[Editor's Note: The Conversations is a monthly feature in which Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard discuss a wide range of cinematic subjects: critical analyses of films, filmmaker overviews, and more. Readers should expect to encounter spoilers.]
Ed Howard: In all of his films, Todd Haynes takes elements of gaudy tabloid culture and warps them to his own purposes, because he sees—in the lurid stories about sexuality and decadence and violence that we like to tell ourselves, in the celebrity gossip rags and TV news and hyped-up movies—deeper truths about identity, gender, politics, entertainment and sexuality. Haynes finds, within the sensationalist and the melodramatic, a culture's vision of itself, distorted by a funhouse mirror but nevertheless evocative of the unvarnished truth. Or maybe the truth really is as strange as the mirror suggests: entertainers as plastic action figures, made to be manipulated and posed; sexuality as a plague, terrifying and mysterious; suburbia as a deadening cage for the emotions; the past as a manufactured façade, rendered superficially safe by the suppression (or ignorance) of all those impulses that go unchecked in the present; identity as malleable and fluid, the true self supplanted by endless masks and games. Haynes' appropriation of the language of media—the docudrama, the genre film, the educational documentary, all eras and styles collaged together in his cinematic blender—is an examination of the ways in which culture both disguises and probes the truths about individuals, their secret desires and fears and fantasies.
Haynes has so far examined these themes over the course of five feature films and a smattering of shorts, ranging from his suppressed short film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987) to his most recent feature, a kaleidoscopic semi-biography of Bob Dylan titled I'm Not There (2007). The fascinations and techniques that drive Haynes' work are apparent even in his obscure second film, Superstar (his first, Assassins: A Film Concerning Rimbaud, is even more obscure and difficult to see). On paper, the premise of Superstar makes it sound like a cheap gag: it's the story of the life and death of '70s pop icon Karen Carpenter, with all of the characters played by Barbie dolls and rendered in the style of a TV documentary. This description belies the film's true depth, its emotional impact, and its surprising insights into anorexia, the strange intertwining of music and politics, and the pressures that are placed on those in the public light, particularly women. Even in the lousy bootlegged copies that are currently the only way to see the film—because of the harsh but predictable legal responses from both Mattel and the Carpenter Estate—it's apparent that Superstar is a remarkable early work, an act of music criticism in film form, much as Haynes' later Velvet Goldmine and I'm Not There would be. It points the way forward to the rest of Haynes' oeuvre, but it also stands on its own as a bracing, poignant look at body image and the rapaciousness with which America's entertainment culture can devour vulnerable young female performers.
Jason Bellamy: Superstar is an excellent launch point for a discussion of Haynes' career, not just because the short is one of the auteur's early works but also because it's perhaps the best encapsulation of who Haynes is as a filmmaker. In the film's focus on Karen Carpenter we see Haynes' fascination with celebrity and, in particular, musical icons. In its use of Barbie dolls as puppets we see Haynes' mastery of genre forms, his vivid imagination and his knack for examining the world through the eyes of children. In its focus on anorexia we see Haynes' interest in isolating human conditions, in the way things beyond our control—disease, sexual desire, skin color, etc.—don't just influence our identities but actually define us, shaping our visions of ourselves and how we are perceived by others. Superstar also reveals Haynes' curiosity for and identity with the female mindset. And, as a whole, Superstar demonstrates the intellectualism of Haynes' work, a quality that, perhaps more than any other, unifies both his filmmaking and his films, and that I'll argue is perhaps his greatest weakness as much as it might be his greatest strength. We have time for that discussion later. For now I'll simply wrap up this line of thought by saying that perhaps the only predominant characteristics of Haynes' oeuvre that Superstar, by itself, doesn't reflect would be his comfort with nonlinear storytelling and his penchant for specifically exploring elements of homosexuality (which isn't to imply that Carpenter's closeted battle with anorexia doesn't have overlapping themes with some of Haynes' explorations of what it means, or has meant, to be homosexual in America).
Superstar is also a fun place to begin this discussion because it might be my favorite Haynes film. I admire it for some of the things that we've hinted at so far: its creativity, mastery of technique and cogent social commentary. But maybe the thing I like most about it is its surprising emotional depth. I watched Superstar for the first time in preparation for this conversation—it was actually the last Haynes film that I watched or rewatched, which might be significant (more on that later)—and I don't think any other Haynes film has cut me so deeply for such a sustained period of time. Here's a film that came out 23 years ago, that uses Barbies as puppets, that I encountered in the aftermath of Trey Parker and Matt Stone's gonzo marionette comedy Team America: World Police (2004) and that I watched on YouTube, which has become the go-to forum for all things sophomoric, and yet Superstar is decidedly unfunny. I don't mean to imply that Haynes doesn't exhibit a wry sense of humor with the film, just that it's far from foolish, far from frivolous. It's a movie that breaks your heart. In recent years critics have been awed at the ability of animation to be—gasp!—solemn in films like Persepolis or Waltz With Bashir, as if animation is inherently funny. Superstar, by comparison, is something truly awe-inspiring—the manipulation of universally-recognized childlike toys to take on a very mature subject with a very cerebral sensibility. Let me be clear: Nodding back to our Pixar conversation, I'm not praising Superstar solely or even primarily for rising above a low bar of expectations, for escaping some genre ghetto of its own creation. Rather I'm attempting to point out that Haynes approaches the Karen Carpenter story in the most unorthodox of ways and yet creates a film so note-perfect that within minutes the Barbie doll puppet show approach doesn't even seem unorthodox. Or is it just me?
EH: I think you've nailed it. I've always been blown away by this film. It does pack quite an emotional wallop, which is surprising for a film in which all the characters are literally made out of plastic—introducing a sense of distance that's compounded by the fact that the film can only be seen in dodgy, blurry bootlegs on YouTube and the like. And yet there's no question that Haynes very quickly bridges this Brechtian gap, making us care about these characters and forget that they're Barbie dolls. After a while, we start thinking of them as people. In a way, that can be summarized as the film's radical agenda: to treat what could've been a subject of kitsch with respect, affection and empathy. There's an affinity between the Barbie doll and Karen Carpenter that goes beyond the most obvious level, the idea that we, as a culture, view celebrities as plastic icons to play with until we get bored. The Carpenters' music is also widely perceived as kitschy and shallow, as a symbol for the complacency and regression of the '70s, a criticism that Haynes acknowledges in examining the group's music. At the same time, he encourages a perspective that treats the woman behind the music as an earnest performer who wasn't some corporate shill, who wasn't responsible for the ways in which her songs were used as marketing material for conservative forces, who was more than anything a victim of a system that didn't care a bit about her personal health or self-image.
There's another obvious reason for the "casting" of Barbie dolls that goes along with this critique of media and culture: Barbie's status as a ubiquitous symbol of female beauty, female perfection even. Barbie stands in for a whole culture that encourages women to pursue unrealistic and unhealthy images of bodily "perfection," to spurn food, to shrink themselves down into stick-figure skeletons. By embodying Karen Carpenter in the form of an American feminine ideal, the impossible body of the Barbie doll, Haynes is ridiculing the absurdity of this pressure. The tabloids, represented in the film with sensationalist headlines that periodically splash across the screen, are obsessed with weight, with the female body. In a cruel irony, the same commentators who will call a female performer "chubby" will soon enough feign astonishment and disgust at the skeletal, anorexic form that results from her response to this complaint.
These are familiar problems, and familiar pressures—sadly, one imagines a similar film could be made about someone like Britney Spears someday—but Haynes dramatizes and humanizes these issues. As you alluded to above, the film is intellectual, but Haynes never loses sight of the woman at the center of this story. Therefore, when the film detours, as it often does, into pseudo-documentary segments about marketing, politics or the medical and psychological foundations of anorexia, there's a real human component to the recitations of facts and figures. This is made especially poignant in the scenes revolving around Karen's anorexia, as Haynes shows her family, well-meaning but pushy and controlling, reacting with anger to her anorexic habits, forcing her to eat, and praising her eating habits when she's "recovered"—all actions that, the documentary segment suggests, will unwittingly only worsen Karen's unhealthy obsessions with food and weight. This gets to the heart of how Haynes uses the language of the documentary in his films, taking the dry, objective stance of the conventional documentary and relating it to the human realities that lie beneath its facts and figures. He similarly deconstructs tabloid culture, adopting its rhetoric only to critique it, to demonstrate the effects of this exploitative entertainment apparatus on those trapped within it. Karen, for Haynes, is not just a celebrity, not just an anorexic, not just a singer, not just a symbol; she's a woman, and she's her own individual self.
JB: She really is. This is an effect pulled off in large part thanks to Carpenter herself, who we get to hear singing some of her greatest hits, from the upbeat "Top of the World" to the melancholy "Rainy Days and Mondays." I say "get to," because Carpenter had an absolutely remarkable voice, whatever one might have thought of her music. And by reminding us of Carpenter's grisly death at the start of the film, Haynes ensures that we see the songstress as a caged bird, rather than a pop icon spewing vapid lyrics; he focuses our attention on the emotions in Carpenter's voice, rather than those articulated in the pat melodrama of the music. Interestingly enough, whether the emotions of Carpenter's songs contrast her own mood or perfectly reflect it, the juxtaposition is always tragic. I think it's safe to say that a heartbreaking Barbie doll puppet drama couldn't be made about just anyone; Carpenter's story is inherently sad, and since her music is so recognizable we bring to the film our own nostalgia, even if hearing Carpenter sing simply reminds us of the way we were. (Wait, now I'm quoting Barbra Streisand. What just happened?)
Point is, Superstar is grounded in a specific reality, stirring us with images of Carpenter's era as much as Carpenter herself. It's amazing, for example, how well Haynes recreates those televised musical performances of the late 1970s that were so often shot on cold, modestly decorated stages, under medium light, with an inevitable mid-song cut to a profile of the singer in front of some soft, moody offstage lights. Beyond such intricacies, Superstar also incorporates references to Richard Nixon and Vietnam. Haynes reminds us that the Carpenters' fans idolized them in part as an antidote to something—a common theme in his work. Karen Carpenter was angelic purity bringing sunlight amidst the thunderstorms of a bloody war and the grim scowl of Tricky Dick. It's interesting then that, considering their dark secrets and tendencies for self-destruction, Carpenter and Nixon were more alike than anyone could have guessed. Though I agree that the use of Barbies illustrates America's unrealistic expectations about female beauty and our habit of treating celebrities like disposable toys, it also underlines the utter fantasy of celebrity iconography and idolization. Haynes suggests with Superstar that the Karen Carpenter we thought we "knew" was as much an invention of our own hopeful imaginations as anything we might have played out as children using puppets or dolls.
EH: I agree that Haynes makes good use of the Carpenters' music and era as well as the tragic story of Karen herself. If you'd told me a few years ago, before I saw this film for the first time, that I could be moved by listening to "Rainy Days and Mondays," I would've said you were nuts. But sure enough, Haynes contextualizes these tunes so perfectly that it's possible to get past the utter blandness of the music and writing to focus on Karen's unexpectedly nuanced vocals, which Haynes calls attention to through the in-film commentators. I said earlier that Superstar is a work of music criticism, among other things, and in fact it's one of the best pieces of music criticism in the cinema (Haynes has also made two of the others, and we'll get to them later). Superstar attempts to strip away some of the preconceptions that many listeners are likely to bring to the Carpenters' music, and the film makes it possible to embrace and understand what was worthy in their music, or at least what was worth considering.
What's interesting is that, as you imply, this openness to the virtues of the Carpenters' commercial tripe—and particularly to the quality of Karen's pure, warm voice—coexists with Haynes' rather harsh appraisal of the group's place within their musical and historic context. The film does pose the Carpenters as an antidote to something—an antidote, more than anything, to the fiery '60s spirit of rebellion, the constant questioning of traditional values, and the corresponding rawness and adventurousness that briefly inflected the popular music of the era. The film portrays the Carpenters as ushering in a new era, laying a thin carpet of smooth sounds over the rowdiness and resistance that had characterized the previous era in both popular culture and the wider society. It's a heavy weight to place on a single act, but they're a perfect symbol for this glossing-over of the past, this retreat into safety and security. If the previous era was symbolized by Hendrix setting his guitar on fire, literally and metaphorically, or Jim Morrison intoning drug-addled poetry, or the Stones celebrating "street fighting" and then getting the real thing at Altamont, the squeaky family image and unthreatening music of the Carpenters surely represented a clear alternative and opposition.
The film balances this strain of sociopolitical criticism against the emotional narrative of Karen Carpenter, treating the music simultaneously as a sign of the times, a musical and social regression, and yet, in the slight quaver and dynamics of Karen Carpenter's voice, also an indirect expression of the singer's behind-the-scenes dramas.
JB: One of the things that blows me away about Superstar is the utter confidence of the filmmaking, which starts with the boldness of the gesture (trying to make a somber drama using Barbie dolls) and extends to the skill of the technique. Using Barbie dolls in place of actors was, I'm sure, a financially prudent option for a young filmmaker at the start of his career, but it certainly didn't make Haynes' job easier. He couldn't rely on the skills of his actors, because they had none. He couldn't cut to a closeup of their haunted eyes, as he would numerous times in Velvet Goldmine, because there was no emotion there. He couldn't afford mistakes, because there was no one or nothing else to mask them. With Superstar, Haynes put the responsibility of the film squarely on his shoulders, getting an assist from Karen Carpenter's vocals but otherwise going it alone.
In that light, Superstar is a validation of auteur theory that lends weight to the suggestion by Hitchcock—one of the godfathers of daring technique—that actors are nothing more than cattle. Armed with his cast of inanimate players, Haynes finds emotions not in the faces of his characters but in his cuts and camera movements. Memorable is the scene in which Haynes quick-cuts back and forth between the face of Karen and the hand of a record producer who is reaching out for her trust. Effective is the Altmanesque slow zoom toward Karen and Richard Carpenter having dinner at a restaurant, our view becoming tighter as the tension of the scene rises, with Karen insisting that she isn't hungry and Richard pleading/demanding that she eat something. Also notable is the scene in which Haynes employs a slow pan that searches for Karen across her seemingly empty room as Richard calls out for his sister, only to find her face down on her makeup table next to a box of Ex-Lax. Given this mÈlange of techniques, I suppose Superstar could have come off like a class project, an exercise designed to teach a novice film student about the inherent effects of basic editing and cinematography. Instead, Superstar comes across like the product of a practiced filmmaker who, like Hithcock before him, understood the emotions of every scene just by diagramming the camera angles. Haynes' next film, Poison, would seem in some ways experimental. Superstar, by contrast, seems entirely assured.
EH: That's a great point. However unusual Superstar might be in terms of its non-human "actors" and some of its genre mashups, in other ways it's a marvel of classical filmmaking technique. It's also a pretty durable example of just how powerful classical filmmaking can be even in the absence of other conventional elements of film form, like the expressiveness of a good performance. In addition to the scenes you mention, I'm reminded of the one where Karen, after collapsing on stage, wakes up to find her family hovering above her, chattering about how they're going to cure her. Haynes shows the well-meaning relatives from Karen's point-of-view, their heads poking into the frame from every angle, and the sense of claustrophobia that Karen feels is palpable even though her face betrays no expression. Moreover, the smiling, motionless faces of her parents and brother add a creepy vibe to the scene, deepening the sense that Karen's lack of control over her own life is unhealthy and only getting worse. As we've suggested, it's remarkable how much emotional nuance Haynes conveys in scenes like this without being able to rely on the frozen faces of the Barbie dolls to communicate emotion.
You're also right that Poison is comparatively experimental, in the literal sense of the word. The film's experimental nature is revealed even its structure: though technically Haynes' first feature-length film, it's actually an anthology of three shorter stories, completely separate in terms of narrative and characters but thematically linked. Haynes cuts between the three stories—the documentary-style "Hero," the Universal horror pastiche "Horror" and the gay prison drama "Homo"—throughout the film, blending them together and exploring the resonances between them. Poison seems like the early work of a director just finding his voice, toying with different storytelling techniques and developing his later themes in sketchy form, whereas Superstar is the fully developed final product, even though it actually came first. The main difference, I think, is that Poison lacks the overwhelming emotional impact of Superstar. There are moments of bracing catharsis in this film—notably the final sequence, which I find nearly as moving and startling as Superstar—but otherwise it's too fragmented, too abstracted, at times even too jokey, though I do appreciate the broad Hollywood parodies of the "Horror" sequence.
Which is not to say that Poison is without merit, by any means. It's an interesting film, if not quite a fully realized one, and it's packed with the inventiveness and insight that one expects from Haynes. Of the three sections, I think it's no coincidence that the most affecting is the one most closely related to Superstar in terms of style. "Hero" concerns itself with a young boy named Richie Beacon who is mocked and abused at school, and who suffers equally at home as his parents fight and ignore him. This goes on until he walks in on his father beating his mother and saves her by shooting his father. And then, according to his mother's awed testimony, he flies out a window and floats away. Haynes allows the story to develop between the lines, hinted at in the anecdotes related by schoolmates, teachers and especially his mother (Edith Meeks). A picture gradually emerges of Richie as a confused young boy with a masochistic streak, as someone whose troubled childhood has left a mark on his developing sexuality. One of the few reenactments in this mockumentary is reserved for the primal scene of Richie discovering his mother having sex with the gardener; Haynes places the boy in the foreground, disconnected from the sexual scene that's playing out in a video image superimposed within the frame.
"Hero" is the one part of Poison I could imagine as a standalone short film like Superstar, and it's nearly as powerful, particularly its haunting final images from Richie's point-of-view as he leaps out the window and drifts away into the clouds, the camera trained on the house at first until it turns around, looking up at the sky, leaving the past behind to float ever upward. It's a mysterious and beautiful image, and if the rest of Poison is more uneven in its effectiveness, it's still a strangely compelling film as a whole.
JB: As a whole is the only way to see Poison. "Hero" might be the most engaging stand-alone chapter, I think you're right about that. Nevertheless what's interesting about Poison is the way its three stories fit together, commenting on one another and creating a collective effect that's greater than the sum of the individual parts. Watching "Horror" by itself, for example, one might deduce fairly easily that its narrative—about a scientist researching the human sex drive who accidentally infects himself with a deadly disease by drinking a sexual potion—is actually a metaphor for the HIV/AIDS scare of the 1980s. Juxtaposed next to "Hero" and "Homo," however, the deeper meaning of "Horror" is unmistakable, screaming at us in underlined boldface right from the very start. This clear sense of purpose, which Haynes isn't always wont to provide, gives "Horror" a gravity it would have lacked if on its own.
Then again, as much as Poison draws strength from its braided approach, there are also times when the weaknesses of one chapter taint the development of another. The "Homo" chapter, for example, is plodding and redundant, dominated by too many similar closeups of guys standing around in the dark talking. Maybe it's because "Homo" is so bloated that "Hero" often loses its momentum and thus feels a little indistinct. To expand upon that last point, I'm somewhat confused by the film's conclusion: We seem to agree that "Hero" is about a boy (Richie) who gets picked on at school and either grows to enjoy his beatings or, one mustn't rule out, perhaps always enjoyed them and went looking for his thumpings. We also agree that "Hero" is about a boy searching for his sexual identity who is somehow traumatized by walking in on his mother screwing the gardener and by witnessing his father physically and verbally abusing mother. OK. Makes sense. I understand that Richie is confused and maybe doesn't even see a line between sexuality and violence, and I understand why he'd want to shoot his father to save his mother. But the film's final line—"My little boy," the mother says, as the camera stands in for Richie and drifts heavenward—suggests to me that Richie has experienced some kind of awakening, as if he's finally stood up to his abuser and, in doing so, found himself, thus pointing him to a more hopeful place. That sounds fine in principle, and yet all we know about Richie is that he got emotional and/or sexual fulfillment from being, well, manhandled. In that light, standing up to his father is a triumph of what, exactly? It's an awakening how?
That's one of the times Poison seems a little muddled, but my main gripe with the film is that it strikes me as a bit hollow. There are some truly wonderful little moments in this picture, like the earnestness with which one of the prepubescent interviewees in "Hero" says that Richie was "just the kind of person you want to see get creamed" (pun intended?), or that terrific intake scene in the warden's office near the start of "Homo," or that series of shots in which Haynes focuses on the grubby hands and mouths of the "Homo" inmates as they pass a cigarette down the line. Like you, I also enjoy the Hollywood parodies of "Horror," which, because 1950s horror flicks were almost always metaphors for the Red Scare, equates, in a typically Haynesian way, the stated desire to "stop the spread of this despicable contagion" (code for HIV/AIDS) with McCarthyist paranoia. Overall, though, Poison is the Haynes picture that indeed feels like a student project, an experiment with form rather than a fully-realized work. Poison is interesting as a reference point to help us understand Haynes, but I can't call it compelling as cinema.
EH: That's where I disagree with you. While Poison is undoubtedly a formative work, I still find it engaging and compelling. I'm with you on "Homo" being the weak link, though. It's Haynes' tribute to a whole host of influences, most obviously Jean Genet and his Un chant d'amour, but also Derek Jarman (who is felt in the mix of the pastoral and the lurid in the flashback sequences) and Robert Bresson (the wonderful intimacy of those closeups of hands passing a cigarette along comes right out of Pickpocket). I think Haynes gets too tied up in recreating the grim prison atmosphere of Genet and fails to make it his own; that's one possible source of the hollowness you note, an excess of fidelity to Haynes' influences. In later films, he'd take his cultural touchstones—glam and Citizen Kane in Velvet Goldmine, Sirk and Fassbinder in Far From Heaven, Godard, Fellini and Pennebaker in I'm Not There—and synthesize them into something fresh and original, something that unmistakably belongs to him. I don't think he owns the Genet references here in quite the same way.
But you're right that Poison has to be taken as a whole, and in that sense it does work better. In the context of the whole, I look at the "Homo" segment as the clue to interpreting and reacting to the other two segments. As the only explicitly gay segment, it primes the rest of the film to be taken in terms of gay desire and sexuality, enforcing the HIV allegory in "Horror" and the feeling of being deviant that runs through "Hero." The interweaving of the three segments creates fertile juxtapositions, developing the idea that Haynes views the gay experience as one of feeling fundamentally different in society. That's the common ground between the three segments, and the key to understanding Richie's torment and redemption in "Hero." Richie, like a subsequent Haynes boy hero, the equally confused Steven in the short Dottie Gets Spanked, isn't necessarily gay, though there are signs that he's leaning in that direction. But Richie's difference is used as a metaphor for the experience of gay young men: uncertain what he wants, with no clear reference points in the adult world, only violence and rage and abuse. I see Richie's final flight, therefore, as an escape from this confusion, a rejection of the violence and misunderstanding that confronted him everyday. I'm not sure if Richie is meant to have "found himself," or that he's heading towards "a more hopeful place," so much as he is fleeing a world that seemed ill-suited for his sensitivity and his differences. He's not running toward anything so much as running away from the life he'd had. His mother's awed "my little boy" is ironic: she didn't understand him while he was around, and she glorifies him in the abstract now that he's gone.
The ironies in "Horror" are even more pointed, particularly the way Haynes treats the epidemic as a corruption of the 1950s-style squeaky-clean Hollywood image. It's surely no coincidence that Haynes names the saccharine-sweet good girl character Nancy Olson (Susan Norman), after the actress who played the similarly sweet girl next door in Sunset Boulevard, similarly offering up redemption to the male protagonist and similarly failing. Haynes' Nancy is an exaggerated vision of the 1950s good-girl archetype; Norman moves stiffly, with a grin frozen on her face, almost like a mannequin striking poses—or a Barbie doll. As in Superstar, Haynes is subverting popular narratives, like the one about the good girl who, through her purity, rescues the corrupted man from his fate. The story is also a clever metaphor for how the spread of AIDS has, ironically, forced our society to confront sexuality in more open ways than we had in repressed earlier eras; squeaky-clean discretion is no longer a viable option.
All of which is a way of asserting that I don't find Poison nearly as "hollow" as you do. It's a somewhat rough early work, and Haynes would soon go on to make much more fully realized films, but there's more than enough substance to Poison in the way it slyly uses its disparate styles to comment on the self-image of American culture and the uneasy place of difference and deviance within that self-image.
JB: Yeah, "hollow" is a somewhat relative term in this case, and even then it might be the wrong term. Thinking about it more, maybe I really mean that Poison is emotionally flat. Again, it's not without its moments, emotional ones at that. But its stimulations are mostly mental. I appreciate Poison, but I rarely feel it. I take pleasure in the way the three stories weave together to create a greater whole, but that greater whole rarely takes me to a deeper place. So if in calling the film "hollow" it seems as if I'm suggesting that Haynes isn't invested in the film, or hasn't thought it through, that's not my intent. But Poison is a film that too often seems to be inspired by its styles and techniques, rather than the other way around. I think you might be on to something when you suggest that with "Homo," Haynes gets lost paying tribute to his influences. Indeed, that's the chapter that seems at odds with the rest.
Dottie Gets Spanked, his subsequent short, has no such problems of disjointedness. It's a comparatively simple tale about a little boy, Steven (Evan Bonifant), whose efforts to find his place in the world, his comfort zone, if you will, result in a deep obsession with a TV star, Dottie (Julie Halston). In a mere 30 minutes, Haynes touches on some of his favorite subjects—celebrity idolatry, sexuality and identity—but it's here that Haynes most explicitly explores his fascination with a child's view of the world. Dottie Gets Spanked isn't entirely told from Steven's point of view, but it shows us life through his eyes. Unforgettable, for me, are those early shots of Steven watching Dottie's TV show: sitting cross-legged on the floor with his faced pressed up against the television, as if by positioning himself close enough he can escape his real life and enter Dottie's world. We first see Steven from behind, from the position of an adult looking down at the child, but then we get very tight closeups that put Steven's face in the foreground while his mother chats with a friend in the background behind him. Steven hears their conversations, but he isn't listening. To look into his eyes is to see he's fully absorbed. Dottie's world is all he thinks about and all he wants to see.
The shots of Steven's bedroom are equally poignant: his walls covered with his own Dottie illustrations that hang like family portraits. Dottie Gets Spanked includes some fanciful black-and-white dream sequences that cast Steven as the ruler of his own kingdom, giving him the control that every child covets, but I think it's in these "real-world" details of Dottie that Haynes best evokes the childhood imagination and emotional state.
EH: For me, the scene in Dottie that best captures the emotions of childhood is the final one, in which Steven takes a drawing he'd made of his idol Dottie, folds it up, wraps it in aluminum foil, and carefully buries it in his yard. It's the attention to detail that sells it, the way Haynes shows Steven methodically going through each step of the process, very serious and intent as he creeps around in the dark. There's something ritualistic about it, the kind of ritual engaged in by children when they're locked into their own private world, with its own private rules. By burying this picture—a crude drawing of Dottie being spanked—Steven is attempting to bury his own strangeness, to distance himself from the quirks that set him apart from the other children. There's something tender in the final image, though, in the way Steven gently pats the dirt down on top of the folded drawing, as though he's reluctant to say goodbye to these childhood fantasies. He seems to be telling himself that maybe someday soon he'll come back for the drawing that's buried so shallow, even though he has to know he's leaving Dottie behind.
In addition to childhood imagination, the film is, as you suggest, about control and power. Steven's dreams are power fantasies, creating a world in which he can take control in a way he never can in his ordinary life—at least, right up until his final dream, when his imaginary reign ends. These dreams are realms where his fertile imagination has free play, where he can think about and act out whatever he wants—including his obsession with Dottie, which in the real world marks him out as somewhat feminine or weird to both his father and the other kids at school. The final dream, in which he's punished for his love of Dottie, suggests that Steven has started to realize that he's different, that he's judged for the things he likes and the things he does. Burying the drawing of Dottie is a farewell to childhood, a farewell to his ability to do his own thing without worrying what other people might think. It's a moment of sad maturity, an acceptance of the boundaries imposed upon people by the expectations of gender roles; a theme that obviously resonates with Haynes at a pretty deep level. Steven perhaps acquiesces to what's expected of him by his parents and peers, unlike Richie Beacon in Poison, and unlike Haynes himself, who understands and sympathizes with these incredible pressures to conform and resists them at every opportunity.
JB: I don't know. My reading of the final scene is somewhat opposite of yours. I agree the scene captures the emotions of childhood, that Steven is "attempting to bury his own strangeness" and that the shallow burial seems to suggest an unwillingness to put the feelings inspired by the drawing too far out of reach. But I don't see it as a farewell to childhood so much as a last ditch effort to retreat back to it. I don't see it as a sign of maturity so much as a realization that he's not quite ready to grow up. Prior to Steven's visit to the Dottie show set, his relationship with his on-screen idol has been innocent, as evidenced by the drawings on his wall which are fixated on her beauty. (Steven, who knows his trivia, is aware that the actress who plays the blond Dottie is actually a brunette, and thus he seems to appreciate the ability of "Dottie" to transcend her God-given boundaries, to go from caterpillar to butterfly, which is a metamorphosis he might be trying to plot for himself.)
Once Steven visits the set, however, and watches Dottie get spanked by her on-screen husband, and finds himself strangely fascinated by the display, his relationship to Dottie changes. She isn't so pure anymore, and now Steven is aware that he isn't either. He appears uncomfortably titillated. It's those emotions he attempts to explore by recreating the Dottie spanking with his crayon drawing. And, once the scene is depicted, Steven grows uncomfortable having a visual cue of those feelings lying around, so close at hand. Thus, out to the flowerbeds the drawing goes, allowing Steven to bury those emotions safely away from him and, just as important, safely away from anyone else. They are protected, like buried treasure, waiting for the day he might be ready to dig them up. So, again, my take is that Steven isn't prepared to mature quite so quickly, isn't prepared to accept his sexuality (which at that age is quite understandable). He isn't ready to face the truth of his condition: those growing illicit urges that, at least in his mind, make him an outsider.
That's actually a fitting segue to Haynes' next film, Safe, which stars Julianne Moore as an L.A.-area woman named Carol who develops a sudden and increasingly severe allergic reaction to her environment. Exactly what part of Carol's environment is making her ill is never made clear. Is it really the air pollution, food toxins, or chemicals on her new furniture? Or does Carol become allergic to her life: her awkward marriage, her lack of purpose, her empty routine of forced social pleasantries? Maybe all of the above. There's a lot going on in Safe, and I'm not sure it lends itself to one neat, entirely satisfactory interpretation. The one thing that is crystal clear, however, is Carol's sense of isolation, her ever-growing awareness that she is different, at odds with a world that seems aggressively at odds with her. She doesn't fit, and emotionally, in addition to physically, it tears her apart. Carol's reaction to her discomfort is quite similar to Steven's: she retreats, figuratively and literally, until at the end of the film she's isolated in an igloo-like bunker within the middle of a quarantined zone within middle-of-nowhere New Mexico. Unable to dissociate from her condition, as Steven tries to do with his drawing, Carol essentially buries herself.
EH: Safe was the first Todd Haynes film I saw, and it remains my favorite; it's a film that blows me away every time I revisit it, in part because, as you say, it so completely resists all attempts at tidy encapsulation. It's a very affecting film, its emotions as raw and overwhelming as the anorexic suffering of Karen Carpenter in Superstar or Steven's blossoming sexual confusion in Dottie Gets Spanked, but at the same time it's also cerebral, cool, even nearly abstract, with multiple potential meanings embedded in its vague narrative. It's the best representation of this balance in Haynes' work, this dichotomy between unfiltered emotionality and cerebral abstraction, which might be thought of as the interplay between two of Haynes' most obvious influences, Sirk and Godard.
If that's the case, the film's first half is its Sirk half, though even then it's cooler than Sirk, without the lush, over-the-top sensibility that Haynes would embrace in his more complete Sirk homage, Far From Heaven. Still, there's no doubt that Carol lives in a suburb that might be described as equally Sirkian and Lynchian. Haynes, like Lynch, likes to create these exaggerated white picket fence ideals in order to deconstruct them, to explore the metaphysical horror beneath these sleek surfaces: a tendency captured in that charged closeup of Carol about to lop off the bud of a yellow flower, an image of tranquil beauty on the verge of being destroyed. Carol's house is in a state of perpetual disarray, constantly under construction, as though she believes that if she can only perfect this sterile living space, she will be happy and fulfilled. Haynes frames Carol as tiny within her own home, dwarfed by the size of the rooms and the clutter of furniture, lost in the array of colorful pastels. There's something alienating about this space, particularly in the scene where Carol answers a phone call from her mother, and the long shot shoves Carol off to the side of the frame, visually conveying the mix of meekness and distance in her brush-offs to her mother. "I'm fine. He's fine. They're fine." She says it with such repressed rage, pronouncing that word "fine" as though it's a curse.
And maybe it is. There's nothing tangibly wrong with Carol or her life, only the curse of being "fine," the curse of subsisting rather than truly living. Haynes makes this condition into a state of creeping existential dread. At times—and this is going to drive you nuts considering your thoughts about horror in our Trouble Every Day conversation—Safe is nearly a horror film about a woman's reaction of terror to the ordinary surroundings of her life. My favorite scene in that respect is the one in which Carol walks into her den and Haynes maintains a tight closeup as she reacts with, well, the only word for it is horror, to something in the room that we can't see. It's the archetypal horror movie scene where the protagonist discovers a bloody corpse and realizes that the killer is lurking nearby—except in this case Carol has just realized that the furniture company delivered the wrong color couch. It's a brilliant manipulation of genre conventions, especially when Haynes sticks with the scene through its aftermath, capturing Carol's outrage and the maid's nervous bemusement as Carol angrily calls the furniture company. This is the routine horror of Carol's life. Later on, a sufferer of environmental illness describes walking down an ordinary hallway, being unsure of when the "monster" is going to jump out of nowhere. These are people who are afraid of everything, terrified of what might be lurking around every corner, unable to deal with the minor setbacks and prosaic struggles of ordinary life. Or, at least, that's one interpretation of this rather slippery film.
JB: Indeed, that is just one interpretation, and I think I'm going to surprise you here: I don't love Safe by any means, predominantly for some almost entirely subjective reasons that we can talk about later, but what I appreciate most about the film is its elusiveness, which is directly tied to its mixture of styles and an at least semi-intentional inscrutability. Given some of our past discussions, faithful readers of this series might assume that I would object to Safe's ambiguity, but Safe is ambiguous in a multifaceted and very thoughtful way, and for me that makes all the difference. In our Mulholland Drive conversation, I objected not so much to the strangeness, imprecision or even randomness of David Lynch, but to the inescapable feeling that many moments in Lynch's films are entirely abstract even to him. "Why-the-fuck-not moments," I called them, wherein Lynch plays Rorschach and, all too often, gets praised for a meticulousness that I don't think exists in those cases. (Aside: I realize it's not Lynch's fault how his films are received, and I admit I'm guilty of sometimes holding it against his films that some of his most ardent followers find genius in his every move.) Now, I'm not looking to revive the debate of what Lynch is or isn't, or to start a detailed evaluation of Lynch vs. Haynes. Instead, I bring it up to help articulate the following observation: I never feel that Haynes is without intent, even when his films seem ambiguous or even contradictory.
Am I right about that? I don't know. Maybe not. Maybe Lynch and Haynes are equally aware or unaware, equally calculating or nonchalant. I don't think that's the point. The point is how I feel watching a Haynes film: that tremendous thought has gone into every narrative, theme and frame. This isn't to suggest that I think Haynes is always successful at expressing his own thoughts cinematically, because there are times when I suspect his films are unintentionally indistinct or convoluted. But even then, especially when watching Haynes' films in close succession, I feel his intent, or at least think I do. I don't always understand what he's going after, but I'm sure he's going after something, and that means a lot to me.
All of which leads me back toward Trouble Every Day. Believe it or not, I thought about that film while watching Safe, too, because in addition to the horror angle you mentioned it strikes me that Carol's experiences provide yet another insightful example of addiction, particularly in terms of our society's reluctance to accept the disease model when faced with conditions that don't always come with visible physical indicators. There are numerous scenes in Safe in which Carol's husband and even her doctor demonstrate skepticism about Carol's condition, as if it's all in her head, as if she could wish it away, as if all she needs to do is try to get better. They are like the frustrated family of the addict, wishing their loved one would "just stop using." But the addiction metaphor goes much deeper than that, because its most heartrending element is the way it reveals the experience of the addict, the difficulty of carrying the burden of your physical condition and the added weight of all those looks of doubt, which include the expression the addict sees when looking in the mirror. What Safe so brilliantly makes clear is that even Carol doubts whether her condition is real or just something in her head, some kind of weakness. This is in spite of the fact that at one point she goes into a full-on seizure. There's a reason the first step of the 12-step recovery process is to admit powerlessness in the face of addiction: often the person living with the condition is the one who has the hardest time accepting it.
EH: That's yet another compelling reading of Safe, and one that relates Carol back to Superstar's Karen Carpenter, in that both women are confronted with an "oh, why don't you stop being crazy" reaction from their families and loved ones, who are mostly frustrated and annoyed by the inability of these women to control their bodies and minds. Implicit in this treatment is the fact that they're both women, and therefore not to be respected or trusted—there's a long tradition, both in the cinema and in society, of women being written off as "hysterical" for all sorts of complaints and ailments, and Carol is being dismissed in the same way. It's another sign of Haynes' profound sympathy for his female characters; he displays a very deep understanding of the subtle ways in which women's concerns are downplayed and mocked. This is especially evident in small touches in Safe, like the way that Carol's doctor hands a psychiatrist's card to her husband, sitting next to her, rather than directly to her. The husband and the doctor exchange a knowing glance afterwards, commiserating as they consider the unspoken implication that Carol is simply imagining her illness, that she's just a typical nutty woman. Later, when Carol has to stand up and speak about herself at a meeting, she quickly falters to a halt and reflexively looks to her husband to explain the rest, indicating the extent to which she's interiorized her own inferiority, her inability to speak authoritatively even about her own condition, her own experiences.
I think all these layered meanings and emotional undercurrents confirm the truth of what you say above: "I don't always understand what he's going after, but I'm sure he's going after something." Safe, in particular among his films, is (I think purposefully) vague about its intent and meaning, with Haynes substituting a whole array of thematic and emotional intimations for a single throughline of meaning. Safe has often been interpreted, like the "Horror" segment of Poison, as an allegory for AIDS, the disease spreading mysteriously while the social and medical establishments shrug it off and various self-help groups arise with pseudo-spiritual "solutions" to the epidemic. Haynes certainly seems to be mocking that kind of charlatanism in the film's second half, in which self-help guru Peter Dunning (Peter Friedman) is described as "a chemically sensitive person with AIDS, so his perspective is incredibly vast." Dunning's philosophy puts the responsibility for illness solely on the sufferer. "No one out there can make you sick," he says. He's encouraging the idea that sickness is only a function of one's anger and weakness, that the ill will get better if they can only think themselves happier and healthier—it's a harsh but subtle satire of the way AIDS sufferers were and are often blamed for their own disease, disguised behind calls for "personal responsibility" and the like.
At the same time, the film could be taken as yet another of Haynes' parables for what it's like to feel isolated from society, or as a Lynchian subversion of suburban normality (he even stages what can only be called a Lynchian perm, where the hum of the hair dryer and the abstracted images make even a hair salon seem sinister), or as David Ehrenstein has suggested, "a personal nightmare expressing [Haynes'] fear of turning into a Valley Housewife." The genius of the film is that it allows these different readings, not only to coexist, but to intertwine and comment upon one another. It's such fruitful ambiguity because it allows for the complexity of the situation, for the possibility that nothing in life means only one thing. I appreciate that Haynes doesn't try to hammer home some big—and likely obvious—point about AIDS or suburban conformity or gender. Instead, he develops all these threads that weave through the film without ever coming to the fore, without ever emerging as a dominant element in the larger pattern. The treatment of Dunning is one example: he's a target of satire, clearly, with his willful ignorance of the larger world, his hippy-dippy aesthetics and his trite philosophy. But Haynes, as he so often does, leaves it up to us to decide what exactly he's satirizing here, or if perhaps he's skewering multiple targets at once.
JB: I couldn't agree more. Next to Carol, Dunning is the most significant character in the film, both in terms of what he symbolizes and his effect on Carol. Haynes has a clear distaste for Dunning, who appears to be more interested in playing the healer than in actually healing. Dunning is a snake oil salesman, living in his house on the hill at the expense of genuinely ill people who buy into his shtick. (Correct me if I'm wrong, but we have no real evidence that Dunning has AIDS.) Dunning speaks in evasive riddles, saying things that sound profound and then changing the subject before anyone has the chance to ask him what he means. In my favorite Dunning scene, he sits down at the edge of his little stage, folds his hands and makes a "confession" that he's stopped reading the newspaper and watching the evening news. Why? Because he's afraid the media's "gloom and doom" will negatively affect his immune system. "And I can't afford to take that risk," he says, before adding: "Neither can you." In that moment, Dunning effectively disassociates himself from the media, citing the media's fearmongering, only to then follow the media's lead. He might as well have said: "The media tries to manipulate you to be scared. You should be afraid of that!"
Thing is, though, while Dunning might be a huckster, he seems to be a somewhat productive one. Carol hardly flourishes in Dunning's care, but she does show some signs of becoming her own person, and for Carol that's significant. It's here that the film is perhaps most ambiguous. Safe ends with Carol celebrating her birthday with a rambling, nonsensical speech, after which she retreats back to her bunker where she gazes at her own reflection and whispers, "I love you." Whether this is a hopeful ending or a tremendously depressing one is up for debate. On the hopeful side, Carol seems to be finding a sense of her own self. We could see her birthday speech as a sign of her mental instability, but it could also be argued that it's a powerful step forward, an attempt by Carol to think and feel on her own. That's no small thing. Besides, after all that self-destruction, pain and self-doubt, maybe one of Carol's problems at the end really is self-loathing. Maybe Haynes is suggesting a kind of rebirth as Carol climbs into her igloo womb and recites a mantra of love. Or, maybe, all of that is wrong. Instead, maybe Haynes feels that Carol's condition is a tragedy: her personal breakthroughs are always inspired by her further retreat from the real world. In that light, the end of the film would be asking, "What's happiness worth if it requires us to shelter ourselves from the world to find it?"
Which of these interpretations is correct? If I had to choose, I'd go with the tragic reading, with Carol pulling a Norma Desmond and further descending into her madness. Yet I recognize a compelling case exists for the happy reading, and I have no problem whatsoever with the fact that Haynes keeps his final feelings about Carol indistinct. The ambiguity of Safe's final scene isn't negative in any way. Not unless Haynes thinks Safe's conclusion has one unmistakable interpretation, at which point the lack of specificity would be Haynes' fault.
EH: Haynes is certainly leaving the ending up for interpretation, but personally I feel like Carol is nearly as misguided and lost at the end of the film as she is at the beginning. There's a clear connection between Carol's isolation from the world at the end and Dunning's smug pronouncement that he no longer keeps in touch with the news: he's celebrating disconnection and apathy, as well as self-absorption. Moreover, it's surely notable that Carol's birthday speech, though perhaps a breakthrough for a woman who previously would've looked to her husband to speak for her, is composed mostly of fragmented phrases taken from Dunning's psychobabble and the meaningless jargon of the environmental illness movement. Far from finding her own voice and thinking on her own, Carol has stumbled upon a new man to tell her what to say and what to do: hardly much of a step forward. In breaking free of the restrictions and familiar routines of her old life, in many ways Carol only submits herself to a new set of restrictions.
Still, the final closeup of Carol is so haunting precisely because we're left to wonder what she's thinking, whether she's making a genuine breakthrough or only hollowly repeating the words "I love you" to her own wasted face in the mirror. Her gaunt, pale, blotchy face, her expression terrified and despairing, is the visage of a woman who's seemingly hit rock bottom; and yet, as Haynes holds that final closeup for an uncomfortably long time, we're left to wonder if she really has hit bottom, or if she still has farther to fall. At one point before this breakdown moment, Dunning's co-manager Claire (Kate McGregor-Stewart) tells Carol, "Everything got taken away from me, everything in the material world, and what was left was me." This is meant to be inspiring, but one senses that this is exactly what Carol is afraid of: that she might strip away the familiarity of a life that was suffocating her, only to be left alone to face the truth of her own emptiness, her own blankness. There's so much fear in Carol, including even the fear of losing the familiar torments of her stifling life, which to some extent she's grown accustomed to and even come to rely upon. That's why she goes searching for new meaning in the ideas of others rather than truly trying to get in touch with herself, at least at first. Maybe, in that final shot, she's finally realized that she can only rely on herself to get better. Or maybe she's stripped herself down to her bare essence and realized that, no matter how many times she repeats her self-affirming mantra, she doesn't really like what she's found.
JB: Or maybe she doesn't even know what she's found. I'm with you: there doesn't seem to be a lot of growth in Carol. About the only thing she seems certain of by the end of the film is that she's sick, that she doesn't fit within the larger world, and that's something her mind and body were telling her long ago.
And that brings us to the film's cinematography. Safe is aesthetically bleak, mirroring Carol's condition. The film is almost entirely void of closeups, except in instances in which Haynes zooms in to capture Carol in one of her physical breakdowns. For the most part, Safe consists of uncomfortable long shots, compositions that make the characters seems distant, cold and unknowable. At least a quarter of the film goes by before we ever get a good look at the face of Carol's husband. And even Carol is elusive. On that note, I'm always a little puzzled when people cite this film among Julianne Moore's great performances, because the truth of the matter is that she isn't given very much to do. Her character doesn't talk much, doesn't really do much, beyond her breakdowns, and the camera is too far away to read the emotion of Moore's face or eyes. In many scenes, Carol is a physical prop as much as she's a human character, as reinforced by several compositions that find Carol sitting almost statue-still in the middle of a typically '80s interior, as if she's another piece of furniture. I'm not criticizing Moore. I'm simply pointing out that it's the cinematography that best suggests Carol's mood, as often as not. The film's long shots suggest detachment while the muted palette, the extreme opposite of Haynes' approach to color in his subsequent films, reflects Carol's anemic, sickly condition.
This cinematic thoughtfulness is one of the things about Safe that I most appreciate, and yet I also wonder if Haynes went too far. The consistency of the compositions reinforces my feeling that Safe is at times unnecessarily redundant, visually, emotionally and narratively. How many times must we watch Carol have a breakdown? How many times must the shots symbolize her isolation? How many times must we hear Dunning going through his guru routine? By the end of the film, on the night of Carol's birthday, when we get seemingly inappropriate long shots of people dancing and having fun, or of one of the patients announcing that it's Carol's birthday, one starts to wonder if Haynes just had a passionate love affair with a specific camera lens. I admire Safe, but having seen it twice I can't shake the feeling that this story about a woman having a mental breakdown is too emotionless. Those long shots don't just reflect Carol's detachment, they reinforce it, making her difficult to know and care about. Of course, I concede that this might be Haynes' intent. Whereas most filmmakers attempt to play on our emotions, Haynes always seems more concerned with stimulating our minds. At times, his films feel like academic exercises. Whether that's a compliment or a putdown is up to you.
EH: I don't think it's true, actually, that Safe is entirely "aesthetically bleak." That description fits the film's second half perfectly, since once Carol goes to live at Wrenwood, the film's palette becomes very muted and the look of the film begins to align with the bland video images shown in Wrenwood's TV commercials. In a subtle way, Carol begins to live in a Wrenwood ad. Before that point, however, Haynes is continually filming Carol—mostly from afar, true—in those flashy, stylized interiors that, seen now, look like a trial run for the lush, colorful visuals of Far From Heaven. Haynes says a lot with these images, like the shot of Carol and her husband sitting on opposite sides of the bed after an argument triggered by her latest headache, the mirror fragmenting the space and somehow accentuating their disconnection and separateness.
At the same time, Haynes knows the power of a good closeup, and throughout the film Moore gets plenty of opportunities to act within a more intimate frame, even before the startling and mysterious final closeup. Moore's first big breakdown, when she's driving and begins hyperventilating