5 min

Weirdly radical melodrama

Todd Haynes is Far From Heaven

Credit: Chris Mueller

It’s on everyone’s lips, so let’s just get it down on paper: Todd Haynes is the most important American filmmaker working today. Since he hit the scene in 1988 with Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story – a film acted entirely by Barbie dolls and facsimiles thereof – he simply hasn’t put a foot wrong. Each of his films since – Poison in ’91, Safe in ’95, Velvet Goldmine in ’98 and this year’s Far From Heaven – have been critically acclaimed and his work remains the focus of much discussion when it comes to gay cinema.

Poison established Haynes as a force in what came to be known as the New Queer Cinema and was celebrated for the power of its formal political stance. Poison, says Haynes, is a “proclamation of transgressive positions that reverse the power systems of dominant culture,” a tactic that allows the film to identify the radical power potential available to subcultures.

But Haynes doesn’t see the term New Queer Cinema being pertinent at the moment, primarily because there is little work these days that tries to present information with challenging formal structures – it’s all old bottles and new wine.

“The moment that the phrase [New Queer Cinema] was coined had so much to do with political galvanizing around AIDS; the artwork that came out of that time was fuelled with a very unique necessity. I was very happy to be part of that, because the work itself was formally challenging and diverse. So that was something I felt really proud of and I haven’t felt that in a long time. It’s sad, because I think when the form starts to resemble the dominant culture in every way and it’s just the content that gets changed, that qualifies as the culture winning out, not the subculture.”

With Far From Heaven, Haynes reaches back to “that style of filmmaking that is long outmoded, that we roll our eyes at:” the ’50s melodrama. In it, a striving-for-perfect housewife (Julianne Moore) finds her American dream crumbling as her husband (Dennis Quaid) comes out and she falls in love with her black gardener (Dennis Haysbert) – absolutely verboten in ’50s Connecticut.

Why melodrama? “Because it’s so weirdly radical. It’s absolutely a product of dominant culture [that has] almost accidental threat value. Its focus is incredibly modest in a way – its dramatic potential is all within domestic settings and circumscribed by very rigid societies. The melodrama is about societies that are more like the worlds that we all live in, so they are really amazing and weirdly true to life, despite their hyperbolic, over-determined excesses and stylistic extremes. They really ring true in human nature.”

Where Haynes’ previous classic, Safe, was very much focussed on its protagonist’s psychological state, Far From Heaven deals with cultural and political concerns as well – how homosexuality is understood and processed and the all-too-customary troubled race relations in the US. Haynes expects Far From Heaven to be discussed in very different terms than Safe was, and is excited about likely conversations “specifically having to do with the ’50s melodramas and that particular stylistic tradition, and also about how far we have really come since the ’50s” vis à vis the queer and race issues.

Haynes wants us to connect emotionally with Far From Heaven, but recognizes the challenge of engaging a cynical, overly intellectual audience with what is considered by many a dead (even deadly) genre – “what is really a series of incredible alienation devices. The narrative tropes that are possible within this very specific universe are in some ways the ultimate clichés. The challenge was to revitalize them with some sense of emotional pertinence and connection. [Far From Heaven] just doesn’t function in any way that films do today, yet I think that it does succeed in drawing you in emotionally, so I’m very proud of that.”

Safe is often hailed as Haynes’ masterpiece – it remains to be seen whether the release of Far From Heaven will challenge that. The only one of his films to lack an overt gay storyline, it is a brilliant take on a woman’s exhausting struggle to discover her own identity – an identity erased by her slide into the prescribed comforts of American suburbia, that oft-mined hell of consumer culture.

Exquisitely understated by Moore (“an incredible person and just the most amazing artist, really,” Haynes gushes), Safe’s protagonist is Carol White, a pampered California homemaker whose greatest stress arises from the delivery of a couch of the wrong colour – until she develops a horrifying case of environmental sensitivity and finds it impossible to live her daily life. She goes off to Wrenwood, a safe resort in the desert – a kind of New Age haven where the resident guru teaches that one’s troubles start with oneself.

Cynics have had trouble identifying with Carol’s middle-class plight, but Haynes has only compassion for her. “What I wanted to show,” he says, “was this woman desperately trying to learn to fit into this new, circumscribed society that seems to be offering an opening for her in ways that other societies or social circles did not.” Carol is stripped of any sense of her own needs and instincts and is desperately in want of some kind of affirmation of her identity; instead of receiving guidance from which she might gain self-acceptance, however, she is led to give up on accepting “her own weirdness and her lack of fitting in,” and indeed to blame herself for it.

“Those are things that you give up,” says Haynes, in a world where “proclaimed culpability is the entrée into most social systems. Carol felt the results of not fitting in, but they were removed from any sort of cognitive, intellectual or psychological understanding. I wanted to demonstrate that sad surrender that I think we all make to join any group.” This idea certainly seems to apply to today’s gay culture, what with its “codification of a certain identity that we perfect and aspire to. There are things that you give up along the way, ways that you wouldn’t fit in, things that you do away with to ‘get in there.’

“I wish I felt that there were more examples of proclaimed transgressive positions in today’s homosexual circle, because I don’t see that as much.” Hardly surprising, given the current glut of unchallenging gay movies and TV shows and characters and comedians. The way our (liberal, North American) society has tried to open up its arms to gay people has, perhaps, been welcomed too easily by those gay people, says Haynes; there is “a lack of critical distance that might call into question what the rewards really are and where it takes us and what we’re giving up in the process. I find myself more and more alienated from that aspect of contemporary gay culture.”

One might think that Haynes’s work does fit into the all camp all the time aspect of gay culture – what with Superstar’s Barbie dolls, Velvet Goldmine’s look at glam rock and Far From Heaven’s take on the “women’s films” of Eisenhower-era America. But, says Haynes, “All my movies are utterly un-ironic, and ultimately un-camp, despite a lot of camp pleasure that one might find. I think that’s always been my approach, because I generally care about the subjects of my films and the characters within them. And I don’t think I’m that campy a guy, ultimately.

“I’m proud of all my films. They’re things that I care greatly about and they’re all films that were made exactly the way I wanted them to be – and that in and of itself is really hard to say these days. I’ve had so much support and protection so in many ways I feel lucky. I’ve worked hard, but I feel good about the stuff I’ve done so far.”

Far From Heaven screens in a gala presentation at Roy Thomson Hall, 80 Simcoe St, on Sun, Sep 8 at 9:30pm. Tickets are $24.50 in advance. It also screens Mon, Sep 9 at the Uptown, 764 Yonge St, at noon. Tickets are $13.75 in advance. Same day tickets can be purchased at the theatres. The festival box office is in the Eaton Centre. Call 968-3456 or visit