Anita — "Where post meets pre"

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Where post meets pre: Haynes does Sirk, cinematically, Far from Heaven
by Anita Di Bianco
That film-makers are so often forgiven for self-indulgence is no mystery ­ the detectable delight a director takes in stretching conventions may be one of the few common ingredients of great directing. In fact, the most successful of such exercises become indelible historical markers, conceptual exercises springing from obsessive creative mania. Hitchcock¹s almost continuous shot without a single cut in Rope is but one gleeful example. At the less generous end of the spectrum are films which flaunt a director¹s access to resources, taking the familiar forms of extraneous camera effects, gratuitous period settings, and expensive but lazily directed star-talent.
It is in this terrain that we stumble across Todd Haynes¹ 2002 Far From Heaven, almost fifty years after Douglas Sirk¹ 1956 All That Heaven Allows. As should be the criteria for any contemporary film-maker¹s copy of a classic studio film: how does hanging a new film on the skeleton of the old give voice to current cultural concerns? Is the use of a familiar stylistic framework a structural device proven necessary by an agile and elegant integration of aesthetic and narrative effects? In other words, does the form of re-make ultimately succeed in transcending and transforming the absolute stability of the original within postwar suburban American? After all, Sirk¹s All That Heaven Allows has been revisited by no less formidable talent than Rainer Werner Fassbinder, in his 1974 Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, which transferred the difficulty of cross class/race romance into a 1970s version ­ a German-born floor-washer with a younger Moroccan immigrant. Holding Sirk¹s mirror up to his own country suggests Fassbinder¹s willingness to reflect and acknowledge the limitations of his own nationality and social position.
Whatever teetering demarcation may have ever existed between 1950s stylized Hollywood melodrama and shameless directorial self-indulgence is inevitably mirrored in the less than gracious overstepping of the bounds of the cinematic re-make. Fortunately, directors who opt for the identical shot-for-shot approach are not guaranteed an easy success. That cultural production at every historical moment is a conglomerate of previous shifts and creations is old news; the prime arguments about the cinematic re-make do not concern authenticity or authorship. Even if we embrace a model of lateral exchange rather than that of predatorial usurper and hapless victim, there remain questions of cultural use value and ethics of engagement. In fairness to Sirk¹s studio-pleasing melodramas, after facing severe political restrictions in Nazi Germany, his anonymous arrival in Hollywood in 1937 forced a shift from his previous style. There is no comparably mitigating factor in the rise of Haynes to the Big Budget. Traditional political controls of mainstream culture have been slowly but surely rendered unnecessary; money-chasing self-censorship and corporate consolidation now produce startlingly similar effects.
From the very first laborious pan through garishly technicolored autumn leaves down a street lined with perfectly-styled autos, Haynes¹ Far from Heaven underwhelms over-aesthetically ­ forming some kind senseless beating by vintage cars and retro-synched home furnishings. Like a spoiled child whining for the same toy until the parents¹ desperate surrender, Haynes cloyingly reminds us of his shameless debt to Sirk. Can we, the people, agree with the legitimacy or rightful cultural claim made by Haynes to Sirk¹s oft-quoted classic as more than an unctuous film-industry demonstration of riches and the effortless appeal of 50s nostalgia to the American people at a time when we stand on the brink of war, when domestic and foreign policies, as well as electoral issues of the populus seem divorced even from the popular will? Simply put, does Haynes hold up a mirror from his own position coordinates and attempt to give us a timely and engaged reflection, as he did in his outlawed 1984 bulimic barbie-doll animation, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story? Superficially, of course, the kind of hopeless consumerism and suburban isolation of Far from Heaven, as in Safe and Poison, are Haynes¹ signature vehicles.
But back to the present: Far from Heaven: Hartford, Connecticutt, 1950s: dowdiness and suburban housewifeliness of Wife (Julianne Moore) make her unattractive (the old which-came-first ploy) to 50s man¹s man Husband (Dennis Quaid). Which may or may be intended to account for his alleged homosexuality ­ evidenced by his sustained affair with another White Man Ad Exec At the Office After Hours. Which may or may not be intended to account for emotionally and sexually Unsatisfied Neurotic Suburban Wife¹s attraction to and courtship by the less macho, Gentle Negro Gardener (remember, it¹s supposed to be the 50s, so the Characters In The Film can say Negro, and ha! tricky! we can¹t complain!). Film drags us slowly but without even redemptive pain through Husband¹s pre-historic attempts to cure his homosexuality through therapy, alcohol, and that classic antidote for maladapted male sexuality, physical violence against his wife. Predictably, marriage, gay and cross-race/class romances, and suburban family are all similarly doomed, victims of the usual social-plot conventions.
In any case, the film does not take off. It does not distract us with the overblown yet coherent conventions of say, Sirk. To direct actors to adopt and perform convincingly in a style that is almost half a century outdated is a tricky, delicate business. What it does do is far more insidious even than its aesthetic pretensions, stylistic heavy-handedness, and retrograde politics. Anyone who was not immediately suspicious of Haynes¹ motivations upon encountering the very plumped-up and saccharin-pouty Moore presiding even more unceremoniously, and even less gracefully over her household than does Wyman in Sirk¹s All That Heaven Allows, should have been at least puzzled by the tedious disharmony of this ostentatious kitchfest. One waits for the cheap cynicism to distract from this 1950s QVC demonstration, for perfect 50s home furnishing, as well as frumpy after frumpy outfit contemptibly upholstering Wife, to finish their assault and fade into the background.
Okay, you can think, numbed by sweeping camera movement after lazy tracking camera movement through this boring suburban nightmare, okay, so Haynes is making us suffer and cringe, because we viewers are supposed to be as bored and uncomfortable as the protagonists. Cinematic dog years after American Beauty, Magnolia, Happiness, this is not the unsettling pretense it might once have been. One could go so far as to say that in the post Enron, Worldcom, Patriot Act, Homeland Security detention of hundreds over a year after 9/11 landscape, the American suburban upper middle class uncommunicative angst of the 90s no longer has that same movie zing. Our outrage at the discrimination against bourgeois sexual restlessness and our pity for desperation of the unfulfilled white (gay or not) male corporate exec has been severely tempered by his willingness to join the ruling party, upstaged by his leveling contribution to that fast trickle-down of neo-liberal economics.
If Haynes has set out to do the only thing the film actually does ­ to make a rather flaccid case for the implicit racism and heterosexism of 1950s American suburban life, a viewing of Sirk¹s film (or countless others) would have sufficed. If he intends to underline the futility of all actions of his characters (an American movie style far preceding its recent apex in Short Cuts), dooming Wife to as impossible a romance with a Negro, this itself only a cinematic lateral move, since Sirk’s Jane Wyman¹s class-betraying love for Rock Hudson is constrained in the same set of social conventions, and is expressed in precisely the same manner. Sifting through such banal self-referential motivations, one trips over the unfortunate possibility that Haynes is cracking a Rock Hudson/ Dennis Quaid gay joke; let¹s just hope that this is too tawdry and self-indulgent to discuss even briefly.
Trapped in this classic order-disguised-as-mess of Race and Sexuality intolerance, it is unclear whether this cross-race romance is intended to re-inscribe the insults to Wife¹s desperate white femininity within or outside the frame. Within the frame there is little evidence that the director is any more conscious of the connotations of his choices than are his characters. That one can levy such accusations speaks to the naive assumptions of privilege and gross sense of entitlement communicated by the director. But, oh, that¹s right, since Haynes claims to be working in the tradition of Sirk, the ultimate necessity of subjecting us to such tiresome pop-culture-war-weary, pre-civil rights pre-feminist pre-gay drivel cannot be called into question, because, That¹s How Life Was Back Then. Consciously placing this hackneyed or ingenuous a story into the Unenlightened With Regard to Race and Sexuality Postwar U.S. would seem to allow Haynes to move through oversimplified tropes of racial and gender stereotyping unfettered, with only a few self-satisfied snickers among the post-queer urbane city-dwellers on the giving and receiving ends of this production. But why he would want such a freedom, as a director and/or as a person? And what exactly does he think he has done with it, and for whom?
That the meat and potatoes of the Hollywood studio system has been glamorous and unfulfilled wives, widows, actresses is obvious. That this has been taken up by gay male and drag queen culture has achieved its own quasi-inevitability and historicity. That there is a concrete feminist/anti-racist argument to be made against this film is just as glaring, but that this is an interesting and viable subject in 2002 for film or debate is something else entirely. Who wants to be in the increasingly unpopular camp which comments on such passe and sticky, if ever-accurate and necessary, topics as anti-feminist representations by resource-laden Gay White Men? Oh, that¹s right, it¹s Wife¹s class privilege as a suburban stay-at-home mom with a Kind Concerned Competent Black Maid which exonerates Haynes from any responsibility to her as a self-actualizing character, and makes her such an easy and indefensible target. The film drips with almost equalizing contempt for all of its characters, a quality which is rarely, if ever, employed in a successful film. Far from Heaven¹s narrative is even less subtle than the one handed to Sirk, itself a rather artless portrayal of the socialized proclivity of the upper-middle-class American Housewife to subordinate her own desires to the perceived and actual demands of her family and social milieu. And the suppression of female desire, especially that of the whiny home-bound white class-privileged female is as implicitly an un-level arguing field as it ever was.
Many of these film crimes might be forgiven, as they often are; were we seduced even cheaply, even just a bit, we might indulge Haynes a fraction of the amount he has indulged himself. After two poorly-paced hours, the husband/wife Strife/Gap of Misunderstanding and wife/gardener Romance fail to incite the least bit of interest or conflict in either the characters or the audience. Hanging in the cinema (despite countless rave reviews, in this calculated pre-academy award frenzy) is the distinct sense that the frustration of the audience is only mirroring that of the cast. All present seem to be waiting to find out what might redeem all this cheap cardboard sentimentalism ­ and wondering what Haynes is offering that we would not have absorbed from watching a real 1950s go-nowhere drama with wooden characters and a childish script.
As educated urban-chic non-normatively-heterosexualized viewers is it presumed that we are so unthinkingly generous, or somehow so desperate, as to trust Haynes as one of us – to make the jump with him that it is witty and clever to once again dismiss these pathetic subjects for our own self-congratulatory escape fantasies? The biggest surprise of this film is that it ends without delivering that or any other justification, relief, or punishment for itself, and that we are meant to slouch to the cinema and swallow this Supersized McMovie we have been grudgingly handed over the greasy counter. If such contempt is the proposed vehicle for making us post-queer cultural-studies-savvy non-reproducing downtown types more satisfied with ourselves, then our predicament might be just as bad as the medicine Dr. Haynes is prescribing.