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Retrospective: The Films Of Todd Haynes

Retrospective: The Films Of Todd Haynes

“Really, I would say that it was the first movie I saw, when I was 3 years old —”Mary Poppins“— that set in motion a kind of obsessive relationship to the big screen” said director Todd Haynes in 2013. And next week, the culmination of that obsession, and the latest addition to an increasingly impressive, coherent corpus of work, opens in limited release. “Carol,” starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara (our dazzled Cannes review is here), is a film of such shimmering, heartfelt loveliness and consummate craft that it’s hard not to see it as a creative apex for Haynes. Certainly, with the awards talk it has been generating, the uniformly rapturous critical response, and a sense of its accessibility to a wider theatrical audience than he has ever reached before, it’s tempting to look at “Carol” as the Rome toward which all the roads of Haynes’ career have led.

However, the journey to this sumptuous adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith novel “The Price of Salt,” starring an Oscar winner and an Oscar nominee, which benefits from the input of regular collaborators like DP Edward Lachman and costume designer Sandy Powell, not to mention longtime producer Christine Vachon, has not been a straight line. In fact, a glance over Haynes’ filmography, relatively short though it is, suggests less that he is moving through different phases, and more that he’s always been a multifaceted filmmaker, and each successive title has caught the light in a slightly different way.

There’s his status as New Queer Cinema pioneer, which is really based on his early featurePoison” and a handful of shorts. There are the prismatic explorations of the lives of musicians and the music “scenes” that nourish and destroy them: “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story”; “Velvet Goldmine”; “I’m Not There.” There are the loving homages to the previously unfashionable genres of Classic Hollywood melodrama and the “women’s picture”: Far From Heaven”; “Mildred Pierce.” There is the recurring collaboration with actress Julianne Moore across three completely diverse films: from paranoia drama “Safe” to Sirkian weepie “Far From Heaven” to her faux-documentary segments in “I’m Not There.”

So you can see his career as a motley collection of disparate influences, genres and aesthetics, but there exists a powerful and profound throughline, a kind of central organizing principle: all of Haynes’ films to date have been peculiarly concerned with the gulf that can exist between an individual’s private identity and public persona. Think of the repression of homosexuality due to fear of societal or familial disapproval. Or of the musician who self-creates alter egos and cultivates a public image only to find it becoming a trap. Or the ordinary housewife struggling to process a quite extraordinary desire to escape the stifling confines of her proscribed social roles. In Haynes’ films, the cages are often gilded and are often of our own making, but they are cages nonetheless.

Anticipating the arrival of “Carol,” we’ve had the pleasure and the privilege of taking a comprehensive look back through all of Todd Haynes’ films to date. And note: you can catch up with many of them soon if you’re in New York starting November 18 – 29, during the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s series, “Todd Haynes: The Other Side of Dreams.”

“Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” (1987)
Barely squeaking by as a feature film (at 43 minutes it’s just 3m clear of the Academy’s cut-off), Haynes’ ‘Superstar’ is a fascinating curio, and a signal of a unique sensibility that would gain exponentially in technical polish, but that would retain a very slightly askance, idiosyncratic outlook. Here, as so often in the careers of budding auteurs, constraints on resources  led to highly creative solutions, most notably the decision to largely exclude real actors in favor of having a collection of Barbie dolls stand in for the onscreen characters. Of course this feels hugely appropriate in the story of the life and tragic early death of Karen Carpenter, whose anorexia and body image issues were very much a facet of the same society that taught young girls that Barbie’s unattainable vital statistics were the beauty ideal to strive for. But it also lends the film a remove that is, despite the distinct sympathy Haynes evidently feels for Karen (voiced by Merrill Gruver), both kitschily entertaining and quite scathing. A condemnation of the commodification of Carpenter’s talent by a voracious public (which again reduces her to the status of plastic plaything) it’s particularly unforgiving toward her family and friends who are portrayed as more interested in Karen’s career than her health. They’re even darkly hinted to be be partially responsible for her dysfunction, as in the shot of doll-Karen’s naked butt being spanked for some transgression or other, that comes to stand for her feelings of shame and inadequacy. And in amongst the faux-documentary sections, reconstructions, archive footage and news-flash-style “educational” segments, many of which are in dubiously sensationalist taste, and some of which can feel rather heavy-handed, Haynes further hints that Karen’s brother Richard was gay and paranoid about being revealed as such. It’s thought to be that suggestion that led to the real-life Carpenter suing the filmmakers (technically because they used the original tracks without permission), and winning, so the film, after a few successful festival showings, was withdrawn and destroyed. Rumors persist that a copy of the negative remains intact somewhere under lock and key, but mostly the film is viewable now in bootleg versions (there’s even one up on YouTube), in which the degraded, VHS fuzziness of the images (many of which were deliberately unclear to begin with) only adds to the film’s subversive, grungy, punkish energy.

“Poison” (1991)
The fact that Haynes studied semiotics (at Brown University, where he also produced an early short called “Assassins” which was about Arthur Rimbaud, who would feature later in “I’m Not There”) was never more apparent than in his queercore debut, “Poison.” Part creative thesis, part university film school project, it has a more overtly experimental, non-linear structure than the more traditional narratives he would come to wider prominence with, yet it’s anything but amateurish or unpolished (Haynes’ almost immediate mastery of filmmaking craft, after just a few rough-diamond shorts, is striking). Chaptered up into three sections — “Horror, “ “Hero,” and “Homo” — none of which is spelled out until the closing credits, “Poison” is essentially three different films crosscut together in contrasting and colliding fashion, loosely united by thematic ideas around gay sexuality. “Horror” is an AIDS epidemic parable about an infected and murderous leper on the run, shot in a black-and-white psychotropic terror style right out of the Sam Fuller playbook. “Hero” takes the format of a docu-drama/tabloid television show set in a bucolic, Nicholas Ray-like suburban utopia in a story about a young boy who shoots his father and then physically flies away a la “Birdman” and comes complete with interviews with the boy, his family and schoolmates (reflecting a fascination with the role of TV in our lives that is also in evidence in “Superstar” and “Dottie gets Spanked” from around this same era). “Homo” is the mostly overly homoerotic segment (and it was here the film earned its NC-17, natch) and also its most theatrical: it’s a prison film, based on the writings of Jean Genet, about sexual repression, control and power which could now be a Julie Taymor production. Considered an early entry in the New Queer Cinema movement, “Poison” is a demanding but rewarding watch for the adventurous cineaste, and is that much more challenging for the casual viewer, but it’s a foundational document in Haynes’ canon and crucial for understanding the way in which his films have been critiqued on the basis of their sexual politics ever since. Anticipating the prismatic approach of “I’m Not There” by fifteen years, “Poison” is self-consciously arty and not a little alienating at times, perhaps closer to a formalist exercise than to the much more cohesive experiments he’d go on to make. But it is also a fascinating, transgressive and deeply intelligent piece of work, that is fundamental to the idea of who Haynes was as a filmmaker, and who he has become.

Dottie Gets Spanked (1993)
A 45-minute long film that aired on PBS in the ’90s, “Dottie Gets Spanked” is a terrific little film in its own right, but also represents a handy stepping stone between the Haynes of “Poison” and the Haynes of “Safe.” Formally less experimental than anything else to that point (stylized dream sequences notwithstanding), it is still profoundly personal, as Haynes mines his own childhood fascination with “I Love Lucy” to provide a sad, sweet meditation on being, as one of the unthinkingly cruel children call the film’s 7-year-old protagonist, “a feminino.” An early embodiment of another underappreciated aspect of Haynes’ talents —he always elicits perfectly naturalistic and endearing performances from his juvenile actors— ‘Dottie’ is the story of Steven (Evan Bonifant), a little boy obsessed with a popular TV program called “The Dottie Show,” and especially with its star, Dottie Frank (Julie Halston). Despite gentle paternal disapproval (offset by his mother’s fond indulgence —Haynes in no way suggests the parents are anything but loving toward their little boy), Steven wins a contest to visit the set of the show. Haynes brilliantly evokes the incremental way that a stray word or concept can worm its way into a child’s subconscious and become an odd fixation —in this case, it’s the idea of spanking, which a neighbor mentions within earshot of Steven (whose parents do not believe in corporal punishment) and which then occurs on the episode of the show that Steven gets to see taped. The dream sequences, clever semi-Freudian mishmashes of wish fulfilment, loneliness and glimmering sexual awareness, are part black-and-white Dali, part expressionist Welles, yet the rest of the film is relatively classical and straightforward in its narrative, nailing a mood of warm-toned, bittersweet childhood nostalgia, but putting that atmosphere in service of a narrative about an isolated, observant, imaginative boy learning to feel shame, and almost simultaneously learning how to literally bury it.

“Safe” (1995)
At the time, it perhaps was a natural progression, but “Safe” feels like a dramatic gear change retrospectively, almost a statement of intent. Having helped establish the movement later dubbed “New Queer Cinema” with “Poison,” Haynes proved with his very next film that his thematic concerns were too universal to be ghettoized. In this devastating, brilliant film, Julianne Moore’s type-A homemaker Carol becomes progressively more allergic to everything around her, leading to a paranoiac retreat from modern life as she moves from her perfectly prosperous upper-middle lifestyle to a new-agey treatment facility in the desert that essentially operates as a cult. And it isn’t just a thematic evolution: “Safe” has none of the aesthetic edginess and scrappy lyricism of “Poison.” Instead, it is clinically controlled, a work of intense repression, unfolding in unblinking, carefully composed long gazes, often in frames of almost Kubrickian symmetry (take, for example, the uneasy shot of Carol drinking a glass of milk while a pillar behind her visually bisects her head). And the filmmaker allusions don’t stop there: the ominous soundtrack from Ed Tomney —full of queasy Badalamenti-style synths— and the sense of festering decay beneath a pristine suburban surface recall David Lynch, while the film’s opening shot is a direct nod to Rainer Werner Fassbinder‘s “Chinese Roulette.” It all combines to lend “Safe” a quasi sci-fi air, enhanced by an uncannily rigorous approach, which often sees Carol overwhelmed by her environment in huge wide shots or isolated from the pink-hued baby showers and Belinda Carlisle-accompanied aerobics classes that comprise her life. In addition to Haynes’ career-spanning involvement in ideas about social identity and self-discovery, “Safe” also reads as a damning indictment of the complacency and conformity of modern life, with Carol’s progressive withdrawal from it affording her (and us) an almost alien’s-eye perspective on its vacuity. Yet the film presents no easy solutions either —it retains its enigmatic, almost sterile remove (while Moore’s extraordinarily compelling performance keeps pulling us in) to the very last. In fact, Haynes deliberately problematizes any conclusive reading in the chilling closing moments: while Carol seems to believe she is healing and can look at herself in the mirror and declare her love for what she sees, what we see are lesions, pallor, physical decay: she is getting worse.

“Velvet Goldmine” (1998)
There are many reasons why Haynes’ fourth film to this day feels a little like his red-headed stepchild. Although boasting his biggest cast to date, it was the least well-received all around. It had an arduous journey, suffering the major setback of its thinly veiled inspiration David Bowie not just refusing to grant the rights to his songs (a bitter pill that Danny Boyle also recently had to swallow), but even suing the production over similarities to his life story, thereby necessitating months of rewrites (Haynes substituted classic glam-rock recordings from the likes of Brian Eno and remakes/remodels of Roxy Music tracks by members of Radiohead for the unavailable Bowie songs). And in an incident that at the time was not yet quite the cliché meme it is today, producer Harvey Weinstein wanted cuts. Haynes resisted as much as he could, but the relationship was damaged, and when, aside from Sandy Powell who picked up an Oscar nomination for the costumes, the film’s awards hopes seemed to recede after Cannes (where Haynes had received a prize for Best Artistic Contribution), Weinstein lost interest in promoting it and it tanked at the box office. According to friend and confederate Kelly Reichardt, the whole snafu “nearly killed” Haynes. All of this mythos means that “Velvet Goldmine” is precisely the kind of cocktail of misunderstood, mishandled and meddled-with that latter-day cult favorites are made of, and it certainly has been enjoying a renaissance in that regard, especially with a younger generation of viewers. But cultishness also thrives on imperfection, and at the very least “Velvet Goldmine” remains the least perfect of Haynes’ professional features —it has a jerkily elliptical structure that prevents a true connection with the characters. And that’s a strange complaint to level at so heartfelt and clearly personal a movie: yes, it’s a little bit art-school experiment in its “Citizen Kane“-mimicking format and chronological twitchiness, but it’s also a deeply felt love letter to the glam rock era and to the icons who embodied a proudly polymorphous sexuality at a time when such pride was unthinkable for mainstream society. Yet still now it feels like Haynes’ least disciplined work. The strong elements (like the cast —Jonathan Rhys Myers, Christian Bale and especially Toni Collette and Ewan MacGregor) and flights of imaginative fancy sometimes coalesce into a glimmering phantasmagoria of regret, nostalgia, sexual awakening, lust, ambition and jealousy (and for these moments alone it would be a rewarding watch), but at other times it feels grandiloquently pastichey, leaving the overriding impression of a montage in search of a movie.

“Far From Heaven” (2002)
If you were a viewer for whom all color films that feature old-timey cars and women in hats are essentially the same, you might see Haynes’ new film “Carol,” his HBO miniseries “Mildred Pierce” and this 2002 film as of a piece. But what’s most surprising about his take on classic Golden Age Hollywood melodrama is how many different textures he has found within a genre that, until its recent round of rehabilitation (for which Haynes is in large part responsible), was narrowly and often disparagingly defined. And his first time at this particular perfumed, powdered bat is simply sublime, a wholehearted embrace of the melodramatic tropes and aesthetic of a Douglas Sirk movie, but edged with a razorlike modernity in terms of the perspective it comes from. So “Far From Heaven”‘s story touches on class, race and sexuality in the stiflingly conformist 1950s, as the fragile veneer of picture perfect couple Cathy and Frank (Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid) begins to crack under the pressure of Frank’s not-so-repressed homosexuality and Cathy’s growing attraction to their black gardener Raymond (Dennis Haysbert). But Haynes’ 21st century point of view allows him to twist the various knives much deeper, and to be explicit where often the films of the 1950s had to be allusive and almost coded in order to pass censors. As a result, “Far From Heaven” feels indelibly contemporary, even though it’s constructed for maximum nostalgia. It even boasts a slight archness, a very faint but unmistakable self-awareness that makes it feel like a story primarily, but also a commentary on that story, as well as a commentary on how those stories were traditionally told. This slightly self-conscious heightening of events in “Far From Heaven” is less in evidence in “Mildred Pierce” and arguably altogether absent from “Carol,” but it’s perhaps what makes sense of the film in terms of the progression of Hayne’s career and the evolution of his ideas. The glorious autumnal colorfulness of “Far From Heaven” (Haynes’ first film with genius collaborator Ed Lachman as DP, and his second with Sandy Powell doing costumes) still has elements of metatextuality and of an overtly outsider-y “queer” perspective that his earlier films had explored full-bore, but here he is beginning his project of co-opting (in spectacularly lush fashion) the language of classic Hollywood cinema to pursue his progressive agenda.

“I’m Not There” (2007)
Perhaps one of the reasons it’s difficult to fully embrace “Velvet Goldmine” now is that just under a decade later, Haynes turned in another breathtakingly experimental, semi-fictionalized, semi-fact-based impression of a musician’s legacy and the social and political change it fed off and fomented, and this time made an elusive but elegant masterpiece. “I’m Not There,” Haynes’ hyper-creative, wildly imaginative retelling of the “many lives” of Bob Dylan, literalizes his ongoing concern with self-created public images by seeing Dylan refracted into six different personalities. A couple are even based partially on other figures who were influences on Dylan, such as Woody Guthrie (Marcus Carl Franklin) and Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw), and alongside Jude (Cate Blanchett), who emblemizes mid-’60s Dylan-gone-electric, Jack (Christian Bale) as early ’60s Dylan-the-protest-singer, Billy (Richard Gere) aka Dylan as early ’70s Peckinpah-style Wild West outlaw and Robbie (Heath Ledger) the famous movies star who plays Dylan/Jack in a biopic-within-the-biopic, they provide the fragmentary impressions and images that Haynes collides together to form a whole that is part mosaic, part slo-mo explosion. It should be insufferable chaos, and indeed it is wilfully obscure and sometimes outlandishly indulgent. But it is also extraordinary, not least for the sense (unlike ‘Goldmine,’ again) that, as crazily as the film spools off into a hundred directions at once, it encompasses a coherent thematic whole. We may be left panting and dazzled by the effort of keeping up with the lightning switches between one mood and the next, and we may very well feel like at any time about 75% of the allusions and layers are lost on us, but the guiding sense of Haynes steering the film with absolute assurance and conviction makes it an immensely exhilarating experience. So while perhaps its most enduring contribution to pop culture is in the quite brilliant casting of a cross-dressing Blanchett as Jude (who not accidentally is the closest to actual real-life Dylan of all these proxies and whose dialogue is often made of direct quotes from interviews), “I’m Not There” overall is a feast not just for Dylan fans but for cinephiles too. After all, it provides about six different films in one and derives so much energy from its internal atomic collisions that it almost becomes a study in the nature of filmic collage. Ultimately, its formal brilliance resides in the fact that it is a biopic that exposes the lie of the biographical picture —the idea that one could ever capture a whole life in a single feature film. In fact, “I’m Not There” doesn’t just expose that lie, but glories in it and makes mind- and genre-expanding use of it.  

“Mildred Pierce”  (Miniseries, 2011)
Having already made a latter-day Sirkian melodrama with “Far From Heaven,” Haynes doubled down on his reintroduction of the “women’s picture” lexicon to a post-2000 audience by remaking the ne plus ultra 1940s women’s picture “Mildred Pierce.” Or rather, he went back to that film’s source material, the James M. Cain novel on which it was based but from which it departed in many ways, to make a more faithful version —one that could luxuriate in a 5 ½ hour runtime and the serialized nature of a HBO miniseries format. The result is an intricate, intimate epic that is completely different in mood and even characterization from the classic Joan Crawford/Michael Curtiz movie, a fact that perhaps proved a stumbling block for some critics (how else to account for the show’s frankly baffling “rotten” RT score of 50%?). Kate Winslet‘s Mildred is Haynes’ earthiest heroine ever (far from the tigerish glamor of Crawford’s interpretation), and the setting and period trappings are more muted than in “Far From Heaven” —truer to the shabbily genteel desperation of the Depression-era middle classes than the glorious jewel tones of technicolor 1950s prosperity. It’s against this backdrop of hardscrabble reality that the stolid but eminently resourceful Mildred builds her own fortune through pie baking and 85¢ chicken dinners, after her husband Bert (a brilliant Brian F. O’Byrne) leaves her for another woman. Despite circumstances, Mildred is determined to provide her doted-on daughters with everything they need, even at the cost of her own dignity, which is hard to swallow, being predicated on an ingrained snobbery and classism that she has unwittingly passed on to her elder child Veda (Morgan Turner/Evan Rachel Wood). In fact, it has taken such deep root in Veda that, especially following the death of her younger sister, she responds to the unquestioning indulgence from her mother with growing spitefulness and disdain, masked behind a near-sociopathically manipulative exterior. Mildred does get moments of passion, especially once she meets and embarks on an affair with the dashing Monte Beragon ( a super-hot Guy Pearce) but the beauty of Haynes and Winslet’s interpretation of Mildred lies in her ordinariness (not a quality Crawford could ever pull off). It’s hard to think of too many films in which ordinariness, especially for a woman, especially in this era, is presented as such a virtue, but it means Haynes’ “Mildred Pierce” compels without ever resorting the film noir excesses of the 1940 version. In the end, it is a highly unusual and oddly satisfying process, to watch a good woman slowly, tortuously fall out of love with her own malicious child.

In addition to these titles, there are some harder-to-find shorts and TV projects that the Haynes completist may want to search out. His high-school film “The Suicide” is hard to track down in the wild (though, as a commenter points out, it is available as an extra on the Criterion release of “Safe”), while 1985’s “Assassins: A Film Concerning Rimbaud” which he made while at Brown University gets very infrequent repertory airings. However Haynes himself told FilmComment’s Nick Davis that “that’s one I can watch without squirming too much,” so there’s no reason it might not pop up as an extra on a DVD at some point.

He also directed one episode of great, gone-too-soon TV show “Enlightened,” during its second season (2×06 “All I ever wanted”), while his sole music video per se was for Sonic Youth‘s “Disappearer” that came about, as Haynes describes, as a kind of sublimation of the fact that the post-punk New York music scene and the experimental film scene were closely interrelated at that time. Plus Sonic Youth had their own Carpenters fixation (they’d later do that great cover of “Superstar” and on the “Disappearer” album, Goo, another track, “Tunic” is about Karen Carpenter) and had seen Haynes’ “Superstar” prior.

Finally, Haynes directed another musical performance, if not quite a music video, in 2013 as part of the TV documentary “Six by Sondheim.” Featuring Jarvis Cocker singing Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here” (a title that wittily mirror-images “I’m Not There,” if you’re in a meta frame of mind), the segment was also luxuriantly shot by Edward Lachman, and, as well as anyone can in 5 minutes, embodies that beautifully precise mix of arch, witty, sad and ever so slightly uncanny that Haynes can do so well. So here it is below —a nice amuse bouche to prepare you for the visual and emotional feast that is “Carol,” undoubtedly one of 2015’s finest films from undoubtedly one of America’s greatest working directors.

–with Rodrigo Perez

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