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Far From Heaven – Douglas Sirk’s form but not his substance

the good old, bad old days

the good old, bad old days

Far From Heaven – Todd Haynes

Spoofs of James Bond movies never seem to work because they play off a genre which itself lives on the very edges of credibility. The problem for me with FFH is similar in that its director, Todd Haynes, tries faithfully and lovingly to recreate the already emotionally florid ‘weepie’ movies of the 50’s notably Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955) starring Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson. Sirk was severely limited by the mores of the time, in revealing the undertow of serious issues like racism and homosexuality, beneath the smooth surface of richly photographed middle class emotional melodramas.

If only Haynes had tried to capture the spirit of the genre rather than its superficial image this could have been the fascinating movie many critics have judged it to be. But this is no more than a recreation of the form of the earlier film rather than its substance. It is a chocolate box movie, bearing much the same relation to the substance of the original as a Monet decorating a box of Black Magic does to the original painting. There is a serious artistic problem here. The effectiveness of Sirk’s evocation of the social atmosphere of the 50’s, arose from the fact that it played to audiences of the 50’s to whom the setting and attitudes were familiar – because they were living them. His film also played within the context of its period and therefore, for example, its expressionistic use of colour would have had the impact it had because of its contrast with the cinematic conventions of the time when many films and all TV were still black and white. Think of the moment in the Wizard of Oz, now over 60 years-old when the black and white beginning in Kansas is transformed, magically, into the glorious technicolour of Oz. Even now this cut raises the hairs on the back of the neck: but this is a mere shadow of the astonishing impact it must have had on the audiences of the time. My point is that if you wanted in 2003 to overwhelm your audience with the equivalent of this stunning 1939 transition from the black and white (and grey) of Kansas to the colour suffused magical world of Oz – you couldn’t do it by just making the same cut. This cinematic moment doesn’t play across time if it’s just recreated, however faithfully.

This technical, aesthetic constraint for form holds equally for content. There is a sense in which we cannot experience such films in the same way now as their audience would have then, because our relationship to issues like racism, homosexuality, and social attitudes like marital expectation and fidelity has totally changed in the intervening years. The central aesthetic issue is not that Haynes is now free to deal explicitly and directly with these issues which Sirk had to treat indirectly and elliptically; it is that today’s audience cannot respond in the same way because they have a totally different experience and relationship to them. One critic has written of FFH “This would have been the best ‘women’s picture’ ever made in 50’s Hollywood – if anyone had been courageous enough to make it then.” If this is even remotely true, and I am very dubious about it for reasons I’ll come on to, it demonstrates perfectly what is wrong for me about the film as offered to 21st century audiences. Essentially the film uses sophisticated current technology to create a film which a 1950’s audience might respond to. This seems to me to be simply conceptually misguided because they couldn’t – and worse – we don’t. In essence: if you want to try to do what Sirk was doing in the 50’s – you can’t do it in the same way. This is not solely an issue of the film’s form or content, but also of the audience’s response.

Of course we can look at Sirk’s movie now (though practically speaking only on video, an even worse aesthetic mistake), but we read it as a film of its period and place it in the context of its time as we know something at least of the social sensibilities and hypocrisy of the 50’s. Sirk’s film seen now is real, but necessarily dated. Haynes’ film is in a social and contextual limbo. It doesn’t have a real context of its own, so it relies on a purely aesthetic context. For precisely this reason, it is pure pastiche. Unlike Sirk’s films, this is not a film about racism, homosexuality or middle class hypocrisy, it is a film about
(a) film.

Pastiche can be OK, but unfortunately this doesn’t even seem to me to be good pastiche. An undue reverence for the Sirk directorial style, makes the film seem ponderous and pedestrian, lacking pace to the modern eye. And the script and performances simply reinforce this feeling to the point where at times one could feel it is being filmed under water. The precise representation of the language and tight-assed sedateness of the 1950’s American middle-class, bleeds the characters of any credible passion or feeling. People in the 50’s were perhaps more emotionally naive, hemmed in by the repressed fears of the cold war and nuclear threat, but they simply didn’t walk their world with an unbroken, one pace zombie-like deliberateness. This generation after all, had been through a war and their children were about to go ape over rock n’ roll. A film about the middle-class does not itself have to display a middle-class temerity and sensibility: for Haynes there are those really nice homosexuals down at their bar and of course all the black people, negroes, (ooh, I said it!) are quiet (i.e.passive), dignified and long-suffering. Sirk’s films conveyed a sense of seething, repressed passions struggling against and bursting through, social convention. Julianne Moore’s Cathy Whittaker looks like she’s just moved in from Eastwick. There is one very brief but agonisingly real display of emotion in the film: when Dennis Quaid’s Frank Whittaker comes home during the day and breaks down sobbing in front of Cathy and their 2 children, the daughter is bemused by what she sees. Daddy is home when he shouldn’t be; and sobbing which she’s never seen him do. The girl’s face crumples with fear and bewhilderment, and she begins to cry with that uniquely painful, confused, uncontrollable terror of a child whose safe assumptions of the world are suddenly falling around her ears.

Dennis Quaid has in my view acted much better in films less critically acclaimed; his special kinetic, casually insolent screen presence is here completed locked away. And so to Julianne Moore: faultless, unobtrusive technique. But she seems to be heir to Meryl Streep’s mantle as the coldest actress in movies. Even though there is occasionally a hint of sexual danger about her, if she gets one or even two Oscars this year, it will be for technique and a sentimental, exaggerated affection for a lost for ever genre. If Julianne Moore went blonde she’d be a perfect Hitchcock ice maiden. In a good mystery thriller she might just put in a performance genuinely worthy of an Oscar.

(March 2003)

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