Friday, December 31, 2010

Douglas Sirk | Imitation of Life and Nicholas Ray | Johnny Guitar

Juanita Moore and Lana Turner in Imitation of Life

Susan Kohner in Imitation of Life

Joan Crawford and Sterling Haden, Johnny Guitar

Mercedes McCambridge dances in Johnny Guitar

by Douglas Messserli

Eleanor Griffin and Allan Scott (screenplay), based on a novel by Fannie Hurst, Douglas Sirk (director) Imitation of Life / 1959
Phillip Yordan, Ben Maddow, and Nicholas Ray (screenplay), based on a novel by Roy Chanslor, Nicholas Ray (director) Johnny Guitar / 1954

and suddenly I saw a headline
there is no snow in Hollywood
there is no rain in California
I have been to lots of parties
and acted perfectly disgraceful
but I never actually collapsed
oh Lana Turner we love you get up

—Frank O'Hara

On August 21 of this year, I attended the 50th anniversary showing of Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life. At the Samuel Goldwyn Theater of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills, the audience was also treated to a special interview of the remaining living major cast members, Juanita Moore (who plays Annie Johnson) and Susan Kohner (who played Annie's daughter, Sarah Jane) by Susan Kohner's son Paul Weitz and film critic Stephen Farber.

Although I had previously seen the film several times on television, I'd never before seen it on a large screen, which is truly necessary for this highly color-saturated and artificed film.

Behind my interest in seeing this movie were several pieces written in 2008 and 2009 by then-sixteen-year-old Felix Bernstein on various aspects of artifice in film and theater and, in particular, a brief discussion of the camp elements in Sirk's works. Just a few weeks earlier, I had also caught a television showing of the 2002 film, Far from Heaven, a film (on which I write in My Year 2002) that is an homage to many of Sirk's films and cinematography. In the end, I realized that all of these coincidences had led up a to necessity to write on this movie and its effects.

Certainly, as many have, one could begin by describing Sirk's Imitation of Life as a soap-opera, or—with another kind of backhand dismissal of the work—as a "woman's picture." In introducing the film to the audience of 1000 viewers, Farber himself, while clearly an admirer of the film, admitted to some terribly clichéd moments of the work, particularly in Sirk's montage of the passing years of Lora Meredith's (Lana Turner) career.

To my way of thinking, however, to use these adjectives is to miss the point. For the film is not simply a tearjerker or even a slightly over-the-top portrait of a woman determined to have a career, but is an intentional—if artful—presentation of the American dream as kitsch.

I have never been able to comprehend the great attraction of so many directors to the vague acting skills of Lana Turner, but Sirk knows a woman determined to be a star when he sees her, and uses Turner's exaggerated posturings to their best effect. In the interview after this film's showing, Juanita Moore revealed that Lana spent much of every morning with her discussing the events of Turner's 14-year old daughter's murder of Johnny Stompanato, Turner's lover, the actress often breaking down in tears. It is clear that Sirk could not have found a more vulnerable and over-wrought figure for his purposes.

Lora Meredith is a woman with a young daughter, surviving on the pittance she makes from labeling envelopes, who by accident meets Annie Jackson (a woman Moore herself described as little more than a Black mammy) with Jackson's daughter in tow at Coney Island. Even worse off than Meredith and her daughter, Jackson and Sarah Jane have come to the end their resources, without even a place to sleep. Jackson craftily negotiates a bed in the Meredith flat in return for all the services of a maid, and, in the process, quickly insinuates herself and daughter into their household.

Meanwhile, would-be photographer Steve Archer (John Gavin), who Meredith also met at Coney Island, has fallen in love with the Turner character: "My camera could easily have a love affair with you." Archer is even willing to go to work at an advertising company to support Meredith. But she, we quickly discover, is utterly determined to become an actress, despite the fact she is no ingénue. At the very moment that Archer attempts to propose, Meredith receives a telephone call, promising her a career. In response to his demands that she return to reality, Meredith summarizes her position and the film's often absurd dialogue: "Well, I'm going up and up and up—and nobody's going to pull me down!"

Indeed, like some rising balloon, Meredith quickly floats away from her moorings, and, as any reader of popular fiction might predict, ultimately loses touch with her daughter Susie (Sandra Dee) and her servant-confidant-friend Jackson. Time and again Archer is sent away—indeed the platinum-haired Meredith appears to have become a celibate devoted only to stage and film—and Susie is given "things" instead of love.

If the movie stopped here we might easily describe it simply as a soap-opera. But although Sirk pretends to center the work on the achievements of his star and on the success of those for whom the American dream might be possible, his camera and the script focus instead on the "back" story of the Black mother and daughter living in her house. Although Annie Jackson has long acclimated herself to a the menial and forbearing life, her light-skinned daughter is as determined as Meredith to achieve the American dream, even if it means giving up her own identity and becoming white. While the white figures in the film seem almost oblivious to problems faced by Jackson and Sarah Jane, Annie herself knows them all too well. In response to Meredith's dismissal of Sarah Jane's attitude, Annie replies: Miss Lora, you don't know what it means to be...different..." At another point she summarizes: "How do you tell a child that she was born to be hurt?" That "hurt" is witnessed time and time again in this film, as Sarah Jane is beaten by her racist boyfriend (played by Troy Donahue) and turned away from all her jobs the moment she is discovered to have Black blood.

While Meredith accumulates, Annie, it is apparent, becomes more and more giving until she has little left to give except her own life. In those humane actions she becomes the only real figure in the film. The title may have you believe that the characters are "imitating life," but their true actions are even more perverted, as one by one they attempt to imitate "art." Just as the film intentionally pushes the limits of its own credibility, so do they seek out worlds that cannot and do not exist. Lora may have become a "star," but we recognize, precisely in Sirk's montage of stage titles, that her string of hits has all the craft of the mediocre plays of Margo's in All About Eve or of Auntie Mame's Midsummer Madness. Archer seeks to become a great photographer, but ends up as an advertising executive. Sarah Jane finds a career as a cheap singer and dancer in dives and supper clubs. Susie imagines herself having a relationship with a man twice her age (Archer). Through his use of popular clichés Sirk reveals that the dreams of this all-white world are also outrageously kitsch. When art becomes a kind of commodity, a symbol of a desirable something missing in life, there is little chance of normality.

The movie ends with another vision of art, with Jackson's theatrical funeral, attended by the numerous friends and admirers who Meredith could not even imagine existed. Decked out with a great singer (Mahalia Jackson), a band, and a hearse pulled by four white horses, Annie's funeral—an event created by Annie herself—is a fuller artistic realization than any of the performances or activities of the other characters. And that creation points not to art, but to another kind of eternal life.

Los Angeles, August 22, 2009

A few days after seeing Imitation of Life, I happened upon a television broadcast of Johnny Guitar, a movie I'd seen once or twice previously, which I suddenly saw in a new way within the context of Sirk's movie. Like Sirk, Ray has often been praised (and criticized) for locating his films in the context of popular genres (in Ray's case most often in teenage melodramas such as his Rebel without a Cause) and for his oversaturated color prints. In this work of 1954 Ray attempts a Western—if you can call it that. For Ray's "western," as François Truffaut has described it, is "phony"; or, if it is a western, it's "the Beauty and the Beast of Westerns, a Western dream."

As most commentators have noted, in Johnny Guitar the standard gender roles are reversed: the two major male figures, Johnny Guitar (played by a laid-back Sterling Hayden) and the Dancing Kid (Scott Brady), are in thrall to the powerful saloon-keeper Vienna (Joan Crawford). Guitar, her first love, does not even wear guns, having put them aside in an attempt to alter his life. Vienna's current lover, the Dancing Kid spends most of his time with his all-male gang, only occasionally returning to Vienna's isolated saloon for entertainment. Brooding over her male customers is the simmering, glowering, wise-cracking Crawford, wearing various colors of blouses and pants, generally topped with a bright red scarf tied round her neck. Her lips are the reddest lips in the world.

A savvy business woman, Vienna has purchased her saloon on land that is destined to become part of the railroad, and she plans to sell it and her property as a railroad stop for a hefty price. The problem is that the bar lies in the territory of local ranchers who want no railroad junction in their open lands, no new development that might bring settlement fences with it. Led by an equally powerful woman, Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge), the ranchers are determined to rid their territory of the Dancing Kid and his followers, along with Vienna. As the movie opens, robbers have hit a stage coach, killing Emma's brother, and Emma and the ranchers arrive at Vienna's saloon to arrest her and the gang.

The heart of this battle, however, is not really financial, but psycho-sexual, for the Dancing Kid has also caught Emma's eye, teasing her with his nightly dances and sexual energy. Emma, dressed almost throughout the film in black, is a closet Puritan, longing for his company while, out of her guilt, seeking his punishment through his death.

In this very first scene, Ray lays out the entire story: Emma and her men will ultimately kill Vienna, unless Vienna kills her first.

The power of the film lies in its dialogue, witty, fast-paced, rarely allowing for a sentimental moment. Hayden and Crawford, in part because of their absolutely opposing temperaments, are near perfect in their dueling tangle of words. In the following dialogue, it is useful to note how Hayden speaks the lines which in most movies a woman might speak, Crawford responding more like a stereotypical male:

Johnny: How many men have you forgotten?
Vienna: As many women as you've remembered.
Johnny: Don't go away.
Vienna: I haven't moved.
Johnny: Tell me something nice.
Vienna: Sure, what do you want to hear?
Johnny: Lie to me. Tell me all these years you've waited. Tell me.
Vienna: [without feeling] All those years I've waited.
Johnny: Tell me you'd a-died if I hadn't come back.
Vienna: [without feeling] I woulda died if you hadn't come back.
Johnny: Tell me you still love me like I love you.
Vienna: [without feeling] I still love you like you love me.
Johnny: [bitterly] Thanks. Thanks a lot.

In truth, Vienna has sent for Johnny Guitar to help her in her fight against the ranchers. She seems so self-sufficient, however, so able to keep the ranchers and sheriff at bay, that both her male suitors are almost insignificant. As she puts it to those who would take her off to jail, standing, as she does for much of the early parts of the movie, at the top of a staircase: "Down there I sell whiskey and cards. Up here all you can get is a bullet in your head."

Ray's male characters, like most of Sirk's figures, are ghostly like beings in the real world, living as dreamers determined to mold their realities around an imitation of art: music in Johnny Guitar's case and dance for the Dancing Kid. Consequently, their inner beings are as dimensional as the names they have created for themselves. As the plot meanders toward its expected conclusion, contrarily we suddenly see a different side of Vienna, a woman still very much in love with Johnny and a figure terrified by the difficulties she must face. She is the only one with any depth.

With their mine panned out, little money left, and accused of committing a robbery and murder of which they are innocent, the Dancing Kid and his gang determine to rob the small-town bank at the very moment that Vienna has decided to withdraw her money. The coincidence makes it seem as if she has been involved, particularly since the Dancing Kid kisses her as he rides off with Emma's and the ranchers' savings.

Facing the inevitable, Vienna awaits the posse—quickly rounded up while still in funeral garb for the burial of Emma's brother—dressed in a full cut white dress, revealing an entirely different possibility in her life. The scenes which follow, the vengeful burning of her "estate" by the now near-mad Emma, Vienna's near death by hanging, and her nighttime run are made even more strange and absurd by her costume. Dressed as she is, there is no way to hide, let alone escape.
Quickly changing back into blouse and pants, she leads Johnny into an underground passage that takes the two to their destiny: the hideout of the Dancing Kid's gang and the long-expected duel between the two women.

Determined to settle the battle, Emma fires up the ranchers with hateful statements similar in style to those made by the right-wing during the House on un-American Activities trials, a parallel recognized by many critics and admitted by Ray. Yet even here, the film does not rest in its Freudian implications, as the posse, sickening of the violence, leaves Emma to herself. She kills the Dancing Kid, the only man she has apparently loved, before turning the gun on Vienna (the name, one might note, of Freud's home city). Vienna shoots Emma dead. Love and life win out over hate and Emma's cult of death.

Los Angeles, August 25, 2009
Both parts reprinted in Green Integer Blog (August 2009).
Copyright (c) 2009 by Cinema International Review and Douglas Messerli

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