.

The story is a classic portrayal of 1950s suburbia: societal rules suffocates true passions, and it covers them in alluring, manufactured surfaces. Everyone knows their place, to the point that they’re accessories to their own clothes. It’s easy to peg this to a bygone era (and understandably so, considering how impeccably it’s been recreated), but as devoted as the film is to the period’s detail, it never betrays a hint of condescension. Everything is relevant today. Laws and societal conventions may have changed, but the feelings of conformity, the importance given to appearances, and the cost of living in self-denial behind such pretenses have not gone away.

And those costs are all the more tragic by how much is self-inflicted. As tormented as Frank is about his homosexuality, he becomes far more furious when Cathy’s seen around town with Raymond. Believing her innocence is not enough, it’s how they’re perceived that really matters.

Given the importance of appearances to this story, the meticulous production is not only appropriate but very impressive. It’s marvelous to look at, and one gets the sense of the director’s hand in every detail, a misguided notion that’s really a testament to the outstanding collaborative work on display.

Cathy meets Raymond's daughter, Sarah

Cathy meets Raymond's daughter, Sarah

Sandy Powell deserves recognition for Moore’s costume designs alone. Notice how they hint at an inner kinship between Cathy and Raymond’s daughter, Sarah; how a purple dress can isolate her in her own world, then beautifully blend her in to a new one; and later how they swallow her up in public anonymity. All of this works in tandem with Haynes and Lachman’s virtuosic use of color, which do more to define these characters than the dialogue itself. In two key moments, the startling use of green breaks up the visual and behavioral status quo. In another, Cathy, too distraught to speak, is frozen in a tiny sheet of blue. And later, when she hangs on to a marriage that can only slip away, bursts of autumnal warmth scurry through a shot cast in deep, cold blue. This is possibly the best use of color since three-strip went out of fashion, and it needs to be seen in a good theater.

"Far From Heaven"

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What criticism can do…

August 30, 2009

Last year, at the New York Film Festival’s panel on film criticism, Jonathan Rosenbaum reminded the audience that “it’s very important to connect film to things outside of film…to the rest of your life, to other arts, things that are happening to you. If it’s an important art form, it’s important because it addresses the way we live.”

That virtue’s often lost in film criticism, and these days, it seems like a lot of it’s out there to cash in on hyperbole. But when criticism isn’t busy arbitrating taste, it can help the audience take more away from a picture and to view cinema in a way that makes it that much more meaningful.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Rainer Werner Fassbinder

The best example I’ve ever seen came from the German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, when he wrote about Douglas Sirk, a Hollywood filmmaker who specialized in melodramas.

Fassbinder didn’t talk about Sirk the way most critics talk about movies, he talked about them the way you might talk about a relative or a friend who’s experienced a difficult stretch in their lives. Sirk’s films may have been glamourous and over-the-top, but filtered through Fassbinder, the characters seemed down-to-earth and much more relatable. No matter how campy they seemed, how outrageous they became, Fassbinder turned your eyes just a little bit, enough that you could see how real they were underneath the garish Technicolor, with the same fears, wants, pains and happiness that any of us can have.

Fassbinder was a great critic, and it was even better to see him take what he saw in Sirk’s films and push it back out in his own work. But more importantly, Sirk’s films helped him “understand something about the world and what it was doing” to him. Fassbinder wrote that, and he meant it.

Douglas Sirk's "Imitation of Life"

Douglas Sirk's "Imitation of Life"

Fassbinder’s essay on Imitation of Life, courtesy of Google books.