Todd Haynes: ‘When you don’t try to imitate reality, something even more real happens.’
After five seasons of "Mad Men," it can be easy to forget that mid-century period pieces do not begin and end with Matthew Weiner.
But five years before the world was seduced by Don Draper, Todd Haynes released Far From Heaven, a melodrama set in late-'50s Hartford, Conn. and modeled on the color-saturated "woman's pictures" of director Douglas Sirk.
Last night he, along with costume designer Sandy Powell and production designer Michael Friedberg, were on hand at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria for a special screening of what slowly revealed itself to be a powerfully feminist film. The screening, related to the museum's just-opened Persol Magnificent Obsessions exhibition, was followed by a Q-and-A moderated by MoMI's David Schwartz.
In Far From Heaven, Cathy (Julianne Moore) and Frank (Dennis Quaid) have an apparently happy marriage until Cathy discovers Frank's homosexuality and Cathy develops a friendship with their African American gardener, Raymond (Dennis Haysbert). The drama plays out in precisely orchestrated set-pieces. In an early scene, Katherine and her best friend Eleanor (Patricia Clarkson) look at color swatches for an upcoming party, and Eleanor declares them "smart"; children who say "jeez" are told "we don't use that kind of language in this house" and promptly apologize. Any slips in the perfect façade—the one time Frank says "fucking"; a scene in which he gets a little too drunk at his own Christmas party and goofily insults his wife—are genuinely terrifying.
Sirk perfected a genre that long ago fell out of favor.
"Genres associated with women, like domestic dramas, are denigrated and looked down upon and male associated dramas maintain a currency in contemporary culture," Haynes said.
It's a reasonable argument, given the continued prevalence of contemporary science fiction, fantasy, Western and noir genre films that Hollywood and independent filmmakers alike continue to produce and critics continue to praise.
In them, the naturalism of contemporary acting is the one thing that is usually altered from older genre films.
Characters in these "woman's pictures" are not heroic; they're limited, flawed. Bourgeois victims of repressive societies, they often can't find the language to express their emotions when confronted with loss or heartbreak—which is where the visual and aural language of film steps in.
"Music, color, decor, costume, gesture and camera play a necessary role,” said Haynes, looking and speaking like a friendly grad student in his glasses, plaid shirt, jeans and New Balance sneakers.
As Friedberg also noted, "Everything's turned up to 11, except the people," whose actions remain muted, circumscribed.
The interaction between those elements and the acting is complex: Sometimes the music, the gestures, the cinematography helps characters communicate to audiences what they are not saying; sometimes to contradict what they are saying.
But the effect can be a complex one, too. On the one hand, the obvious artificiality can be repellent: the swelling music, the brilliant colors, the pointed camera movements, the stilted dialogue.
But on the other, the traumas the characters undergo are so relatable—women are forever falling in love with unsuitable men—that the emotional truth (always communicated in the smallest gesture: a kiss on the hand; a meaningful look) comes through sharply.
"When you don't try to imitate reality, something even more real happens," Haynes said. "It's almost more honest. You're not lying."
Haynes' decision to "wear" the genre elements results in a film made in 2002 that looks, in many respects, exactly like a film from the 50s would have—rather than the way the '50s really did. (Though Haynes said that after early screenings quite a few people came up to him to say, "That's exactly what it was like in the '50s! That's my life!" This, he said, struck him less as truth and more as evidence of how memory is affected by popular culture.)
The sets Friedberg explained, were built to look like sets, while the costumes, Sandy Powell explained, were not worn-in as they usually are, but meant to look brand-new. Extras were meant to look like they'd come straight from central casting. Haynes himself spent a day, if not more, crafting a unique color palette for each scene (some of the originals can be seen in the Magnificent Obsession Exhibit currently on display in the Museum).
Powell, who has won three Oscars for her costume design work, showed tremendous attention to detail in her appearance, too: high-waisted white-on-blue pinstriped pants (designed for her by the tailor who made Ben Kinglsey's clothes in Hugo, which she also costumed), a blue on white striped knit top, silk scarf, blue and silver oxfords, all set off by her bright orange pixie cut.
As usual for these kinds of presentations, reflections on artistic process were peppered with true-life stories from filming.
Toward the end, Haynes revealed that he had decorated his house with furniture from the set.
And Powell described how the obstacle of Moore's unexpected pregnancy required letting out seams and going a little crazy on those voluminous mid-50s skirt styles; when Moore's assistant brought cake to her on lunch breaks, Powell admitted, she chastised them for it.
But for the most part what came through was the seriousness with which Haynes approached the risky project of Far From Heaven, and how well it paid off. It brought him the widest audience of his career to date, and led larger studios and producers to underwrite his work, like HBO with the miniseries "Mildred Pierce," and to mainstream critical acclaim, like Cate Blanchett's supporting-actress Oscar nomination in the Bob Dylan anti-biopic I'm Not There.
Taking questions from the audience, Haynes had the opportunity to demonstrate, time and again, an unflappable good humor.
A potentially loaded question about his portrayal of Frank, who is not a particularly sympathetic character, became the opportunity for a refreshing evaluation of female roles:
"The woman," Haynes explained, is on the "bottom rung" because she "has to maintain the dignity and continuity of family and in a way has to surrender the most."
It was a conclusion with modern resonances. When the town explodes with gossip about Cathy’s relationship with Raymond, Frank is furious and Cathy impulsively agrees to fire him. When Frank confesses to having fallen in love with a man who wants to be with him, Cathy calmly accepts that they will divorce. The woman sacrifices; the man follows his desires.
It’s not, after all, such an outmoded dynamic.
The evening ended on a bittersweet note, with a series of testy questions from the audience about the future of the film format; this screening had been a digital projection.
Schwartz admitted that the Museum would have preferred to show the film in 35-millimeter.
"But that print doesn't exist," he said, predicting that by the end of next year not a single movie will be distributed on actual film.
Haynes, who still shoots exclusively on film, admitted that DCP wasn't the same, but he seemed resigned to its inevitability.
As the crowd filed out of the theater, a girl exclaimed to her friend that Haynes had "made [her] believe in film again!”
It was unclear whether she meant actual reels of film or movies in general, but either way it seemed like a bit of encouraging news.
'Persol Magnificent Obsessions,' which features exhibits on Haynes, Ed Harris, Alfred Hitchcock, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Ennio Morricone, Hilary Swank, and many more, is on view at the Museum of the Moving Image through August 19.