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Douglas Sirk and "Imitation of Life"

May 16, 2016

Many many years ago I was a graduate student in Film Studies at NYU. I was lucky enough to have a teaching assistantship and tuition remission. It was a rather comfortable situation. I didn't have any money, but I also didn't have too many worries.

 

I was never very good at it. I had done an undergraduate degree in Philosophy and finished an MA program also in Philosophy (leaving the week before the thesis defense - another story altogether) before moving to New York. I needed to be somewhere legit, to get a visa. I chose the only thing I knew well - academia. 

 

The problem was I had no academic interest in film. None whatsoever. I loved to watch films, to talk about films, to even delve into discourse about the construction and effect of films but I was seriously dis-interested in Film Theory - that peculiar branch of "Area Studies" that borrows from every discipline and adheres to none. 

 

My fellow graduate students were all excited about Lacanian interpretations of the "screen as blank canvas" - read Freudian projection and mother love; about scopophilia; about poststructural paradigms, any and every thing that could be cadged from the world of epistemological relativism. 

 

I was bored. I had long ago joined the ranks of the Anglo-American analytical school. I found nothing compelling in the discussion of narratives independent of the screen-play. 

 

A few weeks ago, at the exact same time as the beginning of Passover, the NYU Graduate Student Workers Union - NYUGWU (a local of the UAW - United Auto workers) voted in favor of BDS - Boycott, Divest and Sanction - of any and all Israeli academics and academic institutions.  This is clearly their idea of striking a blow for freedom. Not sure what kind of freedom, but no matter. 

 

As I read the same rhetoric that I have seen a hundred times over, I began to think about all those discussion of "narrative" and the assertion that there are no facts. It doesn't matter that there are no facts, since the story that is told is the truth. And whomever yells the loudest, wins. 

 

Many of the members of the NYUGWU are Jewish. Perhaps the loudest and most convincing voices. Who wouldn't believe the message if it came from an insider.  

 

All this noise - NYU, BDS, narrative, Freud, film, Lacan - has been roiling in my dreams. I keep seeing Susan Kohner and Sandra Dee as a young girls in Douglas Sirk's 1959 masterpiece - Imitation of Life.

 

The story is set in 1950s America and revolves around two families - one white, one black. The white family -  mother and daughter - employ a black family, mother and daughter, as domestics. The black daughter plays and the daughter of her mother's employer. They grow up together and are friends. But of course it is an illusion of equality that what is acceptable in children in abhorred in adults.

 

The black daughter, played by Susan Kohner, is very light skinned. She can "pass" for white. When she is eighteen she rejects her mother, hides her past and moves into the world as a white woman. The consequences of her decisions and the emotional and fundamentally political fallout of pretending to be something that she is not are the stuff of melodrama - but real enough, none the less.

 

Sirk was married to a Jewish woman and left Germany to escape prosecution/persecution. One might read the film as Sirk's own attempt to be an "American", something he was not. But the film is captured in supersaturated color. It is as though the imitation life is super real - better, more exciting - and of course ersatz. 

 

But I can't help but think that Imitation of Life is an apt description of those Jewish students who shout the loudest against Jewish Nationalism. If I am more white than white, more anti-Zionist than the most ardent anti-Zionist, I can blend in. I can be accepted. I can point to myself and say that I am better than the people of come from.  I am more righteous.

 

Now, not all Jews have to be Zionists. And those who are Zionists should be proactive against institutional racism.  But to participate in a campaign that trades in ugly tropes and exaggerations and works against cooperation and reconciliation, is not cool. It is sad. One can support social justice without trying to rewrite history or rewrite one's own history. 

 

I am forever grateful to NYU for letting me watch Douglas Sirk films again and again - and thousands of hours of other works that have never been on the trending list of Netflix.  And I am grateful for my teachers Annette Michelson and Jay Leyda. But I am distressed by the current crop of undergraduates and graduates at NYU who can't seem to think their way out of a meme. And I am sad that four years will pass and the students of NYUGWU will still be talking about their moral stance against a situation they learned about third hand from a social at the student's center.

 

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