Ray and Sirk: The Aesthetic of Suburban Horror

Nicolas Ray and Douglas Sirk were two of the defining voices of 1950’s American cinema. Ray was a genre specialist, equally adept at westerns as with film-noirs, and like Sirk, a master of melodrama. The two auteurs share a hand in defining what suburban malaise looked like in the 1950’s, with films like Rebel Without a Cause (Ray) and All That Heaven Allows (Sirk), and perhaps as a result of their era (50’s McCarthyism, the nuclear-family, the steady decline of the production code) their films are at once vividly articulated and subversively repressed. To understand the brilliance of one of their pictures one need be looking closely, not that they are not apparently incredible works, only that there was a time that American filmmakers first and foremost sought to entertain you and urge you towards a grand feeling, occasionally minimizing the thoughtful, intellectual capacity their films had.

BornThisDay: Filmmaker, Douglas Sirk
Douglas Sirk (In Sunglasses) surrounded by Rock Hudson (left), Jane Wyman (center) and Agnes Moorhead (right).

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Nicolas Ray

Ray’s genius was in his unpredictability as a narrative storyteller. The only filmmaker who makes narrative gambles comparable to Ray in our modern day is Takashi Miike; whether or not he’s a student of the former’s films is irrelevant, but an erratic, prolific filmmaker like Miike owes something to imbuing a seemingly placid location with a unique trajectory (see The Happiness of the Katakuris or Gozu, films where Miike cared enough to concern himself with place). Nicolas Ray created daring films whose beginning point was often similarly audacious as its end, yet both are veiled by his ability to traverse and take viewers on journeys. Rebel Without a Cause for example takes a few simple locations and juices profound mileage out of them, no room or set-dressing is unimportant, from the less-than-subtle decor of Sal Mineo’s “Plato” character to the father’s Freudian angst in his outfits and the arc of his dialogue from domineered husband to telling his wife to “shut up” in the final moments of the film. The initial reading might be seen (and was taught to me in high school) as Ray encouraging youth audiences back towards conformity, that the death of “Plato”, the obvious gay character, and all of James Dean’s (his character Jim’s) plight was a result of his father’s “not wearing the pants” which is restored in the end with the father being an asshole to his wife (in return) and James Dean walking off with the Natalie Wood character (Judy) wrapped in his father’s coat. Ray is a more dastardly filmmaker than that, I believe anyway, and there is a bit more here than that reading allows for. 

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Takashi Miike’s The Happiness of the Katakuris

All this can be true just inverse. The final moments are a tragedy, the “Plato” character dies as a result of the system’s ability to whittle away at people and force them into traditional roles of gender, class and sexuality, it kills him. And with “Plato” dying, so to does the fire of Jim (Dean’s) rebellion, he resigns to a life of assimilation and repetition, the ending leaves a horrible taste in one’s mouth not because it’s bad but because the film suggests the futility of Jim’s cause, the system is stronger than his inclination towards freedom. With the death of “Plato” so goes his possibilities of sexuality outside the uniform, any rebellion will be course-corrected by the system before him.

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Nicolas Ray’s A Rebel Without a Cause

All That Heaven Allows is similarly given to multiple interpretations. The original ending for the film was Rock Hudson’s character dying in an absurd act of nature as he attempts to call out to his lover. Seen as too-bleak by test-audiences, Sirk had to insert a warm ending in which the couple reconciled. Rock Hudson dying for speaking out is all too potent given the fact he lived as a gay-man in Hollywood, forced to hide his sexuality, the story too, a taboo romance between an older woman and a younger man laced with subtext, particularly dancing around issues that the code did not permit one to interact with directly such as homosexuality. His death would have left the older Jane Wyman (Carry Scott in the film) character alone with her television set, dark and entangled imagery when viewed from the comfort of one’s own home on a personal television. So then, like the great controversy of Wise’s Caligari, the meaning of this picture lies in the dichotomy between the two finales. The ending we received is perhaps a fantasy, in a reverse of Caligari where the former hour and a half was reduced to a manic-dream state in the final minutes, All That Heaven Allows, is reality until the death of the Hudson character when fantasy imposes itself on an otherwise cruel and honest narrative via Hollywood test audiences and producers; corralled into standards. The irony being that in a film about a relationship meant to transcend societal norms it was ultimately subject to the forces of public opinion and preference. 

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Robert Wise’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

These films share a setting: the suburbs. And perhaps it is a result of the filmmaker’s talent, that these are not the dreary burbs often called to mind: these homes are saturated in bright colors, their garments imbued with symbolism and dignity, their relationships meaningful and pertinent. It is the glow in which they recall and bask in suburbia (and it’s dread) that defines these filmmakers input to the horror genre. 

All That Heaven Allows
Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows

John Carpenter has stated on many occasions his affinity for Howard Hawks, and this is clear, the working-man filmmaker attitude and Carpenter spiritually remaking a number of Hawks films are obvious enough indicators, however his horror-pillar-masterpiece Halloween shares more with the works of Sirk and Ray than it does with Carpenter’s own maestro, and his Christine is simultaneously an adaption of Stephen King and a remake of Rebel Without a Cause

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John Carpenter

Carpenter frames the suburbs as a small-insulated community akin to establishing a frontier-village in a western. Sirk and Ray are experts at this, one need not look further than the opening ten minutes of Rebel Without a Cause or All That Heaven Allows to see this, in the former it is in the parents fear at what their son will do to their reputation in the eyes of the community, just as the lovers in All That Heaven Allows worry about similar condemnation in reaction to a relationship adjacent to the status quo, this cleverly creates a Big Other never seen in the story but whose consensus and hegemony await the fate of each character, and who, in the end, always stands as the clear victor over the narrative. In Carpenter’s films, he revokes the Big Other, and the fear of the main characters is no longer in it’s unseen presence but the promise of it’s aide and the ensuing cruel silence of its absence, and it’s ignorance to their struggle (the parental forces of A Rebel Without a Cause made to be even more inept when confronted with the mental-obsessive-addictive issues of Arnie in Christine or with a consumptive, otherworldly force in Michael from Halloween, the teenager is helpless because the parents are helpless but the latter more so than the former because they don’t even know what it is, the horror of these films strikes a child as a result of Carpenter revoking the barrier of the parental unit and pits the distance between the child and parent as an even wider gulf than that of those in Ray and Sirk’s films).

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John Carpenter’s Christine

There is no shrink or familial bond that can save Michael in Halloween. The Big Other controlling the seemingly idyllic worlds of Sirk and Ray are swayed by the forces of institutions and navigated by people but the safety and quaint comfort of the suburban streets, and subtle dramas therein are superseded by Michael’s vengeance, no police, government, family, friends can save you from the precision and relentlessness of his movement. The heteronormativity was enough for James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause but fails the vengeful dork of Christine. Whereas characters in Sirk and Ray films feel most at peace outside the gaze of another (the mansion that the trio of youths raid in Rebel, Rock Hudson’s cabin in All That Heaven Allows) Carpenter’s characters are constantly having their “safe space” penetrated and eviscerated suddenly and unapologetically. This is most fascinating in Christine where the main character’s “space” is also the thing manipulating him into committing murder, any threat to Arnie or his isolation is seen as an invasion, whereas the darkness of suburbia was underlying, secretive and pessimistic in Ray and Sirk; instead of the tragedy of Plato’s death we receive the monstrous shape a character like Plato might have become in a world that asked him to be so many things while refusing his own self-definition. Arnie is disillusioned, where Plato’s possibility at “escape” is through his sexuality and interest in James Dean’s character, Arnie’s love is purely material, like the possible “solution” given to the Jane Wyman character in All That Heaven Allows in the aforementioned television set. The materialist zone these suburban characters have carved away from society is simultaneously their point of entrapment, where they confine themselves and also the arena in which the Big Other tells them they are supposed to feel the most free.

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John Carpenter’s Halloween

Christine is amongst a variety of films like Slugs, Society, The Slumber Party Massacre, Scream, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Hellraiser that all centralize their conflicts around mundane domesticities of 80’s and 90’s suburbia. They all share the same sidewalks and lead one place: a stucco shrine inscribed with the names Sirk and Ray.