21 April 2008

My Melodramatic Weekend

When I used to hear the word "melodrama" I had always taken it as a bad thing - soap operas, over-acting, over-emotional responses to ordinary situations, etc. - but within the past few weeks my reaction to that word has changed quite a bit. This was due to my introduction to a wonderful German director called Douglas Sirk who made several Hollywood melodramas during the 1950s, most famously with Rock Hudson playing the lead role. The first film I saw was Written on the Wind, which I wrote about for class and previously posted, and I was instantly hooked. I have since watched that film three times and feel like I could watch it happily again anytime. I followed that up with All That Heaven Allows, which I believe Sirk is better known for and could possibly be considered the most characteristic of his aesthetics. These films feature beautiful colors and give dominance to mise-en-scene (on-screen elements such as sets, costumes, lighting, framing, etc.), especially the studio sets of domestic interior spaces in which Sirk often shot windows, mirrors, and screens as frames within the frame. Aside from the acting - which is, yes, melodramatic - the sets themselves carry the story through the way they are shot, lit, and colored, creating a densely saturated and rich world in which to get swept away.

Sirk's signature style in handling melodrama was a prime example of the Cahiers critics' auteur theory; Godard was (is?) an especially big fan. Sirk's melodrama style has influenced several directors, not just in theory, but in their actual filmmaking. Pedro Almodovar, Todd Haynes, and especially New German director Rainer Warner Fassbinder have all made films in Sirk's signature style. This past weekend I watched two films that were directly influenced by Sirk, specifically by All That Heaven Allows. They were Far From Heaven by Todd Haynes and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul by W.R. Fassbinder. Both the films tried to rework the central story of All That Heaven Allows, which has a woman central character falling in love with a man whom the rest of the society would never accept. In All That Heaven Allows it's an American middle-upper class widow who falls in love with a gardener, in Far From Heaven it's an American middle-upper class housewife who falls in love with a black gardener, and in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul it's a German lower class widow who falls in love with a Morrocan old enough to be her son.

The two films both tried to recreate the Sirk feel by placing special emphasis on color and interior compositions. Haynes had a Hollywood budget with a Hollywood cast - Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert - and thus was better able to recreate Sirk's template in a grand way, almost to perfection. Fassbinder, on the other hand, shot on a much lower budget within 15 days, used what seemed to be all real locations and some non-professional actors. The contrast between these two films, which have the same goals but with different means, is really interesting to watch back to back.

The first thing I wrote down when I watched Far From Heaven was "These colors are beautiful!". And they were. Haynes' film, regardless of what you think of the story, is beautiful to look at. I've heard some criticism that claims the film is so visually calculated in its Sirkian replication that it feels cold. I think that's interesting because one characteristic of Sirk's that Haynes did not replicate was the ironic representation of the material. Sirk was known to subversively implement ironic symbols and visual motifs that would underscore the banality of the script. Haynes, however, seems to take the story seriously and presents it to us to be taken without irony. He does this by changing the plot a little bit to make the main female character not a widow, but a woman married to a closeted homosexual husband. He also makes the gardener black to add another thematic and moral tension. As a gay director and figure in the New Queer Cinema movement, Haynes' inclusion of closeted homosexuality in the film's plot is hard to take as irony. Though I would argue against the criticism of being cold, the film did give me mixed feelings since what I enjoyed about Sirk's films were the ironic bits and the detached presentation of otherwise pulp material. While Haynes manages to pretty convincingly tell a dramatic story (with extra help from some strong acting performances), the message of intolerance and social bigotry is so overdone that it's hard to be really swept up and emotionally involved.

Fassbinder's Fear Eats the Soul, unlike Sirk and unlike Haynes, mixes the melodrama with low-budget and almost neo-realist approach to filmmaking. I am always very drawn to movies that are made on low budgets, with real locations and non-professional actors. I suppose it makes filmmaking seem less of an elite dream job attainable only through climbing some long ladder of money and luck, and brings it back into the hands of the regular people, or, back into the hands of poor students (like myself). Also, the effect of non-actors and real locations both creates a very intriguing sense of realism that draws you in, yet isolates you in Brechtian fashion. The simplicity of the actions that happen to unfold the story are played out very matter-of-factly, nearly in a detached unreal way that reminded me of what I've seen of Bresson films. As Ali, El Hedi ben Salem acts very little and doesn't even speak well - the English translation subtitles make it seem as if he were speaking like a caveman - which is very interesting when contrasted to the more melodramatic Brigitte Mira; the combination, however, works well. Fassbinder also places emphasis on composition and color, but real locations make it more interesting. In the end, I ended up enjoying Fear Eats the Soul a little more because of its different approach to the studio Sirk melodrama and its neo-realist feel. Not to mention Ali and Emmi, the oddest couple I've seen in film since Harold and Maude.

Anyway, watch melodrama!


James said...

A little melodrama is always good ... as long as it is on the screen and not in your life. I'm going to try and watch ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS in honor of Douglas Sirk's birthday on April 26.

Yofred Moik said...

you write well.

Mike said...

I have never seen a Sirk film. Or a Fassbinder film. Or a Haynes film. But I did see the part in Pulp Fiction when John Travolta orders a Douglas Sirk steak. That was so melodramatic.