I am a newly hired assistant professor of film studies at a small liberal arts college. My students cringe every time I teach a film by Douglas Sirk, director laureate of 1950s suburbia and reigning emperor of trashy, technicolor melodrama. A recent screening of Sirk’s All that Heaven Allows (1954) left my bewildered undergraduates tittering with embarrassment, decrying the film as “unrealistic,” and proclaiming their failure to identify with any of the characters. My lecture on Sirk’s deliberately baroque stylization and the concept of Brechtian distanciation only barely helped to persuade them of the film’s relevance and quality. Somehow, Sirk’s films tend to leave students with the impression that their hopelessly clichéd narratives, hysterical acting, syrupy mood music, and unabashedly phony décor could only be the result of some misguidedand now thankfully obsoletesense of what an ignorant 1950s viewing public considered a richly emotional film-going experience. No director in his or her right mind, they proclaimed, could possibly get away with foisting such sentimental nonsense on the infinitely more sophisticated audiences of the twenty-first century.
Very soon, however, I was vindicated. Later that week, several students came up to me after class proclaiming that they had seen Julianne Moore on David Letterman and the Today Show, and that she had been talking about All that Heaven Allows, the very film we had just viewed! And what’s more, she had professed her admiration for director Douglas Sirk, and indicated that the new film she was starring in was in fact an undisguised homage to his work. Where my own authority had failed, it seemed, that of late-night television had succeeded.
Far from Heaven is a fantastic film. If I had more time, I’d write a longer, more thoughtful review of it. Sadly, my teaching duties call me away at present. But let me say that if it gets more students to appreciate Sirk, if it gets more people to watch Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s remake of All that Heaven Allows), that’s all I can ask for. It certainly made my job easier this semester. AK