Both Sides Now: Todd Haynes Rewrites the History of American Cinema

safe

Todd Haynes: The Other Side of Dreams
November 18-29 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center

There is an argument to be made that the American Cinema is fundamentally one of genre and always has been. The Golden Age studios marketed films based on genre, and by the time the New Hollywood directors came along in the late 1960s, they were reconfiguring genre themes and conventions in surprising new ways. Most of these filmmakers—Martin Scorsese, Sam Peckinpah, Francis Ford Coppola, and others—were drawing on the masculine genres of westerns, gangster films and film noirs, and even Spielberg’s ventures into the less “credible” genres remained within those coded masculine. “Women’s pictures” were not ignored altogether, but even the startling successes—The Color Purple remains among Spielberg’s finest—were exceptions rather than norms.

Generally, though, genres initially seen as less serious or important receive the same nuanced revision only in the works of Todd Haynes, whose love for and reconfiguring of domestic melodramas position him as a necessary addendum to the work of the previous generation.

Safe (1995), Haynes’s second feature, was the first to showcase this trait and remains perhaps his greatest film in an oeuvre full of great films. The stylization of acting, color, and attention toward particular domestic issues, a la Douglas Sirk, is married with the entrapping mise-en-scene and patience that Chantal Akerman weaponized in Jeanne Dielman. That Jeanne Dielman influence, too, places Haynes at an opposite pole from his New Hollywood predecessors, who borrowed the French New Wave’s knowing cinephile winks. Nevertheless, through a unique set of means, Safe has the same “observational patience” Haynes has credited to the best of New Hollywood films. Plot point by plot point, and even more so, banal, gendered occasion by banal, gendered occasion (from interior decorating  to aerobics to a mother’s house gathering), the allegory expands and contradicts itself in surprising and illuminating ways.

While Safe uses a woman’s allergies to “the environment” (implied to be domesticity itself) to condemn systems far outside the reach of Sirk’s work (and slips in an AIDS allegory to boot), Far From Heaven (2002), a remake of the former’s All That Heaven Allows, showcases Haynes’s facility with genre even further. The kind of nod Haynes engages in here is not the nudge of Godard or De Palma, but rather an honest pastiche and one of the few films to truly replicate Sirk’s effects and apply them to new situations. Far From Heaven reconciles the race replications of Imitation of Life through the plot of All That Heaven Allows, and gives the protagonist a gay husband. Not only is Haynes’s use of color, his control of his actors, and his plotting a pitch-perfect replication—much of the film could genuinely be mistaken for one from the 1950s—but carefully timed breaks—a swear word here, an ironic comment here—allow Haynes to use irony to diagnose the social similarities between racial oppression and LGBT oppression without losing the pathos of either. Like Safe, Far from Heaven updates Golden Age Hollywood discourse with the same richness as Chinatown and Taxi Driver.

i'm not there

Haynes’s genre reinvention stretches beyond the domestic melodrama into genres less “feminine” but even more marginalized today, at least among those who might call themselves “hardcore cinephiles.” Namely, the “biopic,” often denigratingly called a “prestige picture,” is often seen as an overly formulaic, award-baiting genre that sucks everything of interest out of its subject, reducing a life to a highlight reel and providing clearly identifiable catalysts and reasons for fame, success, or whatever else. Somehow, Citizen Kane remains the best antidote almost 75 years after its release, as it depicts the failure to demystify. Velvet Goldmine (1998) applies Kane’s structure to an apt subject in the chameleonic David Bowie, but far more successful is Haynes’s next musical biopic, I’m Not There. If Citizen Kane ends with the statement that every account is merely a piece of a puzzle, fragments of a life that cannot be reconciled and “figured out,” Velvet Goldmine settles to repeat the message while I’m Not There starts from that assumption. It divides the life and career of Bob Dylan into numerous segments played by everyone from an African-American child to a woman so that echoes of one life sound absurd in another. I’m Not There’s replication of the day’s standard documentary style and newsreel footage recalls Kane’s “March of Time” pastiche, and the result is a film that begins with the assumption that the subject cannot be demystified and so rejects altogether everything from narrative to continuity in casting.

Despite his repeated returns to particular genres, however, Haynes is hard to put into a box. His 2011 TV remake of Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce, termed in different circles as camp, noir, and melodrama, personifies his multitudes. Accordingly, the FSLC’s retrospective, featuring Haynes’s films accompanied by works chosen by the director himself, promises to open up new and alternative ways of seeing his work. A potential rare chance to see Superstar (1987), another biopic about a musician, this one enacted by barbie dolls gradually worn away to replicate Karen Carpenter’s anorexia, is a chance to see the Haynes the ironic diagnostician negotiate with Haynes the creative chronicler of muscians’ lives. Poison (1991), a sci-fi horror film and something of an oddity in Haynes’s career, is paired with Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Fox And His Friends, an understandable Haynes favorite but one that may also help place Poison more completely. A screening of Russ Meyer’s Beyond The Valley of The Dolls, meanwhile, allows for a more proper reconciliation of Haynes’ fondness for camp and his more earnest tendencies. Film after film, Haynes finds fascinating new avenues only hinted at in his influences and strives for updates on queer representation that eluded even the deepest subtext of past masterworks. If genre really is the foundation of American Cinema, a fuller look at its myriad, intertwined workings in Haynes’s work promises to reveal him as perhaps the director grappling most ambitiously and successfully with what American Cinema, even American culture, is and can be.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. I think there’s a solecism in the last sentence. It should be “a fuller look…promises to reveal him” not “a fuller look…promise to reveal him.”

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