02 April 2006

Imitation of Life 1959, Douglas Sirk, dir.

Oh Steve...You're so...so good for what ails me!

on the recommendation of a colleague here in Wales, I have been on the lookout for Douglas Sirk's films, as their visual sensibility intersects with some of the research I've been doing on 1950s and 1960s Bollywood films. Yash Chopra, one of the directors I've been looking at, has cited Sirk as a reference point for his interiors and shots, and both directors show us a vision of what it means to be modern in the 1950s and 60s.

so last night I watched Imitation of Life which I highly recommend that everyone watch for the following reasons:

  • we all need melodrama in our lives, and the film not only delivers it but critiques that need incessantly. the main character, Lora Meredith, played by a gorgeous Lana Turner, is an aspiring actress, and her daughter, lovers, and friends all remind her constantly that she needs to 'stop acting' 'stop playing the martyr' and in general to stop being such a drama queen. I love it.

  • ambition: good or bad? Lora is a modern woman. a widow, she lives in a 'cold-water apartment' in New York with her daughter. she has a dream. but it's more that she is driven: dreams are things we can't attain, and there's no wallowing here in the dream. Lora just goes out and gets it. And, guess what! she doesn't compromise her principles to do so, rebutting the advances of a lecherous agent and standing up to the playwright when his scene isn't well written. this gets her her first big break, which then leads to her meteoric rise. which leads to:

  • principles: good or bad? so she sticks to her principles and follows her ambition and yet she is unsatisfied. something is missing. she doesn't see her daughter grow up. she rejects the man she loves because marriage means not following her career path. she is unhappy.

  • but wait! I forgot! race relations! yes, Lora takes in a black woman and her light-skinned child and they live in the walkup apartment together, later moving into a big house. Annie facilitates Lora's rise (much as a wife might in a heterosexual relationship--oops! did I imply some sort of relationship there? hm.) by working behind the scenes, posing as her maid, answering door and phone, raising her child. it's almost like she is the live-in housekeeper, almost like she is the wife role that Lora has rejected.

  • it's almost like life: the film is of course, melodramatic in the proper sense of the term: expressionistic shots, lovely framing through the angular stair-rails at the oh-so-modern late-50s suburban estate, nice chiaroscuro at all the right moments and to bathe the four women (two daughters, Annie, and Lora) in wonderful soft light (an aside: i don't think we ever see any of the men's faces in light, or barely at all. it's amazing that we even recognize them at the end of the film). but what's great about it is that in its imitation of life, it reveals to us the problems of life itself, it opens up the deeper questions of 'passing' as white in a racist world, of acknowledging who you are, of the subtleties of racism among friends, of balancing family and career, of figuring out what it is you truly want, not what it is you thought you wanted. life lessons. and Lana Turner. what could be better?

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