Sunday, January 27, 2008

Revisitations

I recently re-watched All About Eve, All That Heaven Allows, and The Fly (Cronenberg) on DVD.

Mankiewicz's film comes off somewhat better than the first go round--I wasn't a huge fan the first time I saw it, and I know it's a classic and full of great lines, and I see now that it's not a shallow film, that the whole Addison DeWitt angle especially gives it some substantial resonance. But I just haven't been able to jump aboard 100%. Don't ask me why, I'm not certain I could give you a rational reason. Or even a coherent irrational one. Yet.

All That Heaven Allows shows its contours in more definite light now that Sirk isn't new to me, now that I'm aware of the varying mass responses to his work. Without doing the proper research, I would suggest that even though 1950s housewives and other viewers, including critics, weren't excavating deep critical meanings, the level of critique/distanciation in Sirk's women's pictures had to be apparent. Perhaps the films were dismissed as fluff not because they were considered no better than reactionary bourgeois fantasies (something that might apply to Magnificent Obsession, but not There's Always Tomorrow or All That Heaven Allows) but because of their very real narrative "limitations"--I'd hypothesize that it was not because the viewers didn't get the films but because the hierarchical valuation of these films prioritized clear narrative lines and devalued their self-evidently stunning mise-en-scène, lighting and coloration, their complex and rich visual universes. (A good research question would be--and please if you know if this been done, point me in its direction!--whether contemporary viewers & reviewers of Sirk's films ever singled some of them out in terms of the way they felt as opposed to equally "inane" women's pictures of the era.) That said, I don't think Sirk is subversive (which is something I used to think). Critical, yes; subversive, no. As for the self-aware comedy of the films, i.e., a reading of them as sly parodies of the melodramas they also were ... well, yes, that's there, but I think it was probably there in a lot of other (less aesthetically rich) films, and probably people were picking up on it all along, but not prioritizing it. Those are my raw $0.02.

I watched The Fly as a kid, with my parents, and though I think I only saw it that once, a lot of the scenes played back as eerily familiar. (Also, it's such a retread of some of Videodrome's themes!) I've nothing much I want to say about the film; or rather, nothing much I want to say here. But I'm struck by the thought that in a lot of cases 1980s films might be preferable on VHS rather than DVD, whose clear digital lines neither compensate for a good 35mm print nor align with what the filmmakers themselves were using as a comparison/substitute back in those old dinosaur days.

Now go watch "Sensual Seduction" if you haven't seen it already. This is one of my favorite music videos ever, I think. After one or two viewings, try it with the sound off.

9 comments:

dave said...

That video is an amazing discovery (for me, anyway; I hadn't seen it before).

Though it leans a bit more in the (intentional) camp category than Sirk, it's a great example of the relationship between overaestheticization and humor - which isn't precisely how Sirk works, but it is one element thereof - and also of an aesthetic nostalgia for/attachment to VHS. That's a sly synthesis you've got there, Zach.

Ed Howard said...

Re: Sirk, I would say the satirical/critical elements in Heaven are so heavy and obvious that audiences, even those primed to expect just a conventional melodrama, couldn't possibly have failed to pick up on it. I like the film quite a bit, but mainly for the visual ways in which Sirk drives home his points, as opposed to the considerably less subtle ways in which the script does so. For this reason, I would say Written on the Wind is the better film, since its sexual metaphors are mostly delivered visually -- the boy riding the toy horse just as Robert Stack learns he's impotent, the shot of Dorothy Malone caressing an oil derrick. Not exactly subtle, to say the least, but in this film I would say that the visuals slyly undermine and comment upon the narrative, while in Heaven both visuals and narrative are delivering the same basic message, and it's just a question of the degree of subtlety in each. Written on the Wind is the real subversive Sirk picture.

Ted Pigeon said...

Re: The Fly, it's funny you should mention that. I'm about six or seven movies away from The Fly on my queue, and when I see it, it will be the first time seeing it since I was a kid.

Nice observation about VHS/DVD as well. I've been thinking about this a lot lately; how part of the wonder of some films from particular times is their flaws in presentation. This may be due more to nostalgia than anything else. Nevertheless, every time I see a cleaned up, digitally enhanced cut of something, like "Blade Runner," I am both joyed and saddened. While these enhanced cuts make the experience more perfect or aesthetically pleaseing, the film often times doesn't contain the same magic that it did in its more flawed state. Moreoever, the memory of the flawed and organic elements of film will begin to fade into oblivion, replaced by the precision of perfection.

Zach Campbell said...

Dave, glad I could point you in the direction of Snoop's video!

Ed, I need to re-visit Written, too ... but I'll keep in mind what you've written when I do.

Ted, that's perceptive about the way that a film we knew well on video. Some of the films I grew up with in the late '80s and early '90s, I grew up with on worn video copies, pan-and-scan. I wrote a post long ago about seeing Conan the Barbarian (a childhood favorite that, I think, holds up very well still for a number of reasons) ... on the DVD in print now, the "director's cut" puts a few scenes back into the film, and some of the shots in the final sequence massively alter and dilute what was, for me, a very powerful and formative filmic passage! Give me my recorded-off-HBO-in-the-1980s videotape! (I bet it's still sitting in a box in the closet in my parents' house.) But the other charm of videotape is that its washed or bled-out ghostliness could be interesting in its own right--I've seen mediocre films, especially late classical era color ones, that are probably improved by the ways the colors bleed out into video. Despite all the hype, I've just never been able to "buy it" with digital--the pixelation just seems so obvious a barrier between you and the (supposed) Best Cinematic Picture, even on really good screens. I acknowledge a good DVD and a good screen are superior to anything I ever watched on videotape in, say, 1993 ... but videotape nevertheless has a little bit more 'soul' to me, as the result of my upbringing.

Alright, I'll stop gazing at my navel now.

Dan Sallitt said...

At the remove of a few decades, we tend to forget how often even the most conventional Hollywood films contain material that questions or complicates the mission of the narrative. Really, it's just about all that a lot of bored intellectual screenwriters could do to make their jobs distracting. And what's ideology for except to reveal its contradictions endlessly? Even the crassest studio heads learned to tolerate a lot of perpendicular discourse, as long as the boy and girl looked good. It would be interesting to do a comparison of Sirk's 50s melodramas with similar but less memorable projects, just to establish a baseline for how subversive you have to get to be subversive.

But it is amazing to read old reviews and realize how often critics completely ignored the visual qualities of Hollywood's most striking movies. Never underestimate the ability of an entire generation of critics to avoid seeing something which is right in front of their eyes....

Daniel said...

I want to start a blog called "Perpendicular Discourse," that phrase is just too good to pass up.

Ali Arikan said...

Agreed with the observation that some 80's flicks feel better suited to VHS than to any digital format. I, too, only have a VHS copy of The Fly, which I revisit often (and not just because there's some recorded-over porn half-way through the tape). Interesting that you point out the similarities between Videodrome, but then those motifs tend to go back as early Rabid or The Brood.

Sidenote: I have a few VHS screeners from the the late nineties in my collection, and they all have impeccable quality, which must have been hampered by mass-production: a lack of quality is not inherent to the medium.

Renegade Eye said...

You should see Vincent Price in The Fly. That is the real Fly.

Jaime said...

When I see Sirk now - especially after MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION, which really clicked for me - I see a lot of stories about men and women whose lives merge together after all else is stripped away, i.e. pride, health, identity, "romance," family, etc. For example

SPOILER

At the end of MO the Rock hero redeems himself by almost totally "becoming" the heroine's dead husband, obliterating all traces of himself and his former life in the process. Of course she is not unscathed...

That is what I see in these films, not so much the subversion stuff.