Saturday, October 13, 2012

CGAA Cinema: Seeing is Believing - Cinematic Artificiality in Douglas Sirk's Magnificent Obsession

"...Rock Hudson plays Bob Merrick, a reckless playboy who is indirectly responsible for the death of a kindly and much-beloved doctor. The dead man's wife, Helen Phillips (Jane Wyman), refuses to accept Bob's apologies. When Helen is accidentally blinded, Bob decides to "do right" by her anonymously, illustrating author Douglas's curious edict that the best sort of good deed is the one for which you're not rewarded. In record time, Bob becomes a brilliant physician, and it is he who performs the sight-restoring surgery on Helen. Rather than fade into the woodwork unheralded, Bob is at last forgiven by Helen, who has fallen in love with him during her sightless months without even knowing it..." 

“You’ve got a one in a million chance” is the line spoken to Bob Merrick, former millionaire playboy turned brain surgeon just as he performs emergency surgery to save the life of his one true love and cure her of her previously incurable blindness at the same time. He succeeds - the two lovers are re-acquainted, able to both see each other again, tears are shed and a beautiful musical score kicks in. It’s miraculous. Then again, Magnificent Obsession seems to have an uncanny ability for an audience to will into existence a set of circumstances which feels just right for the moment at hand.

Magnificent Obsession is a 1954 film directed by Douglas Sirk, a Danish-German filmmaker who made a career in Hollywood by directing popular melodramas, often starring Rock Hudson. During his years in Hollywood he was dismissed by critics as a director who created predictable, schlocky, popularist trash. Later, Sirk was reclaimed by the auteur led new-wave movements which resonated through Europe in the years after his final Hollywood film. Declared as genius, his proponents claimed his films subverted their traditionally held interpretations by an underlying satirical tone which mocked numerous facets of the American way of life. Magnificent Obsession lacks some of the themes which have come to define the Sirk experience in the years of his re-evaluation – namely his satirical attacks on American materialism and class values. At first they seem to be there. The characters are set up as typical Sirk archetypes and the plot leads in a direction which seems to suggest more of the same.

It needs to be understood Sirk’s films are ‘fake’. This isn't a new revelation. He never hides the artifice of his films. He readily makes obvious the fact his characters are driving in front of projected back-drops and his exaggerated sets are quite clearly built on sound stages. A picturesque landscape upon further inspection is revealed to be a matte painting. It’s ‘America’, albeit a dolls house version and this allows Sirk to explore his themes more easily by contrasting the flacidity of his actors and story with an ironic visual style.

Within this artifice, I find something quite interesting. Consider the opening scene, as a reckless Merrick zooms around a lake in his speed boat at 180mph. It’s inevitable that he crashes, it had to happen, it needs to happen. Even the characters in the film knew it was going to happen. In the drollest manner possible, considering the shocking event which has just taken place, an onlooker, standing in front a clearly fake backdrop carefully notes ‘I knew that would happen’. Of course he did, and so did we the audience, this is a film after all.

Jump forward 47 years. In David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), a remarkable thing occurs when Betty and Rita visit a theatre which reveals itself to be an elaborate charade. In the moment of ‘silencio’, the barrier which separates audience and filmmaker breaks down. Suddenly in the silence, a previously suspenseful mystery thriller gives birth to a new audience relationship to film. Mulholland Drive is a film about watching films, and how a director is ultimately expelling a series of artificial and recorded events onto an audience who choose define the experience as narrative. I’d argue Sirk was doing the same thing in 1954.

Initially we being to suspect that film may be about we expect it to be – perhaps a critical allegory of vanity and faith which pervades through the heart of middle America. This is what we expect, it is a film directed  by Douglas Sirk after all. Rock Hudson is there, he’s doing what Rock Hudson usually does. Jane Wyman is there, she's beautiful of course. Yet, the films events lead those lines of enquiry down a dead-end. This is not a film about the American experience. This is a film about the experience of cinema.

The film could be said as having two distinct metaphors within it's story and characters, which dictate it’s cinematic experience – blindness and destiny. I’d argue blindness, is used to present the revelation of cinema as a totally contrived, artificial experience. Helen Phillips cannot see anything, yet she regularly speaks in terms of 'seeing'. The question is not about what her character can or can’t see- we can only assume she doesn't see anything - but what does the audience see? We see events unfold for her, we ‘see’ a film. We observe characters fulfilling their obligations as pieces in a Douglas Sirk film. We watch them in front of projected backdrops travelling to implied destinations by plane and by car. They haven’t really traveled anywhere but we ‘see’ them in Zurich, so it’s assumed that’s where they are, when we know the location is a construction on a film set. We ‘see’ luscious landscapes through windows but they are obviously matte paintings. In the film we are constantly being asked to ‘see’ events for ourselves as spectators. We have to read letters, postcards and telegrams, and the camera waits patiently while we do so. Like Mulholland Drive, the film uses a metaphorical lack of human cognitive feedback, to suggest the images which we are viewing, are nothing more than the projections of the director, who is telling us to read these visual cues as the language which defines the film as a cinematic experience.

The second metaphor is destiny – which I present as the suggestion of a journey of narrative which leads an audience to expect certain events to take place, within the context of the film they are watching. I mentioned earlier when the audience wills something to happen in Magnificent Obsession, it always does. It’s why the boat inevitably crashes, the chance encounters, and explains how a former playboy millionaire can perform life saving surgery, just when it matters the most. There’s no real world logic in him being able to do so, but in cinema this makes sense. These moments are destined to happen. We’re watching a deliberately contrived series of events, which fall in line with our expectations. Sirk knows an audience is waiting for these events to play out and in the film and he purposefully sets off a chain of events which we choose engage with as an unfolding narrative, or plot.

If there’s one thing I’d argue which defines some of great postmodern directors –De Palma, Lynch and Jonze among many others, it’s the ability to wrap their films in package which can only be described as brilliant cinema without breaking the rules of their universe. The ‘Club Silencio’ sequence in Mulholland Drive, is a marvelously executed piece of staging that doesn't speak out to the audience in an explicit manner. It leads us to believe events which transpire after, are still part of an act posing as narrative. Magnificent Obsession similarly stays in character throughout. It’s knowingly deceptive, which makes it difficult to pin down. It asks the age old postmodern of question of what is real – or in this case, what is cinema - and what is a construction. It blurs the lines between the two in such a way which suggests you cannot find a definitive answer in either notion.

1 comment:

  1. A rousing, articulate and highly-readable piece, Tom. I think it takes a truly talented filmmaker to play tricks AND ensure that every moment of their film - however 'clever' or deconstructing or meta - is mesmeric and satisfying. For me, the greatest achievement of Mulholland Drive is that, ultimately, I can't take my eyes off the damned thing. It initiates, engages and entrances even as it 'teaches', alienates, and provokes. I watch that lip-synch scene - when the camera pans away from the actresses singing in the booth - and the sheer pleasure of the estrangement, that collapsing of illusion is like a big bag of Haribos.

    In my view, this is the hardest thing to do in the world in terms of 'educating' or outlining alternate types of experiences or view points; it is to take people with you, to keep it playful. One of the failings - for me at least - of a lot of conspicuously conceptual art or similar - is its inability to 'be available' in this way - to be utterly engrossing and engaging, even as it provokes or infects - even as it succeeds.

    Anyway - thought-provoking stuff and much appreciated :)