7:11 am May. 12, 2012
This Sunday, the Museum of the Moving Image will screen all five installments of Todd Haynes' recent adaptation of James Cain's Mildred Pierce.
Haynes's stunning adaptation originally aired on HBO in late March and mid-April of last year. It clocks in at a little less than six hours long. The Museum's screening is part of their "Fashion in Film Festival: If Looks Could Kill" series. But this isn't the first time they've screened all of Haynes's adaptation on a big screen. (They previewed the mini-series last year before it aired on HBO.)
Watching the new Mildred Pierce, which screens after Michael Curtiz's 1945 adaptation, all in one sitting is not unlike watching the longest installment in Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle. As with Wagner's operas, there's an intermission (Wagner's operas mercifully require an average of two intermissions per opera), and it's a bit of an endurance test. But the work is so assured and consistently stirring that it will reward viewers who stick with it with a feeling of euphoria.
There are some dry patches in Haynes' epic adaptation, which become that much more irritating when you watch the whole thing in one sitting. But it's worth it to watch Cain's characters evolve in Haynes's fully realized vision of Depression-era America. Haynes strikes an extraordinary balance of melodramatic pathos and savvy capitalist critique.
The end-to-end viewing brings home the breadth and scope of Haynes' Mildred Pierce. He and his co-writers fully develop Pierce's (Kate Winslet) character-defining relationship with her manipulative daughter Veda (Evan Rachel Wood). Curtiz's excellent original adaptation simply doesn't have as much time to unpack this complicated mother-daughter relationship, and its portrayal of the series of double-crosses that Veda perpetrates is necessarily shrill and less nuanced.
Haynes and co. really establish Veda and Mildred's relationship as the heart of Mildred's story, even when Mildred herself is busy looking for steady work in Part One or falling in and out of love with socialite Monty Beragon (an accomplished performance by Guy Pearce) in Part Two. The narrative centers on Mildred's growing understanding of how to get ahead in life (by hard work and innovation) and on how that contrasts saliently with her daughter's worldview (getting ahead requires talent and the exploitation of human resources).
There's a moment in Part Four when Mildred worriedly listens to Veda explain that she can't succeed in life by doing what Mildred did. Meaning, as a pianist, Veda can't simply really on her facilities as a performer—she needs to be innately gifted. Hard work can only get Veda so far and that concept is entirely foreign to Mildred, who is often lost when it comes to dealing with her eldest and only surviving child.
There are a number of scenes that subtly enunciate the central difference between the ethos of Veda and Mildred, as when Monty asks Veda to explain how she went from being a frustrated pianist to a celebrated coloratura soprano opera singer. Veda attributes it to a chance encounter in a parking lot with a music instructor when, she airily claims, he heard her humming a few bars and instantly realized her rare talent.
Compare this with the way that Mildred scrambles throughout Part One to find work that she's qualified for and, eventually, for virtually any employer who will have her. Mildred is told point-blank that there are plenty of overqualified applicants at her local job agency, so it's unlikely she'll get a call from them anytime soon.
Like Veda, she does get a lucky break when she stumbles upon a diner where two waitresses are fired right before her eyes and the owner desperately needs immediate replacements. From there, Mildred toils her way up the ladder before finally leaving to open her own chain of restaurants.
The circumstances by which Veda and Mildred find their respective callings are similar in that they involve a bit of good fortune. But everything else about these two women and the way they make their fortunes is starkly different.
This leads to the only nagging weakness of Haynes's adaptation: the way that Mildred periodically spaces out as she digests the fact that Veda isn't who she thinks she is, and that the world around her isn't in fact a meritocracy. Scenes like the one that ends Part Four, in which Mildred takes stock on a long pier after hearing Veda's haunting warbling on the radio. The scene bluntly calls attention to the fact that the relentless flow of events that has ushered Mildred from the various interrelated events in her life has been interrupted. It's not necessary.
But those unnecessary moments are outliers in an otherwise tight and consistently well-drafted mini-series, each component of which fits neatly into Haynes' mosaic character study of Pierce as a survivor of the Depression and an extraordinarily fierce heroine. Go ahead, watch it all in one sitting: It'll knock you out, in the best way possible.