The Pacific Film Archive's Douglas Sirk: Tender Ironies mini-retrospective, now through June 29, is being touted as a refresher course run-up to a major R.W. Fassbinder series at the PFA in August and September. But the late Germany-to-Hollywood filmmaker Sirk and his soapy '50s "women's pictures" -- beneficiaries of Todd Haynes' homage in last year's Far from Heaven as well as Fassbinder's lavish praise in the '70s -- are a meaty topic in their own right.
Movie audiences in 2003 are generally unaware of Sirk, outside of film nerd enclaves and gay film fests, where he is worshipped. Some critics find his style too campy to take very seriously, although you've never really seen All That Heaven Allows until you've watched it at the Castro. Others champion the Universal-International contract director as a social critic gleefully deflating the conformity of Eisenhower America. Everyone seems to agree, however, that melodrama is the foundation of Sirk's best work. "Sirk has always been a tough sell outside the melodrama cult," opines critic Gary Morris, whose Sirk essays have appeared in his own Bright Lights Film Journal and other publications. "One useful way to approach the films is as sort of cinema versions of opera," he says. "You find the same heavy stylization in the acting and decor that you find in opera, and the whole hyperdramatic tone." As when, in the deliriously weepy Magnificent Obsession, playboy Rock Hudson accidentally blinds Jane Wyman, then guiltily dedicates his life to curing her.
For the European Sirk, making hit soap operas about lonely widows and rich floozies wasn't slumming: it was the apex of his career. Explains Morris: "Sirk absolutely embraced the Hollywood material, which surprised some. No one else has been able to capture the same blend of operatic melodrama, visual pyrotechnics, and sweeping social critique you see in these films. You can laugh, or cry, or both, at or with his characters. Sirk talked about it as his version of the Comédie Humaine." A double feature of All I Desire and All That Heaven Allows screens Saturday, June 21 at the PFA, with The First Legion on Sunday. For further program notes, log onto www.bampfa.berkeley.edu