Imitation of Life (1959)

Douglas Sirk | 2hr 5min

It is an unusual family portrait which Douglas Sirk paints in Imitation of Life, at least in the context of 1950s America. Half of its members are white, the other half Black, and there are no men to be found within it at all. Love interests skirt around the edges, but otherwise the film’s feminine sensitivities flourish across boundaries of age, class, and race, emerging in delicate cinematic paintings of privilege and social adversity.

On one side of the family we have Lora, an aspiring white actress and single mother, raising her daughter, Susie. A chance encounter at the beach one day leads to her meeting Annie, a Black single mother, and her fair-skinned daughter, Sarah Jane, who Susie takes to right away. These four women become inseparable, and Lora soon offers Annie and Sarah Jane a place in their home while she gets her acting career off the ground.

Superb framing of this family, often singling out one character and separating them from the others.
The domestic architecture and furniture of wrapping around characters from high and low angles. Note the angles of the beams pointing towards Lora in the foreground, as well as the eye lines of Susie and Steve.

Along Lora and Susie’s narrative thread, we find a mother growing more distant from her daughter due to her fame and demanding schedule. The cosy green drapes and patterned wallpaper of Susie’s childhood home wrap around the small family in a soothing embrace, its décor of ceiling fans and light fixtures hanging in the foreground of gorgeously composed frames. As Lora finds greater success though, Sirk’s production design takes a turn to opulence. The open spaces of the mansion they move into are adorned with bright flowers and candles rising up in the foreground, while decorative mirrors in backgrounds make rooms feel even larger than they physically are. Such exquisite furnishing allows for beautifully elegant imagery, though it is certainly at least colder than before, setting the scene for a burgeoning gap between Susie and Lora as both develop feelings for the same man.

The same day these strangers meet, they all come home to Lora’s place. They are confined to small spaces in compositions like these, while Sirk clutters his foreground with the ceiling fan and light fixtures.
A distinct stylistic difference between the two family homes. When Lora becomes famous, flowers and decorative mirrors make for some lavishly staged shots.

It is by nature of their unequal social standings that Susie’s problems seem a little insignificant when played out next to Sarah Jane’s, who chooses to shun her Black heritage so that she may pass as white. She has seen the ugliness of America’s intolerance in its pre-civil rights era, and yet the bitterness that has been bred from that is not directed at its perpetrators, but rather her own mother. Annie, meanwhile, recognises that anguish in her young daughter, and can’t quite figure out how to reconcile her innocence with the future she faces.

“How do you explain to your child she was born to be hurt?”

Sirk is frequently visually trapping Sarah Jane in tight and concealed spaces – behind grates, blinds, and leering men.

Sarah Jane’s disdain for her mother is crushing, in one scene even driving her to go so far as to put on a mocking show of servitude to a guest, as if that were all there is to her ethnicity. Above all else she wants to be looked at with desire, so when she finally comes of age, she runs away to join a club where she can blend in with a troupe of white chorus girls. Though she claims she doesn’t believe there is anything inherently wrong with being Black, she clearly does not possess the empathy to see how similar her actions are to the strains of racism she is familiar with.

Powerful blocking between Sarah Jane and her mother – Sirk rendering the complete fragmentation of a mother-daughter relationship by splitting them between foreground and background, and divided by lines in the mise-en-scène.

Perhaps we wouldn’t feel the same compassion for Sarah Jane if Sirk didn’t treat her suffering with such tenderness in his staging of this melodrama. When her white boyfriend confronts her about her true ethnicity, she is diminished off to the side of the frame as nothing but a reflection in a window, and the moment he grows incensed Sirk quickly pans his camera to the right to reveal him unnervingly towering over her. When she returns home after being beaten, he shoots all four women standing on separate levels of a staircase, their standing evident in where they are situated – Lora on top, Annie further down with her back to the camera, Susie concealed behind a plant, and Sarah Jane caught in the middle, all lines in the shot pointing to her. Even as characters deliberately pursue contemptuous lines of attack against each other, Sirk never loses sight of the raw pain which motivates them, all four women being destined to struggle in a patriarchal society to different degrees.

Sirk diminished Sarah Jane’s stature in this simmering confrontation by relegating her off to the side as a reflection, then panning his camera to her just at the right moment.
Wonderful use of stairways to bring levels to the web of dynamics between all four women. All lines in the mise-en-scène here point to Sarah Jane, but the ignored child, Susie, is also shoved off to the side behind a pot plant.

With such an interconnected relationship between Sirk’s vibrant mise-en-scène and his emotionally rich characters, it isn’t difficult to trace his influences back through the decades of cinematic expressionism. Stylish sentimentalism flows all through his dialogue and cinematography, outlining parallel paths of generational conflict as set out by two pairs of mothers and daughters. Unlike other Sirkian melodramas of this era though, there are few happy endings to be found in Imitation of Life. Instead, it is in the separation of children from their parents where we find hope that they might mature into adults, blooming like those floral icons of delicate growth scattered all through the film.

True to the form of the film’s mise-en-scène, flowers decorate Annie’s funeral, just as they decorated her life.

Imitation of Life is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

Sleeping Beauty (1959)

Clyde Geronimi | 1hr 15min

There is a slightly larger suspension of disbelief that Disney’s traditional animations asks of its audiences compared to many other films, as they often make leaps of narrative logic to draw from familiar archetypes, but few have managed to do so with the grace of Sleeping Beauty. As Disney’s second animation to be shot in a widescreen format following Lady and the Tramp, there is something distinct about the way director Clyde Geronimi uses the full scope of his frame to draw out this rich world of forests and castles. In the layers of depth in these images, where foregrounded trees form gorgeous frames around our characters, he effectively creates the textured look of Renaissance tapestries drawn on canvas, like artistic tributes to the history of human storytelling.

The branches of trees are almost always foregrounded in forest scenes to create frames around Aurora and Phillip.

As was the tradition of these early Disney fairy tales, we are led in with the opening of storybook and a chorus of heavenly voices, acting like a backup to our primary narrator. Orchestrations run through almost every second of Sleeping Beauty, like a suite of program music complete with leitmotifs, and rhythmically tying in with the animation in remarkable synchronicity. Musical accents land on lightning strikes, and as thorny trees magically sprout from the earth, cymbals accompany each once, these instruments telling their own story parallel to the visual one. All throughout, ‘Once Upon a Dream’ is the musical lynchpin upon which many of these melodies revolve around, becoming the basis of the love theme that binds Princess Aurora and Prince Phillip together in all sorts of variations.

The notion of sleeping goes far beyond the obvious plot point in this film. It is infused within these lyrics, underscoring such dreamy images of the two lovers dancing by a pond that mirrors their reflections directly beneath them. It is also within this whimsical context that we accept perhaps the most remarkable coincidence of the narrative, in which this betrothed couple meet by chance and fall in love. In true fairy tale fashion, there is no great tension in this love story, but we instead find the real threat lurking in darker places.

The reflections of Aurora and Phillip in the water as they dance to ‘Once Upon a Dream’, creating a delicate image of that subconscious state where the song suggests they have met before.

It is there that a black and purple robed figure marked by demonic horns enters – Maleficent, the evil fairy who directly antagonises the three good ones. There is a reason that she has taken on such significant stature among all Disney villains, and much of it is her daunting yet simple character design, with that pointed, pale face and a magical green aura that seems to infest the world like a sickness. As she rises in power and lures Aurora in a hypnotic trance towards her fate, it lights the masses of dark, negative space that surrounds her with a mystical faint glow.

This entire sequence is one of the film’s visual highlights – dark corridors and rooms lit with faint, green glows, as Aurora is led hypnotically to her doom. Even her skin here is made to look like Maleficent’s sickly green complexion.

As the good fairies begin putting the kingdom to sleep in response, the green light fades to a stunning blue day-for-night wash, overtaking the film like a cold, sleepy dream until both spells are lifted. Such striking displays of colours were not exactly anything new for Disney in 1959, and yet there is a level of attention to detail in Sleeping Beauty lets it stand out far above other animations of the era. That it took six years to make is impressive on its own, but the results of such intense artistic labour also speaks for itself in the film’s stirringly picturesque quality.

A huge number of stunning wide shots and landscapes making full use of the animation’s unusual widescreen format, layering the compositions with architecture and bodies. A very real influence from Renaissance art in the intricate staging.
A strong composition towards the end of the film, whereby Maleficent’s unnatural green fire is consumed by the bright, orange hues of Prince Phillip.

Sleeping Beauty is currently streaming on Disney Plus, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Video.