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.
There ought to be plenty here to raise the blood pressure; and yet, at the 107th minute, I had to stagger out of Far From Heaven, punching my thighs to restore circulation. Why? Because Haynes allows not the slightest breath of life to disturb his movie, not the slightest movement of air, even beneath those adorable, hip-denying skirts that slant from the waist like lampshades.
Haynes has one dramatic effect in this movie, and only one: a cold, meticulous irony. When a station wagon drives through nondescript streets in an utterly banal long-shot, you may expect the soundtrack to swell with a score by Elmer Bernstein in his most sweeping, soaring mood. Julianne Moore suffers blow after blow (including one that leaves her with a black eye), yet soldiers on impassively, like the prettiest of corporals. Dennis Quaid, though provided with all the trappings of 1950s manhood, rants and quavers and sobs and trembles, in the manner of a grand hysteric. Earthy Dennis Haysbert is the most artistically sophisticated character in the movie; the ladies’ club matron who organizes the local art show is the most savage. Even songbirds become instruments of irony in Far From Heaven. Their incessant, cranked-up twitters begin to sound like the jeering of a malevolent god, or filmmaker.
Some creators allow themselves to be surprised by people, including those they’ve called up themselves. But Haynes seems incapable of such revelations, just as he cannot discover (twenty years after Fassbinder’s death) that melodrama may be a vehicle for social critique. For him, the terms of the critique are already settled; the use of melodrama is risk-free; and the characters are no more than fancy signboards. That leaves visual style as an end in itself; and as Andrew Sarris wrote back in the 1960s, as a warning to Sirk’s would-be imitators, “Any visual style can be mechanically reproduced.”
As for the political implications of this DOA:
Leftists have never made up their minds whether to trust the general public or its works of art. Organizers dedicate themselves to developing mass movements, and intellectuals (such as Raymond Williams and Noam Chomsky) build respect for the creativity to be found everywhere; but then these same people are appalled, and rightfully so, at the genuine popularity of military adventures and investment bubbles, reality-based TV and gay-bashing and lynch law. (For a timely reminder about Americans’ enthusiasm for the latter practice, I refer you to Joel Katz’s new documentary, Strange Fruit, showing at New York’s Film Forum and elsewhere.) At some moments, leftists try to get out of the bind by lying to themselves; if the news media would only report honestly about the people, they say, or maybe stop bamboozling them, then we’d realize that Ralph Nader has a much bigger following than Bush. At other moments, owning up to reality, leftists elude the bind by giving up. They accept the status of outsiders, misfits, vanguardists who are leading nowhere.
As their attitudes toward the public vacillate, so do their opinions about art. Leftists have had a long and often sentimental romance with “the people’s art”–an elastic category, which stretches from Woody Guthrie’s songs to hip-hop. In recent years especially, leftists have also championed the most unpopular and academic of artworks: the stuff that keeps museums of contemporary art in business and literary scholars typing away in lonely carrels.
I feel like a shit for saying it, since so many people have told me he’s a lovely guy, but Todd Haynes belongs to the camp of the misfit academics; and Far From Heaven strikes me as a symptom of that camp’s disorder. Do they imagine that a gay-basher or a bigot will stray unawares into this movie and suddenly be changed? Everything about the production speaks of a desire to keep the uninitiated away. Do they imagine that the film can speak to today’s conditions? Perhaps it could have done so had it been a real melodrama, which would have addressed (though in lurid terms) the way people actually live. But this film is merely an idea about melodrama; it addresses the representation of life, never life itself, and so it falters before a popular culture with which it can’t keep up. How can Dennis Haysbert stand in for the victimized Negro in Far From Heaven, when he gets to be the President on TV?
And yet, what if someone today were to follow Sirk’s example, rather than merely imitate his productions? Instead of working within a moribund genre like melodrama, a filmmaker might take on the type of project that currently wins audiences without being taken seriously–a teen-friendly comedy-action comic book movie, for example. Under cover of this formula, it might be possible to throw out all sorts of ideas and attitudes that could potentially challenge an audience. To carry it off, though, the filmmaker would need not just brains (which Haynes has) but also a willingness, a desire, to be popular.
I’m writing, of course, about Sam Raimi and Spider-Man. But that’s a subject for another column.
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Screening Schedule: So many good series are popping up in so many places that I can only hint at a few, and those of local interest. In Manhattan the American Museum of Natural History is presenting its annual feast of documentaries, the Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival (212-769-5200). In Queens the American Museum of the Moving Image is showing a Martin Scorsese retrospective (718-784-0077). And in Brooklyn the BAM Cinématek is putting on a big, complex series about the Vietnam War, as seen by both US and Vietnamese filmmakers (718-636-4100).