Tears Without Laughter

Deciphering audience responses to Douglas Sirk, in the U.S. and Japan
by Chris Fujiwara  posted August 18, 2008
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Douglas Sirk Retrospective, Pia Film Festival, July 19-25. 2008

Tokyo is less bountiful in classic American cinema than Paris, New York, or Los Angeles (or even Boston, now that Haden Guest has taken charge of the Harvard Film Archive). But a recent 10-film Douglas Sirk retrospective in Tokyo proved that watching American films with a Japanese audience can be a hell of a lot more enjoyable than watching them with an American one.

In the U.S., screenings of Sirk masterpieces such as Written on the Wind (1956), Imitation of Life (1959), and even the mournful The Tarnished Angels (1958) are turned into endurance tests by audience participation rituals that, whether fueled by the urge to show off one’s camp sensibility or driven by a misguided sympathy with the irony evident in the films, ends up all but hooting the films off the screen. The result is that, regardless of one’s level of interest in “reception” (that hobbyhorse of academic film studies), seeing Sirk’s films in the U.S. often becomes more about the audience response than about the films themselves.

How different things are in Japan was proved at the Sirk retrospective of the Pia Film Festival in July. At a 300-seat theater in Shibuya, the pop-culture center of Tokyo, sold-out screenings of the German-born director’s most melodramatic, stylistically flamboyant Hollywood films were received (by a mainly twenties-ish audience) in a mood of respectful appreciation unimaginable from a crowd of the same size in the U.S. To get down to specifics, four types of laughter that are almost unavoidable at American screenings of Sirk’s best-known films were completely absent in Tokyo.

1. Pop-Trash-Camp Laughter. Dorothy Malone’s performance as the rich nymphomaniac Marylee in Written on the Wind generally comes in for gusts of derision from American audiences, who bray at her as if Sirk were a cross between Tex Avery and Russ Meyer. The Japanese silence before Marylee’s larger-than-life compulsions lent Sirk’s film, for all its garishness, a Racinian dignity that an American audience wouldn’t let stand for a second.

Also in the Pop-Trash-Camp category are the snorts leveled in the U.S. at three moments involving Rock Hudson: Ron (Hudson) telling Cary (Jane Wyman) in All That Heaven Allows (1955) that, as being a man means making your own decisions, he wants her to be a man “only in that one way”; in Written on the Wind, the Hudson character’s embarrassment at the suggestion that he ought to marry; and in The Tarnished Angels, Hudson’s character offering to go in place of LaVerne (Malone) to try to borrow a plane from a lecherous businessman (Robert Middleton). Why don’t the Japanese get a rise out of these moments? Do they not know that Hudson was gay? Or, knowing it, do they still manage to find Hudson’s casting as a heterosexual not snickerable? Do the Japanese, perhaps, even forget that they are seeing “Rock Hudson” at all, but instead perceive “Ron Kirby,” “Mitch Wayne,” or “Burke Devlin”? (Incidentally, Hudson’s performance as Taza, Son of Cochise [1954] was also taken seriously by a capacity crowd in Tokyo.) I realize that for people who think The Tarnished Angels is funny, granting any of these possibilities would mean marking down the Japanese as a primitive race, but I offer these hypotheses anyway as guideposts for further research.

2. The Laugh Against the Strong Image.
Shibuya viewers watched unfazed as Marylee ran her hand over the model of an oil derrick at the end of Written on the Wind—a moment whose ability to bring down houses in the U.S. is so unfailing that Universal could dub canned laughter onto the soundtrack and no one would notice. Nor did the Japanese guffaw at three other Sirk scenes that I might call iconic, if I were less aware how ridiculous they seem to American viewers: Kyle (Robert Stack), having just been diagnosed impotent, confronting a young boy bouncing on a mechanical toy horse in Written on the Wind; a saintly artist (Otto Kruger) staring encouragingly through the window overlooking the operating room where his protégé (Hudson) must perform a difficult surgery in Magnificent Obsession (1954); and the deer in the picture window at the end of All That Heaven Allows. Audiences who laugh uproariously at such moments respond, I suppose, less to the images than to the expressive intentions, which they reject for being too obvious, as if the films would have been more acceptable had Sirk pulled his punches.

3. The Emotion-Disavowing Laugh.
I’ve heard American audiences laugh in outrage at the size of the turnout at the funeral of Annie (Juanita Moore) in Imitation of Life—a reaction that safely undercuts the possibility of being moved by Annie’s death and her survivors’ grief. This laughter may be related to the chortling that greets certain moments when the melodramatic plotting of Sirk’s scripts goes into overdrive: Helen (Wyman) escaping from a taxi to be immediately struck by a passing car in Magnificent Obsession; Ron falling off a cliff in All That Heaven Allows. The Japanese felt no need to react audibly to these scenes.

4. The Ideologically Knowing Laugh.
Americans sometimes titter at the reassuring smile Steve (the no-doubt too-handsome John Gavin) offers the bereaved Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) inside the funeral coach at the end of Imitation of Life. Sirk films are especially susceptible to this kind of Ideologically Knowing Laugh, which here presumably vocalizes an awareness that the promise of patriarchal normalcy Steve stands for is both blatantly recuperative and quite hollow, since Sarah Jane’s problem—being a black woman in racist, sexist America—remains unsolved. Steve sometimes gets another I.K.L. earlier in the film, when he informs Lora (Lana Turner) that his love for her justifies his demand that she give up her acting career for him. Contemporary Japan may well be more sexist than the contemporary U.S.; granting this, I still question how much more safely removed Americans are than the Japanese from the attitudes Steve represents. The Japanese failure to laugh at him might signify something other than mere complacency, whereas the American laughter sounds falsely triumphant.

Perhaps their much-noted undemonstrativeness and fear of group disapproval restrain the Japanese from manifestations that Americans find normal. Maybe the Japanese are really unsure which aspects of foreign films made more than 50 years ago are funny and think it better to keep silent. (Though I might add that even at screenings of domestic films from the past, American-style ironic giggling is quite rare in Japan.) On the other hand, as evidence for the sharpness of the Japanese sense of humor in these matters, I submit that in Shibuya, Sirk’s ironies at the expense of the Lana Turner character in the second half of Imitation of Life (culminating in Sandra Dee’s classic “Oh, mother, stop acting!”) got at least as much laughter as they do in the U.S. So did the scene of Ron’s disastrous appearance at the country club in All That Heaven Allows and Sirk’s handling of the conservative children in that film and There’s Always Tomorrow (1956). For me, these laughs—which the films clearly seek and earn—revealed the importance of an appreciative audience. Imitation of Life is in part a comedy, but it can’t work as one if the audience is also breaking up at things that aren’t funny (like Troy Donahue’s scene).

The Tokyo reception of Sirk’s films pointed up the anxiety the director’s style arouses in the U.S., where it still seems unsettled whether he is a sophisticated ironist or a popmeister who espouses values that today’s viewers feel they have escaped from. In any case, audiences’ ironic appropriation of Sirk—apart from being, like, so 1990s—thwarts the nonironic acceptance on which basis alone the films can work (as I believe they work ideally) as emotional melodramas that remain detached from the assumptions of the society they depict. Ignoring the detachment makes Sirk an idiot. Denying the emotion makes him a cynical mass-culture satirist. Admittedly, the audible reactions of audiences during screenings may not be a lot to go on, but as far as they go, they suggest that the Japanese have fewer barriers to overcome than Americans in approaching the iconic images and ideological tensions of Douglas Sirk. 


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Courtesy The Criterion Collection
Lauren Bacall and Rock Hudson in Douglas Sirk's Written on the Wind
Photo Gallery: Tears Without Laughter


July 19-25, 2008 Douglas Sirk Retrospective


Chris Fujiwara's latest book, Jerry Lewis, is published by University of Illinois Press.

More articles by Chris Fujiwara
Author's Website: insanemute.com