Keep your laughter off of my melodrama

Earlier this month I saw Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession at the cinema for the first time. The film was as gorgeous as ever, and watching it on the big screen allowed me to see and love new, small parts of the movie’s impeccable whole: the precisely overdrawn fuchsia line of Jane Wyman’s upper lip; Rock Hudson’s physical response when she touches his face for the first time (more devastating still because of its subtlety). The audience I saw it with mostly thought that all of this was hilarious.

Now, of course there are aspects of Magnificent Obsession that are so ridiculous as to become funny (Sirk himself labeled the Lloyd C. Douglas novel upon which the film was based “the most confused book you can imagine”) but people weren’t chuckling simply at Otto Kruger’s ersatz Jesus floating serenely above an operating room; nor did their laughter extend further to the movie’s frequent moments of intentional humour (think of the eyerolling barfly waiting to snatch Hudson up, or Judy Nugent’s deadpan tomboy reading the news). Actually, it would be easier to create a list of elements of the film that didn’t provoke laughter than of those that did: snickers erupted at Barbara Rush’s grief upon her father’s sudden death; at Hudson and Wyman’s tacit, then explicit confessions of their love for each other; at Wyman lying unconscious and near death on a stretcher; and at Agnes Moorehead’s stricken reaction to her companion’s illness, to name only a few moments of derision.

Allow me some reflections: first, that Sirk’s films were long viewed by supposedly discerning (male) critics as a collection of trashy women’s weepies before later being elevated by the institution of film studies to the oeuvre of a master auteur. This conversion from kitsch to canon, it seems to me, is often implicitly credited to the critical facility of Sirk’s latter-day viewers, who are able to watch with dry eyes and so discern the director’s critique of oppressive social norms. To understand these films properly, in other words, one must view them analytically rather than emotionally, objectively rather than through a process of identification: they might be women’s pictures, but to view them as a 50s housewife may have is to fail to understand them appropriately. Second, the excessiveness, artificiality, and hothouse sentiment of melodrama as a genre (features frequently invoked either apologetically or with a sardonically raised eyebrow even in positive assessments of Sirk’s work) are still received by contemporary viewers more often than not as failures of “naturalism” or “plausibility” instead of deliberate aesthetic and political choices (the natural and the plausible being understood here as un- or barely-mediated transmissions of “the real” rather than constructed norms). While Sirk’s films have largely been rescued from the embarrassments of melodrama by a critical establishment that deems them valuable, the audience with which I watched Magnificent Obsession were unable to view it—a soapy film poised on the border of acceptable Sirkism, unlike the more serious, more lauded All That Heaven Allows and Imitation of Life—without a laughter that simultaneously disciplined the film’s histrionic qualities by signaling their inappropriateness and marked viewers’ refusal of the emotional identifications invited by this melodramatic grammar.

Even though the introductory talk that evening, given by Guy Maddin, concentrated on what melodrama gives us—on how it offers us the truth uninhibited, or, in the words of the Eric Bentley chapter Maddin referenced, invites us into “the naturalism of the dream life”—the film bro acolytes lining up to shake Maddin’s hand after the screening were not very invested in approaching Magnificent Obsession on its own terms. Sirk might be an important director, sure, but who could be expected to take this stuff seriously? The audience’s laughter was a public declaration that they were above it all: crying at the movies (pathetic!), feelings more generally (unintellectual!), and the film itself (a bizarre curiosity! a naïve joke! how funny!).

In one of my favourite pieces of film writing, Rainer Werner Fassbinder records a different reaction to Sirk’s work. Fassbinder writes of the director’s deeply compassionate perspective (“Sirk has made the most tender [films] I know, films by a man who loves human beings and doesn’t despise them as we do”), and of the social critique embedded in this tenderness (in Imitation of Life, Fassbinder notes, Sirk delineates how the characters’ “thoughts, wishes, [and] dreams…grow directly out of their social reality or are manipulated by it. I don’t know any other film that shows this phenomenon so clearly and so despairingly”). Fassbinder’s reading of six of Sirk’s films is sharp and carefully observed; it is also grounded in emotion. He writes of Written on the Wind’s commentary on 1950s social structures that, within the film, “everything good and ‘normal’ and ‘beautiful’ is always very disgusting, and everything evil, weak, and confused makes you feel sympathy.” He writes of the infamous television scene in All That Heaven Allows that “Jane sits there on Christmas Eve; the children are going to leave her, and have given her a television set. At that point everyone in the moviehouse breaks down. They suddenly understand something about the world and what it does to people.” Fassbinder’s strongest articulation of the radical potential of melodramatic emotion comes, however, in the section on Imitation of Life, when he discusses the film’s central conflict between the white-passing Sarah Jane and her Black mother Annie. “That’s cruel,” he writes of the feeling evoked by this struggle: “you can understand both of them, and both of them are right, and no one will ever be able to help either of them. Unless, of course, we change the world. We all cried over the movie. Because it’s so hard to change the world.” In Fassbinder’s assessment of Sirk’s melodrama, feeling is not an extraneous, embarrassing response necessarily pushed aside in order to begin to understand the director’s oeuvre intellectually. Feeling is the point. Feeling is the medium through which Sirk’s social critique is forwarded; feeling is where the potential for political action is kindled. We cry because we see the impossibilities of the world, and because our fight to change these impossibilities is at once so difficult and so necessary.

To cry when watching a melodrama is to be tender, to make yourself vulnerable. It is to empathize with characters who inhabit dream versions of selfhood and the world, dreams where “feelings must put forth the weirdest blossoms” and so jar us from our acceptance of what is natural, plausible, right, and good.  Melodrama does not need to be rescued from emotion: it needs to be rescued from viewers whose rejection of feeling blunts their response into impassivity, or into hateful, hollow laughter.

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