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Why this might not seem so easy
Todd Haynes is not afraid of feelings. All seven of his feature films (as well as the HBO mini-series and TV movie included here) move between two modes: loving appropriations of the ‘woman’s picture’ that utilise melodrama as a feminist form, and explorations of artists – mainly musicians – who push up against the confines of society. In both modes, he tells stories using the language of emotion.
Best known as a pioneer of the New Queer Cinema movement that emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Haynes foregrounds sexualities that are transgressive, deviant and disruptive. In doing so, he actively recentres the oft-repressed identities of those who sit on the outskirts of dominant culture.
Haynes’s films are literary, discursive and often deeply academic in their approach, drawing inspiration from writers and filmmakers like Jean Genet, Oscar Wilde, Douglas Sirk, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Chantal Akerman, to name but a few. This is not surprising given that he specialised in semiotics (the study of how meaning is produced through signs) at Brown University, where he made his first short film. Assassins: A Film Concerning Rimbaud (1985) revolves around the imagined personality of celebrated French poet and libertine Arthur Rimbaud and concerns itself with artifice, celebrity and queerness – themes he picks up and plays with in his later films.
The didactic nature of Haynes’s filmmaking – and the density of the filmic reference points he favours – might seem daunting for the less cine-literate. However, it’s important to note that while Haynes is explicitly interested in intertextuality, this is never at the expense of the emotion at the core of his films. If you wanted to frame your Haynesian odyssey, Sirk would be a good place to start (I suggest the 1955 film All That Heaven Allows, which directly inspired Far from Heaven), though it’s not necessary. There is reward in both the choice to contextualise Haynes’s filmography before getting stuck in, and the decision to use Haynes as an entry point into the wider canon of queer cinephilia.
The best place to start – Far from Heaven
Far from Heaven (2002) was Haynes’s breakout hit, winning him his first Oscar nomination, for best original screenplay. Set in small-town Connecticut circa 1957, against a backdrop of vivid autumnal colours and simmering racial tension, it tells the story of the unexpected romance that blooms between bored housewife Cathy (Julianne Moore) and her African-American gardener, Raymond (Dennis Haysbert). Complicating things further is Cathy’s closeted husband, Frank (Dennis Quaid).
With its gorgeous 50s costuming, rich technicolour palette and incandescent lighting, Haynes’s domestic melodrama models itself on Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, though the way it cross-examines the relative social statutes of this tangle of minorities recalls Fassbinder’s Fear Eats the Soul (1974) – another film in which a white woman’s attraction to a man of colour is mediated through the perspective of a gay filmmaker. In this sense, it is an excellent introduction to the way Haynes pays homage to classic films while also introducing contemporary political concerns.
What to watch next
If the 50s nostalgia offered by Far from Heaven appeals, then try following it up with the elegant Carol (2015), based on Patricia Highsmith’s bestselling novel The Price of Salt. Though both films are set in Eisenhower-era America, the reference points are slightly different – Sirkian Technicolor is swapped for muted, dusty tones inspired by photojournalists like Saul Leiter and Vivien Maier. A swooning story of passion and desire, told through stolen glances and the soft graze of a lover’s anxious hands, there’s a timeless quality to the romance that unfolds between Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese (Rooney Mara).
In keeping with the 50s theme, I’d suggest following Carol with the delightfully dark short film Dottie Gets Spanked (1993). Opining the idea that women might be the point of identification for homosexual men, it tells the story of a repressed young boy’s unhealthy obsession with sitcom star Dottie.
[Safe] (1995) is an altogether more modern affair. The timid Carol (Julianne Moore) becomes allergic to the outside world, and so seeks solace at a New Age retreat that encourages the afflicted to heal themselves through “self-love”. With its crisp framing and bleached aesthetic, the sci-fi parable has an air of Kubrickian austerity. This is tempered by Haynes’s airless long takes reminiscent of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), positioning the woman’s experience at its centre and winking at the gendered domestic drudgery that flattens the spirits of its heroines.
Where not to start
Though it may seem logical to begin chronologically with Haynes’s first feature, Poison (1991), the film is not widely available in the UK. His loose reworking of the stories of Jean Genet cuts between three distinct stories filmed in three distinct styles: ‘Hero’, a made-for-TV documentary about a young boy who killed his abusive father, ‘Horror’, a black-and-white B-movie that literalises fears about AIDs, and ‘Homo’, a two-man play set in a prison. It’s an absorbing, essential thesis on how homosexual identity has evolved throughout the 20th century, but perhaps an intimidating place to start.
On the other hand, starting with Mildred Pierce (2011), Haynes’s least obscure ‘film’ wouldn’t do either. The five-part adaption of James M. Cain’s novel stars Kate Winslet as a spirited but stifled single mother seeking economic and sexual liberation in the conservative climate of 1930s California. The series changes tack in its latter half, preoccupying itself with themes of sexual jealousy à la All about Eve (1950), and Mildred’s fraught relationship with her daughter Veda. It’s sexy but in many ways too slick, smoothing over the contours with HBO-approved gloss.
Haynes’s most sexually-charged outing is non-linear glam-rock epic Velvet Goldmine (1998), which playfully borrows its investigative, flashback-laden structure from Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941). It’s worth watching for the amazing sex scene soundtracked by fictional band Venus in Furs’ cover of Brian Eno’s ‘Baby’s on Fire’ alone, though its episodic construction requires patience. The Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There. (2007) also accesses its central character indirectly, using allusion to explore the differing facets of Dylan’s identity and the way the artist endures as myth. These two films eschew accessibility in favour of complexity; no bad thing, but they won’t be for everyone.
In an interview with Film Comment magazine Haynes himself suggests unacquainted viewers start with his debut, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1988), because “it deals with questions about narrative, the subject, and identity, together with a take on pop culture in a particular historical framework” and combines his concerns in “a tight, containable package.” At 46 minutes it is indeed “tight”, though Haynes’s earlier, more experimental work isn’t the easiest way into his filmography. A biopic about singer Karen Carpenter’s heartbreaking battles with fame and anorexia, Superstar is filmed entirely using plastic Barbie dolls in lieu of actors. Initially dismissed as camp, its tone is in fact entirely serious – the expressionless dolls making Karen’s mental and physical decline all the more tragic. The film was not well received by Karen’s brother Richard, and as a result has become difficult to get hold of legally. If you are able to track down a copy, it’s fascinating viewed in the context of Haynes’s later films.
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