Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven strikes me as the best American movie of 2002. It’s a brilliant recreation–more than a simulation–of a genre I have long loved, the 1950s melodrama; more particularly, it is a loose remake of, and homage to, the films of Douglas Sirk, most notably All That Heaven Allows (1955). Haynes recreates the style and feel of Sirk’s films, while also interrogating the relations between real life and cinematic depictions of it, as well as between 1950s culture and the culture we live in today. In doing this, Haynes illuminates matters of gender and sexuality in a remarkable way. He endeavors to do this also for race; but race relations are the one area in which (alas) the film doesn’t succeed…
Douglas Sirk’s 50s melodramas were enormously popular at the time, and apparently they were taken by their contemporary audiences completely unironically. Today, however, it is impossible to view them without irony: the distance we feel from the fashions and attitudes of the 1950s makes it easy to see how these tearjerkers are all about ungratified desire, the oppression of women trapped in the domestic sphere, and the emptiness of American material culture.
Sirk himself seems to have intended these ironies, to judge by the interviews he later gave about them. Sirk, after all, was a disaffected leftist European intellectual, who had come to America to escape Hitler, and found himself at work churning out Technicolor weepies and costume dramas for the American mass audience; a position not all that different from the one he had had in Germany, churning out the same sorts of dramas for the Nazi mass audience.
Sirk was only appreciated as a master ironist after he stopped making movies–appreciated by film critics like Andrew Sarris, starting in the 1960s, and by later generations of filmmakers, like R. W. Fassbinder and now Todd Haynes. (Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is also a loose remake of All That Heaven Allows).
What Haynes gets from Sirk is both the look and feel of 50s melodrama, and its deeper meanings. Look and feel: the supersaturated colors, the lushly romantic music, and the unnaturalistic acting style, which seems to be perpetually “in quotation marks.” Deeper meanings: the way that style expresses substance; that is to say, the way that the alienation and misery of the characters, and their inability to express that misery, becomes expressed instead through music and decor. (cf. Thomas Elsaesser’s much-anthologized article, “Thomas Elsaesser, “Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on the Family Melodrama”). Far From Heaven, like Sirk’s melodramas, works from the contrast between the lavishness of the settings–the outer material wealth of the characters–and the characters’ inner feelings of emptiness and ungratified desire: especially the entrapment of women in the domestic sphere.
What makes Far From Heaven more than just a museum piece, or the exhumation of a dead style, is the way it uses the inner distances of melodrama style as a way to think about the distances that separate us today from the world of fifty years ago. It’s a film about what has changed between then and now, and what has not. The film addresses subjects directly, such as homosexuality, which could only be hinted at in the films of the 50s. (Rock Hudson, the star of many of Sirk’s melodrama, was forced to be deeply closeted at the time; though our knowledge today that he wasn’t the straight man he publically claimed to be cannot help but influence the way we see those films now. (For comment on all this see Mark Rappaport’s brilliant film-essay, Rock Hudson’s Home Movies). Haynes stages the aspects of 1950s life that were not allowed to be shown in the cinema of that time, but he stages them in the style of the cinema of that time. This leads to a kind of doubling and redoubling, in which we feel distant from the characters–we cannot identify with them in any immediate sense–but at the same time we are forced to take their emotional dilemmas seriously, rather than being allowed to feel superior to them.
Haynes thus explores the oppression of the 1950s nuclear family. The wife (Julianne Moore) is trapped by the restriction of women to the domestic sphere; the husband (Dennis Quaid) is gay, but trapped in the closet of obligatory heterosexuality. Moore’s reduced horizons, and Quaid’s closetedness, are both imposed by society from without, and actively internalized by the characters themselves. All this is conveyed by Haynes’ careful stylizations, with their orchestration of buried passions that can never really be let loose or admitted to. Quaid eventually finds a kind of fulfillment with another man; but Moore remains trapped by bourgeois domesticity–the woman gets the worst end of the bargain, even worse than what a gay man gets.
All this is powefully conveyed, in one of those rare films that works full throttle, both emotionally and intellectually–it makes us think hard about the situations it depicts, while at the same time making us feel these situations sympathetically, as well. The miracle of Haynes’ filmmaking is that he is able to combine distanciation with emotion–neither of these dimensions cancels the other.
But there is one area where the film doesn’t quite work for me, and that has to do with race. Moore’s character becomes friendly with a black man (played by Dennis Haysbert). Their friendship is never sexually consommated, though it is tinged with erotic longing. And this reflects once again on the entrapedness of Moore’s character–for her to be involved with a black man is simply unthinkable, either to herself or to the society she is part of.
Haysbert’s character is based upon Rock Hudson’s in All That Heaven Allows–combined with suggestions of Sidney Poitier in a whole series of 50s and 60s movies. And this is where the film gets into trouble. Haynes is quite consciously presenting his black character unnaturalistically, in terms of 50s stereotypes, just as he presented the white ones. But the effect isn’t the same. Haysbert evokes Poitier at his most insufferably noble, as he appeared in No Way Out, Lilies of the Field, A Patch of Blue, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner: films which can only give a liberal message of integration and social equality by absurdly presenting Poitier’s black male character as being so patient, loving, and virtuous that no objection could possibly be raised to him–which begs the whole question of racism, since it inadvertently suggests that a black person must be a superman to get the sort of consideration that every white person can count on by skin color privilege alone. James Baldwin wrote eloquently about this, as I mentioned in an earlier post).
Anyway, in the case of Haysbert’s character, Haynes’ strategies simply do not work. When it comes to black people, Haynes’ finely tuned dialectical irony fails him. For Moore and Quaid, Haynes’ method allows us to get under the skin of their characters, all the more so in that those characters cannot articulate their dilemmas intelligibly to themselves (this inversion is the point, and the strength, of Haynes’ sympathetic irony). But with Haysbert, this never happens–not due to any fault in his performance, but because the movie never articulates an other side to the 50s movie stereotype that the character incarnates. While we get a woman’s perspective, and a gay man’s perspective, on the shape of homophobic and patriarchal society, we never similarly get a black perspective on white supremacy. The film, like Moore’s character, simply buys in to Haysbert’s Poitieresque nobility, and never moves beyond it. Haysbert’s character is not viewed with the sort of sympathetic irony that the other characters are–he doesn’t articulate any feelings beyond cliche, but also, in contrast to what happens with Quaid and Moore, we are unable to find the emotional depths that he cannot articulate. Instead, he becomes yet another noble black man (or woman) whose cinematic function is to bring enlightnement or comfort to a white protagonist (cf. The Green Mile, The Legend of Bagger Vance, etc, etc). With Haysbert’s character, we are just left with the unironic surface–a sad failing in a film which is otherwise so brilliant in anatomizing surfaces, finding the depths behind them while evoking their materiality.
What this failure on Haynes’ part suggests to me is that, in the America of the 2002-2003, it is still much harder to come to terms with racism and white supremacy than it is to come to terms with patriarchy and homophobia. The more we claim that we have gotten “beyond race,” the more insidiously racism continues to operate. This doesn’t mean that homophobia and sexism have somehow been eliminated from American society, of course; but I’d argue that the “national conversation” on them has progressed much further than any equivalent developments having to do with race. Even with the best of intentions, Haynes seems unable to treat being black with the frankness and insight that he brings to his looks at being gay and being a woman.
[Note: I find it strange and ironic–if those are the right words–that in Ella Taylor’s otherwise smart and insightful review of Far From Heaven, she suggests that the movie’s big flaw is its supposed failure to acknowledge that “politically, at least on the racial front, we’ve come further since the ’50s than Haynes will concede.” The evidence Taylor gives for this assertion is the fact that there are many “multiracial (including black on [sic] white) families” represented in her daughter’s preschool. Unfortunately–and speaking as a man in a “multiracial” marriage, and as the white father of a daughter who is black–I don’t think racism is overcome as easily as that.]