Reinvention of the self is an all-American subject, but you would never know it from our movies. Despite the fact that Hollywood was developed largely by Easterners who refashioned themselves as cowboys (the directors) and Jews who comported themselves like WASPs (studio heads), American cinema, not unlike American politics, has been plagued with the anxieties of authenticity and verification. Impostors and dissemblers are perpetually being rooted out, inner beauty and truth are forever being divined under the cover of surface disingenuousness. Such themes are as present in studio products like Wedding Crashers (the fiancé versus Owen Wilson) as they are in the contrasting narratives of Larry Craig, the recently disgraced senator from Idaho, and, at least for his first few years in office, our forty-third President. When great American filmmakers dip into the pool, the tone is often playful (a great deal of Ernst Lubitsch’s work, Preston Sturges’s The Lady Eve) or filled with dread (Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown). And when reinvention is posited as a byproduct of the “artistic” temperament, we wind up with a template based on either the life of Christ or the fable of Icarus.
It doesn’t take too much imagination to realize that this obsession with genuine articles and real things in American moviemaking is financial in origin: the general nervousness over budgets, percentages, and profits and losses is unconsciously transposed into dramas of identity hinging on disputed wills, water rights, marriage licenses or what have you. Celebrations of reinvention have come easily to poetry, fiction, music and dance but with much difficulty to the still costly art of moviemaking. The comparatively inexpensive nonnarrative films of Kenneth Anger and James Broughton aside, a very special temperament is required to follow in Whitman’s footsteps with the expenditure of millions of dollars hanging over your head and a flock of smiling executives pecking away at you as you’re trying to get your movie in the can. “Rebel” or “maverick” doesn’t even begin to cover it. Only militant aesthetes need apply, and I can think of no better term to describe Todd Haynes.
When Safe, his third feature-length film, was released to rapturous acclaim in 1995, Haynes was praised for his generosity, for “loving all his characters.” It seemed to me at the time that this odd misjudgment was inspired by the film’s final moments, in which Julianne Moore’s ego-free heroine, Carol White, declares her love for her own mirror image. Safe struck me as one mighty clever enterprise for its era. The film was possessed of an extremely sly sense of satire and negative characterization, exemplified by the shot of Carol’s nowheresville husband standing before the mirror in his dark socks and spraying deodorant under his arms. But I also had the impression that Haynes’s control of his material did not extend beyond his cannily calculated surface. The consistently uniform aesthetic choices (wide shots of long duration that pinned characters into their environments, capped by a sonic ambience of all-encompassing banality; a heroine with an all-purpose blankness who seemed to have had a cosmetic lobotomy) masked an unresolved anger that found its focus in the film’s vastly superior and brilliantly written second half.
Haynes did a remarkable job in those scenes of elucidating the tyrannical effects of self-help rhetoric. Psychic if not spiritual intrusion was treated to many impressive variations, from the disturbing (the signature image of the young man venturing awkwardly through the landscape in layers of protective clothing) to the chilling (the moment when the “helpful” therapist silently enters from screen right) to the horrifying (the remarkable group therapy session in which a patient resists the demand for self-affirmation and unleashes a blackhearted torrent of emotion). And the ending, far from a portrayal of self-love, was the coup de grâce, the final act of an easily intimidated woman who has no idea whether she actually loves herself or not. That Haynes had a profound empathy for the plight of his heroine was undeniable, but the cool passivity of his presentation struck me as an artful concoction, paling beside the less aesthetically novel but more powerfully bracing bitchiness of the group therapy exchange. By the same token, the most impressive moments in Far From Heaven (2002), with Moore as another suburban homemaker with a teensy-weensy sense of self, involved her closeted husband (Dennis Quaid) spewing venom from his living room perch. The power of these moments was only tangentially related to Haynes’s fussy re-creation of Douglas Sirk’s mid-’50s output.