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View Full Version : A narrow-minded hell far from heaven



John DeSando
11-25-2002, 07:58 PM
The 50's never looked so good or so insidious as in Todd Haynes' "Far from Heaven." Julienne Moore plays a stereotypically Women's-League do-good mother of 2, Cathy, whose life starts the deep descent into hell with the revelation that her husband, Frank (Dennis Quaid), is gay and she is attracted to her black gardener.

Although Moore won best actress at the Venice Film festival, the real winner was the cinematography (which also won an award). The colors are Technicolor bright, almost unreal and matching the dreamlike state of the 50's citizens. Everything is surface--no one dares go underneath. The set design matches the surface with meticulous care --each item, down to the cigarette lighter, is authentic 50's-- sharp-edged and uncomfortable. But under this 1957 faÁade rages the Castro fight against Batista and the Little Rock desegregation.

As uncomfortable as Frank is, equally so is the growing affection between Moore and her gardener (Dennis Haysbert). For them to be seen together is socially dangerous, for it leads to vicious rumors and community shunning. The art motif expresses the ageís ambivalences, especially when Frank and Cathy see Miroís ďThe Beautiful Bird Revealing the Unknown to a Pair of Lovers.Ē

Haysbert plays it way too nice, almost unbelievably so, and Haynes doesnít really know how to deal with the subtleties of racial and sexual hypocrisy the way his model by Douglas Sirk, ďAll that Heaven Allows,Ē did so melodramatically well (or ďImitation of LifeĒ or ďMagnificent ObsessionĒ).

Although Atom Egoyan's "Ararat" failed at the Toronto film festival to convince me that it was no more than a tract against murderous Turks, this message film about intolerance 50's style was a successful David-Lynch-like satire from the onset, pretending to be no more than a hyperbolic look at a narrow-minded hell far from heaven.

magik
11-29-2002, 04:46 AM
I saw this film as the surprise film (you don't know what you are seeing until it starts) of the London Film festival. Not being familiar with the films of Sirk, I can't compare or understand the references Hayes talked about in his q&a session after the film. I can only say that I came out of the cinema on a high after seeing a masterful piece of cinema. Read some of the other comments for plot points but I will say that is must be one of the best examples of acting I have seen in a long time. Julianne Moore especially was wonderful as the restrained/repressed cathy. Her performance had me instantly sympathising with her situation and pulled me into the unmamiliar and un naturalistic style of the piece.

The colours and cinematography were beautiful and evocative, the score was divine and the use of occasional violence shocking and well used. Not a happy ending, not a satisfying resolution, not what I would expect from an American film.

Haynes made an interesting comment at the end about what is happening in America at the moment making the fifties look like the sixties. fascinating!

Please see it!

Chris Knipp
12-02-2002, 04:26 PM
The sense of period is botched in Todd Haynes' new movie, and all verisimilitude is lost. True, "Far from Heaven" has period flavor: it fairly screams period, never letting you forget for five minutes that itís set in 1957. Not a single shot lacks some period indicator. But when a period is so overdone, it's badly done. In her superficially warm and unironic performance, which is so neutral as to lack any real emotional resonance, Julienne Moore never wears any outfit without those wide crinoline skirts Ė because that's what women wore in the Fifties, right? (Wrong. But teenage girls did). This is, frankly, a secondhand Fifties derived from film and TV (`Leave it to Beaver' and `Father Knows Best' come to mind). The family members sit at their little breakfast table as sitcom families do. In better off families (and `Mr. and Mrs. Magnatech,' in their kitsch way, are one of those) breakfast was served by the full time maid/cook at the dinner table.

In Todd Haynes' suburban Hartford, wives focus their time exclusively on the next big party or "do," and supporting the NAACP is a big, big stretch. Really? In Hartford, Connecticut? Everyone seems to be extraordinarily culturally impaired. Don't the Whitakers have any hobbies? Their daughter has ballet class, but their son has nothing to do but wonder why dad doesn't come home earlier. The constipated, clichť-ridden dialogue evokes stereotypes, but not real Fifties conversations. The Fifties were a lot more fun than this, and we know that. The characters in "Far from Heaven" inhabit a strange 1957 theme park in which they have nothing to do except act out their era's prejudices. Writer/director Haynes was born in 1961 and his sense of the period is second hand.

As the public presses have already made more than clear, some film buffs will love this movie, especially if they are familiar with the melodramas of Douglas Sirk and even more if they know that Fassbinder at times emulated Sirk. Interviews with the director are generously supplied in newspapers and magazines to inform those of us who are ignorant of these cinematic references. But one has to be suspicious of movies that require such explication to be fully enjoyed.

For that other group comprising persons who wouldn't have been caught dead going to Sirk's "Imitation of Life" or "All that Heaven Allows" or "Written on the Wind" but do happen to have been alive in the Fifties, "Far From Heaven" is an odd construct. It's too bad that contemporary American directors think this a period not to be approached without a travel guide, a costume consultant, and a complete file of every movie and TV show made in those years. If only they would lighten up a bit, it's not that hard a time to evoke.

The movie tells a grim story about a man with a great job and two kids who can't fight a reemerging homosexuality that wrecks his marriage, and an aggrieved wife who takes risky comfort from this upheaval in holding frank and increasingly intimate conversations with their black gardener. Mr. Whitaker (Dennis Quaid) implodes and explodes: one rarely sees an actor suffer so much. Since Quaid is known for macho roles, this is an interesting piece of casting. Julianne Moore as Mrs. W. never cracks. Her puffy curls aren't out of place, even when she's been boffed by her drunken, out of control spouse. Moore's performance isn't tongue-in-cheek, just utterly deadpan. Quaid is embarrasingly overwrought; Moore is like an animated Barbie doll.

The story takes us to some interesting places: a downtown movie gay cruising area, a members-only gay bar, a black restaurant that allows a white women in, but just barely. Why does the `Negro' gardener, Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert) tell her this black restaurant is `a very friendly place'? Because he's living, as she unconsciously is, with an idealistic fantasy. Not many of us who lived in those days had such fantasies. And not many of us who were white and middle class in 1957 went to such places as these, either.

However "Fifties" deco some houses of the Fifties were inside (though precious few were, if the families in them had lived in previous decades, or inherited furniture from their parents), the world outside in the real Fifties looked different from the streets in this movie where we see only people costumed like the Whitakers, driving perfectly restored versions of big bright colored circa 1957 American cars. In the real streets of the Fifties, there were old cars, black cars, beat-up cars. Older people wore clothes from the Forties, and poor people wore whatever they could get their hands on. Real life, at any time, is not a theme park. ( Is Haynes not interested in referencing reality? Then how can he be saying anything about our times, either?)

Haynes has chosen to talk about matters Sirk's Fifties movies couldn't deal with so explicitly, but in doing so he has created a story and a sequence of events as lurid and as far fetched as something by Samuel Fuller. Unlike Fuller, however, he has no dramatic conclusion to his scenario, no comeuppance for the characters other than Mr. and Mrs. Whitaker's impending divorce and Raymond Deagan's departure for Baltimore. This movie's world is as oppressive and claustrophobic as the world of Haynes' "Safe," but unlike "Safe," it's without any internal logic. The movie ends not with a bang but a whimper. If overwrought cinematography made a film, the lovingly photographed railway station farewell between Mrs. Whitaker and Deagan might be a satisfying ending. But it's only a Forties moment, to end a hyper-Fifties movie.

It's true that `Far From Heaven' has some emotionally involving scenes when the focus is on Frank Whitaker's torments over sexual identity and Cathy's shock at how her world is falling apart. But they, and their children, and their friends, and the too-sensitive, too-restrained gardener are all stereotypes, without any perceptible inner life. Let's hope that some of even the most cinematically sophisticated members of the audience will see through this false and manipulative piece of stylized filmmaking. There is no fun here, not one smile to be had. Let us not walk out congratulating ourselves for such an experience. This is turning out to be the most overrated film of the year.

pmw
12-02-2002, 06:19 PM
Chris and I have had this conversation a bit but to open it up to the forum...

Originally posted by Chris Knipp
This is, frankly, a secondhand Fifties derived from film and TV (`Leave it to Beaver' and `Father Knows Best' come to mind).

I think this is the point. It isnt supposed to be about the '50's; Haynes simply uses the way the '50's have been portrayed as an element in his artistic blender.



The constipated, clichĀEridden dialogue evokes stereotypes, but not real Fifties conversations...Writer/director Haynes was born in 1961 and his sense of the period is second hand.

Right, and consequently I dont think that he would try to make something that was 50's-accurate or even about the '50's. His depiction of the '50's is surely viewed by most audiences as an intended stereotype. And what makes that stereotype a good vehicle is that it amplifies societal rigidity which exists today and in the '50's.


But one has to be suspicious of movies that require such explication to be fully enjoyed.

This is where I would almost agree with you. Ive never felt like art needs to be 100% comprehensible on first viewing, but films with necessary predecessors can be confusing and often come off in strange ways.



Not many of us who lived in those days had such fantasies. And not many of us who were white and middle class in 1957 went to such places as these, either.

Another reason why I dont think Haynes would say that this is a movie about the '50s. There are just too many stereotypes (period, racial, and emotional) for me to think that Haynes is trying to pass this off as an accurate depiction of a period he didnt live in. What IS part of his life are the tv shows/melodramas which depict 50's life this way. So are the very real problems he superimposes on that.



It's true that `Far From Heaven' has some emotionally involving scenes when the focus is on Frank Whitaker's torments over sexual identity and Cathy's shock at how her world is falling apart. But they, and their children, and their friends, and the too-sensitive, too-restrained gardener are all stereotypes, without any perceptible inner life.

I think his is a shorter agenda than trying to depict a complete world. The issues ARE the movie and thats where the emotions come through. I think the gardener was playing a stereotypically restrained black man, Cathy was playing stereotypically vacant woman, and the husband was playing a stereotypically businessman/dad character. These are reflections of stereotypes that we all know. We all know them as stereotypes perhaps, but then why are they embraced on tv/screen? Perhaps because society itself is not so far from this as we'd like to think. Throw marital meltdown at the hands of homosexuality and inner-racial love on top of those stereotypes and you have some starkly visible issues.

So for me (and I think for Haynes):
Stereotypes are used to say "normal". And in this movie, uber-normal, which can easily be used to represent our society today (another post-topic perhaps).

Homosexuality and inner-racial relationships are his "issues"

"normal" + "issues" is his mix. And his message? That such problems DO exist even today, even when we'd like to think that we are much more progressive than the 50's stereotypes he rolls out for us. That to me is why he makes this movie today in 2002.
Not to talk about the '50s.

P

Chris Knipp
12-03-2002, 12:42 PM
You present a cogent argument and I will not attempt to refute it as a statement of what Haynes is trying to do. You obviously understand him better than I do. If I understand the Fifties better than you or he do, you probably understand his sensibility better. One thing I will say about the film which writing about it and our exchange have made clear to me is that ďFar from HeavenĒ leaves a vivid impression. Thereís no doubt about that. I have to say I hated it, and so he didnít leave me cold. But if your interpretation is correct, as it may well be, then Haynes has failed with a lot of the audience, because so many people think his picture of the Fifties is precise and accurate. He isnít telegraphing to the audience that this isnít really the Fifties: heís saying Fifties, Fifties, Fifties, and many people fall for it. I certainly got it that his picture of the Fifties was wrong, but I didnít get that it was intentionally wrong. Surely Haynes is also talking about the Fifties, even if he is talking about now primarily. And since what he says about the Fifties seems utterly wrong to anybody who looks closely and knows that period, while others think heís presenting the Fifties with loving precision, weíre all confused. And if his picture of the Fifties is intentionally narrow and schematic, as you say, how can we trust what he will say and think about the times we live in now not to be equally narrow and schematic and distorted?

pmw
12-04-2002, 08:18 PM
Originally posted by Chris Knipp
But if your interpretation is correct, as it may well be, then Haynes has failed with a lot of the audience, because so many people think his picture of the Fifties is precise and accurate. He isnít telegraphing to the audience that this isnít really the Fifties: heís saying Fifties, Fifties, Fifties, and many people fall for it.

Yeah, I think there is a lot of room for missing his point, whatever that may be. I wonder though if it is the job of the director to make his intentions entirely clear. It seems like we allow visual artists this liberty so why not filmmakers?



I certainly got it that his picture of the Fifties was wrong, but I didnít get that it was intentionally wrong. Surely Haynes is also talking about the Fifties, even if he is talking about now primarily.

Well, I dont think that its intentionally wrong. He is referencing a stereotype; so his depcition of that is right. The stereotype itself is wrong, but I dont think Haynes cares one way or the other. He samples an available stereotype which provides a good point of contrast. I think he would like the viewer to recognize the 50's depiction as the stereotype he references, but as you say, there is mixed opinion there.

I might just be way off base...

Enjoying this dialogue quite a bit and will be especially interested in your thoughts on the responsibilities of artists (whether filmmakers or visual artists or musicians) to make clear their intentions.

Peter

Chris Knipp
12-05-2002, 12:14 AM
A lot of people seem to think Haynes is the kind of director, here anyway, who has something very definite to say. You seem to be wavering between arguing that Haynes is saying something quite specific and arguing that heíll let us think anything we want.

Your idea of Haynesís intentionally using stereotypes sounds convincing; but whose stereotypes are they? You appear to be saying that falsified characters in a falsified world can teach us about our own world. To me that sounds a bit like saying two wrongs make a right.

I canít say what the responsibilities of artists are. I can only judge the responsibilities as I see them on a case-by-case basis. I can say, perhaps, that a visual artist or musician would like to be variously understood, but not misunderstood.

If youíre right about stereotypes and his intentions or the lack of them, Iíve misunderstood Haynes, or at least failed to understand him, and I left the theater feeling frustrated and annoyed.

A filmmaker doesnít have to do anything, but unlike many modern painters or musicians heís telling a story, and a movie needs to be understood in a way that a modern painting or a piece of music doesnít have to be. Some contemporary art comes with elaborate explanations and makes no sense without them. ďFar from HeavenĒ is looking more and more like that. And yet, with its wide distribution and well-known movie stars, this movie must be designed for a wide audience. Itís not a piece of conceptual art at Documenta, anyway.

oscar jubis
12-06-2002, 11:43 AM
I was moved to write these comments after reading the review by Chris Knipp, whose "best foreign list for 2002 so far" is eerily similar to mine.

FAR FROM HEAVEN clearly does not try to be verisimilar. It is about the overblown fantasies of Americans in the 50s and what these say about them. It is about Better Homes and Gardens not serious journalism. It is about keeping appearances because you are being watched and surveyed. It is about the value of hypocrisy and concealment in an oppressed society. It is about the female having to repress her forbidden desires while the male can realize them. Like pmw might say, the only frustration I felt was realizing how little has changed in 45 years. Still far from heaven.