Monday, June 16, 2014

All that Heaven Allows (1955)

Unambiguous storytelling is somewhat in the air these days, what with the arrival of The Immigrant in theaters and the recent Criterion release of Douglas Sirk's All that Heaven Allows on blu ray. Though The Immigrant is a great film, and All that Heaven Allows is at the very least a deeply admirable one, I'm not saying that this should become the new mode of storytelling, but rather to point out that these types of movies that aren't afraid of melodrama and clarity can actually work.

Though there is admittedly something fun about seeing actors give it there all and emotions run rampant, a good way to think about this type of filmmaking in terms of justification is that there is simply too much to say to be anything but unambiguous. That's certainly true of The Immigrant, and it's a pretty good way to consider Sirk's film as well. 

It tells the story of Cary (Jane Wyman) a widow who falls in love with her much younger gardener, Ron (Rock Hudson) despite the fact that the suburban culture around them considers it a scandal. Everyone expects Cary to either remain a widow or marry an older man (she has a few other suitors, but they're either too obsessed with love or merely interested in companionship). Ron however is strong, handsome, and off the beaten path. He represents a new breed of men in Cary's very traditional town (he's definitely not a beatnik, but he is simple-minded and a man of nature-not the type who'd ever settle down and raise a family). At one point Cary picks up a copy of Thoreau's Walden and reads a passage about the importance of marching to your own beat. That sort of sums up the main conflict in the film: should Cary disregard those around her and get what she wants, or should she succumb to society's standards and be unhappy? More importantly, though, if she does decide to rebel, will she be able to stand the rebuke and maintain her happiness? 

All that Heaven Allows, like most of Sirk's films, was not initially a big hit, but over the years it's become recognized as something great, just as its director has earned auteur-status--plus a direct homage in  Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven (one of those films that's unabashedly derivative, in the same way that Sirk was unabashedly melodramatic) and a remake, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul from German icon Rainer Werner Fassbender.

Watching All that Heaven Allows, one ultimately can't help but admire the sincerity and intensity with which Sirk tells his story (represented visually as well by his vivid use of lighting, lots of dramatic reds and blues, usually representing emotion and passivity). It's a style that perhaps wouldn't work as well in subsequent decades, but is perfectly suited for the 1950s, when directness was the perfect way to address and critique the passive aggressive nature of 1950s suburbia. Today, though, when digital screens are used not to explore, but to retreat, to hide (screens have pretty much gone back to their original meaning, namely to be a protective device), this directness might have value again. Perhaps that's partly why The Immigrant, while so old fashioned, feels incredibly relevant in the here and now.  

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