November 19, 2002

Far from Heaven: Holy jeepers! It's the '50s, in color!

Far from Heaven

directed by Todd Haynes

Focus Features

107 minutes

On strictly biological terms where cinema is concerned, I have occasionally reminded myself that movies beget movies beget movies. A process of evolutionary progress seems to occur in every medium of expression—not the least in film—as each significant art piece leaves its traces for future prospects for bequest, whether intended or not. But inevitably as the tides of change swell over artistic values, in all of their pragmatic forms, some qualities of great art are lost in the translation to the currency of changing culture and politics. By inspiration works of art are born; many times the source of such inspiration arrives from another artist, whose older, wiser and more insightful visions the disciple attempts to repeat. But sometimes, as in the case of movies, the offspring of great art and artists filtered through the passage of time insufferably fall short of our expectations. The genes are simply wasted.

In these times of rapid scientific advancements when a lunar step is merely one more step and human cloning is only a legislative act away, film culture seems to follow right along on time. Now, wishful thinking aside, Todd Haynes, with Far from Heaven, has cloned a whole genre of period films right out of the past in a seamless fashion unlike any I have ever seen. The director and crew have respectfully duplicated the look and feel of those colorful 1950s melodramas with the strait-laced female heroine caught up in a world of social repression. (Think Susan Hayward or Lana Turner.) These so-called "women's pictures" were the trademark works of Douglas Sirk, the German-born expatriate rooted in theatrical literacy and intellectualism, who made his mark on Hollywood with his expressively lit, class-conscious weepers like Magnificent Obsession, Imitation of Life, and All That Heaven Allows, to which Haynes's film chiefly pays homage.

Marked by Technicolor rituals and ornately constructed sets, these movies were artificial to the touch. And to recreate that touch once more, Haynes worked with veteran Hollywood pros—replicating exactly the look, style and approach to making those films. By the way, Far from Heaven opens with the title credit in beach-blue print arched wide across an image of 1957 Hartford, Connecticut, where every spic-and-span Cadillac finds its space on the block and every street corner palatably evokes a Norman Rockwell sensibilities, Haynes and company have created a whole microcosm of '50s Americana.

Mark Frieberg's designs of Art Deco interiors are painstakingly perfect, presenting pop-cultural vocabulary with economy. Sandy Powell's costumes—gloriously imaginative as always—will someday solidify her status as Edith Head reincarnate. And Elmer Bernstein, whose fifty years worth of work as composer varies from To Kill a Mockingbird to Airplane!, gives us a sweeping sentimental score unabashed by its mesmeric tinges. These directions and more are the impressive feats made by the film. But if only Haynes had offered the right agendas!

To refurbish the story from Sirk's film, Haynes updates the social conscience. Introductions begin with Cathy Whitaker, a prototypic model of happy suburban wife, who enjoys serving daiquiris at lunch-hour to her gossipy neighbors and raises her perfect children rightly as a perfect mother should. Add to that equation "Mr. Magnatech" Frank Whitaker, a handsome television sales executive, to complete the picture. But Haynes subverts this idealized family portrait by turning Frank into a closeted homosexual and Cathy into the target of vicious rumors by her town community for her affection towards blacks, in particular her gardener, Raymond. This is the kind of story that would have never been found on the matinee bill during the Eisenhower era. Some issues back then were never issues to begin with.

But Haynes argues: "To impose upon the seeming innocence of the 1950s themes as mutually volatile as race and sexuality is to reveal how volatile those subjects remain today—and how much our current climate of complacent stability has in common with that bygone era." This was an important task for the director in addition to his tribute to Sirk, but who in his right mind would claim otherwise? Homosexuality? Interracial romancing? One need not look further than the University of Chicago to find these things still feared like plagues.

The effect, therefore, of infiltrating the old Hollywood conventions of moviemaking with heated politics relevant to the year 2002 stages an anomalistic postmodern stunt that is unique but problematic where drama is concerned. Far from Heaven is unmoving on the scale of tragedy. This is a critical flaw for a story with characters who are trying to escape their anesthetic milieu. In Sirk's picture of reference, Jane Wyman's heroine was faced with a dilemma over marriage to a man below her class line, facing the opposition of her children and community. The impending decision on the rise, creased over the heroine's sad (and contemplative) face, was gripping on the grounds that she could possibly make either choice—although we knew what would ultimately happen. Cathy Whitaker has no such privilege over options; she is a woman trapped not by circumstances but by the established order of the day. For her and Raymond to couple and live normally is not in the realm of possibility, especially where their children are concerned, a point both characters eventually acknowledge. Hence, what is left is not tragedy but the foreseeable events of misfortune. Hard luck, hard luck.

The main performances by the actors hamper this situation further, precisely because of Haynes's cinema verité direction. Julianne Moore fills the shoes of Cathy, but not her soul. Previously, we've seen the actress try out with success some roles given to her by P.T. Anderson, driven by an instinct for sobbing intensity. Porn queen and bitchy trophy wife were no problems. But Cathy requires a brain, and Moore shows that she has little. She gives us a chirpy housewife who only gets sullen when she is alone. Dennis Quaid, once the clean-cut All-American with chiseled good looks, and now with faint wrinkles over his forehead, plays Frank without the sobriety of Rock Hudson, which could have garnered more sympathy. The best performance comes from Dennis Haysbert, who shows he's studied the Sirk models better than anyone else has. Subtle, charming and intentionally manufactured like all of those old models, his gentle-hearted Raymond is a throwback to a Sidney Poitier minus the fury. His performance should be remembered.

Far from Heaven is, however, a notably better Hollywood movie than anything released this year for its utter ambition and commitment to a personal vision. I'm not quite familiar enough with Haynes's past films to comment on his progress as a director, but looking ahead it seems he could be a new Hollywood heavyweight in whom we can place our intellectual trust.