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':

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.

7 comments:

Pat said...

Rock Hudson to grab you in his arms like a doll he wants to slap and kiss at the same time.

Fox, that is a brilliant image!

I've never seen this, though I actually kinda love "All that Heaven Allows." I need to see more of Sirk's work.

And I had the same problem with "Persona" that your friend had. I couldn't watch it without constantly thinking about "Love and Death." But you make a good point - it's important to get past that if you want to truly appreciate the impact of these films.

Rick Olson said...

When I watch stuff that has been parodied, especially when I watch it after the parodies, like I did with Bergman, the parodies add depth to my appreciation of the original, especially if they're loving ones like Woody's.

What I can't stand is someone who can't appreciate an older film on its own merits, as an original. Someone who keeps saying: but that's so old hat, I've seen it a million times. I want to grab their arms like a doll I want to slap and kiss at the same time and ... where was I? Oh yeah, I want to shake them and say "Yeah, you've seen it a million times because this film that you just saw paved the way, it was so great that everybody copied it." Like "Diabolique," or "Rashomon."

Fox said...

Pat-

When I first saw Bergman's Wild Strawberries, it was kind of difficult for me. I definitely had to get over the feeling that some of this stuff had been "spoofed". I'm especially thinking of the dream sequence with the clock and the faceless face.

And I'm no Sirk expert, myself. I need to see a lot more of his stuff. I feel like I've only seen the "important" films of his, but need to see much more in order to understand him better.

Oh, and Love and Death cracks me up. What's the line where Woody Allen says, "I've said that before..."? It's after Diane Keaton gets off some long line of philosophy or verse.

Fox said...

When I watch stuff that has been parodied, especially when I watch it after the parodies, like I did with Bergman, the parodies add depth to my appreciation of the original

Good point Rick. You'd think we'd have a natural response of "oh, THIS is where those tributes/parodies came from" and take a deeper interest instead of turning off.

And on Woody Allen, the something I've always appreciated about the nods or influences or thievery in his movies is that he's so shameless about them. Even when I think he's doing an original variation on one of his heroes, he'll still just shrug and say... "yeah, I ripped of so-and-so".

Tommy Salami said...

I haven't seen this one yet, but I love All That heaven Allows and Written on the Wind. I also admired Far from Heaven, but agree that it dwelt too much on social commentary than the story itself. But maybe that's commentary itself on what we expect from a movie now?

Krauthammer said...

"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"

Fuck those people.

Fox said...

But maybe that's commentary itself on what we expect from a movie now?

Tommy-

Fair point. For me, I saw it as Haynes' trying too hard to be something or say something. Saying something is great, most great films do so, but that film is the epitome of movie operating from the surface and the surface only. Frankly, as the film ages, I think it's gonna end up being a pretty embarrassing piece of work for Haynes.

Plus, I took the title Far From Heaven to be kinda snide and bitter in itself, especially in relation to the title All That Heaven Allows.

Krauthammer-

Mos def.