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Film “The Imitation of Life” by Sirk Douglas Essay

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Updated: Jan 14th, 2020

Overview of film cultures

Films and cultures have a close relationship with film acting as a mirror of many cultures in the world. Wollen describes films as “cultural mirror” which signifies that, films are a true reflection of the cultural activities and practices of many different communities in the world (1972, p. 26).

In most occasions, people would want to highlight what they have experienced in life and filmmakers are not different. Cultural reflections by the film industry help to publicise the cultural values, norms, philosophies, lifestyle, beliefs and contemporary attitude towards a phenomenon and therefore, fostering understanding among cultures.

This helps in avoiding cultural conflicts. Wollen further relates the relationship of culture and film to that of chicken and the egg where film is the egg and culture is the chicken (1972, p. 28). The implication here is that, film comes from cultures and therefore without cultures there would be no film industry.

On the other hand, films not only emphasize on the exploration of the cultural values, beliefs and norms, but also attempts to dig into the cultural and social conventions of a society or community.

These generic conventions are common in many contemporary societies and signify unity, oneness, and commonness within a society. In some contemporary societies, the generic conventions agreed upon become cultural or societal laws after legislation into customary law.

Traditional conventions differ greatly from the modern conventions all cutting across the different cultures of the world. For instance, traditionally, some communities conventionally agree that people should welcome strangers by shaking their hands, while others hold the opposite.

Filmmaking highlights these differences and without films, it would be very hard for anyone outside a given culture to appreciate some practices upheld in that particular culture.

Currently, convention concerning strangers is different since people have different ways of welcoming strangers with some shaking their hands and others not but doing verbal introduction before the welcome.

The film industry in the world exemplify these conventions among others, giving a deeper understanding of different cultural symbols, and encourages maintenance of the generic conventions hence reducing cultural conflicts. On the contrary, some other films encourage the breakage of the generic conventions and advocate for adoption of the modern patterns and rules.

Sirk’s American film analysis

Films’ presentations of cultures and social activities not only attempt to break the generic conventions of communities, but also endeavour to intensify the generic conventions across and within the cultures of the world.

The intensification of the generic conventions gives way for the acceptance of cultural norms and allows free interaction of people within the cultures. Sarris (1976) noted, “Social rules reflect what acceptable or normal behaviour in any situation is” (p. 233).

This indicates that the social rules generated from the conventionally agreed upon cultural values show the culturally accepted behaviours and guiding rules in all circumstances that any one lives.

One of the major films, which support the intensification of the generic conventions of the world’s cultures, is the 1959 film by Sirk Douglas, “The imitation of life.” This film reflects on the struggles that two widowed women go through as they bring up their daughters from two different cultures but living in the same home.

One of the widows is white while the other is a black but her daughter has a light skin as opposed to that of her mother and therefore, the light-skinned daughter imitates the life of the whites. The scene unveils by revealing the white widow, Lora, who is contending to become an actor, losing track of her daughter, Suzie.

The Woman looks worried and walks all around to look for her daughter until she meets a stranger by the name Steve Archer who promises to give her a hand in the pursuit to find her daughter.

Although Lora and Steve are strangers, they shake hands in the first instance of their meeting, which reflects the conventionally accepted way of welcoming strangers. As Sarris (2004) observes, “…western societies welcome strangers by offering a firm hand shake while Korea and Japan bow towards each other” (p. 45).

This scene truly reflects the Western society since the strangers share a firm handshake. In addition, the man offers to help the woman in search of her lost daughter.

As a Generic convention, man and woman should help each other and so was the case in this scene. This confirms the Sirk’s intension to intensify the generic conventions in his films as he focuses on different cultures.

Out of women desire for children’s safety and security, Annie a black woman finds the lost little Suzie and takes care of her together with her daughter, Sara. Suzie’s humane heart compels Annie to accept to live and care for her as long as her real mother finds her.

As conventionally accepted, mothers have a duty to protect and care for the little and young children and so was Annie. She took care of the daughters until Suzie’s mother found her. She provided for them and indeed, she acted as a mother for both.

This led to development of a strong relationship between Annie and Suzie and Suzie was free to consult Annie on any difficult issue she encountered. On the other hand, Although Annie is black and her daughter Sara has a light skin, she loves her but on contrary the daughter pretends to be white and yarns to lead a lifestyle similar to that of the whites.

As it is the generic convention for parents to love their children, Annie loves her daughter even though she does not love her simply because she is blank little does she know that she is also blank only that she is light-skinned.

Lora displays a unique behaviour when she finds her daughter in Annie’s custody. She is very kind and thankful to Annie for taking care of her daughter and in return, she takes Annie and Sara to live with her so that Annie can take care of Suzie as Lora pursues her quest of becoming a celebrated actor.

According to Mulvey, “…kindness is a physical reflection of gratefulness of the heart” (2005, p. 24). Getting back her daughter, Lora was grateful to Annie and although she could not afford to pay a housekeeper, she opted to temporary take in the Annie’s family. The two women end up being lifelong friends.

This scenario reflects the generically accepted way of expressing appreciation to someone, like Annie, who does a recommendable task.

With Annie helping as housekeeper, Lora pursues her dream career and ends up being a famous actor. She however focuses more on her career and forgets her daughter, Suzie. In most times, she is out of the house leaving her daughter to the sole care of Annie, the black woman.

Lora trusts Annie so much that she freely allows her to take care of her daughter as she goes for her career. This scenario reflects the western culture, which conventionally allows women to pursue their careers at the expense of their societal roles provided they get someone to take care of their families and children.

In his films, Sirk attempts to intensify the culture of women pursuing their careers as accepted in the western cultures, while on the other hand, the black woman opts to remain at home and take care of Suzie and Sara her daughter.

After some time, Sara follows up on her career though her quest to lead other people’s lifestyles preoccupies her. Because of persistence and hard working of the whites, they end up being rich and wealthy as depicted in the film where Lora starts as a poor white widow but ends up being very rich after she goes for her career. On the contrary, the black widow remains poor throughout her life under the care of rich Lora.

On the contrary, failure to accept ones cultural conventions or status can lead to later troubles and disappointments. Sara refuses to accept that she is black and she disowned her culture, pretends and adopts the white lifestyles based on her light skin.

Acceptance of generic convention of belonging to ones culture regardless of the skin colour intensity can save one from disappointments, which was not the case with Sara. Sara got into a relationship with a white boy and lied that she was white. However, this ends up in disappointment where the boy beats Sara.

Furthermore, when her mother emerges in the nightclub, her boyfriend associates her with blacks and as a result, she losses her job. These series of frustrations comes about simply because Sara refuses to accept the conventional value of belonging to her culture and appreciating it instead, she imitates other people’s lifestyles leading her to unintended frustrations.

Sara’s refusal to accept her cultural background causes her to run away from her heartbroken mother. Many mothers go through this pain after their children disown them and their cultures. Ironically, Sara associates closely with Lora; the white widow who is a famous actor and Sara develops the desire to become an actor too.

This further illustrates her character of imitating other people’s lifestyles. On contrary, Suzie, the Lora’s daughter draws closer to Annie, the black woman, because her mother is hardly at home. Sirk in this context explores the consequences of disowning ones culture and failing to accept generic conventions as stipulated in the customary laws and beliefs.

Although there is a mixture of two cultures, it is clear that there is a struggle between members of the cultures in acceptance or refusal of the conventional and therefore there is an outstanding division between members of the same culture or race.

The blacks want to assume the cultures, behaviour and lifestyles of the white and out rightly reject theirs. The young girls from the two cultures want to orientate to the other culture as the case of character of Sarah and Suzie evidences- Sara associates closely with Suzie’s mother while Suzie associates closely with Sara’s mother.

In this sense, Sirk attempts to intensify generic conventions in the society and not to break it because breaking the conventions leads to divisions within the affected cultures.

Although heartbroken, Sara’s mother sets out to look for her daughter who does not even care about her. This depicts the value children have in the family social setting whereby, as conventionally agreed parents have the mandate to know the whereabouts of their regardless of the children’s perception to them (Klinge 1994, p. 622).

For Annie’s case, she upholds this value and leaves the luxury life in Lora’s house to look for her daughter. When she finds her in theatre performing her music and dancing like the whites, Sara shows less concern to her mother.

To the surprise of Willemen (1971), “Sara denies her own mother, her own blood, her own flesh in order not to live real life but to live an imitation of a life in which she could have a white woman” (p.63). This open denial of one’s own daughter causes distress to Sara’s mother but she still insisted to see her daughter and say goodbye (Sirk 1959 [film]).

Sara’s mother does all these painful things simply because she loves her daughter and honours the generic conventions hence she is ready to go contrary to the norm. On the opposite, Sara adores her work and career over her own mother and she is even ready to disown her- her blood and flesh for the sake of her career.

Sara’s change of her cultural name to Western reveals a high degree of her quest to lead imitated life. This illustrates a total disrespect for one’s own people and culture, which has its own consequences.

After rejection and open denial, the black woman goes back depressed and becomes bedridden probably out of what transpired between her and her daughter. This leads to a worse tragedy, Sara’s mother, Annie, passes on. At this point, it is too late for Sara to apologize to her mother as she presumably dies because of being heartbroken.

Although Sara realises her mistakes later, it is too late to reverse the situation. She has to accept the reality of life, agree to honour, treasure, and respect the generic conventions of her society and cultural background, which would safe her from subsequent troubles.

According to Sirk, “Just before the funeral procession begins, a remorseful Sara tears through the crowd of mourners and throws herself on her mother’s casket to beg for forgiveness” (1959 Film). Sara finally begged for forgiveness but this was too late for her mother to forgive her.

As conventionally accepted they accorded the deceased a descent burial in a church ceremony. This action upholds the dignity and respect of humanity regardless of one’s economic or political status. The case of Sara’s mother was no different. Dignity and respect portrayed over her dead body signified that the community held high the generic conventions of their society.

On the other hand, the family of Lora, the white widow flourished well as they had little conflicts with their generic conventions of the society. After Lora became renowned actor, they rekindle their relationship with the stranger who helped her to look for Suzie, as the film was unfolding.

Finally, they ended up in marriage and continued to abide by the customary conventions of their society. Sirk in this film explores both sides of acceptance and respect for the generic conventions as well as refusal and failure to accord the generic conventions.

In both cases, he exemplifies the benefits and consequences accrued and in addition, he intensifies the quest to support the generic conventions rather than destroying them. If anything, some conventions are not bad at all; for instance, westernization introduced wearing of clothes in Africa; a continent where hides and skins formed the great part of fashion and clothing.

Summary and restatement

Various cultural and social settings have different generic conventions, which dictate the behaviour of the people in the society regardless of their economic and political status. It also stipulates the societal beliefs and norms, which members of the society ought to respect.

In many of the social settings, the conventions agreed upon form the customary laws. As any other law an attempt to bridge the customary law attracts cultural punishment, therefore people should abide by these customary laws. Respect to these laws yields to many benefits as compared to violation which results into severe consequences.

Cultural films provide a universal media through which different cultures can express their cultural activities as they attempt to intensify the affirmation of the generic conventions.

Although many cultural films break the generic conventions in many societies, Sirk’s film “Imitation of life” attempts to intensify generic conventions of societies. It supports the creation of these conventions and their subsequent respect and honour by the members of the society.

In the light of intensifying and upholding generic conventions, the African example comes in handy; breaking of the hitherto conservative African societies came with relaxed morals and many people especially teenagers and youth are caught in the we of immorality courtesy of westernization. If only Africa remained rooted to her conservative norms, the social thorn of immorality would never emerge.

Reference List

Klinge, B., 1994. The progressive Auteur, Melodrama and canonicity in Melodrama and Meaning. Bloomington: Indiana university press.

Mulvey, L., 2005. Repetition and return , textual analysis and Douglas Sirk in the twenty first century. Manchester: Manchester university press.

Sarris, A., 1976. Towards a theory of film history. Movies and methods, 1(2), pp. 237-238.

Sarris, A., 2004. Notes on the Auteur theory in 1962. Oxford: Oxford university press.

Sirk, D., 1959. . [Film], Universal pictures.

Willemen, P., 1971. Distanciation and Douglas Sirk’s screen. The Sirkian system, 12(2), pp. 63-64.

Wollen, P., 1972. The Auteur theory, signs and meaning in the cinema. London: BFI Press.

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