Magnificent Obsession plays 11am matinees at IFC Center today, Saturday and Sunday as part of their “Good Meds, Bad Meds: American Health Care on Film” series.
Sirk’s poker-faced take on widow wish-fulfillment, a grocery store fantasia—playboy Rock Hudson falls for wife of man he killed, studies, cures her uncurable blindness in bare-chested operation—starts in death, ends in salvation, and updates a medieval mythology of efficacious grace into the apostatic 50s of luxury condos and kultchah, with uneasy overtones of capitalist will-to-power: a full-grown stereotype of moonlit joy rides, canted California beachlight, Swiss oompahpah, the world’s best optometrists in labcoats, a hidden desert valley in Arizona that exists only for a hospital that exists only as the bedspring of recovery—emotional and physical—for our cut-out protagonists. Like Sirk’s great films to follow, it doesn’t really make sense, except emotionally.
The swings from love to hate, heaven to hell, light to dark, barroom to beach to Europe, are as much a commentary on the power of inner illumination to rewrite the world as a living illusion (Sirk’s favorite theme here literalized in the plot) as a means to maintain a continuum of infinite longing and sexual desperation for the world of matted paintings just outside the windows. Sirk’s secular theology matches Bunuel’s, but takes the side of the characters’ delusions: the belief, wholly, is in an old lady’s lust for Rock Hudson to coddle her, to both break her out of suburban doldrums and then incarnate their Puritan values. Only Sirk could film the trite daydreams of bored housewives as fact—the characters act with the conviction of dogma—to celebrate and despair an America pious in its vulgarity for which Charles Atlas was the new iconography; like parts of Ulysses, the parody’s a beautiful simulacra in its own right even as it mocks the gulf between a methodically dull scenario (hospital beds and kisses) and the artist’s—and characters’—transformation of it into the terms of fantasy, art, artifice. A Brechtian take-down of America’s prevailing lunacy in its own terms; a romance between two lost souls told in plays of light and shadow worthy of Murnau; Magnificent Obsession’s wish-fulfillment’s very funny and its parody pretty moving.