But the truest reason why Magnificent Obsession wouldn't successfully play to crowded theaters today, is that it's just too earnest for its own good. Audiences would collectively laugh at a blind Jane Wyman feeling her way around a veranda, knocking a pot of the ledge, and sobbing into her palms. To reference Bergman again, I remember a friend telling me how hard it was for him to watch Persona because the style had been spoofed and parodied so much. That's true, but it's our responsibility to work through that. Which leads into another great reason to celebrate the release of Magnificent Obsession on DVD: you can watch it at home, alone, and away from the hipsters' snickers and scoffing, temporarily slipping into a time that is permanently gone.
Monday, March 09, 2009
ON DVD : MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION
The titles of Douglas Sirk's 1950s color-popping melodramas have an elegant sweeping swoosh to them : All That Heaven Allows... Written On The Wind... A Time to Live and Time To Die. It's like your tongue is doing a waltz across the top of your mouth when you sound them out aloud. But there is no more fitting title to a Sirk film than that of Magnificent Obsession. Sound it out: Mag-nif-uh-suhnt Uhb-sesh-uhn. Just saying it will force flowers to bloom, fences to paint themselves white, bangs to be drenched with sad rain, and, most importantly, Rock Hudson to grab you in his arms like a doll he wants to slap and kiss at the same time.
The 360 degree love story behind Magnificent Obsession is one that must be experienced to be believed. Rock Hudson, as the devil-may-care rich boy Robert Merrick, opens the film in hotdog fashion, speeding in a speedboat on a lake with a lady. One hundred and five minutes later he's performing brain surgery on Jane Wyman, the widowed woman he fell in love with after he indirectly made her a widow. But... before he falls in love with Wyman, he indirectly makes her to go blind, furthering along Magnificent Obsessions' bizarre mix of pay-it-forward propaganda and "if a butterfly flaps it wings..." philosophizing. And guess what??? The whole goddamn thing works! Beautifully... romantically... Mag-nif-uh-suhntly!
Sometimes DVD releases of classic films arrive at opportune times in our film culture. They can act as palette cleanser, mind-refresher, eye-opener, or gut-puncher. But anytime is an appropriate time for a Sirk film the quality of Magnificent Obsession. A film such as this is a stone artifact because nothing quite like it will ever be recreated. Sure, melodrama of the more depressive kind, of the Bergman kind, of the existential kind will always play on because negativity and pessimism are easier emotions to lean against than positivity and optimism. This is why soap operas and romance novels get mocked so readily (yes, your right, it also has to do with their poor acting and writing). It's why Twilight is brushed aside as a hormonal phase and why John Hughes has never been taken seriously. Romance ain't hip, MAN!
Right now, one of you may be on the verge of saying, "well, Todd Haynes made Far From Heaven!". Yeah, well you've forgotten that that movie sucked, because Haynes' bitterness canceled out all of the essential enchantment that existed between Ron and Cary in All that Heaven Allows in order to solely focus on a social agenda. Haynes foolishly thought that all he needed to tap into the spirit of Sirk was to recreate a technicolor shell of a set reminiscent of 1950's melodrama. He forgot about everything else. In his own remake, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul Rainer Werner Fassbinder proved that you didn't need to display visual splendor (or be a copycat) in order to understand, and pay homage to, a source of inspiration.
And, oh yeah, the cafe table scene between Ali and Emmi in Fassbinder's film is more socially charged and significant than all of Haynes':