Monday, November 19, 2012

Douglas Sirk's All I Desire

Douglas Sirk's All I Desire (1952) arrived just before the German-Danish director helmed several key 1950s women's pics in Hollywood: Magnificent Obsession (1954), All that Heaven Allows (1955), Written on the Wind (1956), Imitation of Life (1959). It shares with those films a concern for a similar central figure, a heterosexual, middle-class woman with repressed desires; but it locates this interest in a turn-of-the-century character who prefigures the more modern figures played by Jane Wyman and Lauren Bacall in the later movies. Naomi Murdoch (Barbara Stanwyck) was a wife, a mother of three, and a lover, illicitly; however, when Sirk joins her, she is living a fiction of her own creation. Having left her former life upon the community's discovery of her affair with another man, Naomi is at the tail end of a failed acting career. But in her letters back home to daughter Lily (Lori Nelson), herself an aspiring actress, Naomi claims she has found success as a Shakespearean player in Europe. In contrast to the later Sirk films, in which women are often isolated from each other (think of Wyman staring into her reflection in the TV set in Heaven, or Bacall suffering alone through a miscarriage in Wind), Naomi's bond with Lily is the chief emotional interest in All I Desire. But this bond slowly unravels when Naomi returns home, after years away, to see Lily's earnest performance in an amateurish high-school theater production.

There is every indication that Sirk wanted to shoot this film in color. (He lost out on that, and on the ending, too, a ridiculous bit of tacked-on happy business reconciling the wife and husband in an uncomplicated and unconvincing manner). His 1952 film Has Anybody Seen My Gal is shot in sumptuous Technicolor; by contrast, the shadowy silver sheet of All I Desire must find other strategies to locate the emotions that find their signature expression in his color films. For a viewer who looks at this after the later Sirk melodramas, in fact, it's hard to believe that All I Desire is not in color. Some subjects demand color: the unbridled passion expressed through Dorothy Malone's feverish bedroom dance in Written on the Wind is unimaginable in black-and-white (at least, who would want to imagine Malone's ridiculous jitterbug in anything other than its vibrant reds and pinks?), just as the melancholy blues that color All that Heaven Allows ground the the film's enabling soap-opera conventions in a painterly style.

But Sirk's methods in 1953 still manage to suggest the emotional undercurrents that the color of the later melodramas would amplify. In the first shots of All I Desire, his camera placement (in a high angle, looking down at the small town below) prefigures a camera position that would become the opening signature of All That Heaven Allows:

These sort of high-angle shots imply an omniscient view, a knowing figure outside the film who can frame, cut, and color the repressed emotional undercurrents of the fiction but is not subject to those same undercurrents himself. In Vincente Minnelli movies, there is a push-and-pull between the director's and the characters' control over mise en scene, exemplified by the glorious widescreen palette of The Cobweb (1955), which conveys the characters' dueling wills to control the color of curtains in a mental institution. In Sirk melodramas, by contrast, the mise en scene is often established, almost entirely, by forces beyond the control of the figures in the film.

There is a brief exception to this rule of Sirk's cinema in All I Desire, however, and it's an exception manifest in the film's play with black-and-white shadows and light. All I Desire, like the later Imitation of Life, is about an actress, so it is telling that its most salient emotional revelations arrive when characters are self-consciously performing for others. At a dinner party, Lily implores her mother to perform a reading of an Elizabeth Browning sonnet, one of her ex-husband's favorites. Immediately Naomi controls the mise en scene, turning down the lights for her reading and taking the "stage" at the top of a staircase. Cloaked in low-key lighting, Naomi seems to have designed her stage presence in this domestic space in order to avoid being seen, even as the servants spy her performance from the "wings" of this makeshift theater, and just as her daughter and family watch her reading from below:

Naomi later moves down the steps, and addresses her "audience" in what is surely the best bit of acting in her career (if not Stanwyck's): 

As narrative, this scene works to bring Naomi closer to her husband. Interestingly, this narrative push gradually erases the control Naomi wielded over the environment just a moment before: as Sirk begins cutting to more conventional close-up shots, the low-key lighting Naomi has insisted on for her reading is replaced by relatively even illumination:

These moments are not "written" by the character, ultimately. Although she begins by expressing herself through the control of light, the words on the page are not her own (they are written by another author, and they signify, in this context, a bond with a husband responsible for the repression of her desires). What is ostensibly a moment of emotional fullness achieved by a character (a connection established between Naomi-as-actress as her family, and specifically her husband) is subsequently re-framed as a loss of control and agency, one that prefigures the forced ending in which Naomi is thrown (not by Sirk, but by the film's producers) into the arms of her husband, who will bring her no closer to the successful acting career she desires. (An aging actress herself at the time this film was made, All I Desire's disappointing ending is content to suggest that Naomi/Stanwyck's best years are behind her).

If this sequence in All I Desire effectively encapsulates the loss of agency which is a recurring motif in Sirk's melodramas, it is also quite different in its assumption that this woman has some control over her social world in the first place; in the later Sirk movies there is no pretense for such control, and no other Sirk woman after All I Desire is able to fully control environment in the way Stanwyck, at least initially, does in the above shots. In Written on the Wind Lauren Bacall is a Madison Avenue advertising secretary (with a lot of control over the images she produces within the mise en scene)...

...but this is not when the film actually joins her. In All I Desire we first meet Stanwyck as her character explains the relative control she has over the fictional life she leads as an "actress," but the plot joins Written on the Wind at the end of its story, with Bacall colored in humid, warm colors which anticipate her fainting spell:

What I am suggesting here (and it is a hypothesis in need of testing via more re-viewings of Sirk's films, particularly Imitation of Life, which is also about an actress) is that as Sirk's authorial identity was fulfilled as the 1950s progress, the identity of his characters-as-authors was thoroughly effaced. The auteur's color gives us emotional plenitude and satisfaction as viewers, and it helps create his signature; but it carves out emotions from the women on the screen, leaving them empty and without agency.