DOWN MEMORY LANE 2: THE INFLUENCE OF DOUGLAS SIRK
When Hollywood was producing spectacular movies like the ones directed by WILLY WYLER, CECIL B. DE MILLE and DAVID LEAN in the late 40s and early 50s, the Philippine movie industry was also busy producing exactly the same thing: fantasy, adventure, and Biblical films. For sometime, Filipino actors were kings and queens, centurions, Tarzan-like characters, Samson or David. Filipino filmgoers were fascinated by Hollywood films and it was not unusual that Filipino films were borrowing almost everything from Hollywood.
In the early fifties, when neo-realism was king (Fellini, Passolini, De Sica, Antonioni), the Tagalog films were tackling the same socially-conscious subject of: poverty, oppression, human degradation. In the mid-fifties, when cowboys roamed the Hollywood silver screen, Filipino actors became cowboys, too.
Then, suddenly, in the late fifties, after the neo-realists faded, Hollywood discovered German Filmmaker DOUGLAS SIRK. This l’enfant terrible had changed the trend of films quite radically. The epic heroes and the bigger-than-life gunslingers had exited to the back door into oblivion. Moviegoers allover the world welcomed Sirk’s raw and down-to-earth characters, giving life to delicate subject matters in the so-called “romantic heavy dramas.”
Melodrama have originated from two words: Greek – melos (music) & French – drame (drama). Hence, when a person tells his “sad plight” to another to solicit sympathy, it’s not uncommon for the listener to quip: “Spare me the violin!”
In a Sirkian melodrama, “plastic” characters always parade on screen like fashion models (Try recalling some scenes from Joey Gosiengfiao’s PALOMA ANG KALAPATING LIGAW). Emotional scenes are always highlighted by a maudlin musical score to heighten the drama, and the actor is deliberately framed to give emphasis on what he or she is saying and/or doing. This frame could be a window, a mirror, a door, an object, or sometimes, through the use of light and shadow – done to accomplish one purpose: shove the visceral mission to solicit the audience’s emotional response.
In the fifties and sixties, Sampaguita Pictures, Premiere Productions and LVN Pictures (the big three in those days) produced romantic heavy dramas using Douglas Sirk’s style and visual technique: characters that were battered by forces beyond their control, and their lives were outlined by cultural mores that constrained their behavior and their moral choices. They have to deal with repression and their minds were usually dictated by fatalist view. They would have to face insurmountable trials and mountains of obstacles, yet in the end, deus ex machina comes to the rescue – but unlike the God Machine of the Greek tragedy – this Sirkian device is in the form of – happy ending, or the suggestion of it, though analyzing deeper, the viewer realizes that this outward display of hope is actually the antithesis of what is really going to happen.
Sirk’s melodramatic “Hollywood weepies” were obviously expressionistic, a school of thought in German cinema which was championed by the likes of Murnau (Nosferatu the Vampire) and Wiene (The Cabinet of Dr. Calligari) – where the set, décor, even the acting – become the equivalent of the characters’ inner mental state. Sirk used the same objects to expound his film, and yet he added irony and bitter commentaries about the social milieu that the characters are “thrown” into, thus every major character in his film resembles that of “Daniel” thrown by Sirk “into the lions’ den.”
Philippine radio soap operas of the 50s and 60s from Lina Flor’s GULONG NG PALAD, to Liwayway Arceo’s ILAW NG TAHANAN, and later, Maning Songco’s MORENA MARTIR, and of course, Aning (Aniano) Bagabaldo’s MILAROSA, ANG DASAL KO’Y AKING SUMPA, NAIS KO PANG MABUHAY, MAGHAPONG WALANG ARAW, BAKIT KITA IIBIGIN?, HINDI PA HULI ANG LAHAT – were all influenced by Sirk. In fact, NAIS KO PANG MABUHAY is ALMOST the Tagalog version of Sirk’s most successful film, IMITATION OF LIFE. Most of the above-mentioned radio soap operas that eventually became Tagalog movies, were “weepies” and the characters were all like Daniel thrown into the Lion’s den.
In komiks, there was Pablo S. Gomez’ FLORADEMA ANG BILANGGONG BIRHEN, DONATA, SIDRA; Mars Ravelo’s ALIPIN NG BUSABOS, ROSA ROSSINI, I BELIEVE, ETERNALLY; Francisco V. Coching’s TALIPANDAS, GIGOLO, MASIKIP ANG DAIGDIG; Clodualdo del Mundo’s MALVAROSA, KANDELERONG PILAK; Rico Bello Omagap’s APOY SA MAGDAMAG, ULILANG ANGHEL; are just a few of serialized komiks nobelas whose characters were written the Sirkian way.
Even our illustrators were also influenced by this expressionism device, that is, the framing of a character to emphasize his or her predicament, thus heightening the melodrama. Nestor Redondo, Alfredo Alcala, Tony de Zuñega, Alex Niño, Ruben Yandoc and many more (in fact, it included most younger artists who studied Redondo’s drawings) were all framing their character the Sirkian way.
(Image above: DAYUKDOK. The framing of the character through an ajar door is a typical Sirkian device that became popular in the 50s up to the late 90s when the komiks industry finaly collapsed).
In Tagalog movies, Gerardo de Leon used the Sirkian “frame” all the time. For instance, in Lilet, Celia Rodriguez was framed by the balusters to emphasize her internal conflict as past events in her life torture her. She appeared almost like a “prisoner” seen in-between the columns of the stair’s handrail.
Lino Brocka who was a Gerry de Leon fan, adopted the same framing when he began directing films. A cartwheel (a de Leon favorite object), was used by Brocka to frame Fernando Poe Jr, to emphasize the frame of mind of the character he was playing in Santiago.
Mario O’hara, a previous writer and actor of Brocka, also uses the sirkian framing like de Leon and Brocka. When he used to direct my scripts for Alindog, the window in the set, or a doorway, or even a lattice division between the kitchen and dining room – were all utilized beautifully to frame the characters.
Even now, the Sirkian influence could still be seen in many Tagalog movies. The framing makes sense, it adds drama, makes the scene visually beautiful. But, I only wish that the younger filmmakers eradicate the lugubriousness of Sirk’s orchestration of melodrama to solicit emotional response from the audience.
But, sad to say, the Philippine movie industry seemed to have got stuck and has been suffering from a fixation known as the “heavy drama obsession.” SINUNGALING MONG PUSO is just one example of Sirk's influence. But what made this film even more horrific is that all the actors in this film, except Vilma Santos, were a hopeless case of "acting running amuck". It was definitely patterned from Douglas Sirk’s smash hit films that many starred ROCK HUDSON: MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION (1954)’ ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS (1955); THERE’S ALWAYS TOMORROW (1956); WRITTEN ON THE WIND (1956); A TIME TO LOVE AND A TIME TO DIE (1958); IMITATION OF LIFE (1959); to name a few.
Next time you watch a Tagalog movie, listen to a radio soap opera, watch a telenovela, read komiks – look for some Sirkian elements in them. Chances are they’re there, blatantly popping its lachrymose head, most especially if you made the mistake of blinking your tearful eyes.