Does anyone ever just go to a movie anymore? It used to happen all the time, apparently. People would simply show up at the local Bijou on Saturday night, prepared for anything. Maybe they'd heard that there was a love story on the bill, or a western or a Hope-Crosby comedy. Today, thanks to get-the-word-out entities like "Entertainment Tonight" and Entertainment Weekly, it's almost impossible to surprise ourselves. We know what we're getting before we get there. It's why
I thought about that as Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven was about to unspool at Hilldale last Friday afternoon. As on so many Friday afternoons, it was mostly me and a collection of senior citizens in the audience, and I wondered how much they knew about the movie we were about to watch. Many of them must have been movie-goers back in the '50s, when Far From Heaven is set. They may even have gone to see All That Heaven Allows, the Douglas Sirk movie that Far From Heaven takes its title from.
Was it dÃjÃ vu all over again? Regardless, Haynes has done something strange and wonderful. He's made the Sirk movie that Sirk, for various reasons, couldn't or wouldn't make. The maestro of melodrama, Sirk had an entire nation of women weeping into their handkerchiefs back in the '50s with such grandiloquent soap operas as Written on the Wind and Magnificent Obsession. You went to a Sirk movie because you wanted to cry and because you wanted to admire the stars' clothes while they cried ' that and the opulent interiors, each room gleaming like a magazine spread.
You wanted to cry with style, in other words, and Sirk's movies were nothing if not stylish, the women's clothes color-coded to clue us in on their hidden emotions. The thing is, Sirk's movies also had substance, tons and tons of substance. Race, class and gender, America's Unholy Trinity, were always rearing their ugly heads in a Douglas Sirk movie. But this was the '50s, so everything was very hush-hush, "written on the wind." A half-century before David Lynch's Blue Velvet, Sirk pointed to the bugs crawling beneath our manicured lawns.
In All That Heaven Allows, Jane Wyman plays a middle-aged, upper-middle-class widow named Cary Scott who, when she falls in love with her young gardener, is scorned by her friends, her family, her community. That the gardener looks an awful lot like Rock Hudson is no excuse. Cary's indiscretion has upset the social order, and she must either give him up or give up her place in society. Today, the choice seems like a no-brainer: the hell with society. But these were the I-Like-Ike '50s. The women's movement was still a good 10 or 15 years away.
In Far From Heaven, Julianne Moore plays an upper-middle-class housewife named Carol Whitaker who, when she falls in love with her gardener, is scorned by her friends, her family, her community. That the gardener is an extremely nice, extremely noble black man (Dennis Haysbert) is no excuse. Carol's indiscretion has upset the social order, and she must either give him up or give up her place in society. Today, the choice seems like a no-brainer: the hell with society. But these were the I-Like-Ike '50s. The civil rights movement was a good 5 or 10 years away.
If all Haynes had done was add an element of race, Far From Heaven might not be worth talking about. (Sirk famously dealt with race in Imitation of Life.) What he's also done, though, is add sexuality. The husband of the house, it turns out, is gay, a subject so off-the-radar in the '50s that Sirk wouldn't dare have broached it. And Dennis Quaid, suppressing the devilish grin that has carried him through so many movies, lays bare the agonizing torture of living one way and loving another. "I can beat this thing," he tells Moore, as if he were a compulsive drinker.
One can imagine an entire movie devoted to "this sort of behavior," which is as close as the requisite therapist (James Rebhorn) gets to labeling the husband's sexual orientation. And there's a kind of liberating charge that comes from watching a Beaver Cleaver family tackle an issue that Ward and June never dreamed of tackling. But Haynes is trying to make a larger point, one that I don't necessarily agree with. In his opinion, women, more than gays or blacks, bore the brunt of all that '50s repression. Dressed to the nines, they had nowhere to hide.
And nowhere to run. Instead, they were imprisoned in their clothes, their houses, their feminine mystique. Throughout Far From Heaven, Moore's Carol looks like she belongs in a department-store window. The satiny sheen of her hair and her skin and her puffed-out skirts blinds us to the sheer amount of work that goes into looking that way; she's her own full-time job. And Moore, reining in her emotions and smiling up a storm, removes just enough personality from Carol, leaving us with a woman who's only begun to suspect she's a mannequin.
Haynes further emphasizes Carol's isolation by always shooting her from a distance; she never quite comes into focus. And like the autumn foliage that the movie buries her in, Carol's beauty has almost imperceptibly begun to rot. She's overripe, past her expiration date. That Moore is able to get us to care for this lovely, lonely piece of plastic is a tribute to her talent and charisma. As an actress, she knows exactly what it's like to pull off a role, and Carol is pulling off the role of a lifetime. But Moore also had to plant a seed of hope, for Carol may be about to sprout.
Forging art out of artifice, Sirk's movies seem to simultaneously send themselves up and play it straight. You can't possibly take them seriously, and yet you do, in part because the emotions seem so wonderfully heartfelt. Haynes' movie works a slightly different dichotomy. Inhabiting a time capsule all its own ' the mid-20th century as seen by the early-21st ' it's at once detached and involved, cool and warm, a postmodern melodrama. You can't possibly take it seriously, and yet you do, in part because the emotions seem so wonderfully heartfelt.
Haynes has said he mostly wanted to make us cry, but I wonder if he meant real tears. My own reaction to the movie was more esthetic than that ' involved and detached. Despite all the emotions it generates, the whole movie's in quotes, an imitation of a movie that was, like all Sirk's movies, an imitation of life. Wordsworth famously described poetry as emotion recollected in tranquility. Far From Heaven is "emotion" recollected in tranquility, which can't help but feel more intellectualized. My reaction to the movie? Let's just say I "cried."