It’s rude of me to speak of Todd Haynes’s new picture as if it were a symptom; but then, he’s the one who’s always consulting doctors. From the time of his career-making short Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, which re-enacted the death by anorexia of its title character, Haynes has consistently used pathology as an organizing metaphor: in a Freudian case study (Dottie Gets Spanked), a sci-fi horror scenario (Poison) and, most famously, a dry-eyed melodrama, Safe, which stars Julianne Moore as a woman who becomes allergic to her environment. (Whether the allergens are chemical or marital is impossible to say.) In each of these movies, the attempt to medicalize our drives and dissatisfactions has come in for Haynes’s mockery–none of it more scathing than in his current film, Far From Heaven, in which a 1950s-era psychiatrist talks about the odds for a complete recovery from homosexuality, to be effected perhaps with the aid of drugs and electricity.
Haynes would like people to be freed from such thinking, and so would I. When I watch Arthur Dong’s recent documentary Family Fundamentals, whose evangelical Christians propose to cure gay people of being themselves, I could wish for an end to all prescriptions and therapies for our behavior, all psychosocial get-well cards and books of chicken soup. But could Haynes go on making films if the health police were ever to let up? He apparently needs to define himself in opposition to their controlling mindset–and in Far From Heaven, this need has paradoxically led him to proceed as if he were a diagnostician, examining society’s skin for clues to an underlying unease.
In doing so, Haynes is mimicking the work of Douglas Sirk, who turned out a series of now celebrated, color-drenched melodramas in the 1950s: Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind, Imitation of Life. Ostensibly, these were nothing more than lush, time-killing women’s pictures, as formulaic and corny as any soap opera transferred to the wide screen. But by means of an almost clinical style–one that drew attention to the plots’ emotional excesses and the performers’ emotive shortcomings–Sirk transformed these movies into not-so-implicit critiques of “normal, middle-class life,” as the term was then understood.
Did these critiques go unnoticed? The very notion that conventions had to be unmasked–narrative and social conventions alike–implies that most viewers were dumb bunnies, who didn’t know what they were watching. I would guess that this was and was not true. To champion Sirk back then was to be called a zany cultist, as were the Cahiers du Cinéma writers and Andrew Sarris, since everybody knew his movies couldn’t be taken seriously. But then, almost nobody seemed to know the movies were his. In that era, people who saw themselves as cultured often felt an undifferentiated, uninformed contempt for melodramas, and also for westerns, musicals, gangster pictures, comedies, sci-fi adventures and the sword-and-sandal epic. But was such contempt general among ordinary moviegoers, who flocked to Sirk’s pictures (all the while attributing them to Rock Hudson or Jane Wyman)? Was this disdain uniform even among intellectuals? More important, did it prevent anyone from getting the point? Since Sirk’s melodramas became canonical within twenty years of their release–taught from the earliest days of cinema studies, cited as influential by Fassbinder and his admirers–some bunnies must have been pretty wise.
What did audiences know, and when did they know it? These questions seem pressing to me for two reasons, the second of which has to do with politics. The first is that Far From Heaven is a corpse.
The story of a marital breakdown in 1950s Connecticut, Far From Heaven stars Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid as a white couple who are so outwardly perfect, they’re featured in advertisements for television sets. The husband works as a sales executive for Magnatech TV; the wife cheerfully assists him by grooming herself and giving directions to the maid, until the night she discovers Mr. Magnatech rapturously smooching with another man. So that’s why he’s always working late! That’s why he hasn’t touched her since Skipper and Princess were born! In her distress, Mrs. Magnatech turns for comfort to the most sensitive, dignified, intelligent, deep-chested, testosterone-voiced man she knows: her gardener (Dennis Haysbert), a Negro.