Get Out Your Handkerchiefs

Todd Haynes postmodern tearjerker

Todd Haynes is reeling from a weekend at the mercy of 60 junketeering journalists with but one question on their minds: Why melodrama now? On the face of things, it's not a dumb question. Far From Heaven, which stars Julianne Moore as an upper-middle-class housewife who falls in love with her gardener, is a re-imagining of Douglas Sirk's 1955 film All That Heaven Allows, with tributary nods to Sirk's 1959 race drama Imitation of Life and Max Ophüls' 1949 The Reckless Moment (which was remade last year as The Deep End). Haynes' movie, a sumptuously autumnal tale of grand passion brewed in a suffocating climate of repression and desire, is also an unabashedly loving, slyly subversive homage to the maternal melodramas of that era. But from a marketing standpoint, a women's weepie without Julia Roberts in the lead—one about a self-sacrificing homemaker, to boot—doesn't bode for sexy box office in the here and now. Yet Far From Heaven is Haynes' most accessible movie to date. It looks like a classic Hollywood movie; it was made for $12 million, a princely budget for a director who cast his first film (Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story) with Barbie dolls; and it's executive-produced by three heavy hitters (Steven Soderbergh, George Clooney and John Wells).

Nonetheless, the film is less a departure for Haynes than an integral part of his ongoing, intensely politicized project, which is to seize on a cultural moment and read it back to us on its own terms, but with a stylistic edge that nudges us to learn from the past. Far From Heaven is set in the 1950s, a decade we've learned to remember at best with knowing amusement, at worst with outright contempt for its guileless complacency. But that isn't Haynes' game at all. Dizzy with Sirkian passion, Far From Heaven stars Julianne Moore (who also played the environmentally challenged homemaker in Haynes' movie Safe and, on the strength of this new movie, looks set to be his muse) as Cathy Whitaker, a pillar of Hartford, Connecticut, whose comfortable life is shattered when she happens upon her sales-executive husband, Frank (Dennis Quaid), in the arms of a male hustler. Struggling to hold together a marriage held by all of Hartford society to be a match made in heaven ("Mr. and Mrs. Magnatech!" the local society-page headlines gush), Cathy, in turn, grows more and more attracted to their gardener, a man whose serene self-possession stands in painful contrast to her own churning agitation.

Though set in the '50s, Far From Heaven is intended for an audience schooled in the deconstruction of that coercively monolithic decade. Thus Frank, wonderfully played by the hypermasculine Quaid, is a closeted homosexual, drunk on alcohol and his own bile, while the gardener, Raymond, who's played by Dennis Haysbert with a faintly amused impassivity worthy of Morgan Freeman, is a "Negro." The opprobrium Cathy and Raymond suffer merely as a result of being seen together in public rains down from both the black and white communities—only Cathy's maid, Sybil (Viola Davis), who straddles both worlds, has an unclouded view of the relationship and of what's to come. If that makes Far From Heaven a movie for our times, when divisions of race and sexual identity are openly debated (though, Haynes implies, scarcely more resolved), it's also a pointed commentary on what lay hidden beneath the surface of the breezy consensus that threatened to smother the '50s, in life and in the movies.

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Far From Heaven, says Todd Haynes, grew out of a period of crisis in his own life. He had lived in New York for 15 years, and the last two were not happy. There were "disappointments and shit." He doesn't specify whether this was personal or professional, except to say that making Safe while caring for a sick boyfriend was hard and that Velvet Goldmine, which got mixed notices from critics and did poorly in theaters, was even harder. "Also, in general, I'm just not totally built to be a director," says Haynes, "in the kind of total arrogance of it. I can get into the details, but the way you have to exert that control and assume that everybody's time and energy should be beholden to your needs . . ." There's vulnerability in Haynes' china-blue eyes, and a kind of delicate dreaminess—you can imagine this openly gay man identifying more with his beleaguered heroine than with her husband, who finally dumps her for a young Adonis in a Miami hotel. In the plush Old World elegance of the Chateau Marmont lounge, dotted with Armani-clad deal-makers, the slightly built Haynes, dressed in jeans and a checked shirt open over a T-shirt, looks like the relaxed Pacific Northwesterner he has recently become.

Disillusioned by life in New York, which he felt had grown too cleaned-up and professional, and with his mood unelevated by reading "all of Proust" during his year off, the director got into his car in early 2000 and drove almost without stopping to Portland, Oregon, where his sister had found him a lovely Victorian house to occupy for a few months. "It was this strangely dry winter and spring in Portland—it just rained flower petals for four months. It was very Sirkian, very lush," he says. Almost immediately, Haynes hooked up with locals artists and went out clubbing in the Portland underground music scene—something he'd never done in New York. Meanwhile, he wrote the script for Far From Heaven in 10 days. "In a weird way," he says, "it was a commencement piece to my sadness, so it resulted more from something I was looking back at than from the new feeling of birth and revitalization I felt in Portland. But the script poured out of me. Which of course made me completely mistrust it. I thought, 'This must be crap.'"

No doubt there are hipsters out there who will agree. We live in compulsively ironic times, when melodrama is derided, as Haynes readily admits, as a naive and dated form. "This is probably the most degraded form of narrative experience that you can pick for a contemporary audience," the writer/director says cheerfully. So all right—why melodrama now? But then, why not, if you see melodrama not as a genre but as an essential element of cinema, that great big drama queen that gives us back our lives, only plump with significance? When I was growing up in London, my mother and I pigged out on women's films, which we saw week after week on late-night television. (My mom, a lifelong career woman and nobody's victim on any front, lapped up the maternal self-sacrifice movies, which may augur well for the female audience's response to Far From Heaven.) Haynes doesn't recall seeing such films on the small screen. He describes himself, growing up in Encino in the '60s, as an art snob who hung out at LA's then-vibrant revival houses—the Nuart, the Lorena in Sherman Oaks and the Fox Venice (now a mini-mall)—sucking up Bergman. It wasn't until the 1970s, in the refined ether of the semiotics program at Brown University, where he met his longtime producer, Christine Vachon, that Haynes was exposed to the classic Hollywood film. From there, he carried melodramas around in his head, and in one way or another, they've informed all his feature films, from the Genet-inspired AIDS allegory Poison (1991) to Safe (1995), about a housewife who's allergic to the 20th century, to his brassy 1998 homage to glam rock, Velvet Goldmine.

If Encino alerted Haynes to the plight of the suburban mother (see Safe) and the '60s prepared him to become an activist, Brown turned him into an intellectual. (Still, Haynes' sentences pile up so many San Fernando "likes" and "totallys" that he sounds, adorably, like a Valley Girl channeling Roland Barthes.) In all his films, there's an ongoing conversation about the limits of representation and the dialogue between reality and artifice—which, in part, is what turns him on about Sirk. In his work, Sirk was far too passionate to be the ironist that revisionist film theorists now insist he was—and Haynes knows this. Still, the over-the-top staginess of Sirk's movies dares you to look beneath the surface composure, to move from Technicolor exteriors to noir interiors, to read between the lines and query the happy ending. This, too, is the source of Haynes' creative double vision. As in All That Heaven Allows, the exterior scenes in Far From Heaven (all shot in New Jersey) are a riot of autumnal colors, the interiors shrouded in shadow. "The amazing thing about autumn is just how artificial it looks," says Haynes. "But it's a natural phenomenon, the point where nature exceeds verisimilitude. And those gaps are so much what this movie is trying to bridge. Those exterior scenes look more fake than anything we did on a set."

Similarly, Haynes' screenplay has Moore, Quaid and Haysbert delivering their lines in the stilted, declamatory style of the '50s—you can't help but look beyond it and complete the thought with your own ideas and emotions. "The challenge for the actors is that the text demands they commit to the language in a very direct way," says Haynes. "It's all on the surface in a way that we're not accustomed to in our naturalistic codes of acting, where there's an attempt to distress the words and the surface of the composition, and that's what we think is real, those are the codes of reality." Melodrama's formalism, says Haynes, makes it so much richer and more telling than the current embodiment of the women's film—the television movie, with its facile psychologizing and compulsory redemption. "There's something really interesting about the fact that melodramas are pre-psychological," he says, "which has to do with what they don't articulate at the end." Far From Heaven is fiercely unredemptive, both the movie and its title provide a revealingly pessimistic variation on All That Heaven Allows, with its tacked-on happy ending. "If it were a TV movie," Haynes observes, "it would have to have a scene where Julianne's character comes home and says to her maid, 'You know, I've lived my whole life depending on men. Now I know that you can't, and I've learned a great deal even though it's been hard.' In melodrama, the characters are strangely mute—they don't articulate what they learn or see. And all of a sudden, there's this space where music fills in, or color, or camera movement. And you fill in, too."

You really do. Far From Heaven is not a campy movie. True, it has its ironies, but though you can read it ironically if you wish, Haynes' triumph is that it also plays beautifully straight. Irony may be the modernist liberation, but it's also an emotional cage, and I suspect that many of us are aching to suspend disbelief for a change. For all its formalist ambitions, you can lose yourself in the swoony sadness of the mother's story, experience the deliciously weepy rush of the victim, and salivate over the film's luscious look—from the production design, with its wildly operatic reds and oranges, to the lavish, satiny dresses nipped at the waist and billowing out into great hoops (check out the fabulous Patricia Clarkson's monumental French twist), to Elmer Bernstein's swelling, plaintive score, to Moore declaiming her lines in letter-perfect mimicry of the breathy Brahmin cadences affected by the diva actresses of the period. For all that Far From Heaven may be a movie for gay men and film literati, Haynes is eager to know how 15-year-old girls and 60-year-old women—to say nothing of the rest of us—will respond. "This film could so easily not have been emotionally enveloping for all the obvious reasons and could have been considered just an interesting stylistic experiment in reference to another period that would have intrigued an intellectual crowd," he says. "But at the most basic level, I wanted to make a movie that made people cry."

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Far From Heaven won the audience award for Best Actress for Julianne Moore and the Outstanding Individual Contribution Award for cinematographer Ed Lachman at this year's Venice Film Festival. The movie has its flaws—politically, at least on the racial front, we've come further since the '50s than Haynes will concede. My daughter's preschool, admittedly in liberal Santa Monica, boasts a respectable quotient of multiracial (including black on white) families and a few gay-parented families, including a little girl who has two fathers. In public, at least, no one bats an eyelid. Haynes' tendency, thematically and ideologically speaking, to overstuff his movies may end up unjustly depriving him of Best Director awards. "I had said to myself, you don't have to put the whole universe into every movie you make," he says wryly. "And as it turned out, I put the whole universe into this." And will again. Haynes has bought himself a pretty Craftsman house in Portland, and when the junkets and the magazine interviews and all the public gabbing are over, there he will sit, working on his garden and on a new movie about Bob Dylan, to which the Great One has already given his blessing. It will have seven characters standing in for different aspects of Dylan at different points in his career, intercut with different historical moments in America. "And," Haynes adds, "it's about the history of the left."

That ought to about cover it.

FAR FROM HEAVEN WAS WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY TODD HAYNES; PRODUCED BY CHRISTINE VACHON; AND STARS JULIANNE MOORE, DENNIS QUAID AND DENNIS HAYSBERT. NOW PLAYING AT EDWARDS SOUTH COAST VILLAGE, SANTA ANA.

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