Friday, February 20, 2015

Style As Substance: Lighting in All that Heaven Allows


Lately I've been fascinated with melodrama, in particular the way its priorities differ from the expectations of what we might loosely refer to as a "good film". In general, we seem to want relatable characters in realistic situations which in turn evoke an emotional response; but in melodrama, everything is backwards. As Sidney Lumet once said, "In a well-written drama, the story comes out of the characters. The characters in a well-written melodrama come out of the story." Perhaps this is why the term has come to take on pejorative connotations in recent years: in melodrama, emotion comes first, even if it's at the expense of character or narrative. In melodrama, sentimentality is king.

If characters in a generic melodrama emerge from the story, characters in a Douglas Sirk melodrama seem to emerge from the lighting. In All That Heaven Allows, Sirk uses color saturation and light/dark contrast to communicate the emotions of his characters: oversaturated color for emotional overload (feelings almost spill out of the characters into the color palette) and dark shadow for emotional repression (feelings are pulled so far inward that they suck the color and light out of the image).

He introduces this concept very quickly: from the first scenes we see the loveless Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) dressed in drab, gray, colorless clothing, next to her vivacious neighbor Sara Warren (Agnes Moorehead), dressed in a vibrant blue that jumps off the screen thanks to the richness of the 50's Technicolor.


Sirk continues to play with color and shadow in an early scene where he establishes the ways he will use lighting through the way he stages his actors. The scene opens with Cary, still reminiscing after her first meeting with the handsome gardener Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson), shot against a background lit completely with a dark blue. There is lots of rich color, visualizing her lust for Kirby, but it is dark, showing how she's trying to keep it hidden (even from herself). Her (emotional) blues are externalized onto the blue of the image.


This is then reversed when her children learn that she's going out with Harvey, a bachelor even more old and lonely than she is (and "the only one in town"). They walk into the blue light and become (emotionally) blue for her (we even get a close up to emphasize the point). This exchange is concluded when Cary changes into a bright red dress (signifying the embrace of her enflamed desire), at which her daughter Kay (Gloria Talbott) whistles suggestively.


This framework culminates in two scenes at the climax of the film which take Sirk's stylistic decisions to their limit. The central conflict of the film revolves around Cary's love for Kirby and the way public perception holds her back from him. Her neighbors and even her children are all judgmental of her because she has affection for a mere gardener, not someone of similar social status. This conflict reaches its peak in a scene where Kay comes home distraught because of something she overheard someone saying about Cary.

As the scene begins, Kay throws herself on her bed, which is bathed in multicolored light (coming from a colored-glass window only Douglas Sirk could imagine). She tells Cary that people have been talking about her behind her back, saying that she had been romantically involved with Kirby even before her husband died. This is too much for Kay to feel, and her excessive emotions are externalized onto the screen.


The excess of the multifaceted coloring draws a direct parallel to the excess of Kay's feelings, and just as this acts as the emotional climax of the film it also acts as the visual climax. Also significant to note is that Kay is not only lit more colorfully than her mother, she is also lit more darkly. She is in a state of emotional overload, but the darkness signifies that she is trying to repress these feelings.

In the following scene, Cary leaves to confront Kirby and tell him that they can't be together anymore. Cary says she wants to get married, but that they have to wait in order to protect the children (and, possibly, her own reputation); Kirby says that he's beginning to see how easy it would be for him to change himself for her (something he said from the start of their relationship he would never do). Both characters are holding themselves back from their emotions.


In stark contrast to the previous scene, this one is lit with desaturated earth tones and an abundance of black shadows (as well as support beams which visualize their emotional separation). They both still love each other, but they're repressing their feelings, and the color palette is repressed likewise. The brightest moment in the scene comes when the two characters walk up to a large window letting in light from outside, mirroring the intensity both of Kirby's affection for the outdoors (his point of identification) and of Cary's sensitivity to the judgment of her friends and family (her internalization of the opinion of others). This light from the outside (nature and society) casts a shadow on both characters.

Like other melodramas, Douglas Sirk's All The Heaven Allows functions through its fairly simple and almost stereotypical characters. However, where a more traditional drama might present more complex characters through its screenplay, Sirk presents the layers of his characters through his lighting, visualizing emotional conflict through through a style that takes on its own substance.

For further reading, check out Carson Lund's close reading of the film's use of dissolves.

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