Heaven Is In The Details
Far from naturalistic, Far From Heaven--director Todd Haynes's picture-perfect replica of Douglas Sirk's stylized social melodramas of the 1950s--is, at the very least, an imitation of an imitation of an imitation of life. Sitting with Haynes in a sterile suite at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills (which the filmmaker humanizes a bit by rolling a clump of dirty-looking tobacco in Drum paper and stinking up the joint), I must fight the urge as a fellow Sirk freak to ask whether he had access to some of the old artificer's real props. I'm dreaming of the periwinkle-blue sunglasses that Jane Wyman wore while acting blind in Magnificent Obsession. And the red-plaid mackinaw that made Rock Hudson's gardener appear the ripest fruit on the vine in All That Heaven Allows. With a mere 20 minutes before the next journalist is due to be ushered in (forget the swanky digs--this is an article-manufacturing plant), I venture instead to ask whether all the flamboyant fabrication runs the risk of being taken as silly in some quarters.
"Let me come at that sideways," says the maker of the subversive Safe, being true to form. "Do you know John Kelly, the performance artist? He's the guy who used to do Joni Mitchell impersonations at the end of Wigstock festivals in the summer; he'd sing 'Woodstock,' but change it to 'Wigstock.' And he developed this into an entire show where he did Joni Mitchell covers. He'd wear a wig, he'd sing in her voice, and he'd replicate her stage banter between songs, like, precisely. It became this huge hit--even Joni Mitchell went to see it. But the really amazing thing is that it was through this surrogate figure, this imitation, that we in the audience were allowed to access our own memories of Joni Mitchell: You'd laugh, and then instantly you were crying.
"If it was the real Joni Mitchell up there, you'd be thinking, 'Her voice doesn't sound the same. She looks older. Her hair is different. Why are her teeth like that? Is that her dress? How much money is she making? Is she happy now?' But with [Kelly], instead of being overwhelmed by the discrepancy between the real thing and your memories, your emotion gets unleashed through this process of mediation. In a weird way, I think that's what happens in movies. It's never the real thing up there on the screen; it's always fake. But when you're allowed to feel that intangible relationship--between you and the screen, that close interaction--that's when you really have something. Otherwise it's just a trick on the wall."
To paraphrase another pop chanteuse: Haynes fakes it so real, he is beyond fake. Which is what the former semiotics major at Brown University (don't hold that against him) has done throughout his filmmaking career. Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987) is a biopic performed by Barbie dolls, the better to lament the tragic plasticity of both '70s pop and the female beauty myth. Poison (1991) infects a trio of variously artificial genres, including the B horror movie, forging our identification with a rather queer set of outcast protagonists. And Velvet Goldmine (1998)--more meta-faux than metaphor--forgoes high fidelity to the topic of glam-rock by inviting such flaming creatures as Orson Welles and Oscar Wilde to join the party.
Among Haynes's films, Far From Heaven most strongly resembles Superstar and Safe (1995). Like these, it's an exercise in eliciting our sympathy for a dangerously thin character--an exercise that depends on our seeing her slim chance of personal growth as symptomatic of a larger disease. Haynes says he discovered the limits of the viewer's tolerance for human weakness while being forced to endure the studio's standard checkup for good health at the box office: the test screening.
"I realized during the [viewer survey] process that what [Far From Heaven] does is exactly the opposite of what the audience expects nowadays. What viewers seem to want is something that looks very real on the surface, but which is ultimately about people who heroically overcome their problems in the end. The studio put together these focus groups, and in one of them, somebody said, 'Why doesn't [the heroine] throw a brick at her husband when she finds him kissing the guy?' They want exemplary people acting heroic in natural settings. And these movies [Sirk's and Far From Heaven] are the opposite: They look completely synthetic and artificial on the outside, but they're about people who are way too much like ourselves-- people who are really fragile, who buckle under pressure, who give in to the mandates of society."
I offer that perhaps it's precisely this uncomfortable recognition of frailty that ultimately causes viewers to reach for their handkerchiefs. After all, I say, people who've seen Far From Heaven have been known to weep.
"People?" asks the director. "You mean, you didn't?"
"Well, yes," the critic confesses. "I did cry at the end."
"Okay. Good," says Haynes with a laugh. "I just wanted to check."
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