To younger audiences, Todd Haynes is probably better known for his Bob Dylan experimental tribute, I’m Not There (2007) and exquisite romantic melodrama, Carol (2015). In the early years of the new millennium though, Haynes released what really ought to be remembered as his masterpiece, Far from Heaven (2002), an exceptionally intelligent pastiche of Douglas Sirk’s films. In fact, so intelligent was this zealous and meticulous recreation of a typical ‘50s melodrama, that it initially blindsided viewers. Peter Bradshaw’s famous review of the film recalls how he “came to mock” at its premiere in Venice, before ending the screening in a state where he “stayed to pray.”
What Haynes had produced is one of the most perfect and justified acts of cinematic postmodernism yet executed. A film that thoughtfully revived a seemingly antiquated genre for a new generation, while also having the perception to subtly reconfigure the import of that genre’s subject matter. Haynes miraculously seemed able to provide a commentary on class, gender and race relations that not only dissected the utopian fallacy of ‘50s America, but also made it resonate in the present day, implying these fault-lines are still endemic in the American psyche.
Douglas Sirk was always likely to be a focal point for Haynes’ thematic and meta-cinematic leanings. A filmmaker seemingly pigeon-holed as having specialised in the condescendingly titled subgenre of ‘Women’s Pictures’ in the late ‘40s and ‘50s, Sirk was actually one of the most radical filmmakers of his time, co-opting the veneer of Hollywood’s mainstream tastes for a series of coruscating commentaries on American social injustices. Naturally, Sirk’s efforts hadn’t passed by the watchful eyes of the Cahiers du Cinéma critics who ranked Sirk alongside the likes of Nicholas Ray, Samuel Fuller and Howard Hawks as Hollywood pros who needed a serious critical re-evaluation.
The neo-marxist and psychoanalytical subtext of Sirk’s films undoubtedly attracted Haynes with his familiar riffing on ideas of gender, sexuality and the notion of the family. In her famous essay, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, Laura Mulvey had argued that, “unchallenged mainstream film coded the erotic into the language of the dominant patriarchal order.” Sirk’s genius was in toying with this hegemony from right under Hollywood’s noses. He completely debunked the idea of the demure, sexless widow in All that Heaven Allows (1955), and offered one of the finest and most heartbreaking exposés of American racial bigotry in Imitation of Life (1959). It’s evident Haynes looked at these two films admiringly, but perhaps thought that with close to 50 years’ perspective, he could take on their mantle and further their politicking.
With Far from Heaven, Haynes also undertook a meta-cinematic quest to challenge his audience’s film-watching sensibilities. After decades of technological advancement, more melodramatic forms of representation gave way to a prevailing mode of naturalism. Haynes was therefore daring his audience to dip back into an old genre, and to be able to perceive the sincerity, emotion and importance within an unfamiliar grammar. As Peter Bradshaw’s Venice anecdote testified, the Far from Heaven experiment hoodwinked many, but the sheer skill and intelligence of Haynes’ craft affected enough cinema-goers, culminating in the esteemed reputation the film has today.
Haynes’ first important decision was to set Far from Heaven in 1957. Now, it might seem an arbitrary decision for an exposé of the ethos of Eisenhower’s America. There was however a big difference between the early ‘50s and the late ‘50s. As Laura Mulvey noted in her review of Far from Heaven in the March 2003 edition of Sight and Sound, “by the year 1957, McCarthyism was in retreat, suburbia was no longer a novelty and commodity culture was a way of life.” Haynes was thus much more interested in functioning as a time-traveller, tugging away at the frayed edges of this crumbling ‘50s cocoon. This stands in direct contrast to the coincidental release of another Julianne Moore-featuring paean to female self-determination set against the backdrop of ‘50s suburbia: Stephen Daldry’s The Hours. Moore’s section of that film’s narrative is set in 1951, and the focus is much more on her character’s dissatisfaction with her environment being a grotesque patriarchal creation borne out of the traumas of the Second World War. Moore’s character perceives it as a false idyll that seeks to domesticate and repress women like her, leading to her attempts at liberation that have a far-reaching impact on the present-day strand of the The Hours’ narrative.
Most notable about Haynes’ playing with All That Heaven Allows’ ingredients of a middle-class woman conducting an affair with a lowly gardener, is that Far from Heaven’s middle-class woman has an affair with a black gardener. Not only that, but she isn’t widowed, merely entrapped in an unhappy marriage to a man who is struggling to come to terms with the fact that he is gay (something Sirk could never have alluded to in the ‘50s). The absolute genius of Haynes’ politicking on these issues of gender, sexuality and race is that he doesn’t blanket them under a revisionist ideal, but he dexterously probes away at the hypocrisies and the relative pecking order in this ‘50s hierarchy. Julianne Moore’s Cathy, though our nominal heroine, commits one of the most cutting acts of fecklessness when she condescends to impress her black gardener, Raymond (Dennis Haysbert), by announcing her support of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), yet when they come to petition at her door, she is too busy running a domestic errand so hands the form to her black maid, of all people, to fill out. This is a brilliant echo of the scene in Sirk’s Imitation of Life where Lana Turner’s Lora inadvertently patronises her black maid, Annie (Juanita Moore), by being surprised that she has a social life outside of her servitude. What Haynes and Sirk are able to do in these sly critiques is articulate the radical assertion that their female protagonists, though victims in their given domestic crises, are still complicit in the wider societal prejudices of the time.
Haynes’ use of Cathy’s husband, Frank (Dennis Quaid), struggling with his sexuality, is equally distanced and ironic. It’s ironic not only in the way that the audience is invited to be appalled at the primitive form of “correctional” homophobia he encounters, but as it challenges us to reflect on whether, as a contemporary society, we really have moved on, or whether homophobia still exists but in a different guise. Frank’s juxtaposition to Raymond is also a crucial part of Haynes’ reflexive politicking. Although presenting both characters’ struggles with sincerity and pathos, Haynes is quick to point out that Frank is absolutely furious when he finds Cathy has been associating socially with Raymond. This is another of Haynes’ ironic constructs, where we can perceive that Frank’s class and racial status doesn’t fully afford him the capacity of empathy for other victims of American prejudice.
Far from Heaven’s other great success of cinematic reimagination is in its stylistics. Sirk’s social critiques were all about artifice – about a style that refuses to pass beyond the surface. This is demonstrated best in Sirk’s most opulent film, Imitation of Life, where the very title gives a clue to the delusional state that the characters live in. The great West German filmmaker, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who made his own Sirkian homage with Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), wrote that “none of the protagonists come to see that everything, thoughts, desires, dreams arise directly from social reality or are manipulated by it.” Coincidentally, this essay came from another Laura Mulvey edited book entitled Six Films by Douglas Sirk.
Haynes decided to use expressionistic lighting to heighten the turmoil in Cathy’s life as her world collapses around her. Using much harder light than in contemporary films, Haynes manufactured a subversive haze of blue by employing strong Big-Eye, 10K, Fresnet lights through curtained windows that provides such a sensual backdrop to Cathy’s internal dilemma. Hayne’s cinematographer, Ed Lachman, also shot the film on a much wider lens to create a paradoxical sense of claustrophobia in scenes by making everything more visible. This seeming contradiction was addressed by Haynes in an interview for the March 2003 edition of Sight and Sound: “When we think about distance we think about the cutting off of emotion, and it’s not that. It’s a distance that brings with it a greater emotional reservoir of feeling.”
It’s that emotional reservoir of feeling that Haynes seems to be challenging his audience to find amid his cacophony of postmodern, anachronistic devices; a rebuke to contemporary cinema’s assumption that realism equates truth. As Haynes said himself after a negative test screening of Far from Heaven:
“This film does exactly the opposite of what audiences want today. They want something that on the outside seems real and authentic – even though we know these codes of realism change historically, so that when we look back at films that were supposed to be realistic, they look, oh my God, so fake – but where people act heroically. They want a heroic ending….They don’t want to see people who act like us, who are fearful and feeble and limited and can only take tiny steps toward their desires.”