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PRINT November 2002

PAST PERFECT: TODD HAYNES

In anticipation of the release this month of Far from Heaven, TODD HAYNES’s eagerly awaited homage to Douglas Sirk, GEOFFREY O’BRIEN visited the director at his home in Portland, Oregon, where they discussed Haynes’s canny redeployment of the syntax of ’50s cinema.

Seen from one angle, Todd Haynes’s Far from Heaven is a cunningly precise pastiche of a movie Douglas Sirk might have made in 1958—if, that is, Universal Studios had been prepared to release a movie bearing on homosexuality, interracial romance, and the civil rights movement. Right from the start—as the camera descends through autumn foliage toward an overview of a serene street in what is meant to be Hartford, Connecticut, to the sweeping, plangent accompaniment of Elmer Bernstein’s score—we have the vertiginous impression of being dropped back into a past all the more welcoming for having never quite existed in the first place. As Haynes explains, the film is built out of “the language of ’50s cinema, not the ’50s.” But if this point of departure suggests either a wan conceptual exercise or an attempt to satirize the foibles of a long-gone social order, the result is strikingly different: a movie whose period stylization taps into reservoirs of powerful emotion. Through an unexpected alchemy, Far from Heaven ends up becoming the object it contemplates, and its path of conscious artifice leads toward a tragic sense of reality.

“Everything about film is always artificial,” Haynes remarks. “You can come to something far more surprisingly real by acknowledging how much of a construct it is first. It always feels so much more false to me when you set out to be real.” Far from Heaven signals its artifice at the outset by its unmistakable links to Sirk’s 1955 masterpiece All That Heaven Allows (a work that, after Far from Heaven and Fassbinder’s 1974 Ali—Fear Eats the Soul, should be recognized as not only a great film but the cause of other great films). Here it is not Jane Wyman but Julianne Moore who falls in love with her gardener, here not a Thoreau-influenced Rock Hudson but Dennis Haysbert as an African American intellectual who wins Moore’s heart partly through his eloquent commentary—at a suburban art show where his mere presence creates ripples—on the religious implications of abstract art. Where Wyman in the Sirk picture is recently widowed, in the Haynes film Moore finds herself abruptly estranged from her business exec husband (Dennis Quaid) when his long-repressed homosexuality comes vividly to her attention.

The husband’s sexual crisis is handled with an aura of hysteria and pseudoscience appropriate to the period—his anguish and shame call to mind Grant Williams as The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) angrily rejecting his wife when she attempts to comfort him for his mysterious loss of masculine pride. In these early scenes—a pickup in a gay bar, an interrupted assignation in an office, a session with a therapist offering the latest theories on curing homosexuality—one has the sense that Haynes is having fun by messing with the proprieties of ’50s cinema, showing what could not have been shown, somewhat in the manner of those “Scenes We’d Like to See” that used to be featured in Mad magazine. Here is a way to reinvent the past, to travel back in time and insert forbidden episodes, taboo locations, into the history of cinema.

The sense of risk is palpable, since at any moment the movie might founder into the ridiculous or caricatural. But Haynes isn’t interested in the kind of easy satire of suburban conformism encountered in a movie like Pleasantville (1998). “When most people see films set in the ’50s today,” he says, “there’s an immediate sense of superiority. It’s all about the myth that as time moves on, we become more progressive. Oh wow, they didn’t know what sex was until we started to give it to them from our contemporary perspective. So the ’50s become a sort of earmark point of oppressive politics and climate, which is very flattering to us as we look back.”

Rather than imposing the enlightenment of latter-day opinions on its version of the ’50s, Far from Heaven adopts the perspective of characters who can see no clear way out of the dilemmas their world forces on them. There are no villains here: “To me the most amazing melodramas are the ones where when a person makes a tiny step toward fulfilling a desire that their social role is built to discourage, they end up hurting everybody else. It’s like a chess game of pain, a ricochet effect where everybody gets hurt but there’s nobody to blame.” To find pain at the heart of the lushest cinematic pleasures is the film’s peculiar accomplishment.

Those pleasures are associated with a past as alluring as it is ultimately unreachable: the mythic ’50s of precisely this kind of psychological melodrama, an era that (like the Old West, where sheriffs and outlaws play out their confrontations) starts as a historical period—after the depression and World War II, before the eruption of social unrest and personal liberation in the ’60s—and turns into a region outside time, an operatic space where emotions, hemmed in, finally prove irrepressible. “I love these films,” says Haynes, “because they were always more about the smaller domestic limitations of possibility and experience than the genres associated with men, like the western or the gangster film, which are about the limitless frontier that you can discover and take over.” In the verismo of ’50s melodrama, the climax comes not with an explosion of gunfire or the advance of cavalry down a hillside but through a blossoming of inner feeling, gently assisted by a full-bodied color palette and an orchestra alert to every shift in mood.

After the air-conditioned, invisibly toxic contemporary wasteland mapped in Safe (1995), Haynes’s unsettling, deadpan account of a woman’s gradual withdrawal from a world to which she has unaccountably become allergic, Far from Heaven might seem like a turn toward a warmer, more inviting past, with Julianne Moore playing something of an ancestor to the damaged self she embodied in the earlier film. With the road to the future seemingly barred, a certain nostalgic retreat could be understood, and we are given at least the materials for such a nostalgia. For a product of ’50s suburbia like myself, the film’s early frames feel like the sort of strange homecoming that dreams sometimes offer; and those opening shots, as it turns out, ultimately provide just as little solidity. The accoutrements, though, are solid enough. The creature comforts of the ’50s—fabrics and furnishings, clean machines and verdant streetscapes—are re-created here with a nearly fetishistic devotion that makes every frame look like a hallucinatory extrapolation of an advertising layout in Life. “I wanted every car perfectly polished and clean,” Haynes recalls. “We had to take gritty New Jersey exterior locations and clean them up. We had buildings cleaned because they had birdshit hanging off the edge or they had too much dirt, and we had to make it look as much like a back-lot soundstage as possible.”

In these resonantly colored interiors and well-tended gardens we can trace the contours of a paradise spoiled only by the conflicted emotions of those who inhabit it. If only they didn’t have to feel, what a life they could live among these structures, illuminated by the eerily otherworldly lighting that makes even the upholstery seem ghostly. The classicism of Far from Heaven is architectural; here decor—the decor that women spend their lives trying to get exactly right—is destiny. Haynes quotes Fassbinder quoting Sirk: “You can’t make films about things, you can only make films with things, with people, with light, with flowers, with mirrors, with blood.” As I contemplate the cast-off furniture from Far from Heaven that has found its way into Haynes’s 1909 bungalow—here the sprawling sofa where a marriage definitively unravels, there the gardener’s wooden workbox that suggests a natural serenity just out of reach—I am reminded of the determining presence of interior decoration in all his films, whether the bedroom of the child murderer’s schoolmate in Poison (1991), the gyms and shopping-center restaurants in Safe, or the makeshift luxury enjoyed by the glam rockers of Velvet Goldmine (1998). His grandfather, he tells me, built sets for Warner Brothers in the ’40s; perhaps that’s one reason why his work recalls a time when movies were not so much filmed as constructed, little worlds with their own rules and their own specific boundaries.

The unbridled optical pleasure of the world he constructs here is the necessary corollary of its emotional dissatisfactions. Haynes mentions Max Ophüls as another guiding influence on the film, singling out The Reckless Moment (1949)—another near-tragic story of a desperate housewife—as a particular favorite. The debt to Ophüls can be felt in the way the film makes poetry out of a car pulling out of a parking lot, a train leaving a station, a woman looking out a window, the wordless communication between two almost-lovers as they walk in the woods: the kind of images that translate the commonplaces of romance novels into the cinematic sublime. Falseness is no more an issue here than in, say, the last act of La Bohème. There is simply a vocabulary of apparently banal acts and gestures and objects that, properly deployed, can express what would otherwise be unsayable. You can regard it through whatever prisms of irony and complication you like, but the forms themselves remain the same: A glance is a glance, good-bye is good-bye.

There is an essential realism that has nothing to do with naturalistic trappings. Behavioral truth can as easily be found in the most convention-bound melodrama as in a pseudodocumentary slice of life on the street. Films today tend to look superficially lifelike at the same time that they promulgate wish-fulfilling fantasies even more shameless than those that flourished in the era of the Hollywood ending. It is not the least of Far from Heaven’s paradoxes that in embracing the structure of the classic weepie it asserts a rigor utterly alien to the feel-good dynamics of movies in which, as Haynes says, “every character has to come to some kind of redemptive knowledge of who they are and what they’ve done wrong. The father who can’t deal with his family because he’s so ambitious at work has to go through a series of changes that make him realize the value of the family and the wife and the kids, and go home wholeheartedly at the end. It’s such an amazingly uninteresting trajectory. . . . The onus is on the individual to fix it, in a weirdly open-market sensibility of resolution.” As against movies in which an emotional breakthrough can solve any problem, Far from Heaven is bound by rules—rules of society, rules of genre—that make a happy ending improbable, if not impossible. The lovers cannot even make love: This is one of those rare contemporary movies—like Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence (1993) and Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000)—that hinge decisively on unconsummated passion.

The rules are both a matter of historical fact and an arbitrary system of aesthetic controls. Haynes needs to work with “a set of constraints within which I have to construct a narrative, constraints that conversely give you a certain freedom.” He sets up arbitrary limits, like those writers of the OuLiPo school who write novels without using the letter e or poems in which every line must be interchangeable with every other line. Here the constraints are a derivative of those that Douglas Sirk encountered in making films for producer Ross Hunter in the ’50s: There were things that couldn’t be said, places one couldn’t go. From those original constraints came formal choices that Haynes has now broken down into their components.

He shows me some of the preparatory books from the early stages of Far from Heaven’s development: scenes from Sirk films reduced nearly to sequences of stills. He comments on a frame in which a vulnerable Lana Turner (in 1959’s Imitation of Life) enters the office where she is about to be rudely propositioned: “It etches every bit of the content with a fatal inevitability. It’s a wide shot, but she seems completely boxed in. You don’t feel like you’re wide; you don’t feel a sense of expanse and space. It feels like the walls are actually closing in on the characters, even if you’re seeing them from a distance.” He talks as well about Sirk’s use of color—“color is the keynote, color is everything”—so different from current practices. “Today’s use of color is totally reductive. Happy scenes are warm, sad scenes are cool; sometimes an entire movie, if it’s set in the past, will be shot through honey-colored gels. The Woody Allen period films are just gilded gold, warm butterscotch. What’s beautiful about Sirk is that every frame is a complementary palette. Every single scene, regardless if it’s happy or sad, plays with an interaction of warm and cool colors. It’s so powerful.”

It becomes apparent that in this context, for practical purposes, “Sirk” does not denote a mood or a philosophy or a set of plot elements, but rather a repertoire of technical decisions. With that lexicon of effects, new sentences can be written. Haynes recalls how the color schemes for each scene in Far from Heaven were worked out, the spectrum of tones playing a determining role in the scene’s development: “I would sit down, close my eyes, think of a scene, and go through swatches and put together a range of colors that communicated a mood. The gay bar, for instance, utilizes a very specific palette of puce green and a very intense magenta that’s very unnerving and strange. Ernie’s bar also uses purple and green as its color sources, but it’s a very different purple and a very different green: And yet they’re the same two families of colors, contrasting, clashing against each other.”

This transmutation of melodramatic narrative into a play of colors reminds me of the pivotal scene where Dennis Haysbert delivers his impromptu remarks on a Miró painting to a visibly impressed Julianne Moore. Structurally the scene corresponds to one in All That Heaven Allows in which Jane Wyman is made aware of the importance of Thoreau’s Walden to Rock Hudson and his friends. For Sirk to invoke the return to nature in the midst of Universal glossiness is perhaps an irony comparable to Haynes’s invoking, in a movie so thick with historical and cultural markers as Far from Heaven, the notion of abstract art as a search for the divine.

The character so remarkably incarnated by Dennis Haysbert is himself a nexus of tensions: an African American so overqualified with virtues and credentials that—apart from race—not even the bourgeoisie of the film’s fictive Hartford could find any fault with him. As with all the roles in the film, psychology has nothing to do with it. They are types, abstractions, creatures of circumstance: characters for a seventeenth-century novel or a Kabuki play. That the absence of psychological explanation makes them no less human is a further vindication of Haynes’s formalism: “It’s the shorthand of psychobabble that we require a sense of depth of character in movies today. The person is fucked up because the mother did this to them when they were a kid; you have to show maybe the flashback to childhood. When you really analyze it you realize how flimsy and silly it is, how it’s just another narrative code.”

Take that layer away and you have a movie not about motivations but about situations. Motivation can be assumed: Everybody wants love, everybody wants to be happy. The devil is in the trapdoors and dead ends of social regulation. This is where aesthetic formalism merges with subject matter: The characters themselves operate according to a predetermined script, a limited vocabulary of possibilities, exactly as if they were conceptual artists, the catch being that the concept is not of their own choosing. “We all speak a script that’s conducive to the world we live in, that is always a translation of a wild mass of instincts and desires,” says Haynes. “I’ve always had a hard time depicting the experience of radical revolt from culture, truly transgressive experience. That kind of experience is ultimately everybody’s own job and work to do; you’re cheated when it’s given to you intact. In a way I’m more comfortable showing the limits that make that kind of response necessary.”

That sense of limits is what makes the film seem increasingly real as it progresses. But it is, again, not a realism of surfaces: “What people seem to want is the opposite of what this film does; they want something that seems naturalistic on the surface, according to today’s codes of naturalism, but that inside is actually incredibly heroic and false. In movies like this, on the other hand, the external experience is very synthetic and highly stylized, but it’s actually about people who are much more like us, fragile and afraid, and who cave in when society tells them to.” The stylization is thoroughgoing and for the crew meant reinventing every procedure, from the camera’s distance from actors (much greater here than in contemporary TV-style framing) to the expressive, non-naturalistic lighting. “All these things that we come to today with a sense of naturalism, we had to break every one. People started to think differently.”

To stay within such prescribed boundaries creates an air of brittleness. At any moment a single false step might bring a world of agreed-upon responses crashing down. The difficulty of sustaining such a world can be felt from moment to moment, especially in the acting. Contemporary actors find it nearly impossible to empty their performances of the Method-derived mannerisms we have come to think of as lifelike, to return to an earlier, flatter style of line-reading, the sort of guileless performance that served Rock Hudson for a whole career. Nowadays we expect actors to project a knowing quality, whereas in old Hollywood movies it was often more a question of their just being there: sometimes with tremendous art, sometimes merely with an ability to seem absolutely at home in the counterworld of cinema.

Far from Heaven might best be thought of as parody in the oldest sense, an imitation undertaken for wholly serious purposes. If this is camp, it is that highest camp—“something that uses artifice to bring you to a place of heightened emotions that you couldn’t get to any other way”—which finally is indistinguishable from the “real” thing, whatever that might be. In the end, all questions of real and unreal dissolve in the fragility suggested by Julianne Moore’s remarkable performance. She plays her part as someone who reads the lines she’s been given as if she senses their falseness but can’t come up with an alternative, and who undergoes onscreen a moral evolution that still doesn’t guarantee anything like happiness. Even in the movies—even in a movie consisting of nothing but the language of other movies—there are still realities that cannot be dislodged or evaded. But then, as Todd Haynes summarizes: “Just to know what you love is so important.”

Geoffrey O’Brien is editor in chief of the Library of America.