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  • 128 Towards a n Analysis of th e Sirkian System Paul Willemen* Since the Screen issue of Summer 1971 , a grea t deal has been written on Sirk's work; th e interview book, Sirk

on Sirk 1 by Jon

Halliday was published and a book of essays compiled by th e Edinburgh Film Festival and edited by Jon Halliday and Laura Mulvey, Douglas Sirk 2 was published recently. In addition, th e magazine Monogram devoted a special issue to th e melodrama with special emphasis on Sirk's work and Positif reviewed the Screen issue, adding new material, some of which was translated int o English and included in th e Edinburgh book. In conjunction with th e book, th e Edinburgh Film Festival mounted an extensive retro - spective of Sirk's work which was subsequently taken over en-bloc by th e National Film Theatre. Douglas Sirk himself spent a grea t deal of time and energy answering questions and helping critics and students in th e arduous bu t rewarding task they had se t themselves: to try and understand how a Sirk film works. As Jon Halliday points out in Douglas Sirk (p6o), Sirk ha s been praised either for his stylistic qualities or else for being a maste r of th e weepie. With th e exception of th e two articles by Halliday and J-L Bourget, the essays in Douglas Sirk reflect these two appar- ently irreconcilable approaches. Sirk is either praised for making

extraordinary films in spite of th e exigencies of th e weepie as a »

genre, or else i t is the weepie-genre itself which is validated, and Sirk is brought forward as it s most accomplished practitioner. Indeed i t is these genuine contradictions within th e work of Douglas Sirk which to some extent invite bot h approaches. In order to understand this contradiction and to assess th e function of such contradictions in th e Sirkian system, one must again turn to Sirk's theatrical experience in Germany in th e twenties. In 1929 Sirk staged Brecht's Threepenny Opera with im- mense success, As left-wing intellectuals in th e German theatrical world, bot h artists reacted against expressionism, although i t is quite clear tha t both were equally influenced by th e movement. Brecht's early plays bear witness t o this, as do some of Sirk's Hollywood films; The Tarnished Angels in particular. In fact, Sirk makes a direct allusion to expressionist ideas in th e phantasmagoria speech in Captain Lightfoot. Although i t is no t clear whether Brecht approved of Sirk's production of the Threepenny Opera (Sirk on Sirk, P23), during his career in Hollywood Sirk made frequent use of techniques Brecht had pioneered in th e play and achieved very similar results. In his study Lecture De Brecht 3

• Copyright Paul Willemen 1972.


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Bernard Dort describes Brecht's pre-epic technique as tha t of th e ' boomerang image ' . Brecht presented the theatr e public with th e


image of life tha t i t wanted t o see on the stage, bu t in order t o denounce th e unreality of such an image, t o denounce it s ideo-

logical character (P189) Brecht penny Opera attack s bourgeois

himself explained tha t th e Three- conceptions no t only by choosing

them as a content, by th e mere fact of presenting them on th e

stage , bu t also by th e manner of presentation itself. The play

shows a way of life which th e spectator wishes t o see portrayed in th e theatre . At th e same time, however, he is forced t o con- front aspects of this life with which he would rathe r no t be con- fronted: he no t only sees his wishes fulfilled, bu t he sees them

criticised and is thus forced

to perceive himself as object, rathe r

tha n subject. Bernard Dort continues:

' The picturesque robbers of th e Threepenny Opera axe not bandits:

they are robbers only as the bourgeoisie dreams them. In the final analysis we realise tha t they are in fact members of th e bourgeoisie.


more precisely, i t is through the disguise of th e robbers tha t

th e spectators will come t o recognise themselves as being

bourgeois. A subtly engineered set of displacements and discontinuities facilitates such a self-recognition. In this way

Brecht has attempte d to sabotage the notion of th e theatr e as a

mirror (for our fantasies)

. Brecht put s on th e stage wha t

... seems t o be th e image of th e kind of exotic society tha t th e spectator wants to see. In fact wha t th e spectator discovers in th e very unreality of such an image, is himself. The mirror of the stage does no t reflect th e world of th e audience any more, bu t th e ideological disguises of th e audience itself. Suddenly, a t tha t point, the mirror refers us back to our own reality. It bounces the images of th e spectacle back to us - like a boomerang '


Sirk's films operate in a similar way. It has been shown how Sirk takes distance from the spectacle he presents, bu t tha t there is no distance between th e audience and the film (Douglas Sirk, P23). In fact, Sirk mercilessly implicates the audience by th e use of tech- niques deliberately designed t o involve th e spectator emotionally (Sirk on Sirk. P70). In contradistinction t o social-comment-melo- dramas such as A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, Gentleman's Agreement (both by Elia Kazan), Peyton Place (by Mark Robson), No Down Payment (by Martin Ritt) etc, Sirk's films shor t circuit th e so-called channel of communication between director and audience. Instead of inscribing th e director's personal view or message int o th e film and thus by extension denying tha t any ' personal ' statemen t mus t to a very large extent be dictated by bot h th e society and th e industry within which the director works, Sirk inscribes his distance from the spectacle int o the film. In this way, th e diegesis ceases t o

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  • 130 appear transparent : i t becomes tato r

cannot go . I t is this sense

th e poin t beyond which the spec- of an absence behind th e diegesis,

so t o speak, which Fred Camper (Douglas Sirk, P79 ff) quite mis- takenly describes a s a two-dimensionality within Sirk's films. Sirk's films could be described as th e opposite of a distorting mirror: th e world th e audience wants t o see (an exotic world of crime, wealth, corruption, passion, etc) is a distorted projection of th e audience's own fantasies to which Sirk applies a correcting device, mirroring these very distortions. This conjunction of, or rathe r contradiction between distantiation and implication, be - tween fascination and it s critique, allows Sirk t o thematise 4 a great many contradictions inherent in th e society in which he worked and th e world he depicted. It equally gives us th e means to read Sirk's own contradictory position within tha t society and vis- a-vis tha t world.

Jon Halliday has indicated (Douglas Sirk. P59 ff) and has been supported on this point by Sirk himself (Sirk on Sirk, p8<)) tha t th e society depicted in most of th e films is characterised by a smugness and complacency masking decay and disintegration from within, jus t beneath th e surface. Sirk also indicates his own contradictory position within the society in which he found himself (Sirk on Sirk, p86). He was attempting to make a critique of a society which:

(a) provided him with th e money and th e tools t o make his films,

bu t (b) would no t be

offended t o th e extent tha t i t would with-

draw it s support in th e form of box-office receipts. These primary contradictions generated further, secondary contradictions in Sirk's work:

1. Although th e films were products of, for and about Eisenhower-

America, they were misunderstood a t tha t time.

Sirk explained this

in terms of th e American audience's failure to recognise irony (Sirk on Sirk, P73) and the lack of a genuine film culture based on a theory of aesthetics (Sirk on Sirk, P72). 2. Now tha t these films are beginning to be understood, even in English-speaking countries, American society has undergone a pro- cess of social change and now produces quite different films. This change contributes t o some extent to th e contemporary critic's tendency to misread Sirk's films: critics tend to judge Sirk's pre- sentation of Eisenhower-America by th e standards of contemporary critiques of ideology, thu s committing th e mistake of neglecting th e tru e relevance and meaning of th e films a t the time they were produced. One of the major contributions of Jon Halliday's writing on Sirk is precisely tha t he situates Sirk's films in their own his- torical context, a fact the critic has t o grasp before he can comment on th e relevance of Sirk's films in our own historical context. Within the films themselves, these externally determined contradic- tions ar e mirrored in a wide variety of ways, often differing from film to film:

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1. Displacements and discontinuities in plot construction: ' The 13 1 supporting par t in the picture is your hidden leading man ' {Sirk on Sirk, P98). Examples of this can be found in Sign of the Pagan, Written on the Wind, Thunder on the Hill, etc . A creative use of discontinuity can be seen in Sirk's comments on his happy-endings:

' I t makes the crowd happy. To the few i t makes the aporia more transparent" . (Sirk on Sirk, pi32) -

2 . Contradictions in characterisation:

' (Taza


a symbolic in-

between man : he is an Indian, bu t ther e has seeped int o th e

character this element of civilisation' . (Sirk on Sirk, p82). Also

Kyle Hadley's invitation t o Lucy (in Written on the Wind) t o come

and ' meet an entirely different character ' which manifests


only when he's * u p in the blue ' bu t is present in th e background

throughout th e film. In fact, all Sirk's best films contain such split- characters.

3 . Ironic us e of camera-positioning and framing: in The Tarnished Angels, th e identification with the solid character, Burke Devlin, i s undermined by th e camera which shoots him i n low angles, s o tha t he appears to hover over th e Shumanns as a bird of prey. As we ' see ' through Devlin's eyes, this is a classic example of th e camera-style achieving a boomerang-image. In All that Heaven Allows, such irony is achieved i n th e first scenes within th e close- kni t Scott family by framing Cary Scott in such a way tha t she always remains separated from her two children. In this context, Tim Hunter's comments on Summer Storm (Douglas Sirk, P31 sq) and Mike Prokosh's essay on Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk, P89 sq) abound wit h examples of such inner contradictions.

4 . Formal negations of ideological notion s inherent in th e script:

Magnificent Obsession contains many such elements of parody:

th e ' true source of spiritual life ' is compared t o electricity supply- ing the current for a non-descript sor t of table-lamp; th e camera movement revealing th e god-like purveyor of worldly wisdom be - nignly nodding to Bob Merrick when th e latte r is abou t to perform a tricky operation. Other examples of such elements of parody and of th e ironic use of cliche are given in th e essay Distantiation and Douglas Sirk (Douglas Sirk, P23 ff).

5. Irony in th e function of camera-movement: Sirk's camera, as a

rule, remains a t some distance from th e actors. The

space in th e

diegesis, although rigorously circumscribed, is vast and solidly established. Long-shots and mid-shots predominate. The camera, however, is almost continuously in motion . This mobility of th e camera is designed t o implicate th e viewer on an emotional level (Sirk on Sirk, P43), while th e distance from th e characters suggests detachment .

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  • 132 This las t type of contradiction, tha t between mobility

(ie insecurity,

emotional involvement) and distance (ie detachment, solidly estab - lishing a locus for th e diegesis) refers t o a dialectic which is perhaps th e mos t dynamic aspect of th e Sirkian system, because i t under- pins th e very notion of th e Sirkian spectacle: people pu t themselves on show in order t o protec t themselves. Mirrors are nearly always

there, i n th e background, t o remind them of the fact tha t they live in a world where privacy is virtually non-existent. The characters are aware of being under scrutiny, so their best protection is t o

tr y an d take command of

th e

situation by determining their own

appearance, if necessary even by deliberately putting on an act . However, th e persona developed in this way functions as a trap :

i t is th e persona, th e pretence which comes t o dominate, causing conflicts against which there is no further defence. Thus th e

persona in fact is shown t o reveal

them in a far more naked and

vulnerable way. At th e same time, th e audience is presented with wha t i t would like t o see - such as people suffering th e extremes of anxiety, titilating sexual images - while the criticism of such voyeurism is inscribed in th e film itself. We ar e no t jus t looking int o a world which is unaware of ou r watchful presence (th e mirrors amongst othe r things convey this lack of privacy within th e film),

no r ar e th e characters in th e diegesis mere puppets in th e hands of th e Great-Manipulator-Behind-The-Scenes. We watch them, they are aware of being watched and perform accordingly, attemptin g t o protec t themselves by controlling wha t they allow us — and their fellow characters - t o see . The effect is tha t th e audience sees nothing more than th e distortions and constraints which i t forced

upon th e spectacle in th e first

place. In othe r words, th e audience's

ideology is unmasked and is made t o rebound back upon itself. Awareness of it s own reality is forced upon it , against it s wishes. This dialectic also finds it s representation within th e film: although th e characters are aware of being under scrutiny (a form of sur-' veillance manifested as pressures t o conform t o standards of behaviour imposed on them by their environment), they refuse t o recognise th e mirror-image of themselves, or bette r still, they refuse t o look int o th e mirror. This is amply illustrated by Cary Scott's fear of th e TV-set in All that Heaven Allows. Blindness can be anothe r such refusal t o see, as in Magnificent Obsession. Helen Phillips ha s lost he r sense of security (security being a husband

whose life depended on th e immediate availability of a resuscita- torl ) and refuses t o see th e man who wants t o restore tha t security. A Sirk film sets ou t t o do for th e audience what the TV-set does for Cary Scott o r surgery for Helen Phillips. This dialectic between self-protection and exhibitionism, sensationalism and puritanism is particularly relevant for th e whole of th e Hollywood cinema, even today (see Charles Barr's analysis of Sam Peckinpah's rape-

scene in Straw Dogs, i n Only now, after Jon

Screen, Vol 13 n 2,1972) . Halliday's interview book and th e prelimi-

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nary explorations published in the Edinburgh Film Festival's book 133 of essays, ha s th e ground been cleared for a more accurate and comprehensive study of the work of Douglas Sirk. Such a study would have to examine in some detail this extremely complex web of contradictions, the interaction of which forms th e Sirkian system. Both th e views of Sirk as a Marxist critic of Eisenhower- America or of Sirk as th e greatest exponent of the bourgeois weepie are equally misguided. In fact, Sirk's position in the history of th e American cinema closely parallels Tolstoy's position in th e history of Soviet literature . Lenin considered Tolstoy to be a unique and extremely valuable artis t because he dramatised and presented, th e contradictions within Russian society a t the turn of the century, a

time when Tsarism wasn' t strong enough t o prevent a revolution while th e revolution did no t yet have enough strength t o defeat Tsarism. Sirk performed a similar function in the American cinema in the fifties: he depicted a society which appeared t o be strong

and healthy, bu t which in fact was collective neuroses.

exhausted and tor n apart by

In this

context, i t becomes possible t o understand and explain

th e enormous success of many of Sirk's best films a t th e time of their release, and th e subsequent neglect and/o r rejection of his work by the ' intelligentsia ' for many years. The reason for this is analogous t o the reason why Brecht's Threepenny Opera was, and still is, such a huge public success. As Bernard Dor t points out, th e technique of the boomerang-image carries with i t some ominous pitfalls. Either the sophistication of th e process is ignored, thu s allowing th e bourgeois audience to operate a recovery-manoeuvre:

th e audience indeed recognises it s own image as bourgeois, bu t enhanced with the exotic prestige of robbers (or corrupt millionaires, actresses or stun t fliers). Or alternatively, if th e audience is mor e knowledgeable about aesthetic processes, they have to reject such a representation, as their ideology does no t allow them t o recognise themselves in tha t mirror-image. Hence th e rejection or willful mis-

reading (by turning i t int o camp) and nostalgia-freaks.

of Sirk's films by the reviewers




these pitfalls,

the fact


that ,

taking int o

account the historical and economic context within which he worked, Sirk developed th e most refined and complex possible system to convey his critique under the circumstances. Even if they did no t allow him t o make this critique as explicit as he might have wanted t o (except perhaps i n films such as Written on the Wind and The Tarnished Angels), th e Sirkian system a t least mani- fested and thematised th e contradictions within tha t society in a way which, throughout American film history, has perhaps only been equalled by Ernst Lubitsch.

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13 4

No<e s


Jo n Halliday, Sirk on Sirk, Cinema One Series. Seeker & Warburg ,


Londo n 1971.


  • 2 (Eds), Douglas Sirk. Edinburg h


Jo n

Hallida y and

Laur a Mulvey


Fil m Festival, Edinburg h 1972.


  • 3 Bernard Dort , Lecture De Brecht, Ed s d u Seuil, Paris, 1960.



  • 4 th e


is used


sense of


th e conditions of


Thi s term productio n

into a theme throug h a process of intemalisation.


American capitalism ca n be internalised into a theme b y a system-

ati c refusal t o use, o r alternatively b y

a systematic use of extremely

expensive camera movements, such as crane-shots o r tracking-shots.