Revisiting Far From Heaven
In Scorsese by Ebert, the legendary critic includes in his anthology-of-sorts a 1997 interview with the legendary director at Wexner Center for the Arts, The Ohio State University. I find this particular passage fascinating:
R: Everything has ironic quotation marks around it now, he [Paul Schrader] says.
M: I know.
R: “With my work,” he said, “there’s no quotation marks. I really mean it.”
M: Yeah, he means it. So do I. (176)
Scorsese goes on to say that Schrader told him that “Quentin Tarantino is to Martin Scorsese as David Letterman is to Johnny Carson.” Whereas Johnny Carson really interviews people, “David Letterman is doing a satire on the act of interviewing somebody.” Letterman has quotes around everything; Carson doesn’t. Pulp Fiction has quotes around it; Taxi Driver doesn’t. It’s a brilliant insight, I think, and a perfectly succinct way to separate most work from the 1970s from most work today. In shorthand I’ll often identify a book or movie as having “quotation marks around it,” and I know what I mean even if others don’t. American filmmaking in the 1970s was serious business. It was earnest. It was about something. Scorsese, Coppola, Lumet, Friedkin, Altman, Ashby, Bogdanovich, and others all did work in this era that they would never eclipse. Nowadays, everything is a take on something else. It’s a giant wink to the audience. Films are not so much delivered directly to viewers’ consciousnesses as they are delivered to viewers’ cultural consciousnesses, filtered through the lens of other films. Everything has quotes around it. I’ve been trying for a while to find the not ironic filmmaker. Terrence Malick is a viable option, but of course he is a director who actually made films in the 1970s. That era was a time, to quote Richard Corliss, “when movies mattered—when filmmakers strove to expand the cinematic vocabulary instead of simply parroting it, and took adventurous audiences along for the exhilarating ride [...] Malick — a Waco, Texas, kid who studied philosophy at Harvard and Oxford, and in 1969 translated Martin Heidegger’s writings as The Essence of Reasons — was up there with Coppola and Robert Altman on the list of prime questers in American film.” Elsewhere in his The Tree of Life review, Corliss writes, “ But the main thing to say is that Malick has captured the feeling of texture of his early films and those other ’70s movies that mattered. It proceeds through its microscopic narrative, and its macro-view of the cosmos, as if three decades of artistic retrenchment in American moviemaking had not happened. For Malick the movie screen is a canvas for his visions, and his job is not to anticipate what audiences will love but to offer his uncompromised take and see if they’ll take it.” I think this expertly sums up Malick cinema. As far as contemporary directors go, I thought I had found my answer in David Gordon Green, whose George Washington and All the Real Girls offer the promise of genuine emotion and earnest storytelling the likes of which we simply do not see anymore. Sadly, subsequent films do not deliver on this promise. Todd Haynes, meanwhile, seems to have found a way to be not ironic within specific tropes.
Forgive the diversion; I had almost forgotten that the title of this post has something to do with Hayne’s Far From Heaven. But the point of the above five-hundred words is that in a time where everything is dipped in postmodern hipness, Haynes is working with familiar grammar to craft something actually new. It’s a wonder that Far From Heaven works on screen, because on paper it sounds like either a direct imitation of a style/genre or a parody of that style/genre. In theory it sounds like either regurgitation or condescension, but in practice it’s anything but. In other words, it’s amazing that the film is not ironic, because it’s whole premise is based on cultural awareness. Haynes approximates the look and feel of 1950s-era melodrama: the edits are often fades and dissolves; the shots are often held longer than they typically are now; the sets and costumes are ostentatiously lavish; the score is soaring and direct; and the acting is mannered in a technical sense if not an emotional one. The idea of Far From Heaven sounds like a gimmick: Haynes is going to make a movie set in the 1950s and film it like it was made in the 1950s. He’s going to replicate the visual style but offer a story that would not have been told in that time. By pushing homosexual repression and black-white interaction to the fore, he is giving voice to those silenced and lurking in the backgrounds of the films on which Far From Heaven is fashioned. The whole thing, in other words, sounds less like a story and more like a thesis…like an artful, intellectual exercise…like inside-baseball for cineastes. Surprisingly, Haynes succeeds in creating a work that balances its postmodern distance with genuine empathy. On a cerebral level, the film plays like a microscope on past and present culture; on an emotional level, however, it plays like the moving melodrama that it is. You can watch it and feel deeply, or you can watch it and study objectively. It has the quotes around it, and yet it absolutely doesn’t.
A big portion of the film’s success lies with Julianne Moore, who turns in a towering performance, even though this adjective betrays the subtlety of it. She looks like she walked straight out of a 1950s movie and into this one. Her mannered physicality and cadences are not simply products of past films. They are products of who this woman is, the environment in which she lives, and the choices into which she is forced. And yet, beneath the artificiality, Moore brings an affecting emotional truth to the role. We get caught up in her crisis even though we suspect we know how it will end. It’s hard to believe this is the same woman behind the elastic, goofy Jules in The Kids Are All Right. As I said in my review of Game Change, Moore is a phenomenally gifted actor who has not been given enough credit, especially by me. But I’m rectifying my neglect by diving into her work and she never disappoints. Far From Heaven is a great film, because it tugs the heartstrings of viewers and the heads of scholars. In this postmodern age, when everything is a take on something else and every movie is somehow interconnected with another one, perhaps the best option is to take a preexisting form and breathe new life into it. The quotes are still there, but the movie is not about the quotes. Imagine a Michael Bay-style film that still blows things up and makes loud noises, but in the meantime, it gives women something to do. Rather than looking at them, we’re invested in them. Now that’s a movie I would like to see.