Earlier this month the temperature finally dipped to the point of no return; I dragged my plants in off the patio and took my sweaters out of storage. A sheet of rain cast a sprinkling of gingko leaves down the wet street like aimless confetti; a splash of radioactive color against the grey gouache pavement put me in mind of Douglas Sirk, who liked to film his melodramas on leaf-dappled, Clifton Wheeler-esque seasonal stages.
I’m thinking specifically of Written on the Wind, of course, and All that Heaven Allows. Fall lends itself well to Sirk’s lurid application of high contrast Technicolor and fraught melodrama. Watching them nearly seventy years later, in the autumn of our country’s inevitable decline, Sirk’s films read less like soap opera prototypes and more like what they were intended to be: shrewd commentaries on a culture preoccupied with consumption and status, of life in a country that is as two dimensional as the set paintings he preferred over natural scenery.
Much has been written about the garish aesthetics of Sirk’s melodramas. He preferred stages to locations, placing his actors inside impressionist renderings of mundane cityscapes and suburban neighborhoods. Every horizon was the product of a paintbrush, every leaf was made of silk, every frost-framed pane was intentionally etched. Train cars and station wagons moved just feet at a time, appearing in a shot like the toys of some out-of-frame giant: you feel watching a Sirk picture like a child watching action unfold inside of a dollhouse.
The actors were doll-like too: costumes of Sirk’s characters were symbolically colored and stringently tailored, the makeup is the pancaked and cartoonish kind favored by drag queens and real housewives: overpainted lips, shellacked hair, eyebrows as bold as punctuation marks.
All this staging was an indictment. In Sirk melodramas, the maintenance of personal and societal facades stripped protagonists of their autonomy and creativity. It was impossible to know who a person really was behind their groomed, mid-Atlantic speech, heavily painted face, and cartoonish body language. This is how America expects people to look, and behave, and act, Sirk seemed to comment. Look how trapped they are by the petty concerns of class, priorities that are invented out of whole cloth. Even in the dollhouse I’ve built for them, they can’t be happy. In both Written on the Wind and All that Heaven Allows, the resolution only comes when characters leave these picture perfect sets in search of a peace that exists somewhere off camera.
It took a pandemic and protests to expose how much of our society rests on facade rather than functionality. And I think of Sirk. Nearly all the seeds of our modern malignancy are rooted in the plasticine, picturesque pop culture of the 1950s. A suppression of emotions and behaviors that don’t fit into an entirely white, upwardly mobile structure, executed so efficiently you don’t feel the absence of equality unless you yourself happen to be nonwhite, poor, or a woman. A careful curation of material wealth reflected in wardrobes of evening gowns, day-glo colored sportscars, colonial style suburban households, country club membership. The industry that affords this plenty is alluded to but never really shown: oil rigs dip in the distance, maps are splayed, tidy greenhouses bask under the late October sun. These characters are not the ones who do the work, they are the widows and children and benefactors of successful men. Other people, someplace else, are performing the labor, and so that labor might just as easily take place on another continent, in another country.
I think of Sirk as I watch the president, with his thick pancake bronzer, his gravity defying dip-dyed hair, his preponderance for bright periwinkle ties. I think of Sirk as an autumn arrives in a year that’s felt interminable, and oddly devoid of seasons. The sets and facades on which we depend are no longer serving us, and those who still cling to the old aesthetics—like Trump and his garish ilk—stick out more gaudily than ever. Are we capable of deconstructing this phony scene and forging a better world?