Wednesday, October 05, 2011

All that heaven allows

Douglas Sirk was largely dismissed in his time, scoffed at as a director of simple minded melodramas that supplied nothing loftier than fantasies for lonely housewives. Later generations treated Sirk's output with considerably more kindness, reading his films in light of developments in feminist philosophy, Marxism and the developing sexual revolution. Even more impressive, Sirk managed to touch on important and deep themes while utilizing the aesthetic language of classic Hollywood, lavish technicolor and exuberant cinemascope. Each shot is lovingly crafted and contained and conveys an astounding amount of irony and cultural critique while never falling into didacticism.

All that Heaven Allows is generally considered one of Sirk's best, later remade by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the famed enfant terrible of the German New-Wave, as Ali, Fear eats the Soul. It stars a very beautiful Jane Wyman as a just-past-middle-age widow who is a member of that peculiar aristocracy known as the American upper-middle class. She is engulfed in a culture with strict codes of etiquette and conduct, mirroring the worst of Victorian-era British propriety. The expectations of friends, family and society all seem aimed at destroying any sense of individual liberty, especially for a woman, so it is safe to say that Cary, Wyman's character, definitely rocks the boat when she openly falls for the astoundingly handsome and rugged Ron Kirby, played with nothing more than passable stoicism by Rock Hudson. Kirby is a gardener, a kind of modern-day Thoreau who espouses a sanguine philosophy of self realization and anti-materialism. Cary's struggle with her fears and sense of propriety are handled well and touch on an amazing array of philosophical and cultural issues, providing more than ample proof that Sirk was light years ahead of his time when it came to dealing with important issues of the soul. That being said, the juggling of irony and serious philosophy attempted by Sirk wouldn't be perfected until many years later by directors such as Pedro Almodovar. There is still a great deal of stilted acting and awkward, unnecessary audience manipulation. Sirk was such a master of the genre of melodrama that he could subvert and transfigure it into art yet he is also obviously constrained by the language of the medium. Yet this is a film that offers great reward for the articulate viewer, a work that demands attention and critical analysis and that stands as a wonderful counterpart to the kind of after-the-fact philosophy being done by films and shows such as Mad Men. Ultimately, the power of the film lies in the fact that our culture is increasingly starting to mirror that of the 1950's, a stifling, conformist society that shies away from contemplation and spiritual exploration while descending ever further into the darkness of conformity, leisure and material comfort.  

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