Editor’s Note: This article is presented in partnership with FilmStruck. The exclusive streaming home for The Criterion Collection, FilmStruck features the largest streaming library of contemporary and classic arthouse, indie, foreign and cult films as well as extensive bonus content, filmmaker interviews and rare footage. Learn more here.
Todd Haynes is one of the most distinct voices working in film today. He’s also a cinematic chameleon. For every period film Haynes makes, he and his team of craftsman adapt not only the look of the movies or photography of that era, but the visual language as well.
For example, both “Carol” and “Far from Heaven” are Haynes films set in ’50s-era America, but they are worlds apart. While “Carol” got its color palette and sense of composition from the photographers like Saul Leiter — who memorably documented that period with his own work — “Far From Heaven” recreated the manufactured studio look of Douglas Sirk’s melodramas of that same era.
This mode of filmmaking took its most extreme form in “I’m Not There,” a portrait of Bob Dylan played by six different actors in six distinct eras, for which Haynes mirrored six different styles of filmmaking. His new film, “Wonderstruck,” will add ’20s silent film and the gritty realism of ’70s films to his repertoire, just as his body of work is in conversation with the varied classics found in the Criterion Collection and now FilmStruck.
There are many foundational films, filmmakers and performers who have played key roles in Haynes’ approach and thinking about what it means to be a director. Here are some major ones.
“All That Heaven Allows” (1955)
Haynes has told the story many times about watching “Mary Poppins” when he was three years old and becoming obsessed with movies. The gorgeous surfaces of Hollywood films was always a draw for Haynes, but he was bored with films that lacked subtext or directors willing to subvert studio formulas.
It’s for this reason that the director that is most vital to understanding Haynes is Sirk. In the ’50s, Sirk delivered to Universal the look and storylines that drove their popular “weepies,” but created a layer of subtext that called into question social structures that chained his characters. A big breakthrough for Haynes was his 2002 “Far From Heaven,” which heavily referenced and was an homage to “All That Heaven Allows,” along with other Sirk films, but tackled more modern societal strains centered around issues of race and sexuality. You can find the “All That Heaven Allows” Criterion DVD here.
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“Ali: Fear Eats The Soul” (1974)
Before Haynes, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the prolific German filmmaker, paid homage to Sirk with this remake of “All That Heaven Allows.” In this film, a widow (Brigitte Mira) falls in love with a young Arab worker (El Hedi ben Salem), which sends shockwaves through the community.
Like Haynes, Fassbinder’s social and historical critique of modern society is less subtle than that of Sirk’s, and is the product of limited resources and more challenging arthouse mode of storytelling. While “Ali” is a film that is part of the same family tree as Haynes “Heaven,” Fassbinder’s entire body of work – “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant,” “The Marriage of Maria Braun” and “Veronika Voss,” just to name a few – is something Haynes has used as inspiration. You can watch “Ali: Fear Eats The Soul” on FilmStruck here.
“Jeanne Dielman, 23, Qui Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” (1975)
Haynes has remarked a number of times about the profound influence Chantal Akerman’s seminal film had on him when he saw it for the first time in college. Watching Jeanne doing everyday chores of cooking and cleaning helped Haynes realize how audiences can come to understand characters through their ordinary routines rather than the kind of obstacles and conflicts that Hollywood scenarios rely upon to reveal a character’s interior.
When Akerman died in 2015, Haynes reflected on how “Jeanne” taught him about the “the sheer power of understatement and negation of action” to create meaning. The film deeply influenced Haynes’ masterpiece “Safe.” You can watch “Jeanne Dielman” on FilmStruck here.
When Haynes studied semiotics at Brown, he was exposed to a number of experimental works that opened the door for the young director of the different ways filmmakers can create meaning. It was equally important that he was exposed to filmmakers who showed him that film could be a way to tackle big theoretical questions about narrative form, social structures, issues of representation and feminism in his filmmaking itself.
When Haynes moved to New York City in 1985, he further emerged into the experimental filmmaking scene, which was the driving energy behind his early shorts and first feature “Poison.” The FilmStruck catalog has a number of seminal experimental short films from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, but a good place to start might be the work of Hollis Frampton, a New York avante garde filmmaker who, like Haynes, was deconstructing Hollywood narratives. You can watch his “Critical Mass” here.
“The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976)
Haynes was a great admirer of filmmaker Nicolas Roeg, but it may have been this film’s star, David Bowie, who had the greatest impact on his art. The way gender and social conventions serve as a straitjacket in American society is at the core of Haynes’ cinematic world. Haynes was fascinated by how Bowie’s created his own identity, in particular maintaining a fluid sexual orientation in way he defined his public persona.
Haynes explored these issues in “The Velvet Goldmine” – which was heavily based on Iggy Pop and Bowie’s glam rock days – but the idea of being a shapeshifter has worked its way into other films, most notably “I’m Not There.” In this surreal sci-fi art film – the rock star’s first acting performance – Bowie plays an alien. You can find the Criterion Blu-Ray of “The Man Who Fell to Earth” here.
No matter how experimental Haynes is when challenging mainstream storytelling conventions, his films are hardly loose. There’s a mathematical specificity about his best works, which he treats like puzzles he needs to solve in structuring their narratives and creating visual meaning.
Haynes was naturally drawn to the work of Hitchcock, who worked with a formula that reached a huge audience, but also found ways to subvert his audience, by implicating them and their voyeuristic desires. It’s in this light that Haynes has pointed to “Vertigo” as one of his very favorite films of all time, while using Hitchcock as a model of someone who can work with larger budgets, and reach a wider audience, without compromising his vision. You can watch the films of Alfred Hitchcock on FilmStruck here.
“Masculin Feminin” (1966)
Haynes referenced this essential Jean-Luc Godard film in “I’m Not There,” but the inspiration Haynes drew from Godard goes beyond a wink and a nod in one particular film. Godard was a filmmaker who openly tackled big philosophical ideas and the form itself.
In “Masculin Feminin,” Godard’s title card refers to his protagonists as the “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola,” in a film that touches upon both tragedy and satire of restless Parisian youth. Haynes was also drawn to a contradiction in Godard’s work, specifically the way they romantically portrayed women, but how they were removed from political matters driving the film and their lives as characters. Godard became a key for Haynes to access his ’60s Bob Dylan character in “I’m Not There” and leaned on the New Wave’s director’s visual style for portions of the film as well. You can watching “Masculin Feminin” on FilmStruck here.