Working for Universal Studios in the 1950s, director Douglas Sirk beat TV at its own game by churning out a series of Technicolored soaps that embalmed some of the brightest female stars of the previous decade in the latest fashions, and adapted some of the more popular and forgettable airport novels of the time. All of these films, Written on the Wind included, were a hit with the ladies’ matinee crowd, and stand up today as models of shrewd trashiness, going beyond camp to poke sly little holes in the socially and sexually repressive climate of the Eisenhower years (a time admittedly well before mine, so I say what I do based on a lot of received wisdom).
Loved today by film academics the world over for his special brand of ironic kitsch, Sirk’s melodramas rise above their mediocrity, taking an exaggerated approach to mise-en-scene and color and looking rather coldly at unhappy, well-to-do characters as portrayed by beautiful actors. Sirk’s irony stings because he means it; he has considered his dramaturgical vision. Not only does Written on the Wind insist on the meaninglessness, the emptiness, of its characters’ lives by almost fetishistically adoring the symbols of their affluence (e.g., the big house, the sports car, the phallic profundance of a miniature oil derrick), it underscores the plasticine, foam-hedged artificiality of its own technique, turning itself into a kind of knowing camp, where the point made is all but shaken in your face. In short, it’s overwrought stuff, but it casts the velvet-tears universe as a tragic one; it does everything it can to put the characters’ torment up on the screen, and it joins the viewer in regarding it all as rather ridiculous. Here, glitz and grief go hand in hand. The sky is nearly always overcast, the camera moves fluidly, and the loud, vibrant colors in which the characters are housed and cloaked are offset by the misery of their lives.
In over-stylizing its look and content, Written on the Wind can be said to critique its own chintziness. It’s not much fun, but it is fascinating