Friday, May 21, 2010

All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk, 1955)

Douglas Sirk is heralded as one of the slyest socially critical American directors of the fifties, though to be perfectly honest I find his targets in All That Heaven Allows to be obvious, easily compartmentalized concepts that feel only superficially representative of actual societal maladies. Rock Hudson's Ron Kirby stands as the handsome, earthy antithesis to materialism, in tune with nature and rock solid in his refusal to conform to society; his untainted ideology and handsome looks makes him some masculine ideal, less a character and more an archetypal savior. Jane Wyman stars as the disillusioned woman who falls in love with Kirby and who desires to break free from her social and domestic confinement but can’t quite summon the strength. Sirk launches attacks on class snobbishness and television sets and social prejudices with little subtlety or nuance (the daughter, espousing pop psychology and precociously toying with her glasses, is a blunt fifties construct that seems to trumpet to the viewer how socially relevant the film is). The structure of his love story, which reminded me of McCarey’s An Affair to Remember (possessing a remarkably similar ending), seems mechanical in its efforts to ensure a social statement at the expense of romantic passion. That said, Sirk works wonders with his visuals, telling his story in a static, Wyler-esque fashion that excels with framing devices and spatial expanses, but with an added flair for color, shifting between autumnal and wintry hues and using them to adeptly capture small-town America. Sirk seems to make his social criticisms as much through his color scheme as through his narrative, assigning cold greens to the club parties and textured reds and oranges to Kirby’s newly furnished mill. Nighttime juxtapositions between bright fluorescent orange and luminous blue moonlight achieve a romance almost over-suited to the story.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Obsession (Brian De Palma, 1976)

Obsession is Brian De Palma’s tribute to Vertigo, possessing less of the cosmic delirium of its source but having its own distinct eeriness. The first half hour is a mishmash of many Hitchcockian elements, many of which are from other films, but this tributary pastiche only serves as a launch pad for a story with as many haunting symmetries and parallels as its predecessor. A striking scene: Sandra’s transfixion on the painting of Elizabeth seems to mirror Judy’s transfixion of the museum painting of her ‘past’ self before we learn that she is really gazing at her dead mother. All throughout the film De Palma conflates the assumptions we make about this film as a Hitchcock rip-off with the gradual emergence of its own exclusive themes so that Freudian maternal longing becomes interfused with a more ghostly obsession, and that's but one example. The ending to Vertigo might be the most ambiguous conclusion to any of Hitchcock’s films, ironic because the last shot of Obsession depicts a conventional embrace set to Herrman’s score at its most romantic, implicitly revealing that all of the deceit has bubbled to the surface—Michael now knows all that has transpired and is finally reunited with his daughter—and making it a Hollywood capper if there ever was one, before it spirals into a carousel of psychological terror, the themes of incest, childhood trauma, and obsession now more apparent than ever. The freeze-framed ‘The End’ is gnawingly perverse.