26 March 2008

Going Back Home: The Longing to Return in Written on the Wind

*Disclaimer* I realize that probably none of my few readers will actually read this whole thing, but I figured I should at least put it out into the world of the interweb should some needy film student need inspiration (material for plagiarism). It's a paper on the concept of "home" in Written on the Wind by Douglas Sirk, a film that has become a favorite of mine and which I feel I can watch multiple times.

In Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind, the Hadley mansion is absurdly huge; with a winding staircase and high ceilings that echo emptiness off the white walls and marble floors, it is clear that this house is not a home. This large, extravagant house that cannot be filled is the most striking of Sirk’s interior constructions in the film and, like other interior upper-class spaces throughout the film, makes a comment on the affluence and emptiness of post-war 1950s America. In his half-ironic portrayal of the Mitch (Rock Hudson), Kyle (Robert Stack), Lucy (Lauren Bacall), and Marylee (Dorothy Malone) and in his carefully arranged elements of mise-en-scene such as color, sets, and composition of shots, Sirk asserts that “home” is not a place, but a natural state of comfort and innocence – a place that exists in the nation’s past and can only be longed for through the confines of the structures it has built around itself.

A strong contrast that is established early in the film comes through the characters of Mitch Wayne and Kyle Hadley; while Mitch is easy going and obedient, Kyle is an impassioned and irrational alcoholic. Later we find that Mitch comes from a Daniel Boone-type outdoorsman father who lives in the woods, while Kyle has grown up in affluence and privilege due to his father’s fortune made through oil. The dichotomy between these two characters established through their respective homes and their fathers, as well as the relationship they keep with their fathers, reveals Sirk’s interpretation of home in 1950s America.

When Kyle first brings Lucy home to his father after a long vacation, Mr. Hadley talks with Lucy and expresses his trust in her due to Mitch’s insight. “So you trust Mitch’s judgment more than Kyle’s?” she asks. After Lucy asks him to trust Kyle a little more, Mr. Hadley responds with, “How much liquor has he been putting away?” It is no wonder Kyle took such a long time coming back home after his wedding; the judgment from his father and their inability to communicate with each other are strong signs of a family barely held together apart from blood and money. In fact, the only intimate conversation Mr. Hadley shares with anyone is with Mitch, expressing his wish for Mitch to marry his daughter. Then, only after Mitch’s approval, does Mr. Hadley talk alone with Lucy. We never see Kyle and his father sharing any words alone together.

Unlike Kyle, Mitch shares a close relationship with his father, to whom he confides his love for Lucy, his most personal secret, and from whom he finds comfort and advice. It is not accidental that the setting of the Wayne home is in nature, on a wooden porch not unlike the early homes of Western pioneers romanticized in Westerns and early American expansion. It is exactly this type of romanticized notion of America’s past associated with nature that Sirk is evoking in his portrayal of the Wayne home and contrasting against the Hadley’s. In fact, Sirk never shows the inside of the Wayne home, only the outside, which connotes feelings of freedom, naturalness, and openness. These same feelings are again associated with nature through the use of the river as a symbol of the past and of purity, especially for Kyle and his sister, Marylee.

As Kyle takes his final steps out of the Hadley house after he has been shot his final words are, “What are we doing here? Let’s go to the river where we belong. I’ll be down at the river waiting.” His death immediately afterwards makes the river seem like a type of heaven that Kyle wishes to go to, a place equally as beautiful and unattainable in his adult life. Marylee also goes to the river, replaying a childhood scene in her mind that embodies the innocence and splendor of days past. She even drags Mitch there, wanting him to share the same feelings she has – both her nostalgia for the river and her love for him. Sirk’s view on past and present isn’t black and white, but rather ambiguous. That is to say, Sirk is not suggesting that America needs to return to a more natural and simple way of life before big business and the shiny veneer of affluence, but that this return can solely remain as a longing, for the past is the past and it can not be returned to.

One critique that Sirk is more clear about in Written on the Wind is the emptiness and constriction of the affluent life built up by the wealthy such as Jasper Hadley. Sirk suggests that the glamour of their money – seen especially in the hotel room scene in which Kyle eagerly shows Lucy her drawers filled with treasures and closets filled with gowns – is only an outer display that conceals a broken and repressed interior. Again, the Hadley house is the most prominent and striking example. Even though it is a grand and impressive home from the outside, inside there is a family that does not communicate with each other, with broken-hearted individuals longing for meaning.

The most striking and effective way that Sirk conveys this idea is through the way he sets up and shoots the interior of the Hadley house. Sirk makes full use of color by having the hallway and entrance painted in cool whites with high ceilings that give an even greater feeling of coldness and emptiness. Sirk also uses domestic objects to frame his shots – doorways, window frames, mirrors, and screens. The effect of such a composition is the conveyance of restriction and even claustrophobia; it is as if the house is trapping the characters within their frame. Mirrors add even greater effect by conjuring up images of things that can not truly grasped, but only seen; seeing through a glass darkly. Through a glass darkly is exactly how Kyle and Marylee look back to the river and to the past, their own constructed ideal of home.

Towards the end of the film the Hadley house itself becomes such a source of menace that Sirk has Mr. Hadley die by falling down the winding stairs. As Kyle leaves Lucy after slapping her she says to Mitch, “Take me out of this house” as if the house was the embodiment of everything she wants to get away from, and possibly a pointed reflection of Sirk’s own opinion. The open front door with the wind blowing in dead leaves adds to the effect by confirming the Hadley house is a cold, dead place.

The portrayals of the Hadley house suggests that Sirk is saying the concept of home is not defined merely by location – even the more romanticized natural Wayne house is not a solution since Mitch wants to leave from there as well – but that it is an ideal state of being. For Kyle and Marylee it is the river, a symbol of their past, for Mitch and Lucy it is a retreat from the life they know. In Sirk’s other excellent melodrama, All That Heaven Allows, the transcendentalist Ron Kirby tells socialite Cary Scott, “Home is where you are, Cary.” This idea of internally self-realized value as a source of comfort, a source of “being home,” is again reiterated in Written on the Wind; it is only when Mitch and Lucy finally decide to be together and break away from the things that were restricting their true feelings that they become fully-realized and it is in that scene that Sirk offers a happy ending.

Home is also the social unit of the family in Written on the Wind; it is certainly true that Mitch has a home with his father while Kyle and Marylee do not. It can also be argued that another reason that Mitch and Lucy can end up together is because they can have children together, they can create a nuclear family. The fact that Mr. Hadley is without wife is significant. Instead of marrying again, he is married to the business – this is encapsulated in the painting hung above his study in which he holds an oil rig statuette instead of a wife. Indeed, Mr. Hadley’s wealth and business displaces the affection and care he should be sharing with his children.

Kyle and Marylee’s lack of parental affection results in repressed and emotionally unfulfilled characters that seek for love in the wrong places. Marylee wants Mitch possibly for the fact that he is able to step in the shoes of her father, who she never received love from. Kyle wants to marry a girl like Lucy possibly for the approval of his father, something he never gets. When they can’t get what they want they resort to symbols of moral deterioration and vices of the rich: Kyle takes to the skies in his private plane or drowns himself in scotch; Marylee hunts around town for a man. Their fondest memories of the river are attached to a time in childhood before any of these psychological afflictions could fully take root.

During the final scenes of Written on the Wind, Mitch and Lucy get into a car as they prepare to leave the Hadleys for good. On the margin of the screen and through the framed window is the figure of Marylee, peering out to watch as the person she loves most, Mitch, leaves her. Inside, she sits in her father’s chair, clutching an erect oil rig statuette in despair then stroking it in longing – she will unavoidably continue her father’s legacy. The sequence, and the movie, ends with Mitch and Lucy leaving the gates of the Hayden estate, which close behind them and frame the house in vertical bars like those of a prison cell.

By the film’s end, Sirk’s message on the concept of home is left slightly open-ended. As discussed, it is not a physical location, but a state of being. However, this state of being can be realized, as in the case of Mitch and Lucy, or it can’t be, as in the case of Kyle and Marylee. The determining factor, then, seems to come from the past. Kyle and Marylee were raised on the affluence of a big businessman, a social condition which restricted their growth and leaves them unfulfilled. Mitch comes from a natural, pioneer-like home reminiscent of America’s own past, which eventually allows him to be self-realized and accomplished. Lucy, who seems to have no past at all, has nothing holding her back.

To audiences of the 1950s, the decade in which the film is supposed to take place, the situation of Kyle and Marylee may have been the most distressing. It may seem that Sirk is offering a warning on the pursuit of a lifestyle that bears internally empty, home-less children such as the Hadleys, but the film actually goes beyond that to say that America’s situation is the very same as the Hadleys’ and that characters such as Mitch don’t exist anymore – he is merely a vision of the past that America cannot attain again but can only long for in the same way Kyle and Marylee long for the river.

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