Sirk Without Tears

Available only through the TCM website, the four-disc “Douglas Sirk: Filmmaker Collection” makes available a handful of Sirk titles that haven’t been previously released to DVD. No big Technicolor melodramas here: instead, there’s a thriller with a religious theme (“Thunder on the Hill,” 1951), a western (“Taza, Son of Cochise,” 1954), a swashbuckler (“Captain Lightfoot,” 1955) and a literary adaptation — “The Tarnished Angels” (1957), Sirk’s thorough transformation of William Faulkner’s “Pylon.” My New York Times review is here.

As interesting as it is to see Sirk working in other genres (and as an action filmmaker, he shows a surprising taste for graphic violence), the main attraction here is “Angels,” one of Sirk’s most personal projects and an exercise in mise-en-scène as stunning as anything to come out of Hollywood. But, like all of the discs in this package, “The Tarnished Angels” is presented here in a single-layer, DVD5 transfer — perfectly watchable, but significantly softer than the double layer version released in France by Carlotta.

The TCM presentation feels a little cheap, but then, so is the price — it’s being discounted to a reasonable $39.99. Let’s hope this is the first of many director’s packages to come out of TCM/Universal. The possibilities are endless: Whale, Cahn, Stahl, Siodmak, Boetticher, Fejos, Ophuls, Sherman, Wyler, Arnold, Edwards, etc.

218 comments to Sirk Without Tears

  • Brad Stevens

    “I haven’t seen every movie he ever made, but I can’t think of a bad James Stewart performance.”

    I take it you haven’t seen Michael Winner’s remake of THE BIG SLEEP.

  • Thanks Gregg – some of the stuff I wrote about is worth seeing, some is not. It really depends on your taste, I suppose!

    A friend wrote via e-mail to make a much stronger case for Morgan than “filterer,” that the show quite literally becomes his own creation when he writes the episodes. He made a convincing case. And anyone who watches the credits during Season 3 will notice Morgan’s name crops up as “story editor” quite frequently.

    I agree that Marti Noxon is a talented BUFFY collaborator, although I don’t know if what she does is in any way distinguishable.

  • Johan Andreasson

    “I take it you haven’t seen Michael Winner’s remake of THE BIG SLEEP.”

    That’s right.

  • Star Robert Mitchum said Stewart “looked deader than any of the corpses,” or words to that effect, during their scenes together, so illness may have been a factor in his out-of-it performance.

  • Alex Hicks

    AG,

    I’d say I was not so waving anti-auteruism at you but rather meaning to suggest that autuerism does not have all the answers and does not always work well and that perspectives on films quite un-auteurist — or even anti-auterurist– often have a lot to say on questions of film artistic quality.

    I like auterism and think it very useful but I frequently perceive cases where it seems to be leading to the serious overestimation of films by auteurs and the serious underestimation of film whose quality is not readily intelligible (if at all) in auterist terms

  • Alex, forgive me for saying so, but that sounds like rather a conservative objection to auteurism – like saying homosexual men and women shouldn’t be allowed to teach or raise children because they’re more likely to commit pedophilia or they’re more promiscuous than straights.

    Auteurism is not about overvaluation. Auteurists are no more likely to overvalue than the heirs of Pauline Kael and John Simon.

    Furthermore, shouldn’t we look at who’s doing the valuing? Not everyone’s opinion is of equal value.

  • Alex Hicks

    Jaime,

    I can’t see what’s conservative about trying to loosen the contraints of dogma on judgment. I don’t see how claiming there’s a type of systematic bias among auteurist toward the works (especially the less broadly celebrtated works) of auteurs implies that auteurists are “more likely to overvalue than the heirs of Pauline Kael and John Simon.” While Auteurists are no more likely to overvalue than the heirs of Pauline Kael and John Simon,” they do currently seem to me rather less likely to sharply differentiate among works of given auteurs than Sarris has been (say on Ford and Hirtchcock in “The Aneican Cinema”).

  • Auteurism is a perspective, not a dogma. Auteurists are no more likely to be biased than non-auteurists. How can a claim otherwise be anything other than rhetoric?

    And maybe auteurists don’t stray too far from Sarris because he was, for the most part, right? One doesn’t hear much from the anti-Mozart or anti-Shakespeare camps these days…

  • As a card carrying, overwrought auteurist, some thoughts.
    Most scholars of painting and classical music tend to have broad enthusiasm for a creator’s works as a whole. I’ve never heard of an art historian who though Monet painted a few good canvases, but that the rest of his work is junk. Rather, they like almost all Monet, or Mozart, or Bach. Auteurists tend to have the same all-or-nothing response to directors – while anti-auteurists are sure that reasonable people should only like a few of a director’s films.

    Auteurists tend to have a an explicit interest in a director’s techniques. Every time I see Bresson make a close-up of a limb, or Joseph H. Lewis use a lateral track masked by foreground objects, I think a-ha! These techniques make these shots seem meaningful, personal, and full of “content”. Are non-auteurists picking up on such things? Are they “seeing” the film in even remotely the same way?
    This tends to make most of a director’s films seem interesting – at least to an auteurist.

    I think Alex is right, that today’s auteurists seem more universally enthused about a director’s films, than did the great Sarris sometimes, or other 60′s auteurists. Not sure why.
    One possibility: today’s auteurists have more enthusiasm/tolerance for B movies, pre-code era films and television. In practice, films in those categories often weren’t liked much by 60′s auteurists. Although they loved pre-code Sternberg.

  • Alex Hicks

    Jaime.

    Perhaps I should not have used “dogma” with its sometimes connotations of religious dogma and extreme rgidity when I had more the sense of “theoretical” and “scientific” “dogma,” or “doctrine” in mind. “Perspective” is good substitute, but quite consistent with a degree of perspectival blinding, myopia and “bias” and (as well as focus and penetration).

    I never said that auteurists are more likely to be biased than non-auteurists, only that they are biased in a particualr way.

    Mike Grost,

    I like your points about “B movies, pre-code era films and television” but I don’t think they address the my claims that current auerists are prone to raisins all or most works of of give auteurs up to similarly high levels and befuddled by signs of excellence where no directorial auteur is judged present (e.g., folks here on what Sarris ragrds as lesser dand Hitchcock films; Bogdanovitch on the excellence of “The Third Man” as “a happy accident,” proposals of shadow auteurs like Cameron Menzies and of visually minded and intusive producers).

    Like I said, I like auteur theory. My favorite film writers are Sarris, who is centrally auteurist, and Bordwell, who, though he often address other issues than the auteurist ones and wields other tools than auterism, is very much an auteurist. Good camera work may employ more than one lense.

    Just saw a terrific film yesterday that a critical world as mindful of film quality (per se) as certain conceptions of its sources might have left us with a less obscure repupations than the film holds today, Jack Gage’s “The Velvet Touch.”

  • Alex, that’s fair. I also like Bordwell a lot – I think, if you discuss film with the most intelligent auteurists, they will tell you that they strive to be more pluralist than Pauline Kael would ever have imagined.

  • nicolas saada

    We seem to be jumping from one thread to another. My contribution to Alex and Jaime exchange will ba modest: My vision of film has considerably changed since I started working in the medium in the early 90′s, as a producer with directors of various backgrounds, then as a writer-director. I still remain an auteurist, an it makes sense within French cinema. On the other hand, I realize that sometimes, the amount of workforce, money and energy that is involved in studio films for instance, can provide for miracles that have nothing to do with the director. It happens still today and it happened in the past. Also, French critics have a lot of terrain to gain: they passed British cinema and now discover the works of Watkins, Alan Clarke, even Lean or Powell whereas these directors are now part of the pantheon accross the Channel and the Atlantic. I would say that they have to rethink, enlarge, welcome new objects in their auteur theory without giving it away. Auteur theory can become a dead end when it is a sort of awkward justification. I have read dozens of articles here about Judd Apatow or Adam Mc Kay. Some of their films I enjoy. They are formally very uninteresting. They are not my idea of great cinema, but it’s not a problem to my enjoyment. But some make a point at classifying their work with the auteur theory canon, just to feel comfortable with the idea of enjoying regressive and crazy humour. Sometimes this happens at the expense of really interesting films.
    I will not fall into the “Thomas Schatz” school claiming that there is a “genius to the system”. A look at the output of studios in the sixties-whether in Hollywood or in Europe-will offer a wide selection of artistic disasters that shows no “genius in the system”. Still, the auteur theory is sometimes not sufficient to palliate a real disappointment or an objective artistic disaster, even if I can admire a shot in the worst Fritz Lang or Hitchcock film.
    But I think that sometimes critics can miss something as genuine and obvious as talent. Sometimes, the auteur theory can demolish a work of talent, and save an uninspired film just because it fits the canon. Needless to say that the idea of “talent” is subjective. I can stand for a film on a matter of principle, but if the film is shot, acted and directed with les talent than usual, it becomes problematic. I am aware of this. Hopefully talent is what I admire the most about an auteur. I remember a very strong and even fierce discussion with a Cahiers critic about MAGNOLIA. He hated the film. I told him that I had seldom seen such terrific performances waved together and that, moreover, the film was beautifully photographed. “That’s not the point” was what I was told as an answer. It made sense in the writer’s mind to dismiss the film on account of something that had nothing to do with Anderson’s skills. And still today, I don’t know what to think of all this.

  • pat graham

    ALEX, JAIME–the issue seems less about “liking” particular directors’ films than in seeing a “stylistic” consistency–visually, thematically, point of view-wise, whatever–in works we consider “auteurist” * there are any number of auteurs whose films i tend not to “like”–hawks being chief among them–where claims for consistency of approach seem overwhelming * and yes, we “bias” in terms of such “auteuristic” recurrences, since they derive not–primarily–from market considerations so much as from a centered “artistic” personality: choices aren’t arbitrary, not matters of opportunity or whim, of commercial winds blowing in fashionable directions; they’re part of the filmmaker’s ongoing commitment/discrimination repertoire, whether fully advertent or not (since you won’t always–or maybe can’t ever?–have a handle on all the “creative” forces that inflect your work), and it’s THAT to which we grant our respect and admiration, rather than to the individual films that embody it with variable amounts of success …

    MIKE–there are plenty of art historians who don’t value every work of one or another alleged “master” … in fact offhand i probably can’t think of any who wouldn’t discriminate, even among their favorites (e.g., lots of throwaway picassos, lots of unsuccessful monets, where ideas/impulses/motivations refuse to coalesce: the whole london series from the 90s affords a good example) * but through all of this–the good, bad, indifferent–we still can recognize the thread that joins everything together, in what we’d characterize as an artistically “serious” way * every field has its one-shots, but staying the aesthetic course, through up times and down, success as well as failed experiment, is something else again

  • Nicolas Saada, I might be wrong, but I get the impression that the contemporary taste at Cahiers and Positif are sometimes in opposition to one another, while both offer a necessary alternative to English-language film magazines. I know Positif, under Michel Ciment (who, btw for any readers, has complementary observations on Nicolas’ film in the 2010 International Film Guide), is a big advocate of Robert Altman and his closest successor P.T. Anderson (who was the stand-in director for “A Prairie Home Companion”). Do you think this might have affected the Cahiers critic point of view? Any comments on how the film-critics at each magazine react to one another, or if they even do? I am really curious, seriously. In Toronto, I know three stores that sell Cahiers and only one that sells Positif and most film-people I know do not speak French so do not read the magazines. My perception of the combative relationship between the two magazines is pretty underdeveloped, though from reading Antoine de Baecque’s book on Cahiers it seems like it has been going on since the 1950s.

    Jean-Pierre Coursodon, Do you have any comments? I know you were a strong advocate for Robert Altman in Positif back in the 1970s.

  • Peter Henne

    Nicolas, You took the trouble to let us know some of your opinions on MAGNOLIA, but none of your opponent’s. I’m not sure why you brought up the exchange you had since there is no weighted discussion.

    Pat, I didn’t catch onto Hawks’ visual style until I stopped taking medium distance shots for granted. Maybe that trick will work for you, too. To make an analogy to sports, Hawks is the kind of player who exploits the very center of the zone, where everyone is guessing it is too obvious to go and thus overlook that it is an area which can be used like any other. I liked your making a defense of chance even if I didn’t happen to agree with your examples from Hawks. It’s true that he can take dialogue pace close to the limit of professional acumen, yet I’ve often felt that’s the point. Attentiveness to chance in inflections and events has been richly, and diversely, used by Godard, Rivette, Altman, Akerman, Rocha, and many others. That doesn’t mean any of these peoples’ best work has been slipshod, but that they have cultivated aesthetics which make use of astonishing and rather noticeable surprises, usually of a particular kind they each have an eye for.

  • Gregg Rickman

    David, I’ve pulled a couple of anthologies off my shelf to help you with your Cahiers-Positif question. “The New Wave” (ed. Peter Graham, 1968) has several Bazin and Cahiers basic texts, plus a bilious/hilarious attack on Cahiers and its critic/filmmakers, “The King is Naked,” by Robert Benayoun (from Positif 46, 1962). Andre Bazin is a “mahatma of double-talk,” Rohmer a “Robinson Crusoe of obscurantism,” New Wave films themselves “incompetent” and “amateurish.” Michel Ciment’s introduction and editing of “Positif 50 Years” (2002) papers over this by leaving Benayoun’s (and other) polemics out and by commenting “Positif, from the very start, may not have wholeheartedly embraced the entire Nouvelle Vague package” (11) which appears to be a marked understatement! I can’t speak for Cahiers and Positif today.

  • nicolas saada

    The Cahiers was my home for a long period. I have learnt a lot there.
    David, I think that what you describe about POSITIF and CAHIERS was less true in the 80′s and 90′s than today. I can talk only for myself : I was rather indifferent to the feuds between film journals. We had dissimilar views on certain films and filmmakers for sure.
    Michel Ciment had been my teacher at University. But my generation, born in the mid or late sixties, had perhaps less concern with what Gregg describes in his post. By the 80′s and 90′s, film taste had narrowed around directors that were championed by every good film magazine in the world.POSITIF, CAHIERS, FILM COMMENT and SIGHT AND SOUND all made their cover on Tarkovski’s SACRIFICE. I can’t speak for Cahiers today. I don’t read the magazine and have lost touch with almost everybody there. I read a lot here, on Dave’s blog, which keeps me in touch with film. I also read dailies and weeklies.
    Peter, I have to answer your question. The other critic’s remarks were mainly focused on the film’s ideological point of view which he described as systematic and forced.
    I realize that my evaluation of the film had more to do with an overall formal approach, a sense of admiration for the craft. My “opponent” (I would rather say “contradictor”, as Hitchcock said “it’s only a movie”), had a critical canon that just could not accept the film, in spite of its brilliance. Or maybe because of its sole brilliance. To quote Albert Einstein : “”If the facts don’t fit the theory, change the facts.” It makes complete sense.
    Now, I wonder if one should make a difference between film history and film criticism. I regained interest in writing on film after a period when I had read Panofsky, Elie Faure and Gombrich. Does a film historian pay more attention to the evolution of forms, to how they connect to each other and reveal to us the world as it is ? Does the critic stand for a more personal and subjective approach to film? I don’t have the answers.

  • Brian Dauth

    Nicolas: Both the film historian and the film critic are engaged in creating narratives that are shot through with subjectivity. Look at Classical Hollywood: one person sees a system possessed of genius and another discerns a place where courageous auteurs made personal works of art.

    Each viewer will arrive at her own subjective measurement of what the optimal mix of craft and content should be when producing/encountering a work of art. We all come with our own brilliance meters, and for some MAGNOLIA will send their needle off the chart, while for others, it will barely move. How else to explain people not finding Cukor’s MY FAIR LADY to be the supreme masterpiece that it is?