Thursday, February 6, 2014

Review: Imitation of Life

As part of my so-called "Movie Diet" (see here for a fuller explanation), I have vowed to review all new films I see between now and April 27th.

Douglas Sirk gets mentioned often enough that he seems more like a genre unto himself than just a director. In fact, not a single review of Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven failed to invoke Sirk, almost as though even critics who didn't know Sirk's work figured it was essential to compare Haynes' film to it, name-checking him without knowing why.

If I had reviewed Far From Heaven and invoked Sirk, I might have been one of those critics, as I had not seen a Sirk film until last night. Sirk's 1959 film Imitation of Life -- his last feature film before giving up his career and returning to Germany -- gives a pretty good encapsulation of the Sirk genre on the whole. From what I can tell, a Douglas Sirk movie is a raw, emotionally fierce piece of filmmaking disguised as colorful, domesticated fluff. It's an interesting combination, to say the least.

Imitation of Life concerns an out-of-work actress (Lana Turner) who meets an out-of-home domestic (Juanita Moore) when their children end up playing together at the beach. As gratitude for finding her daughter, whom she believed to be lost, the actress (Lora Meredith by name) offers the maid (Annie Johnson by name) a place to say for the night. Seeking to make the relationship long-term, Annie says she'll do Lora's housework and such for no pay just as long as she and her daughter have room and board. Lora agrees and the two mother-daughter pairs become four -- two white, two black.

Sounds like the setup for a wacky sitcom, right? Hardly. It quickly becomes clear that Annie's light-skinned daughter, Sarah Jane, loathes her ethnic heritage, wanting no one to know that she's black. As she grows older (and starts being played by Susan Kohner rather than Sarah Dicker), her racial identity begins causing her untold problems with various suitors and other acquaintances -- to the point that she disowns her kind-hearted, long-suffering mother and runs off without leaving a forwarding address.

Lora's storyline is a bit more conventional for a movie with the trappings of a fluffy melodrama, as she is basically trying to carve out her place in the world as a woman in her (eventually very successful) acting career. However, she's not free from the salacious, either, as her daughter Susie (played by Sandra Dee as a teenager) develops a serious infatuation with her own love interest, and accuses her of merely performing the role of a mother, rather than actually being one.

You can't watch Imitation of Life without recognizing the disconnect between its frothy aesthetic form and its wrenching subject matter. In fact, it's a feeling the viewer grapples with throughout, especially as Annie's and Sarah Jane's storyline gets closer and closer to inevitable tragedy. While this is all happening, however, you're conscious of watching something that looks a lot safer, something that looks like its conflicts should resolve within a half-hour of television, with all the characters smiling. In fact, this is a movie where people who don't deserve it suffer cruel and unusual punishment.

Consequently, it's a bit hard to know what to make of Imitation of Life. It certainly can't be written off, but it's also the kind of odd duck that doesn't seem like it's accomplishing exactly what it set out to accomplish. The most generous way to read what we're seeing here -- and the reading I'm going to select -- is that it's Sirk wrapping a pretty bow around something that's truly transgressive and thought provoking. Sirk appears to have fooled the very people designed to publicize his movie. The poster above seems to indicate that Lana Turner is the main character of this story and that her character's concerns are paramount, while relegating Moore and Kohner to the lower right-hand corner of the image.

No impression could seem less accurate after watching the movie. The way Sirk has shown a light on the immensely painful identity issues addressed by marginalized minorities, at the expense of the alleged A story starring the bankable movie star, proves him to be a shrewd manipulator of expectations, and a cunning artistic talent indeed.

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