Geoffrey Samuel – Cinema and Law – TEN DOUBLE BILLS FOR THE COMPARATIST (CONTINUED): IMITATING (FORMS OF) LIFE

The worlds of law and of film share a phenomenon caused by the rise of fascism in Europe during the first half of the twentieth century. Law faculties (in the UK and in North America) and Hollywood studios saw an influx of emigres fleeing the Nazis and this influx had a profound effect both on common law legal learning and on American cinema. The law phenomenon was investigated in some depth in a book published in 2004 and this is a collection that should of course be on every comparatist’s bookshelf (Beatson & Zimmermann (eds), Jurists Uprooted, OUP, 2004). As for cinema, there are many websites charting the arrival and influence of directors such as Fritz Lang (The Secret Beyond the Door (1947), The Big Heat (1953)), Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity (1944), Some Like It Hot (1959)), Robert Siodmak (The Killers (1946), The Spiral Staircase (1945), The File on Thelma Jordan (1950)) and William Dieterle (Rope of Sand (1949)). Another emigre to Hollywood was the German theatre and film director Douglas Sirk (1897-1987).

            Sirk actually started out, in Germany, studying law but later switched to philosophy and art history. While at university he became involved with theatre and images-4translated some of Shakespeare’s plays; he was also interested in painting, set design and writing. As he himself said: “I didn’t know whether I wanted to be a painter, a theatre man, or a writer” (see John Halliday, Sirk on Sirk, Secker & Warburg, 1971, at 18). However it was the theatre that won out, so to speak, and he subsequently became one of Germany’s leading theatre directors. But in the late 1930’s Sirk was forced to leave Germany: life, professional and personal, for him had become unbearable, despite the fact that even the Nazis admired his talent as a theatre and film director. Sirk finally ended up in the United States where he went on to make a string of commercial films during the 1940s and 1950s, some of the most well-known being Magnificent Obession (1953), All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Written on the Wind (1956).

            These films are very different in style and content from the expressionist film noirs that are usually associated with the German emigres such as Lang and Siodmak (see above). Sirk’s films are lush in their colour and theatrical both in their visual sense (sets and composition) and in their content. Indeed, it was the content of the films mentioned above (and others) that resulted in Sirk not being taken seriously by film critics and writers until the 1960s; the films were described as ‘melodramas’, ‘weepies’ and (or) ‘women’s pictures’. Even his penultimate Hollywood film, A Time to Live and A Time to Die (1958), a very personal one given the death of Sirk’s only son on the Eastern Front in 1944, was often criticised for some of its melodramatic dialogue. Indeed today it still is not ranked as one of the great World War Two films, yet its scenes on the Eastern Front are remarkable for their realism and accuracy: “there is some good war stuff there” and “not the usual phoney Hollywood stuff” (said Sirk himself: in Halliday, at 127).

            Yet it is his last Hollywood film – his Goodbye-to-America – that in many ways is the most memorable of his films. Imitation of Life (1958) is about two, at first, penniless women and their daughters who, through the two young children, meet on a day out at the beach. One of the woman, Lora (Lana Turner), is an aspiring actor while the other, Annie (Juanita Moore), is an unemployed maid. The latter, a woman of colour, says that she will work for nothing if Lora is able to provide a place in her apartment for her and her daughter. Lora, with some hesitation at first, accepts and the relationship turns out, particularly for Lora, to be highly successful; with Annie taking care of all the domestic issues, Lora’s career flourishes. She becomes a huge success on the stage and this transforms the material lives of all four women. At first mainly focussing on Lora and Annie, the film’s attention subsequently moves onto the two daughters, particularly Annie’s child, Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner), who can and does go on to pass herself as a white person. Whereas Annie seems always to have accepted her status and framed her ambitions within this status, Sarah Jane has very different ideas. She runs off to pursue a career as a nightclub singer and dancer, rejecting her mother who comes searching for her. Lora’s child, Susie (Sandra Dee), is not free of her own problems either, especially when she falls for the Steve Archer (John Gavin) who himself has been Lora’s lover and had always wanted to marry her. It is of course Annie who gently points out to Lora that she has perhaps been too focused on her career to notice what was happening with the children. Annie’s health gradually declines and with her death the film moves to its extraordinary climax: the astonishing funeral sequence where Mahalia Jackson (playing herself) sings ‘Trouble of the World’. At the end of the service an utterly distraught Sarah Jane bursts through the crowd to drape herself on the coffin. The films ends with Lora, Susie, Steve and Sarah Jane in the limousine, all now it would seem a united family.

            If all this sounds like just a clichéd melodrama, one can be assured that in the hands of Douglas Sirk it is very much more than this. There is, to start, the rich visual impact. The scenes of Sarah Jane first in a somewhat sleazy nightclub (note the theatrical masks as props) and secondly in a plush Las Vegas style staging of show girls on a revolving stage, the camera placing itself on this revolving stage and recording the reactions of the women – particularly Sarah Jane – as they arrive off-stage. This is by any standards a memorable scene. In addition the characters themselves have more depth than it might seem. Lora may appear selfish in her single-minded pursuit of her career, but as she says early on in the film, she was getting no younger and if success was to be achieved it would require much determination and hard work. However she never lost her basic moral compass, refusing to submit to the ‘director’s couch’ route to success (much in the news these days), a route strongly proposed by her agent. And when she did become wealthy she shared all the material benefits with Annie and treated Sarah Jane as if she was Susie’s sister. She was no racist. This is not to suggest that she was perfect, and her career devotion certainly was not without cost to the daughters and some might say to Steve (yet did he not really want to control her?). But she clearly came not just to depend upon Annie but to form a lifelong bond with this decent and interesting woman.

            Annie may not of course seem ‘interesting’ at first (just kind). Yet at the end of the film we come to learn from the funeral sequence that she was an extraordinary pillar of the community, a community embracing not just people of colour but also all those who were less fortunate in life. Soon after moving in with Lora we saw Annie charming the milkman for a little bit of extra credit since they were so short of money. But Annie later tells Lora, towards the end of her life, that she always remembered each Christmas those who had helped them when they were poor. At the funeral, among the huge crowd of people in the Church, we can spot the milkman. Evidently she had used much of her wealth to help others. She is also the foundation not just of the community but of the Lora household, Susie regarding her a second mother, although her own daughter can never really accept her mother’s situation, which is the tragic aspect of the film. Nevertheless this provides Sirk with the sting that he puts in the tail of this ‘goodbye-to-America’. With the end of the funeral, we see, as mentioned, all four in the limousine, Susie and Sara Jane in the back in the arms of Lora. Sarah Jane is now free of her mother and no doubt able to pursue her show business career in a world of white people without a mother constantly wanting to see her and to remind her of her status (on occasions resulting in Sarah Jane losing her job). A career that is of course dedicated to the imitation of life.

            Sirk’s film is a long one and not really in need of a double bill programme. Nevertheless, in the spirit of this series of blogs, it is an interesting challenge to think of a images-2film that might accompany this Hollywood classic. There is one contender that in many ways is very different from the Sirk classic but is nevertheless a work that does seem to fit within the idea of imitating life. This is Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966), a film set in London in the mid 1960s and one that, if it does nothing else, makes some magnificent uses of London locations (Camberwell, Notting Hill, the City, Maryon Park, and Tooting for example).

            The central character is a highly successful fashion photographer called Thomas (David Hemmings) who one Saturday finds himself in a South London park where he spends time casually photographing various things of interest to him, in particular a couple seemingly engaged in what vaguely looks like an illicit affair. Fascinated by the couple, Thomas secretly photographs them from various partly hidden positions but he is finally spotted by the woman, Jane (Vanessa Redgrave), who pursues him and demands that he hands over the film. He refuses, saying that photography is his job. After some interaction between them she finally runs back to where she was photographed in the park but where her male and much older lover (seemingly) is now nowhere to be seen. Back at his studio Thomas is visited by Jane who again demands the film and after much conversational and illicit substance interaction, also including sex, the photographer gives her a roll of film which is not of course the correct one (but then she gives him a false telephone number).

            Intrigued by her panicky demands, Thomas develops the photos (some fine technical scenes for those into pre-digital photography) and hangs the prints around his sitting room. He soon begins to notice something odd about Jane’s behaviour – she seems to be looking at something in the bushes and generally has an air of nervousness – which leads Thomas to examine the bushes more closely. As he continually blows up this print, the very vague image of a man with a gun seems to emerge from the leaves. Thomas then turns his attention to the photos he took of the woman running away after their interaction in the park. Is that a body under the tree where Jane and the man had earlier been embracing? In short, has Thomas unwittingly photographed a murder?

            Thomas revisits the park and does indeed find a body under the tree but when he returns to his studio he discovers that someone has broken in a stolen all the photographs and negatives. They missed only one print, which had fallen behind some item of furniture, which might or might not depict a dead body under a tree. As the partner, Patricia (Sarah Miles), of his abstract artist neighbour, Bill (John Castle), observes, the photo is just like one of Bill’s paintings. Earlier on in the film, Bill, reflecting on his paintings, says when he paints them they are just a mess; it is afterwards that he sees things in them that he can hang onto. This idea of interpretation and imposing patterns on chaos is of course a theme close to the heart of comparative lawyers and other jurists.

            While this murder or no murder theme is central to the film’s narrative in some ways it does not as such drive the work since the story is as much about the day in the life of a rather selfish and self-absorbed photographer. He treats his models as if they were cattle and is somewhat homophobic and sexist in his language and behaviour, although such behaviour was not untypical in the 1960s despite the so-called sexual revolution. Moreover Thomas seems little interested in the actual criminal and social aspect of the apparent murder; he appears more concerned with what it might mean for his career as a photographer.

            Some of the more memorable scenes are of Thomas driving around London in his convertible Rolls Royce (said to have been borrowed by the filmmakers from Jimmy Saville), one journey in which, on the Saturday evening, he spots Jane in a crowd looking into a shop window. He stops but she has disappeared by the time he gets to the window (was she really there?). Searching for her Thomas finds himself in a back alley and at the rear entrance to the Tooting Ricky Tick club (see ‘afterword’ below) where, when he enters, the Yardbirds are playing what seems to be (from this blogger’s experience of the group) a rather lacklustre set. The set ends when one of the guitarists, annoyed at a dodgy speaker, smashes up his guitar (Antonioni originally wanted the Who whose guitarist, Peter Townsend, specialised in this destructive antic) and chucks it into the audience. Thomas, true to form, pushes everyone else out of the way to grab the remains, only to abandon them in Tooting high street. After this incident he continues his journey to a party where he wants to seek out his publisher, Ron (Peter Bowles), who is in the process of producing a book of Thomas’ London doss life photographs; the photographer hopes to take Ron to see the dead body. Instead Ron encourages Thomas to get high on illicit substances.

            When Thomas awakes he is alone in the large and empty party house. He drives back to the park only to find that the body is no longer there, if it ever was. At this point we see a group of Rag Week students, first encountered right at the beginning of the film, enter the park on a Landrover and stop by the tennis court. They are dressed as mime artists and begin a game of fantasy mime tennis. As Thomas watches, vaguely amused, does he begin actually to hear the sound of a tennis ball? This is where the film ends.

            Blow-Up won prizes but also attracted its fair share of criticism. Some found it utterly pretentious and vapid while others were simply mystified as to what it was about. However the plot was to be copied and adapted in two later Hollywood films – The Conversation (1974) and Blow Out (1981) – and there is surely little doubt that its central theme was fascinating enough to have been of influence in more indirect ways beyond the two films just mentioned above. In addition there are arguably other interesting aspects to this film. Professor Muir Watt in a fascinating contribution to this year’s SLS conference (2018) suggested that the ‘forms of life’ (Lebensform) debate in disciplines such as theology, philosophy and the social sciences might provide valuable insights for the comparatist, particularly with regard to the notion of alterity. In Blow-up the various forms of life are an integral part of the narrative in that Thomas, as a photographer, is continually engaging (for his own profit) with different ‘existences’: the night in the homeless centre (the ‘doss house’ as he calls it) where he captures some striking images; and of course the private life of Jane and her (perhaps unfortunate) lover in the now iconic English park.

            The glamour world of modelling is yet another form of life from which Thomas profits and which endows him with considerable power. The old man in the antique shop (which Thomas wants to buy) has his own form of life which, quite evidently from his attitude, he does not really want to share with the likes of Thomas and his set. And when Thomas finally gets to meet the real owner of the shop, she herself wants a change in her life: she wants to go to some far off land in order to experience something different from antiques. Antonioni’s film is continually one of contrasting lives and circumstances – of different realities – in which the photographer’s image, and the images in the film itself, are imitations of a London that is both ‘real’ and imaginary and the point, perhaps, of Antonioni’s film is that it continually zig-zags between the two creating a sense of alienation. Was this really Thomas in London on a Saturday? Or was the whole thing a bad dream (or drug trip) where ‘reality’ starts only when Thomas wakes up in the empty house? Is his whole ‘form of life’ as a rich fashion photographer and a wannabe artist, aided by his own selfishness, simply a form of alienation from all other forms of life?

            Blow-up may seem a quite different experience from Sirk’s Imitation of Life, although Raymond Durgnat once observed that there was a connection between Sirk and Antonioni. “Douglas Sirk approaches a plush weepie like Imitation of Life“, said Durgnat, “with a dry calculation-in-excess, resulting in a sense of lonely alienation which to the style-sensitive eye is not unlike Antonioni’s”. As Durgnat went on to say, after a not too positive view of Sirk, “but what is interesting to notice is that the commercial cinema, by curious processes of its own, is often ahead of ‘art’ films” (Films and Feelings, 1967, at 80).

            Yet the Sirk film equally raises issues about the various forms of life. Annie’s life is in one sense closely connected with Lora’s, but in another sense they both exist in very different communities. The same is true of Sarah Jane and Susie: both connected at a family level but very different lives outside the family. Annie and Sarah Jane are also separated by their working environments, just as, to some extent, are Lora and Susie. But what surely links the two films is the whole idea of imitating life. Here one is reminded of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), a film about actors playing actors; in Lora we continually see and feel a person – while decent and hard working – living a life of imitation, not just on the stage but to some extent in her home and social life. Thomas and Bill in Blow-up have careers that are entirely founded on producing works that not just ‘imitate’ the world around them but also completely distort it, abstract anarchy in the case of Bill and fashion glamorisation on the part of Thomas. Does law ‘imitate’ life in a way that both reflects and distorts it? Are lawyers like Lora: do they exist in a world where one is constantly creating a stage inhabited by persons (personae), props (res) and actions (actiones)? And like Thomas do they end up being unable to distinguish between reality and fantasy? The double bill discussed here will not of course answer these questions, but they might provide an enjoyable and provocative reflection on imitation, interpretation, fiction and reality.

            Afterword. Gospel and blues music is another link between the two films. One news item that sadly dominated during the late summer was the death of Aretha Franklin, linked to Sirk’s film through Mahalia Jackson. Franklin was Jackson’s protégé and she sang at the latter’s funeral. In Blow-up a rather famous scene is the one involving Thomas’ visit to the Ricky Tick club. These clubs – along with Klooks Kleek, The images-5Flamingo, The Marquee, Eel Pie Island and others – provided the venues for the great UK blues music boom that began in the very late 1950s and early 1960s. These were the clubs that produced The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, John Mayall, Georgie Fame, Rod Stewart, The Who and others and these musicians on occasions would have as guest artists one of the American blues legends. This blogger actually went to the Ricky Tick club in Tooting – the one featured in Blow-up – to see John Lee Hooker playing with the John Mayall band. On other occasions it was Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) with the Yardbirds (Ricky Tick) and Jimmy Witherspoon playing with a band whose name slips the memory (Eel Pie Island). In fact the principal Ricky Tick club was in Windsor, but offshoots subsequently appeared in other towns. However the interior scene in Blow-up is a studio recreation – an ‘imitation’ – of the London Ricky Tick, whose actual interior, if memory serves one well, was very much smaller and on an upper floor. By the end of 1966 this blues club scene, and these clubs, had largely come to an end. It was the closing of one era and the opening of another (soul and psychedelic). But the iconic Ricky Tick posters remain as a reminder of how vibrant this club music was (Google Ricky Tick).

Posted by Professor Geoffrey Samuel (Professor of Comparative law, Kent)

Note: Previous posts featured movies such as The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), The Warlord (1965), Out of the Past (1947), Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), Kiss me deadly (1955) and The Killers (1964). 

Future posts are likely to discuss following movies: Man of the West (1958), A History of Violence (2005),  Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) and Voyage Surprise (1947).