When Douglas Sirk got to Universal Pictures in the 1950s, directors could not do as they pleased. They were contractors hired to make specific types of movies for rather un-specific audiences. Where some saw these industrial mandates as a tourniquet of purpose, Sirk saw an opportunity. He took his chances on the perishability of the melodrama, a form he said was “perfect in American pictures. They were naïve, they were something completely different. They were completely art-less.”
This might sound kind of self-collapsing, but Sirk was both a true critic of the unused capacities in Hollywood, and an un-ironic enthusiast for all the mass pleasures that Hollywood offered. It’s all on display in Magnificient Obsession, a film that reminds me that for artists, it’s often useful to dispense with pre-mixed formulas, but it’s just as valuable to see what can be done within an established set of rules, a standard framework. Of course, so much contrivance in a film is acceptable only if it contributes to an understanding of our cinematic and psychological expectations.
Sirk had been a renowned theater director before the Second World War. He was also a vocal leftist with a Jewish wife. War moved him to cinema. Nazis needed movies more than they feared outspoken dissidents and their non-Aryan spouses. Sirk foresaw that the best opportunity for escape would come through his success as a film director. The Sirks eventually made their way out of Germany under the pretense of scouting locations for a new film, then fled to Zurich and to Holland where they left on the last boat. It was 1939. Sirk died in 1987 at the age of 86, but the four melodramas he made for Universal Pictures remain a lesson for anyone interested in truly public art.
The film is co-presented by NWFC. Thanks to Morgen Ruff and Bill Foster for their support.
When I think of onions, I think of a boy I once knew. We passed occasional Saturday afternoons in the basement of my house while our soft-spoken mothers communed over coffee in the kitchen above us. They murmured the tone of a friendship conceived before we were, one that may as well have been eternal for all he and I understood then about time and adults. We had far less to say to each other. Like all boys, he wore striped cotton shirts and corduroy pants, and though he was clean, he registered as vaguely soiled to me for reasons I didn’t trouble over at the time. He was skinny, with a face partially manufactured, his nose pressed flat like a horse’s, the outer corners of his eyes stretched upward and the inners pointed down like a cat’s. He was born with dysfunctional tear glands and no tear ducts at all, a sleight of nature that kept him in surgeries for the few years of our acquaintance.
To protect his eyes, he wore special plastic goggles squeezed tight against his head with elastic. The operations on his lacrimal glands and sinuses affected his voice, too, rendering a nasal intensity uncharacteristically harsh and deep for someone so young, but his bodily pitch was high with anxiety. It moved me in a way I didn’t welcome, though it wasn’t fear I felt. Sometimes I would think of him and try to imagine crying without weeping, agonizing without making tears, like a tiny baby. What is it like, I wondered, to have eyes that can’t look after themselves? It’s not like being blind. He could see. He could see his own hands. He could see himself in a mirror. He could see me. But he paid a premium for vision. The irritation brought him to paroxysms of fidgeting. Suddenly, he would extend his arms straight ahead and rub both hands together frantically, as if his limbs had gone rogue and begun to fritz. During these episodes, he appeared to snap every one of his fingers simultaneously, rapidly, repeatedly, but the sound that came out was only the whisper sweep of dry skin on skin. He called the activity “making electricity,” and I would not have been surprised to see him spark a flame by it. His ecstatic desperation disturbed me some. I didn’t understand it well. But his face compelled me. Twenty years later, when I learned the French phrase jolie laide, meaning pretty and ugly at the same time, or pretty because ugly, I thought of him again. He was an ugly beauty.
The lacrimal gland is located above the eyeball on the outer side of the eye. It produces and secretes tears continuously, moistening the eye with each blink. The tears contain antibacterial enzymes to clean the eyeball and aid immunity. What does not evaporate drains into a duct through a small opening in the pinky mush at the inside corner of the eye. Excess collects in a reservoir alongside the nose, then excretes through the nasal passages. In reasonably healthy people, this unsung process, which puts to shame even the most sophisticated industrial cleaning and irrigation machines, is ongoing, automatic, silent, and possibly worth dwelling on in those moments when you feel like you can’t do anything right.
Speaking for myself, those moments precede a systematic redoubling of tear production, which soon overwhelms the ducts, causing a micro-flood. Tears plunge from the eyes and wet the cheeks. Similar overproduction may be caused by any intense emotion—not just frustration or sadness—or by environmental factors, like contact with the sulfuric compounds released when an onion is cut. But the two different causes evoke two different substances—emotional tears contain endorphins, for example. Painkillers. They also contain chemicals that lower testosterone levels in people nearby, potentially inhibiting others’ aggression. When someone smells your tears (and he doesn’t know he has, because tears are odorless), he is involuntarily sedated. The biological mission of an emotional tear, it seems, is peace. The other kind of tears, called reflex tears, don’t have the same chemical mind-control potential. They are relatively bland. And weeping over onions doesn’t alleviate stress the way an emotional cry does.
In a study conducted in the early 1980s of several hundred American adults who monitored their crying habits over a thirty-day period, 45% of men, but only 6% of women, reported no emotional tears. Of those who did cry, the frequency of crying among the women was five times that of the men, with the women crying a little more often than once a week and the men crying about once a month. The average length of a cry was approximately six minutes. Precipitating factors were primarily interpersonal conflict and entertainment; peak crying hours are from 7pm to 10pm—prime television-watching and movie-going time. The researchers who conducted the study speculated that suppressing tears could lead to increased risk of stress-related illnesses, as one purpose of a tear is to expel stress-induced chemicals, much like other exocrine processes—exhaling, sweating, urinating, defecating—that expunge toxins from the body.
For comparison’s sake, I conducted my own study. I chopped onions. I went to the movies. I noted the effects. I can confirm that an onion cry begins on the surface of the eyes and the inside of the nose. It burns. A movie cry begins in the center of the throat and spreads to the jaw. It throbs. I must close my eyes for onions. I can hold them wide open for movies. Onions hurt the eyeballs. Movies don’t. An onion cry doesn’t seem to change my state of mind for the worse the way smiling at oneself in the mirror is said to make one happy, but a movie cry does leave me feeling slightly recalibrated. Which leads me to wonder—if emotional tears chemically relieve stress and, say, promote peace—whether sentimental entertainment is really the arch-nemesis of reason and civilization I sometimes think it is when I tear up during sneaker commercials. Or whether my suspicion is more a matter of mistaking a tool for its application.
Some of the saddest tales I know are children’s stories. Ones about a child whose fantasy life seems real to him though it is unreal, even shameful, to others. Or ones told from the vantage of an object, often a toy or an animal, which is lucid to the reader but dense to other characters. The stories hinge on conversion experiences. Either the child’s fantasy life is sublimated into normative adult reality and the talking object is forgotten (consider Alice in Wonderland), or the conditions of fantasy itself are transcended—what was unreal becomes real, the object asserts itself and is acknowledged (take Pinocchio). Both kinds of story entail characters learning what it is to be real (or conscious) and to have faith in (or doubt) the experience (the reality) of others. Confusion and revelation propel a drama of misunderstanding within the story or between the story and its readers or both. And this ironic entanglement contributes to a kind of tragic pleasure—an emotionally painful empathetic experience, a sentimental education.
I am thinking of The Velveteen Rabbit, in particular, a fanatically melancholy story about a toy bunny who longs to be real. The rabbit—made of soft stuff and having no special abilities—enters the narrative as a gift. He appears in the Christmas stocking of a rich little boy who abandons him to the unsympathetic society of an overstocked nursery. There, the rabbit’s native vulnerability and loneliness are compounded by indifference and ridicule from other toys. He is dismissed by all except a worn-out old rocking horse, who provides the sad rabbit (and the story) with a purpose by instructing the rabbit in what it is to be Real. To become Real, horse says, one must be adored by someone. Being Real is a matter of being important to someone else. The process can be painful—fur is rubbed thin, stitches fray, glass eyes fall out—but material integrity is a worthy sacrifice for so great a prize. The rabbit wonders whether the horse is Real even though he is no longer of interest to a child. Horse assures rabbit that the process can’t be reversed once enacted. Reality is forever.
One day the rabbit is handed to the boy by chance when his usual bedtime companion goes missing. The two become inseparable, and the boy is soon overheard insisting to his nursemaid that the rabbit is indeed real. Contented by this verdict, the rabbit doesn’t notice his physical decline as the months pass—his pink nose bleached by kisses, his velveteen sheen dulled from handling. Left alone in the garden one afternoon, he meets actual rabbits. They hop and twitch and, of course, talk. They challenge the Velveteen Rabbit to prove he is real by hopping about, which he is unable to do since he has no legs (for example). Rabbit is chagrined. Here is yet another reality he doesn’t know how to access—some state beyond the validation he has known by way of the boy’s attention. But he forgets the others’ taunts as his intimacy with the boy resumes. The boy then becomes ill with fever.
A doctor orders disposal of all his old toys in a bonfire. Cast off, heartbroken, awaiting execution, the rabbit sheds a real tear. An emotional tear. This single, forlorn, testosterone-inhibiting droplet conjures that convenient mainstay of children’s fiction: a magical nursery fairy. She transforms the toy rabbit into an immortal (but otherwise simply real) real rabbit and plunks him into the forest with the wild rabbits,who embrace him. Being real is a matter of shedding your metaphor.
The tale ends when the boy, a year older now, catches sight of the transformed rabbit in the woods. He thinks fleetingly of his once-beloved toy without quite understanding why, and without quite understanding his own feelings; the connection between his plush rabbit and a real one is not obvious to him anymore. The boy has matured.
Someone read the story to me when I was girl, but I wasn’t especially interested until I was older, and then mainly for the ways in which it troubled me. The rabbit must repeatedly separate from one defining relationship to enter another, each time leaving something vital behind. Grief and aspiration draw shadows around him at every turn. The story is undoubtedly tragic. There is even a ghost of Euripides here, with the appearance of the deus ex machina to rescue the immobile hero from certain demise. The magical nursery fairy tacks a happy ending onto what would otherwise be a hopeless situation; by granting immortality to the rabbit, she saves her hero from incineration, but she also mitigates (for the reader) the boy’s inevitable disillusionment. It is easier to accept the boy has all but forgotten the little rabbit (who was entirely dependent on him, after all—no legs and so on) when the reader knows the rabbit didn’t perish, but instead became a god. Recall, the boy has no inkling of this—he thinks the rabbit burned, yet he has more or less forgotten him, all the same. Unlike the boy, the reader has been assured that change is growth is progress for a rabbit. All pain incurred along the way is ultimately redeemed by a reward of life everlasting. Which is to say, not a life, rather a state outside mortal time, traversed only by gods and small children. And perhaps animals.
The plays of Euripides were a significant influence on Danish-born German director Douglas Sirk, who was best known for a series of seminal Hollywood melodramas produced in the 1940s and 1950s. Sirk had been a renowned theater director before the war. He was also a vocal leftist with a Jewish wife. War moved him to cinema. Nazis needed movies more than they feared outspoken dissidents and their non-Aryan spouses. Sirk foresaw that the best opportunity for escape would come through his success as a film director. The Sirks eventually made their way out of Germany under the pretense of scouting locations for a new film, then fled to Zurich and to Holland where they left on the last boat. It was 1939. In a book-length interview Sirk gave late in life, he described the structure of the happy ending in relation to a hopeless dramatic situation:
“Everything seems to be OK, but you well know it isn’t. By just drawing out the characters you could get a story—along the lines of hopelessness, of course. You could just go on…. But the point is, you don’t have to do this. And if you did, you would get a picture that the studio would have abhorred. And this is where Euripides comes to the rescue again. Of course, I know this is a case of calling in the gods to witness in a dwarfish cause. Forgive me for unloading my classical education on you: do you know the last chorus of the Alcestis?”
The manifestations of Gods happen in many shapes
Bring many matters to happy ends
What we thought would happen does not happen
The impossible is not impossible for the Unknowns
And that is the way it has happened here and today.
To refresh your memory: Alkestis is the wife of a king who is appointed to die. She offers herself in his place. Death accepts. The king is unsure. Things get complicated. All is lost. Then Herakles steps in to sort it out. He gives the king a gift of a beautiful young woman. The king resists out of respect for his dead wife, Alkestis, who made the supreme sacrifice for him, thus ruining him with grief. But the gift woman is intimated to be Alkestis back from the dead, though she is veiled and prohibited from speaking. (Curtain.)What we thought would happen does not happen.
“You see, there is no real solution of the predicament the people in the play are in, just the deus ex machina, which is now called ‘the happy end’, and which both Hollywood and Athenians and assorted Greeks were also so keen on. But this is what is being called Euripidean irony. It makes the crowd happy. To the few it makes the aporia more transparent.”
The poet Anne Carson created new translations of Alkestis and three other plays of Euripides published in 2007 as Grief Lessons. In her preface to the play, Carson compares Alkestis to a film by Hitchcock. She writes, “Both works explore the psychological weirdness of ordinary people andeveryday existence by jarring comic and tragic effects against one another as if they belonged to the same convention. In fact no one knows what convention Alkestis belongs to.” Joy and grief coexist on a split stage. The form of tragedy (and therefore of comedy) has been broken, literally, in two. There is confusion. “[Herakles] releases Alkestis simply by choosing to do so. As if to say, within every death a life stands waiting to be set free, should anyone have the nerve to do it. As if to say, try looking deep into a house, a marriage, or an idea like Necessity and you will see clear through to the other side. Death, like tragedy, is a game with rules. Why not just break the rules?” Euripides broke the rules, and from the breach emerged Melodrama.
Alkestis was especially important for Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession, a 1954 film starring Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman, and Magnificent Obsession was especially important to Universal Studios, who produced it. It was their biggest grossing film for years, catapulting Hudson’s career as well as Sirk’s, enabling both to make several more films together, including another with Wyman, who was already a major star at the time. The book that inspired the film was—to borrow Sirk’s words—terrible and confused; so much so that at first he was afraid to make the film. It is about a woman who goes blind, and the playboy who returns to an abandoned career in medicine to save her. Of course, the playboy himself had been saved from a boating accident in the initial scene by a respirator needed simultaneously by another doctor who died as a result. And of course, this deceased doctor was the husband of the same woman later blinded by an accident in a taxi, which the playboy had hailed for her. Naturally, the playboy-cum-doc (Hudson) ingratiates himself to the blind widow (Wyman) under a false identity, falls in love with her and spends the rest of the film working to redeem them both.
In Sirk’s words, again, Magnificent Obsession is a combination of “kitsch, and craziness, and trashiness. But craziness is very important, and it saves trashy stuff like Magnificent Obsession. This is the dialectic—there is a very short distance between high art and trash, and trash that contains the element of craziness is by this very quality nearer to art.” Sirk credits the producer, Ross Hunter, with pushing the project to fruition. He wanted a picture that would “make them weep!” right through it, and that is what he got.
The word lacrimal may also be spelled lachrymal, as it was when it first came into use in English in the mid-seventeenth century to describe something tearful. Samuel Johnson’s dictionary lists four words with the same root: lachrymal, lachrymary, lachrymation and lachrymatory. This last one is a noun, “a vessel in which tears are gathered to the honor of the dead.” Its origin is lachrimatoire, a French appendix to the Latin base. Tear bottles have come in and out of fashion since antiquity. In Roman times, they were used to quantify grief and, more recently, to calculate a time for mourning. A bereaved Victorian would save her mourning tears in a bottle and be released from grief when the last of the liquid evaporated. A sentimental story, a weepie, is a metaphorical lachrymatory. It holds tears, not of grief, but of sympathy. A weepie does not rest as straight tragedy. It comes around to comedy. According to its rules, which are the rules of melodrama, at the end of the movie, the audience’s tears evaporate. You go home happy, unless you are one of those deep lookers for whom the happy ending is the aporia—a crack between the tragic and the comic facts—something you see clear through to the other side.
In a radio interview around the release of Grief Lessons,Carson said, “The Greeks of Euripides’ time have always seemed like children to me… in a sort of clear way, as if they’re able to clearly submit themselves to some design larger than their consciousnesses in the way that children can just believe in it and then be subject. There’s a tremendous dignity in that, but it’s also a hopeless position. You can’t ever win. I think nowadays somehow we’ve grown up to the point where we secretly always think we can win. If we can just finesse the situation one more turn, we can win. And that’s kind of an adult resignation.” For Sirk, the ultimate tragedy is hopelessness, the sense that there is no exit. The few who see how flimsy the resolution of the happy ending is experience that tragedy to an even greater degree for knowing others miss it. These few are neither childlike Greeks nor contemporary adults as Carson describes them. They are deep readers.
Sirk’s own son from a first marriage—who had been kept from him by court order on the grounds that Sirk was married to a Jewish woman—died a German soldier. He was a beautiful boy who became a child actor, much to his father’s dismay. Sirk’s only contact with his son was in the cinema, where he could watch him on film, including some Nazi features. “I am extremely interested in the contrast between children and adults,” he said. “There is a world looking at another world which is going downhill, but this new world does not yet know if its own fate will be the same…. The look of a child is always fascinating. It seems to be saying: is that what fate has in store for me, too?” The child Sirk describes is also a deep reader—one who observes what is before him and asks what else there might be. “The innocence they have will be destroyed. They are symbols of melancholy, not of purity. Children are usually put into pictures right at the end to show that a new generation is coming up. In my films I want to show exactly the opposite: I think it is the tragedies which are starting over again, always and always…”
The Velveteen Rabbit is the story of an object’s power to convert those who engage it, and the ways in which their engagement transfigures the object in turn. It is an adult’s story about the tragedy of becoming an adult, which in this case means having your questions answered: the rabbit wants to know what it is to go on in the Sirk sense of “You could just go on,” even though the situation is evidently hopeless. What is real? he asks. Beyond posing the question, the rabbit has little agency. He is largely subject to others’ interventions. By the end, he has some knowledge and something like an animal life (though he is immortal), but at the loss of a gratifying dependency and reciprocal affection with the boy—a state that constituted reality, according to the horse. The story sphinxes (and asks its readers to sphinx) what is and isn’t real, what is more real, what is moral in ambiguous circumstances. In its confusions, it is a story about the kind of knowledge (and lack of knowledge) that mystifies a subject. It is also a story about what we do with that sort of knowledge (or forget about that sort of knowledge) when we read—whether we read images, words, sentences, books, movies, situations, other people’s lives or our own. If The Velveteen Rabbit is meant to supply some simple edification to young readers, it may be that certain transformations are as painful as they are desirable. (Love hurts.) Or that the pursuit of knowledge entails risks. (Knowledge hurts, too.) Or that being has as much to do with being affected as it does with pursuing one’s own effects—that is, with having an effect on others. (We are each other’s objects.)