May 12, 2023

Documentary Picks at SIFF--Desperate Souls, Dark City and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy and Douglas Sirk: Hope as in Despair


While there are several documentaries that will be of interest to classic film fans at Seattle International Film Festival 2023, Desperate Souls, Dark City and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy and Douglas Sirk: Hope as in Despair were of particular interest to me. In different ways both films explore the powerful external elements that shape cinema and how they are so often rooted in challenging emotions. The film titles link to the festival screening information for each documentary. 

Having read and reviewed the source material, Shooting Midnight Cowboy by Glenn Frankel, there was a hint of familiarity to Nancy Buirski’s documentary about the production of the film Desperate Souls, Dark City and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy. Like the book, it acknowledges the deep debt Midnight Cowboy owed to its source material, the book by James Leo Herlihy and it likewise gives the actors and other participants in the production the space to speak candidly on the personal and societal impact of making the film and the turbulent times it reflected. 

Buirski explores those times thoroughly, with extensive footage of the rapidly changing, violent, and rebellious world in which Midnight Cowboy was made. Coupled with deeply emotional and insightful commentary from players including Bob Balaban, Jon Voight, and Jennifer Salt, you come away with a better understanding of both the film and the era. For that reason, the documentary has general appeal beyond classic movie fandom. 

One element that Buirski gives more attention is the feeling that this was a film about misfits made by a band of misfits. That fact was made more remarkable when Midnight Cowboy became the first X-rated film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. The very establishment (though in her own way rebellious) Elizabeth Taylor looks a bit surprised, if not unpleased to see the film’s win as she announces it, reinforcing the juxtaposition of a rebellious production with an industry struggling to maintain relevance in a rapidly shifting landscape.
German director Roman Hüben’s Douglas Sirk: Hope as in Despair is a more spare, elegant production which hones in on a tragedy that ultimately shaped the tone of the also German filmmaker’s Hollywood melodramas (among them Imitation of Life, Magnificent Obsession and All That Heaven Allows). Hüben bases his film on the discoveries he made at the Douglas Sirk Archives housed in the Cinémathèque Suisse. There he found the revealing calendar/diaries his second wife Hilde Bary kept on his behalf. 

In his research Hüben learns that Sirk’s first wife Lydia Brinken apparently became a Nazi out of spite because it angered her that her ex-husband had married a Jewish woman. She also used current German laws to forbid him from seeing his son, who also became a Nazi. The boy became an actor at an early age, so the devastated Sirk was only able to see him on the screen. 

The film explores how this heartbreaking turn of events molded Sirk’s style, which showed direct references to what had happened and hit emotional notes that seemed clearly influenced by his loss. Jon Halliday, the author of Sirk on Sirk offers the most revealing insights into how that affected the filmmaker, though he told him very little of what happened. Also welcome is the insight of the two directors who most effectively translated the Sirk style: Todd Haynes in a new interview and Rainer Maria Fassbinder in archival footage; both men understood that while the filmmaker used a distinctive visual style, his true essence was in the way he explored emotional content. 

While Hope as in Despair reveals an artist managing a life-altering loss, Hüben also explores Sirk's joy in work, and accurately describes his output as “films made by someone who loves people.” With a combination of film clips and interviews, a story of perseverance in the face of trauma emerges. It is ultimately a story with a strong upside, centering a man with a great sense of humor who led a productive life to the very end. 

The 49th Seattle International Film Festival is in theaters from May 11-21 and streaming May 22-28.

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