Monday, November 09, 2009

Magnificent Obsession at the Cinematheque

With little ability to stay in the city for concerts or even late movies, parents who need my help nightly, several hours of commuting added to my day, and as big a workload at school as I've ever had, it seems like my subject matter will have to shift away from live music reviews and reports on things happening in the city more towards CD and movie reviews - since I can listen to CDs and watch DVDs without having to stay late anywhere. So here's another plug for an upcoming film at the Cinematheque: Magnificent Obsession, by Douglas Sirk, playing on the afternoon of November 17th. I just re-watched it tonight with my ailing parents. Father, tho' very ill, stayed awake throughout, and Mom - though she had difficulty producing the sentence, given her aphasia - at the end commented that they "don't make them like that anymore." The best measure of how effective a piece of filmmaking Magnificent Obsession is, is that it takes a completely unbelievable chain of events and makes them... completely believable.

Spoilers follow - highlight the paragraph below to read it, if you don't care:

Spoiled millionaire playboy Rock Hudson cracks up his boat, and because emergency medical equipment is needed to save his life, a philanthropic doctor dies of a heart attack, not having access to that same equipment. The playboy, recovering at the hospital run by the late doctor, meets and is smitten with his widow (Jane Wyman, also from Sirk's All That Heaven Allows), not realizing it is she. When he figures it out, he tries to buy off his guilt by donating money to the hospital; she rebuffs him in contempt. Guilt ridden and deeply troubled by the chain of events, after a drunken accident, he learns from a former friend of the the dead doctor that his philosophy involved selfless service to others. The playboy tries to imitate it, because he wants to be made right with the widow, and also because he remains smitten, but he selfishly bungles his gesture and, instead of being rewarded with love and forgiveness, accidentally BLINDS the widow (don't ask me to make it plausible - he just does). But because she's blind, she doesn't realize that he returns to her yet again, courting her under an assumed name whilst slowly taking the principles of philanthropy more seriously, secretly pulling strings to make it possible for her to go to Europe for an operation that might restore her sight. All the while, he has renewed his interest in medicine, previously abandoned for his life of debauchery, and is studying to become a neurosurgeon. When he hears that the operation cannot be performed, he flies to Europe to console her, and they have one wonderful night together, during which he confesses his identity and proposes marriage. She is now in love with him, and forgives him all past wrongs, but cannot be with him, and flees. Years later, he is a practicing neurosurgeon, and hears of her again - she is in a distant hospital in a coma; it seems that the old injury has led to a new and life-threatening condition. He flies to her, performs an operation to save her life and restore her sight, and she wakes to proclaim her love for him. Happily ever after: amen.

Judged by any standard of realism, it's an absurd story; adults should not be able to suspend their disbelief long enough to swallow it. I doubt the average Harlequin Romance is so implausible. But Magnificent Obsession works; it somehow invites our complicity by telling us such a morally uplifting and inspiring tale (infused with "deep irony," it's said, tho' I'm not quite sure where) that audiences still are willing to go along with it, all these years later (tho' it does have a couple of dated moments that will doubtlessly make attendees chortle). It is also romantic, elegantly structured, beautifully photographed (in gorgeous/garish Technicolour), and delightful as cinema. It has less of the social critique of American values that one expects from Sirk - there's no querying of racism, sexism, ageism, or business ethics, and about the only way to view it as a political film is to see the young Rock Hudson as a symbol for America itself - rich and spoiled, immature, arrogant and reckless. But that's potent enough - call it a portrait of what America would look like if it really were informed by Christian principles. It would require a radical change in course - then as now...

By the way, take heart, if you cannot make it on a workday afternoon to the cinema: it is also available as a Criterion DVD. They really don't make them like this anymore...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


for authentic wisdom.

Kibke in the DOJO.