Tagged: Douglas Sirk

Scene It: Mahalia Jackson in Imitation of Life

The other night, my heart broke while watching Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life. It seems like All That Heaven Allows has a greater impact on the culture–feminists love Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson provides ample fodder for the queer theorists, it got the Criterion treatment along with Written on the Wind. However, Todd Haynes seems equally influenced by Heaven and Imitation, bringing both films’ preoccupations with closeted identities and tenuous racial integration into Far From Heaven.

Julianne Moore and Dennis Haysbert as Cathy Whitaker and Raymond Deagan; image courtesy of sensesofcinema.com

Imitation resonated with me in terms of how women attempt to form bonds across racial lines and the racism and self-loathing women internalize to accommodate white Eurocentic beauty standards. I can’t relate to the second issue like Sarah Jane Johnson (Karin Dicker as a child, Susan Kohner as a teenager), a biracial girl attempting to pass as white in pre-Civil Rights America. Nonetheless, I ache for her to love and accept Annie (Juanita Moore), her black single mother who works as a caretaker for Lora Meredith (Lana Turner), a successful Broadway actress whose career places demands against being a full-time mother to daughter Suzie (Terry Burnham, later Sandra Dee).

As a white woman, I’m sensitive to Annie and Lora’s friendship and its power imbalances. Black and white women historically have a difficult time being friends. It’s hard to ignore cultural differences and systems of inequality while holding onto them at the same time, figuring out when to be empathetic and remembering to treat people as individuals and not symbols. Speaking in generalities, many white women feel good about being friends with black women, and thus disregard black women’s humanity. They aren’t friends with black women so much as they’re proud of themselves for being friends with black women, factoring black women out in the process. When you bring in the racial injustices waged by white mainstream feminism(s), it’s little wonder that many black women’s default mode around white women is incredulity.

Annie convinces Lora to hire her as a nanny when Lora is still struggling to break into show business and Annie is ostensibly homeless. However, Lora becomes a sensation, acquiring the means to essentially buy her friend. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Lora enslaves Annie, because I’m cautious to use a term so loaded that disregards Annie’s agency and suggests that Lora doesn’t consider Annie to be a person. But Annie is staff. As she reminds Lora late in the film, she’s paid to be the mother Lora didn’t have time to be. The sad irony is that she’s more of a mother to a blonde white girl than she is to her own daughter, who wants very badly to be treated like a blonde white girl.

Since it’s a Sirk movie, there are some amazing shots that beautifully visualize key themes. The opening credits shimmer as an avalanche of diamonds overwhelm the frame. They gesture toward Lora’s opulence. About half of the film’s budget was for Turner’s wardrobe, and I’d imagine most of it was spent on jewelry. The credits are accompanied by a song that shares the film’s title, sung by Earl Grant. The word “imitation” suggests that the diamonds could be fake, and thus represent a emotional hollowness underneath Sarah Jane’s aspirations. Don’t be an imitation of life, the song encourages. Embrace who you truly are. Lauryn Hill gave similar advice to self-hating black women in “Doo Wop (That Thing)”: “don’t be a hard rock when you really are a gem.” In this context, the jewels are garish and oppressive.

Another image that stays with me is Sarah Jane’s discarded black doll. Perhaps because I came of age during kinderwhore and the mainstream coopting of riot grrrl, dolls embody a white feminine ideal. As Ann DuCille notes in her seminal essay, “Dyes and Dolls: Multicultural Barbie and the Merchandising of Difference,” that ideal often excludes black femininity and its integration is troubled by colorism, hair politics, and fallacy of colorblindness. Even though I don’t want girls to see themselves as dolls, I don’t want Sarah Jane to hate the doll in her arms.

Sirk’s Imitation was the second film adaptation of Fannie Hurst’s 1933 novel. A lot of changes were made, particularly that Lora became independently successful as an actress instead of building her fortune on Annie’s pancake recipe. The casting is also interesting. Sarah Kohner is Jewish and Mexican American. She’s not black, and perhaps today the part would go to Hallie Steinfield (though don’t be so sure). But I think Kohner is a more progressive casting choice than Natalie Wood, who was considered for the role.

Hailee Steinfeld; image courtesy of hollywoodreporter.com

It hurts to witness Sarah Jane’s desire to pass as white and her anger toward her mother that she can’t. She’s well aware of the limited choices and consequences of her racial identity, but hates her mother and herself instead of a racist society that so totally values whiteness. I was angry with Sarah Jane for how she treats her mother, and how Annie allows herself to be treated. She removes herself from Sarah Jane’s life as requested rather than fight to stay in it. I wanted her to shake Sarah Jane for her racist behavior and tell her that black is beautiful. But maybe this is just what I wanted to see, affirming that audiences prefer films that represent racism as a choice made by characters instead of an entrenched societal problem.

Susan Kohner and Juanita Moore as Sarah Jane and Annie Johnson; image courtesy of biraciality.files.wordpress.com

Annie dies of a broken heart after Sarah Jane runs away to be a white chorus girl. She returns for the funeral, throwing herself on the casket and claiming that she killed her mother. There are so many powerful moments in the final sequence, though I was particularly moved by the image of a black boy having his hat removed by an adult as a sign of respect when Annie’s carriage passes by. But Mahalia Jackson’s performance as a church soloist defines the film. I don’t want to make Jackson the voice of the Civil Rights Movement anymore than I want Annie to be reduced to a sacrificial figure, but it’s hard not to feel shame and heartbreak in Jackson’s solemn rendition of “Trouble of the World.” Mavis Staples believed the NPR segment linked above would make listeners stop and take in the power and grace of Jackson’s voice. She certainly does that in Imitation, reminding us of two lives cut short by racism that deserved to be lived.

Covered: The Long Blondes’ “Someone To Drive You Home”

Someone To Drive You Home cover, Rough Trade 2006/2007; image courtesy of pitchfork.com

Someone To Drive You Home cover, Rough Trade 2006/2007; image courtesy of pitchfork.com

Two areas I don’t recall covering in the blog so far are 1) bands whose songs focus on cinephilia and 2) female musicians who use their visual arts training in the service of their bands. Today, we can focus on both by considering The Long Blondes’ debut full-length Someone To Drive You Home and lead singer Kate Jackson’s artwork for said album.

So I’m new to this band, who I guess are no longer a band. That’s a bummer, but at least I’ve had fun pumping this album at full volume in my car this past week as the skies became increasingly overcast. And singing at full volume. As my friend Brea mentioned in her entry about records that made her a feminist, it’s important for women and girls to find singers whose vocal ranges match their own. It’s really true. Perhaps we could think of it as double-identification — being able to relate to a female singer’s persona as conveyed through her lyrics, performance style, fashion sense or whatever on one level and being able to replicate, mirror, or blend her tone, pitch, and timbre with your own. However we want to theorize it, I’m glad that my notes can work with Jackson’s strong, supple alto.

Matching a singer’s range also makes shouting easier. I love Animal Collective, but screaming along to Avey Tare doesn’t make any sense for me. We can try and make it queer or whatever, but it really just feels silly and strained to my throat and ears. Screaming “Edie Sedgwick! Anna Karina! Arlene Dahl!” along with Jackson, on the other hand, makes perfect sense.

Edie Sedgwick; image courtesy of fashionista.com

Edie Sedgwick; image courtesy of fashionista.com

The opening track, appropriately titled “Lust In the Movies,” is a good transition into the defunct band’s cinephilic leanings. Indeed, the movies are everywhere. Specifically movies from the post-war era, a considerable amount of them of the film noir tradition or have some kind of sinister edge, while others are campy b-movies that have since cashed in on retro chic.

Imagined film snob boys corrupt willing schoolgirls with Russ Meyer films in “Fulwood Babylon.” Girls want to be cool enough for the movies that play in film snob boys’ heads in “Lust in the Movies.” A boy and a girl compare themselves to C.C. Baxter, The Apartment‘s love-lorn protagonist in “You Could Have Both.” Obscure references to British celebrities of the 1940s and 1950s like Hattie Jacques and Peter Rogers thread through break-up narratives like “Five Ways to End It.” Greta Garbo is looked upon with envy (and irony?) as the woman who snagged all the handsome men in “Never to Be Repeated.” “Only Lovers Left Alive” is inspired by Fred Zinnemann’s From Here to Eternity, a romantic sentiment perhaps echoed in Jackson’s sleeve art, which references Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern’s frenzied lovers in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart.

As many of these movies are classic Hollywood, iconographic art house, and/or have the Criterion stamp of approval, we might call them films instead of movies, if the writer of this blog held fast to making such a distinction.

Now, we could get into a discussion of what this means in terms of preference and why more clearly feminist classics don’t get shout-outs like, say, Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, Agnès Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7, or Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Maybe they haven’t seen these movies. Maybe they thought the last movie I mentioned was boring (the 200-minute running time has kept me from seeing it, though it is in my Netflix queue). However, I’d hazard to guess that the Russ Meyer reference in “Fulwood Babylon” might be done with a bit of feminist cheek, and while I have trouble reading the nuances of intentional camp in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, I’m sure my friend Curran would smile and nod in recognition of the reference.

And yet. I find how film references are used in these songs to be particularly interesting. For one, I think especially in “Lust in the Movies” and “Fulwood Babylon,” a critique is being made by Kate (and her chorus of singing fans) against the sorts of boys who live in movies (perhaps including Dorian Cox, a former Long Blonde who co-wrote the majority of the album with Jackson). These boys are too busy looking for Edie Sedgwick, Anna Karina, and Arlene Dahl to notice the real woman in front of them. Fools.

For another, I find the blurring between fantasy and reality, the projected and the lived, the fantastical and the mundane heartening and relateable. Many of these songs are not actually about being in the movies, but wishing you could be or pretending you are to get over a failed relationship, get through your boring day job, get ready for a night out, get in the car to leave town, or simply get through your 20s.

There’s some humanity in these songs, particularly between women and girls. Two lonely girls flee their humdrum lives together in “Separated By Motorways.” A spurned lover hopes her ex’s new love fares better than she did after the break-up in “Heaven Help the New Girl.” A twentysomething tells a 19-year-old girl that she doesn’t need to resort to mutilation to get through that stupid, cursed age in “Once and Never Again,” a solidarity anthem so catchy that I just requested it be added to the Karaoke Underground song list.

And while the movies being referenced aren’t explicitly feminist (or argued and/or championed as such by theoretically florid film scholars), I’d argue that there’s much going on with the female movie icons that Jackson’s and her songs’ protagonists (which may be iterations of herself) identify. Having brought up Sedgwick, Karina, Dahl, Garbo, this is where I’ll fold in Jackson’s spare, mysterious cover. The woman in the cover is recognizable to many as Bonnie Parker, as played by Faye Dunaway in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, a divisive and galvanizing movie that marked a sea change in American cinema, upped the ante for screen violence, reflected the shift in generational values, presupposed the turbulent year that would be 1968, and made thousands of women cut and straighten their hair into sleek bobs by Dunaway’s influence. It might have made them want to tote guns, fire bullets, and rob banks too. In short, this was seen as a dangerous film that still holds some influence as a countercultural text that appeals to men and women.

Some of those women may still be shuffling through their 20s, figuring it out. They might not be compelled to rob a bank, but they might be tempted to quit their job, or at least bitch about work at the local bar. Hopefully they won’t bitch about each other as much, as this cattiness is evident on the album and something I’d like us to rise above. But there’s something nice about being reassured that someone, whether a movie character or a friend, will be there to drive you home. Even if your car is riddled with bullet holes.