In his fine, reasonable hey-wait-a-minute Slumdog Millionaire consideration currently racking up pageviews at Slate, Dennis Lim alludes to the film's "Old Hollywood" plot contrivances, and notes that the film "comes with a built-in, catchall defense—it's a fairy tale..."
But what happens when a filmmaker uses cinema, and its manufacture of fantasy, not as self-justification, but subject? Hi, meet Douglas Sirk, who never made a movie that couldn't have been called Imitation of Life. He knew what he was doing, though: he saved the title for his last Hollywood movie.
Sirk's Imitation of Life concerns an actress (played by a just post-Stompanato Lana Turner) who has everything but a bond with her daughter; and a light-skinned black girl who reinvents herself as a white entertainer, at the expense of herself and her mother. Contrived and stylized to an inch of its life — check the impossible swooning mood lighting and the sumptuous widescreen compositions — it's an at once ironically distanced and deeply felt story about how, as noted Sirk fan Jean-Luc Godard once said, "cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the world."
Imitation of Life plays this weekend at Anthology Film Archives as part of a series called, natch, Imitations of Life, a side-by-side consideration of Sirk and John M. Stahl — Universal's in-house "women's picture" specialists a generation apart, who often adapted the same material in their own distinctly stylized, savvy, emotionally hefty ways. The series starts tonight with Stahl's and Sirk's melodramatic versions of James M. Cain's Serenade, and continues through Sunday. Cullen Gallagher takes a more comprehensive look at both directors in the current issue of the L.
(Bring the Kleenex, I am really not kidding. Even if you think you won't need them. Especially if you think you won't need them.)