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 and gasping, is staged partly in a head-on medium shot, putting the focus so intensely on her fish-out-of-water gasping and wheezing that the scene is uncomfortable and hard to watch. Later, when Carol’s nose begins to bleed after her perm, Haynes captures her reaction in closeup, the better to highlight the darkly humorous disconnect between her new, playful hairstyle and the look of absolute terror on her face as a streak of dark blood winds down towards her mouth. Haynes uses such moments judiciously, certainly, which enhances the impact of each shot where he does cut in from the distancing long view, and which especially makes the ending so bone-chilling. You identify a few long shots that seem unmotivated, but I think Haynes conceived the film in opposite terms: the long shots are the norm, a reflection of a life of isolation, and it’s the closeups that are, without fail, motivated and purposeful.
Still, there’s no doubt that Safe is a single-minded film, and despite its at times overwhelming emotional content, there’s also a chilly, intellectual side to this film and to Haynes in general. I find this aspect of his work bracing and stimulating, but I can see why it could also be off-putting. There’s a sense, in Safe especially, that Haynes is observing specimens on a slide, dissecting this alien lifestyle and wondering what it might mean. I think his intellectualism is refreshing. He’s one of the few modern directors who seems to have absorbed the influence of Godard in deeper ways than the usual appropriation of jump cuts and other surface features: Safe in some ways can be thought of as a relative of Godard’s mid-‘70s masterwork NumÈro deux, in its distanced observation of the routine disconnections experienced within suburban families. Haynes’ films, like Godard’s, might be thought of most fruitfully as essays rather than narratives. Though on the surface Haynes is solidly in the narrative tradition, his films tend to be about ideas as much as people. Just look at his next film, Velvet Goldmine, which on one level is a loose, fictionalized tabloid pastiche of glam-era stories about David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, but on another level is a critical essay about what this music meant and means to its fans, as well as yet another examination of what’s it like to grow up into the dawning realization that one is an outcast from conventional society.
JB: Yeah, Velvet Goldmine is as thoughtful as Safe with less academic dryness and emotional distance. Another way of putting it: Velvet Goldmine is an intellectual film with mainstream trappings, whereas Safe comes off like a movie made by an arts major for fellow arts majors. In saying this I’m not denigrating Safe or proclaiming artistic superiority for Velvet Goldmine. Rather I’m pointing out that Safe thrives in part thanks to Haynes’ self-made reputation, which assures us that what’s on the surface is symbolism for something deeper. By contrast, Velvet Goldmine, like Superstar before it and Far from Heaven after it, are more approachable, enticing audiences with a familiar narrative structure that leads them comfortably to the film’s complex themes and meditations. Haynes’ approach with Velvet Goldmine isn’t inherently superior, though I have always felt that intellectuals like Haynes sometimes waste some of their genius by burying it a bit too far under the surface. Better, perhaps, to take a cue from Steven and his drawings of Dottie and keep “the point” not too far away.
To this point, Velvet Goldmine announces its structure in the early going with a brief intertitle that quotes Norman Brown: “Meaning is not in things but in between them.” That quote isn’t the only way that Haynes prompts the casual viewer to look deeper, but you can’t be more blatant than that. You’ve already done a terrific job of describing how Velvet Goldmine works: its Citizen Kane meets generic biopic structure, its examination of the broad (a musical, cultural, sexual revolution) and the personal (what it means to have idols). More specifically, Velvet Goldmine provides one of the most complete and compelling examinations of the idolization cycle I’ve ever seen, giving us a central character, Jonathan Rhys Meyer’s Brian Slade, who is both a worshipper and an object of worship. It’s de rigueur of musical biopics (and essentially Velvet Goldmine is a fictionalized one) to show the musician trying to emulate his/her musical heroes in childhood, but what Haynes does is provide a character who spends his entire pop culture career playing dress-up. To a teenage Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale), Slade is the genuine article, his own man, a visionary. But Haynes shows us the man behind the curtain, revealing the truth that Slade, almost without exception, is little more than an imitator, a fan himself, of Ewan McGregor’s Curt Wild among others. Almost all of Haynes’ films are obsessed with identity: with who we are and how we become that person, and with how much that chosen persona represents who we really are, and how much merely represents who we wish we were. I’m not sure he ever examines this subject more compellingly than in this film.
EH: Velvet Goldmine is definitely a very compelling examination of identity: the identities we’re born into, the identities society attempts to mold us into, and the identities we construct for ourselves. In this film, Haynes is especially interested in how culture, at a particular place and time, can resonate in ways far beyond what its creators might have intended—for example, how the glam rockers, with their outlandish images and intent to shock, perhaps unexpectedly provided role models and inspirations for young fans just beginning to explore their own sexualities and their own self-constructed identities. Haynes suggests that even if it’s all an opportunistic act on the part of the entertainer, it can still resonate in deeper ways, can still inspire genuine rebellion and self-investigation. “That’s me,” Arthur imagines himself excitedly shouting to his parents when he sees Brian Slade on TV. “That’s me!” It’s a cry of recognition from a young man who’s starting to realize that he’s gay, different, an outcast, like so many other Haynes heroes, and he’s excited to find that there’s someone else out there like him, someone who looks on the outside the way he feels on the inside. For a young man embarrassed to admit he’s different, it’s a validation to see this popular artist who seemingly embraces the image that Arthur is scared to display himself.
But there’s also a sense of sadness and resignation in Velvet Goldmine, a sense of opportunities squandered. As you say, the film is structured like Citizen Kane, in that it’s an after-the-fact investigation, conducted by Arthur, ostensibly centered on a specific incident (Brian Slade faking his own murder) but actually a post-mortem for the whole glam movement and what happened to it when its glittery star had faded. As Arthur visits some of those who were around at the movement’s apex, Haynes juxtaposes the bright, lavish atmosphere of the flashbacks against the dreary present-tense sequences, set in the mid-‘80s in Thatcherite London. It’s almost sci-fi: the dystopian urban center, run-down and gray, where everyone conforms and the biggest pop star is a puffy-haired Billy Idol lookalike who extols the virtues of the government, shilling for Big Brother in his televised concerts (and recalling Karen Carpenter’s appearance at the White House). We already mentioned Haynes’ connection to Godard, and I think this film is thematically similar to some of Godard’s early ‘80s films (notably Sauve qui peut (la vie) and Passion) in which he laments the fact that the rebellious, politically charged atmosphere of the May 1968 student protests never led anywhere, never achieved any lasting change. In the same way, it seems like Haynes is simultaneously celebrating the openness and jubilation of this particular musical moment, and offering a eulogy for it, mourning the retrenchment of conservatism and conformity. Arthur is perhaps the prime example, once a youth who seemed on the verge of embracing his inner identity, now seemingly closeted and repressed, hiding his past feelings, still ashamed of who he is.
JB: We get an idea of Arthur’s shame early in the film when his editors task him with writing the Brian Slade 10-years-later story. “Naturally you want me for this because I’m the resident Brit, right?” he whines. At the time it seems like a reasonable gripe, like he’s objecting to the ignorance of his American bosses who think that all Brits grew up with the same interests and influences. In retrospect, though, one wonders if a closeted Arthur is actually objecting to his feeling that he’s getting the job because of his sexuality. Maybe he’s worried that he’s been found out. Or, given that we know very little about Arthur in that moment, maybe he’s worried that revisiting the Slade story will stir emotions he’s somewhat successfully suppressed. Either way, he’s reluctant to go there, back to a time when finding his place in the world meant realizing how lonely that place could be. There’s that excellent scene flashing back to Arthur’s youth when he first goes out in public dressed in the styles of his pop idols. He feels awkward. He looks around at others dressed roughly like him and expects to find immediate acceptance. But it isn’t that simple. Arthur might have the look down, but it isn’t him. Not yet.
All of this brings us to what might be my favorite scene in the film, the one in which Arthur locks himself in his room with the new Brian Slade album. As Arthur unwraps the album and pulls the record from its sleeve, he might as well be disrobing a lover, which in a sense is partially true, because the album artwork includes a centerfold-like spread of a naked Slade. Obviously this is far from accidental. It’s a concise visual metaphor for Arthur’s sexual exploration. It’s a depiction of how pop icons can become role models in addition to fantasy objects. But, as you’ve suggested, it’s also a testament to the power of art, in this case music. Arthur handles that album with care because Slade’s music means something to him. It’s personal. It’s part of his life. In a sense, it’s part of him.
EH: Very true. One of the themes percolating through Velvet Goldmine is this idea that people can find themselves in art: can be fulfilled, encouraged, moved and enlightened. In Arthur’s case, Slade’s music and glitzy persona empowers this closeted young man to, however briefly, break out of the mold of suburban conformity, to embrace the feelings developing within him under the disapproving glare of his authoritarian parents. That he later retreats from this empowerment is an indication of his disillusionment with his idols and his acquiescence to changing trends; when feather boas and boys in makeup are no longer fashionable, Arthur sighs and retreats back into the dull mob around him, even though the glam era style had undoubtedly suited him better. That’s why the movie has this air of melancholy and nostalgia to it, this sense that the pleasures of art can be fleeting—if one allows them to be.
Haynes, on the other hand, seems to have maintained his fascination with and his deep connection to the art that moves him, and in many ways Velvet Goldmine is a tribute to that art. I don’t think it’s reaching too far to suppose that, in some way, Arthur is a stand-in for Haynes, maybe not in terms of autobiography, but at least in reflecting the reactions that Haynes felt upon encountering provocative art in his youth. In the film, even Slade has this kind of epiphany, when he sees Curt Wild performing, in a scene that pays tribute to the raw power of Iggy Pop in his youthful prime: half-naked, bouncing around the stage, caressing himself, and unleashing an unholy howl that leads into the Stooges’ brilliant “TV Eye.” Haynes, making a film about the power of art, has made a film packed with references to the art that has affected him. Brian Slade’s band is called Venus In Furs, after the Velvet Underground’s deadpan ode to S&M. Curt Wild’s band is called Flaming Creatures, after Jack Smith’s infamous avant-garde film. One of Slade’s music videos gleefully hybridizes Kenneth Anger with A Clockwork Orange, as a glittery, blue-painted demon has a sped-up orgy with a pair of sex dolls. Brian Eno tracks are constantly popping up on the soundtrack; Haynes reportedly wanted actual Bowie songs but Bowie balked at the gossipy aspects of the script, and in any event Eno’s ‘70s glam-pop masterpieces are suitable substitutes. (“Baby’s On Fire,” with its sinister chugging rhythm, is used particularly well to generate an aura of danger and rebellion in the air.) References to Oscar Wilde abound, with whole sections of dialogue (often provided in on-screen cue cards a la “Subterranean Homesick Blues”) coming from the famed gay author. Haynes even nods to his own history with a fantasy love scene between two glammed-up Ken dolls, thumbing his nose at Mattel now that he’s making a big-budget mainstream picture rather than an easily suppressed home movie.
These references aren’t incidental or offhand, the way they would be for so many directors. They constitute the very core of the film, Haynes’ tribute to his own past and the art that shaped and influenced him, that made him the man he is. He even borrows the biographical details of these artists that resonate with his interests, like the fact that Lou Reed was once sent for electroshock treatment to, as it’s put in the film, “fry the fairy clean out of him.” Haynes is analyzing and dissecting the impact of this music. It’s music criticism, as much as anything. The scene you mention where Arthur sits in his room with a Brian Slade gatefold spread out in front of him is a potent depiction of how young people define and discover themselves in music, finding an image and a model of behavior that stretches far beyond the music itself. And at the same time Haynes is suggesting that this emphasis on the personal has perhaps obscured the larger social and political concerns that are hinted at in adventurous music like this. “We set out to change the world and ended up just changing ourselves,” Curt tells Arthur sadly, and when Arthur asks what’s wrong with that, Curt replies, “NothingÖ if you don’t look at the world.” As much as Haynes celebrates the power of art in this film, he’s also probing its limitations and boundaries, and perhaps lamenting that the art that has had such a tremendous personal impact on his own life has failed to resonate with much of the rest of the world.
JB: I think you’re on to something there. Of course, weaved into that lament is Velvet Goldmine’s acknowledgment that pop art finds its power in its newness, in its attempt to transcend boundaries. When we see the shot of the young Oscar Wilde standing up in school and declaring, “I want to be a pop idol,” what he’s saying is that he wants to stand out, to be different, to go to places previously unexplored. It’s the same desire that drives Brian Slade and Curt Wild. Trouble is, if the pop artist keeps evolving, eventually he moves beyond the art that made him famous in the first place, thus leaving some of his audience behind. And yet if the pop artist fails to evolve he winds up being left by his audience, which gets drawn like moths to the flame of something else excitingly “new.” Thus, pop art movements are inherently fleeting, a bitter reality that’s perfectly articulated by Brian’s ex-wife Mandy during her interview with Arthur. Sitting in a dark bar, puffing on her cigarette and reflecting on her ex-husband’s staged death, the end of his public career and the end of their marriage, Mandy says: “Brian, he just became someone else. Then again, he always was.”
What’s interesting is that for as personal and autobiographical as Velvet Goldmine seems to be, Mandy’s comment, not to mention Haynes’ later film I’m Not There, calls attention to the disconnect that can exist between an artist and his art. As fans, we develop deep, passionate relationships with art that we want to believe creates a similar bond between us and the artist—in the least, we want to believe that the art means as much to the person who created it as it does to us—yet frequently it doesn’t. And though we often blame artists for moving on without us (as evidenced by Mandy, Curt and Arthur’s longing for “their” Brian Slade), what we willingly ignore is our habit of moving on without them. To this point, the film’s closing montage is brilliant. It transitions from a poignant tribute for glam-era stars to a shot of anonymous townsfolk talking in a bar, seemingly unaware of the radio behind them playing an ode to cherished idols. The lyrics of the song say, “your memory stays/it lingers ever/fade away never.” The image says otherwise.
EH: We live in a culture that’s obsessed with the new, never looking back, always moving on to the next new thing. All of the artists evoked by Velvet Goldmine have, at various times in their careers, left audiences behind. In capturing the particular moment, and the particular musicians, associated with glam, Haynes is dealing with a chameleonic group of artists whose creativity was far too restless to ever remain in one mode for very long. Iggy gained cult acclaim, if not popular stardom, with the Stooges, then hooked up with Bowie and Eno and eventually started sanding away the edges of his music, moving towards mainstream pop, often brilliantly, but still leaving behind those (smaller?) audiences who cherished his rougher material. These days his most famous raunchy sex-and-drugs anthem advertises Caribbean cruises, a fate that mirrors Brian Slade’s embrace of conformity in Velvet Goldmine. The other artists suggested by Haynes’ film have taken similarly twisty routes through pop culture. Lou Reed risked his post-Velvet Underground commercial fame with the ultimate fuck-you noise of Metal Machine Music, four sides of glistening guitar feedback that is, in its way, scarily beautiful and sadly more talked about than actually heard. He’s also flirted with art songs, collaborated with his performance artist girlfriend Laurie Anderson, and recently pissed off fans at a Montreal jazz festival by playing an abstract improv performance with Anderson and avant saxophonist John Zorn. Brian Eno is, sadly, probably most known by young audiences today for producing U2, but in addition to the body of glammy, arty pop songs (both solo and as a member of Roxy Music) represented in Velvet Goldmine, he’s also the father of ambient music and collaborated fruitfully with King Crimson’s Robert Fripp. And Bowie, of course, is the ultimate pop chameleon, continually donning new images, new identities, posing as Ziggy Stardust or Aladdin Sane, changing with the times, enlisting Trent Reznor; here moving towards the mainstream, there sliding away from it.
What all these artists have in common—and this is an unstated undercurrent in Haynes’ film—is an ambiguous and uncertain relationship to the mainstream and to their own fame. The key scene in that respect is the one where Brian is forced to choose between his old manager, Cecil (Michael Feast), and a flamboyant new manager, Jerry Devine (Eddie Izzard), who promises to take him to new heights of fame. The scene is staged in a dark room filled with anonymous men in suits, stereotyped power brokers who represent the behind-the-scenes manipulations of the pop industry. And Brian simply stands there, staring coldly at Cecil, in his silence accepting the fame that will eventually corrupt and warp him. Haynes’ film balances between the perspective of the fan and that of the star: the former in awe of the latter’s fame, desiring to preserve that celebrity aura, and the latter more ambivalent, tormented by the Catch-22 dilemma of ephemeral stardom, where change is both necessary and dangerous. Haynes is not placing himself in the position of the infamous heckler who shouted “Judas” at Dylan’s Manchester Free Trade Hall show or the angry ex-fans at the Newport Folk Festival, those folkies who felt betrayed when Dylan went electric. Haynes understands that anger, certainly, but he’s equally sympathetic towards the fan, who feels such an attachment to a work that it becomes personal, and the artist, who needs to keep changing or risk stagnation and boredom.
This tension is built into the whole structure of pop music and pop culture: this back-and-forth interplay between artist and fan, image and reality, commerce and creativity, novelty and familiarity. Haynes’ film, in dealing with a single iteration in pop’s eternal cycle, is depicting something universal. Maybe that’s why Curt Wild recalls Kurt Cobain as much as Iggy Pop: a reminder that pop’s complicated balancing act of image, artistry and hype is eternal, and often leads to even more tragic ends.
JB: I’m glad I’m not the only one who sees Kurt Cobain in Curt Wild (a letter here and there from being Kurt Wilde, incidentally). Those final shots of Curt sitting across the table from Arthur at that dive bar are especially evocative of Cobain, in large part because in that scene Curt wears similar expressions of anguish, and perhaps also because the scene’s dim lighting creates a dirty haze that’s just similar enough to the gritty visual aesthetic of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video. Or maybe it’s just the hair.
Another scene in which Curt looks particularly Cobain-esque is in his wordless breakup with Brian, the latter standing at an upstairs window, the former standing in front of the car that’s ready to take Curt out of Brian’s life forever. In that moment Haynes captures Curt in one of the film’s many tremendous closeups, and it’s in remembering that scene that I realize we haven’t given much attention to the film’s cinematography. You’ve already made mention of the film’s intelligent color palette, the lonely grays and flat browns and greens contrasting with the vibrant reds, purples and blues to set the appropriate mood, but we haven’t talked much about the shots themselves.
Often, but not too often, Haynes finds his characters in closeups. Velvet Goldmine’s memorable headshots are multiple: a young Jack Fairy raising a finger covered with bright red makeup to his naked lips; Brian’s first manager, in a wheelchair like a latter day Jed Leland, with his wistful face framed tight to the right of the screen as he looks back over his memories of Brian (“he was elegance, walking arm in arm with a lie”); Mandy in her black turtleneck in that dark bar with only her cigarette to hide behind; Arthur as a teenager looking into the mirror and crying in shame after being caught masturbating; Mandy pausing amidst an orgy to watch her husband slip off to a bedroom to have sex with Curt. And so on. It’s as if Haynes is conceding that within this glam world, what people wear is camouflage to obscure who they really are. The only way to see the person inside is to get close to them.
EH: Yes, and although this theme of external identities masking the person inside is especially resonant to the milieu of Velvet Goldmine, it’s been a near-constant concern for Haynes, as we’ve already suggested in discussing his earlier work. Haynes’ characters are, more often than not, very conscious of the ways in which they present themselves to the world, whether it’s Karen Carpenter’s body image issues in Superstar or Carol’s placid surface demeanor increasingly failing to contain the obvious turmoil underneath in Safe. In Velvet Goldmine, these characters have turned self-presentation and disguise into artforms. In that light, Haynes’ closeups—always contrasted against the arm’s-length style that he adopts elsewhere—serve as a bracing way to cut to the core of characters who might otherwise seem impenetrable. In Safe, the judicious use of closeups works against the icy long shots that dominate the film’s aesthetics. In Velvet Goldmine, there’s a similar sensibility at work in the contrast of the dystopian ‘80s scenes against the glam ‘70s ones. Moreover, Haynes also holds his characters at arm’s length with the film’s glitzy, referential style, like its self-conscious homages to Welles and various avant-garde touchstones, and with goofy moments of style overload like the flying saucers that appear sporadically as symbols of the artist’s profound, alien difference from the rest of society. And then Haynes cuts in for a closeup and all these trappings fall away for a moment of piercing connection and revelation. It’s quite a balancing act, this back-and-forth between artifice and naked emotional examination, but it’s because of this that Haynes’ films are generally both cerebral and affecting.
All this talk of style seems especially apropos in light of Haynes’ next film, Far from Heaven, which is perhaps his most lavish and stylish film, as well as his most nakedly referential. It’s an obvious homage to the films of Douglas Sirk, and to the Sirk-influenced films of Fassbinder, particularly Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows and Fassbinder’s Fear Eats the Soul, both of which share the same basic story with Haynes’ film. At its core, it’s a story about relationships that are circumscribed and looked down upon by society. For Sirk, it was a matter of class and, to some extent, age, as a well-off, middle-aged widow fell in love with her younger gardener. Fassbinder overlaid the story with Germany’s immigration phobias and also widened the age gap, making it a romance between a much older white woman and a young Arab immigrant. Haynes recreates the Technicolor aura of Sirk’s films, painting in lush, bright hues, reveling in the way that Sirk’s melodramas would reflect America’s fantasy of itself back in exaggerated form while probing its darker undercurrents.
But Haynes’ film is hardly just a recreation of the past, although it captures that fantasy Leave It To Beaver vision of ‘50s suburbia perfectly. Far from Heaven is built around our relationship to the past. It reflects the idealized image of the past that our society so cherishes—there’s a reason Norman Rockwell is so popular—but its story is distinctly modern. Many films set in the past and built around controversial issues like race or class try to suggest how much things have changed, how far we’ve come since then. Haynes’ film, I think, works in the opposite way, building continuities between ‘50s prejudice and conformity and the lingering traces of these ideas that remain ingrained in our society today. By making the film about two forbidden relationships instead of one—a white housewife’s flirtation with a black gardener and her husband’s dawning realization that he’s gay—Haynes is building a more complete portrait of the ways in which society attempts to force all its unusually shaped pegs into round holes. Prejudice isn’t quaint in Haynes’ film, it doesn’t come across as an artifact that we’ve left behind in our more enlightened era. By transposing his modern style and concerns into the past, Haynes forces the viewer to consider whether this story is a relic of a bygone era, or if it still retains its power and relevance because the prejudices it depicts are still around, perhaps in some less obvious form.
JB: I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say that Haynes “forces” the viewer to consider the modernity (or lack thereof) of the film’s dramatic themes, because for a film about racism, loveless relationships, taboo affairs, gossip and loneliness, Far from Heaven has an amazingly soft touch. In general spirit, however, I agree with you completely, and you’ve done a fine job of articulating the way the film works. Indeed, the movie’s core power is derived from the friction of its contrasting styles: Rockwellian perfection rubbing up against deceitfulness and lies; festive autumn colors clashing with dead-of-winter sorrow; ‘50s-era pretences of simplicity contrasting with the sordid truth; historical trappings—costumes, sets, score, cinematography and of course the focus on ‘50s-era societal issues—belying the timelessness of the inner themes. Despite appearances, Far from Heaven isn’t about the time and place in which it unfolds any more than Superstar is about Barbie dolls, with perhaps one exception.
The story of Frank Whitaker’s sexual awakening is specific to the setting. It has universal elements, of course, but whereas Arthur’s awkward sexual evolution in Velvet Goldmine probably doesn’t differ too much from the experiences of a lot of today’s homosexual youth, several of Frank’s experiences are distinctly of another era. Chiefly, Frank’s attempt to have his doctor cure him of his homosexuality evokes a time and place that we have (mostly) left behind. (There are exceptions, certainly.) That’s probably why Dennis Quaid’s performance as Frank seems not just authentic but unusually so. He’s playing his closeted gay character historically and dramatically straight. In contrast, Julianne Moore as Frank’s neglected wife Cathy is playing not just a ‘50s wife but a ‘50s-movie-version of a ‘50s wife. As a result, her performance is appropriately mannered and stylized. This is, after all, Cathy’s film, and Moore’s twice-removed authenticity is perfect for a woman who is playing dress-up herself, who knows all the outward ways to create the Rockwellian universe while inside she’s as lonely as the moon. Still, there’s something particularly haunting about Frank, about the way he feels defeated by his homosexuality, as if he’s been consumed by a monster from one of those ‘50s horror movies. Watching Frank tear himself apart as he comes to accept his condition is one of the few times in this film that Haynes actually seems to be saying, “This is the way it used to be.”
EH: You’re right, of course, that there’s an element of “this is the way it used to be” in Frank’s struggles with his homosexuality—but even there I don’t think Haynes lets us rest comfortably in the assurance that such struggles are in the past. After all, attempts to “cure” homosexuality haven’t really gone away, they’ve just migrated, for the most part, from medicine to religion. And it would be foolish to suggest that no one feels the need to remain closeted anymore, under pressure from family, church, social structures, career concerns and other motivations. I think Frank’s situation remains relevant when you consider that he’s a high-profile public figure within his community, projecting an image of “family values” and purity that’s a big part of his prestige and reputation. One suspects Jim McGreevey might recognize himself in this situation and this performance, for one. Although there’s no doubt that our society has made advances, even tremendous ones, in the acceptance of difference, in terms of sexual orientation and race, Haynes’ film works as both a reminder of these advances and a warning that we haven’t relegated all the trappings of oppression to the past. If it’s still considered pretty much unacceptable for a public figure to be openly gay—and there’s little doubt that this is true, outside of the arts at least—then Frank’s closeted struggle isn’t wholly a thing of the past.
Anyway, I like your analysis of the film as rooted in “the friction of its contrasting styles.” One of my favorite moments in that respect is a relatively small one, a tiny fracture that serves as a microcosm of the film as a whole. It’s a curse, an expletive: the moment when Frank, exasperated after his first session of treatment, lets a “fuck” slip out when yelling at his wife, who reacts so physically that one wonders if she’s ever heard this word before, if she knows what it means or merely feels the visceral impact of it like a blow. It’s a great moment, the power of a single word intensified by the care with which Haynes has built up his perfectly maintained ‘50s suburban world before this point. This is a film that had earlier established “shucks” as the limits of acceptable language: Cathy chastises her son when he attempts to upgrade his slang to “geez.” In this context, “fuck” is a violent tear in the fabric of the world, a disjunction, even almost an anachronism. The liberal “fucks” splattered across the oeuvres of Scorsese and Tarantino never hit this hard, coming as they do in a context where that language is expected and natural; Frank saying “fuck” is a reminder of the word’s real dirtiness and bite, its perhaps now-dimmed shock value. It’s as though Ricky had called Lucy a bitch, or the Beav flipped off June, or a character in a Rockwell painting had, well, wandered into a moodily lit back-alley gay bar, as Frank does at one point. Haynes is placing the audience in the position of little Steven in Dottie Gets Spanked, stunned by the realization that our ideals—in this case, our collective vision of a squeaky-clean past—are much darker and stranger and deeper than we’d suspected.
JB: Right, Haynes humanizes the past in Far from Heaven. And in so doing, yes, he finds darkness. The scene you mention between Frank and Cathy is indeed a great one. I think the only words that can shock to that degree today would be “cunt” and any of Mel Gibson’s favorite epithets. That scene suggests that Cathy is just as closeted as Frank. In part, that’s because she’s just as determined to avoid inconvenient truths. But it’s also because the society she lives in makes it difficult for her to be anything other than the June Cleaver wife. We see evidence of that in Cathy’s relationship with Dennis Haysbert’s Raymond Deagan, which starts innocently enough but, thanks to the neighborhood gossips, can’t be allowed to stay that way. Actually, this brings me back to the point I was trying to make earlier, perhaps not so successfully. When I called Frank an example of the past, I was thinking not of the fact that he is closeted and feels like an outcast but rather that Frank has no other options. Being willingly gay (forget openly) is about as unrealistic as Cathy’s friendship turned attraction with her black gardener. They’re both confined.
It’s interesting that in Far from Heaven image is a prison whereas in Velvet Goldmine image is, at least in theory, something closer to liberation. To this point, one of the most crucial characters in the film is Patricia Clarkson’s aptly named Eleanor Fine. It’s Eleanor who comes to Cathy’s aid when she’s throwing a party. It’s Eleanor who defends Cathy’s honor when the town gossips are suggesting she socialized with a black man at a black restaurant. It’s Eleanor who scolds Cathy for keeping her marital strife hidden, claiming that she’s Cathy’s best friend. But it’s also Eleanor, Cathy’s greatest supporter, who can only accept Cathy according to her own worldview. She good naturedly teases Cathy about her relationship with Raymond, because she can’t look beyond her own rigid ideas about the world to consider that it might be wholesome and genuine. In Velvet Goldmine and I’m Not There, at least it’s distant, anonymous “fans” who demand compliance with their desires. With best friends like Eleanor, who needs enemies?
EH: Clarkson is great (as always) in this small but crucial role. And, most importantly, she really shines in her final scene with Cathy, in which Eleanor is all too happy to be the comforting, understanding best friend until she realizes that Cathy actually did have a relationship of some kind with Raymond. This moment—Eleanor’s stunned, blank expression and pose of indignation—puts Eleanor’s earlier solicitude towards Cathy into context. It wasn’t that Eleanor was such a good friend that she’d stand by Cathy through anything; it was that the whole idea of befriending a black man was so far beyond this woman’s constricted worldview that she couldn’t even consider the possibility that the rumors had some truth to them. She takes it for granted that people of different races shouldn’t mix and that Cathy would never jeopardize her social position so blatantly—and when she realizes that Cathy apparently doesn’t think the same way, it’s as though they’re suddenly from different worlds.
Indeed, although Cathy projects a June Cleaver image and does a great job of it, there are constant signs that there’s so much more beneath her stereotypical surface. Cathy’s openness towards Raymond, her comfort and sympathy when she learns that his father has died, is instinctive and natural, a reaction of caring for a fellow human being. She steps towards him, seemingly without thinking, and touches his shoulder. As with Frank’s curse, Haynes’ careful scene-setting emphasizes just how extraordinary this gesture is, just how unusual it is for a middle-class white woman to show such warmth and feeling towards her black gardener. The point-of-view shot from inside, where the society columnist is doubtless watching in disapproving shock, drives the point home. Cathy is not like those around her, even if she herself barely realizes just how extraordinary her simple kindness towards a black man is. It’s a subtle suggestion of the insidious nature of societal prejudice, which exerts its force even on those, like Cathy, whose instincts are far from base.
Haynes also characteristically examines the ways in which this corrosive society impacts the children who are exposed to the warped values and repressed behavior all around them. Frank and Cathy’s kids exist at the edges of this film, but it’s nevertheless obvious that they’re taking their cues from what’s around them: witness David’s reaction when a black girl is hit with a rock and he takes the side of his white friends who threw the rock, saying they were just joking around. Frank seems to have the same attitude, a kind of “boys will be boys” nonchalance about such racist violence, and before he leaves the family, he passes on this attitude to his son, who idolizes him. In this way, each new generation inherits the same hateful ideas, and people like Cathy, with her instinctive humanism, are forced to hide their true selves. You’re right: it’s very different from the disguises that the glam rockers use to reveal their inner essence. It’s more like the way that Brian Slade adopts a corporate rock persona later in his career, burying his rebellious past beneath conformist slickness.
JB: That’s true. And yet we shouldn’t ignore that Brian’s initial, intentionally extraordinary persona was for the most part just as learned, just as patterned as his eventual, more traditional one. Given your observations about the ways Frank and Cathy’s kids are already taking cues from what’s around them, it’s all too appropriate that in the Christmas morning scene Frank’s son’s big gift is a small electric train set that delights him simply by going round and round in an entirely unchanging cycle. Meanwhile, Cathy’s gift to Frank is a box of travel brochures, a symbol of her desire to break out of their oppressive routines. She doesn’t care where they go, as long as they go somewhere. And it’s safe to presume that Cathy believes (or at least desperately hopes) that this tiny departure from routine can be significantly life-changing.
The only character in Far from Heaven who isn’t trying to play a role is Raymond Deagan. He’s intelligent about art and isn’t afraid to show it. He’s attracted to Cathy and isn’t afraid to pursue that either, even though she’s married, he’s the help and neither her white community nor his black community will ever support their relationship, platonic or otherwise. Whereas Cathy is blind to reality and Frank is constantly in hiding, Raymond is both aware and forthright. He doesn’t shrink to society’s expectations of him. The only occasions when he lets closed-minded social norms restrict his behavior—in the scene at the art gallery, when he detects his discussion with Cathy is drawing attention, and in the scene at his home, when he’s careful not to let Cathy in the front door—is when he’s acting on behalf of others—Cathy in the first case, his daughter in the second case. Beyond that, Raymond is remarkably unconcerned with appearances.
EH: I love your observation of what the Christmas morning gifts reveal about the characters and their yearnings. It reminds me of another moment where the kids offer up an obvious metaphor for the film’s thematic subtext: when Frank’s son and daughter are competing for his attention, each wanting to tell him about an upcoming event. The daughter has a ballet recital, and the son has a football game, and each wants their father to show some excitement and to come see them perform. It’s a perfect metaphor for Frank’s internal struggle in that it offers him a choice between the stereotypically masculine and the stereotypically feminine, which as he sees it is the same choice he’s facing in his life as a whole. Frank reacts with anger and rejects the choice altogether, just as later he’ll push Cathy away when she pats his back and assures him that he’s “all man” to her; the implication is that to be gay is to forsake one’s masculinity, and that’s not a choice Frank wants to make by any means. He doesn’t see himself as feminine, but he understands that that’s how society will see him if his homosexuality becomes public.
Speaking of inner identities conflicting with public perception, I totally agree with you that Raymond is the only character who’s not hiding his nature, although by the end of the film he’s decided, for his daughter’s sake if nothing else, to stop pushing so hard against a society that really isn’t ready for a smart, liberated, educated black man. Before that, though, he’s just himself, and if Cathy somewhat obliviously flounders across boundaries because of her basic good nature, Raymond is very aware that he’s stretching the bounds of the acceptable, and he does it anyway. I’ve always especially liked the scene at the art gallery, particularly the shot in which Raymond explains his theory that abstract art and religious art are united in their attempt at expressing the unknowable and touching on deep emotions. Haynes frames Raymond and Cathy in a two-shot at this point, watching them watch the painting, and an orange glow seems to be emanating from the painting’s surface, illuminating their faces, as though in confirmation of Raymond’s words.
It’s a beautiful evocation of the ability of art to move the beholder, and a reading of abstraction in art that resonates with artists ranging from Rothko to Coltrane—and also an ode to the power of critical commentary to encourage new ways of looking, hearing and thinking. Cathy seems to be looking at the painting now through Raymond’s perspective, Raymond’s ideas, and appreciating the work’s beauty anew. Haynes, I think, has something of the sensibility of a critic; he likes to engage with art and culture, to comment upon and structure his own work as responses to the works of others. Just as Velvet Goldmine, Superstar and I’m Not There engage in music criticism, with an emphasis on the sociological, Far from Heaven might be thought of as an essay on Sirk and the conformist mentality that Sirk was often struggling against in the subtexts of his films.
JB: You know, now that you’ve called attention to it, I think that scene with Raymond and Cathy might be the perfect encapsulation of Haynes’ approach to filmmaking. Because, yes, in that moment when the two of them stare into the painting and Raymond elucidates the deeper meanings of the abstract work in front of them, we do see Haynes’ gift for critical commentary and his knack for pausing amidst his larger narrative for juicy, thoughtful asides that probe into his wide-ranging fascinations. We also get a sense of how much art means to Haynes. And in Cathy’s response we see Haynes’ ambitions for his own art: he wants to awaken us, to move us, to have us look at something a little harder or longer or from a different angle so that a familiar subject seems new—hence his decision to tell Karen Carpenter’s story with Barbie dolls or to examine Bob Dylan’s life through multiple physical and emotional interpretations of the musician.
What that scene also reflects is the degree to which Haynes’ art can seem uninspired without detailed analysis or a sharply trained eye. That is, sometimes Haynes’ films resemble that abstract art work on the wall. To come alive, they need to be unlocked, their virtues clearly articulated, sometimes by an outside source. The intent of Haynes’ films, or portions of his films, isn’t always immediately recognizable. And frequently, in my experience, it’s only through cerebral examination that the intellectual and emotional depth of his filmmaking is located. There are plenty of exceptions to this, of course. There are moments in Haynes’ films that blast into our hearts and minds with the precision of a bullet. But Haynes isn’t what I would call a blatant filmmaker, and I suppose that’s the bottom line I’m trying to reach here.
So now you’re wondering: What’s so great about being blatant? What’s so terrible about asking the audience to think or rewarding the educated viewer? Nothing. None of the above is to imply that Haynes’ approach to filmmaking is flawed. It is to suggest, however, that his approach is unusual for an American director. It’s also to suggest that it requires active viewership and that even the most engaged, knowledgeable and otherwise cultured viewers might never fully grasp Haynes’ motivations and meanings—not without outside help, I mean, through interviews or DVD commentaries or the group-think of critical analyses, including this one. Personally, this lack of blatancy makes Haynes’ films thrilling because I know that each time I return to them I’ll find something new to ponder, examine or explore. As I said earlier, what I love about Haynes is the thoughtfulness of his filmmaking. I have no doubt that each and every gesture has specific meaning to him, even if that meaning doesn’t always carry through to me. Thus, his filmmaking is somewhat (though, again, not always) indistinct, which is subtly yet significantly different than many of David Lynch’s films, which I would describe as elusive. In Haynes’ case I think there’s greater understanding to be found with further reflection. In Lynch’s case I don’t get the feeling that my fifth reaction to the film is any wiser or richer than my first, in many cases.
If there is a negative to Haynes’ approach, it’s that his indistinctiveness (intentional or accidental) can leave much of his genius hidden behind the curtain of abstraction or ambiguity. With notable exceptions, his films don’t reach out to the audience and pull us in, the way, say, adrenaline-fueled filmmakers like Tarantino, Michael Mann and David Fincher do (just to name three directors we’ve covered in previous conversations). His films, for the most part, don’t go straight to our gut, or at least not to mine. And for me, personally, this makes Haynes’ films much more interesting to contemplate and discuss than to actually experience. Again, there are exceptions to all of this, moments in Haynes’ filmography that cut to the core, that make me ache with their undebatable, undeniable and unencumbered emotional heft and grace. But, yes, I think these are exceptions. Most American filmmakers trigger our thoughts (if they are so inclined) by first playing to our emotions. Haynes works from the opposite direction. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But, given the norm, it can be disorienting.
EH: I agree that Haynes’ filmmaking is subtle. I agree that he wants and expects viewers to engage with his films on a deeper level than the visceral. I agree that this is perhaps unexpected for an American mainstream filmmaker, though this says way more about the sad state of American mainstream film these days than it does about anything else. I agree that he sometimes approaches emotion through the head rather than the heart, though for me there’s no doubt that his films hit pretty hard on the gut level nonetheless. I’m always stunned by that final closeup of Carol, or Richie flying out the window, or the pan around Karen’s dressing room to find her passed out at her desk next to empty boxes of Ex-Lax, or Jim James singing “Goin’ to Acapulco” in I’m Not There (more on that shortly), or the awe on Brian’s face when he hears Curt Wild unleashing that piercing “TV Eye” scream, or Frank’s look of fear mingled with curiosity when he enters a gay bar, or Cathy being momentarily thrown off by being in an all-black restaurant before she recovers her unflappable housewife poise and turns flirty. It’s not just isolated moments, either, though I could keep pinpointing such exemplary scenes all day. Haynes’ films are so powerful to me precisely because they strike a rare balance between the emotional and the cerebral, precisely because they recognize that these two values, so often (wrongly) considered opposites, are in fact inseparable. I frankly don’t see anything “indistinct” in even the least of his work, and certainly not a hint of the “uninspired.” His concerns—childhood confusion, the pressure to conform, aesthetics, identity (both sexual and otherwise), fame, gender—should be apparent to anyone who’s watched more than one of his films. And his ideas are pretty clearly expressed, at least when he wants them to be: Safe and I’m Not There are purposefully more slippery, but it’d be hard to walk out of most of his other films without some sense of what he’s trying to convey.
I guess I just don’t understand: It sounds like you’re somewhat ambivalent about the idea that Haynes’ films are intellectual and subtle, whereas I see that as something to celebrate and treasure, without qualification, a compliment of the highest order. At its deepest roots, this is an argument that’s quite familiar, the debate over whether art should come to the viewer or whether the viewer should come to the art. It seems like you’re arguing that Haynes might benefit from taking a few more steps towards the audience, perhaps more consciously attempting to entertain from time to time. But this implies that Haynes’ films, as they exist now, are the work of a disconnected academic who’s only interested in the cerebral, and I think that couldn’t be further from the truth. There’s no arguing what affects you or doesn’t, but to me Haynes’ films, as intellectually stimulating and sometimes challenging as they can be, are equally affecting in terms of the emotions they explore.
JB: I respect that, and if you find the same level of emotional involvement in a Haynes film that you do when confronted by films by one of those other directors I mentioned (just for the sake of explaining myself), then you won’t be able to relate to any of this. But while some of what I wrote is indeed tied to the subjective, particularly that I find Haynes’ films more interesting to discuss than to experience, the core of what I’m trying to articulate is, in my opinion, purely observational: Haynes’ films, for the most part, enter our brain first rather than going straight for our gut; I think that’s a fact.
By saying that, my only hope is to articulate the way that Haynes’ films work, to get to the bottom of the inescapable feeling I get that his films are somehow different (how appropriate). “Disconnected” is the last word I’d use to describe Haynes. And I’ll admit that maybe “indistinct” and “uninspired” aren’t quite the right words to apply to his films either. Maybe it’s simply what I said before: often, Haynes isn’t blatant. Quite honestly, I don’t see lack of blatancy as a criticism. I think there’s room to acknowledge that Haynes’ isn’t always obvious or explicit and still admire and enjoy his films “without qualification.” I think it’s also perfectly valid to admire Haynes’ films precisely because he isn’t blatant.
Having said that, do I think “Haynes might benefit from taking a few more steps towards the audience”? Well, that depends. See, Haynes’ lack of blatancy is only problematic if he thinks he’s speaking with crystal clarity. So, for example, if Haynes believes that giving us five characters—a poet, a prophet, an outlaw, a fake and a “star of electricity”—to articulate his feelings about Bob Dylan is the simplest and most straightforward way of evoking the artist, he’s fooling himself. But I don’t think that’s his intention. It can’t be. As you suggested, I’m Not There is “purposefully Ö slippery.” In that film, Haynes is attempting to evoke his feelings about Dylan with critical poetry. So if you’re uncomfortable with the feeling that I’m calling Haynes a stuffy academic, let’s reframe that and call Haynes a poet, if that connotation is less derogatory. (Either way, there’s a lot of English major-ness in his films.)
Believe me, the last thing I want is Haynes to be more like Paul Haggis and Clint Eastwood, who at their worst are as blatant as a shovel to the face. I am not arguing that blatancy is something to aspire to, that Haynes should attempt to wrap his films’ multiple references, meditations, tributes and meanings in neon lights. I am saying that the trouble with poetry is that the artist might leave some of his thoughts hidden behind the fog of abstraction. So, again, the only problem is if the poet thinks he’s communicating with the clarity of a journalist. Though there might indeed be times that Haynes is too poetic for his own good (a subjective observation), I don’t think Haynes suffers that delusion.
EH: That makes sense. I agree that it isn’t a criticism to point out that Haynes isn’t blatant, and indeed I was responding to the (apparently mistaken) impression that you were knocking him for some of his best qualities. I still don’t agree that Haynes aims primarily for the brain rather than the gut, though; as I keep stressing, his films, for me and for the most part, are equally effective on both levels.
In any event, if ever Haynes has opened himself up to accusations that he’s “too poetic,” it’s with his most recent film, I’m Not There. But then, that’s probably appropriate considering the film’s subject, the ever-elusive and gnomic Bob Dylan, as slippery and poetic a figure as Haynes has ever tackled. There’s no question, as you say, that Haynes didn’t approach this film as anything close to a straightforward explication of Dylan. And it’s appropriate, too, that you mention “the clarity of a journalist,” since one key sequence in I’m Not There revolves around precisely this opposition between the poet and the journalist, the pursuer of facts and the pursuer of a deeper, less tangible truth (Herzog might call it the “ecstatic truth,” and I suspect Dylan would nod approvingly).
The sequence I’m talking about is the one where a BBC journalist (Bruce Greenwood) is questioning Dylan doppelganger Jude (Cate Blanchett), trying to pin the singer down on the meaning of his/her songs, trying to arrive at a single definitive answer, something that explains the enigma of Jude. Jude, of course, dodges the questions, unwilling to explain the changes in his/her music. For the journalist, this is an evasion, and his eventual TV program presents the bare facts about Jude, revealing the singer’s ordinary childhood as though this was a coup, as though the revelation of a prosaic middle-class youth was a rebuttal to the extraordinary art that Jude later produced. The journalist has butted up against the limits of the factual, and his program reveals nothing of substance about his subject, because as the song goes, he knows something is happening here, but he doesn’t know what it is.
In that respect, Haynes’ detour into a miniature music video for “Ballad of a Thin Man” is brilliant, casting this clueless journalist as the title figure, Mr. Jones, wandering around, seeing strange things, unable to understand anything beyond a superficial level. The video illustrates many of Dylan’s lyrics—“you see somebody naked/ and you say, ’who is that man?’”—in a literal way, because the journalist can’t get past this level, can’t get past the simple illustration of the surreal images conjured up by Dylan’s poetry. The irony, of course, is that a deeper understanding of the song would lead to the suspicion that it’s mocking journalists who are so intent on having something to write that they’re unable to respond more genuinely to what they’re seeing and hearing. Others see more in this music, like the Black Panthers who keep replaying the song over and over again, one of them insisting that it’s a potent commentary on the experience of black people in America, the other saying that he doesn’t get it, that he needs to hear it again. It’s the eternal dilemma of the artist, which Dylan increasingly embraced after his folk period: you put art out into the world and it ceases to be personal or private, it becomes public, susceptible to anyone’s interpretation (or misinterpretation). The beauty, and the mystery, of Dylan’s music is its suggestiveness, mingled with a stubborn refusal to mean just one thing, to be pinned down to a single purpose or idea. I’m reminded in that of Haynes himself, and especially of our comments on Safe, which similarly balances between ambiguity and clarity. These ideas are central to Dylan’s art, and to Haynes’ film about the singer.
JB: Yeah, I’m Not There is the perfect film to discuss after my previous thoughts about Haynes, because if the Dylan character—most literally represented by Blanchett’s Jude—is in any way a mouthpiece for Haynes himself, it’s here that Haynes is admitting and accepting that, yes, some of his intended meanings will never be properly unpacked from his films by his audience, and meanwhile other unintended meanings will be interpreted into his art, and either of those things is perfectly okay. Again, I don’t disagree.
I’m Not There is the movie in Haynes’ filmography that I’m most uncomfortable discussing, because the truth is that I don’t know how I feel about it. It’s ambitious and imaginative and occasionally quite powerful, and I certainly admire it for the unorthodox grace with which it mines Dylan’s life, lyrics and press clippings to create a Picasso-like portrait of a man who never sat still long enough to be a Vermeer. Over the course of this conversation I’ve said several times that one of the things I admire most about Haynes is his thoughtfulness, and that’s certainly on display here. For all of I’m Not There’s abstractions, it’s Haynes’ most intricate film—really one of the most intricate films I’ve ever seen. Watching I’m Not There again for this discussion, I found myself less bothered by some of my initial complaints about the film (which I’ll get to in a moment) and much more emotionally involved, if not quite overwhelmed on the whole. And I’d be tempted to settle on that last viewing experience, which I’m sure was enhanced by watching all of Haynes’ films in close succession, if not for one problem: The first time I watched this film, it left me profoundly irritated.
Why? Maybe it was just my mood that day. Maybe I’d caught wind of the hype—though you suggest the film could be called overly poetic, it was also the recipient of multiple critical raves—and so perhaps my expectations were set too high, or in the wrong direction. Maybe I just didn’t get it, either because the film is best understood through repeat viewings or because I was looking at it in a vacuum and not picking up on some of Haynes’ favorite themes; in other words, maybe I was too focused on what the film was telling me about the subject (Dylan) and ignoring what it was telling me about the artist (Haynes). Maybe I was just irritated by the Dylan superfan behind me who chuckled and grunted knowingly every three minutes in acknowledgment of the film’s many Dylan references and allusions. I don’t know. But while I’m entirely willing to reverse my position on a film or to admit error, the intensity of my frustration with I’m Not There has me cautious about ignoring that reaction entirely.
After watching the film again, I dipped back into my archive and found a review I’d written (not for publication) after that first troubled viewing. It included praise for the things I’ve mentioned above (and other elements), but the thrust of my frustration was tied to what I felt was a significant contradiction (yeah, it’s Fight Club all over again). Briefly put, I was annoyed that a film that spent so much time implicitly and explicitly suggesting that the search for Dylan within his music was a futile and even foolish effort, and even something of a self-centered, selfish act, would go through so much effort to lace the film with subtle references to Dylan that only the devout Dylanologist would catch. I wrote that “I’m Not There is less a lyrical poem about a poetic lyricist than it is a Dylan-themed Da Vinci Code, littered with riddles and secret passwords.” Upon seeing the film again, I don’t think that’s entirely accurate. But I don’t think it’s entirely inaccurate either. So, what do you think?
EH: While I don’t share your reservations about this film by any means, I do get what you’re saying, and I think there’s some truth to the idea that I’m Not There offers up a kind of treasure hunt for the Dylanologist—only to conclude that such adventures ultimately don’t lead to the heart of the art. Does that make it hypocritical? I don’t think so, because Haynes seems to be exploring the paradox that, though it is impossible to truly grasp the entirety of any work of art or to understand the core of an artist through his or her art, the folly of trying anyway is part of the essential human response to art. I’m Not There is thus Haynes’ attempt to grapple with his own feelings and ideas about Dylan, while simultaneously rejecting the idea that there’s any one interpretation that trumps all others. Like the journalist, Haynes is offering up his own theories about Dylan, and the difference is that Haynes doesn’t pretend that his take on the artist is definitive or exhaustive. Instead, he acknowledges, up front and often, that art—particularly great art—resists all attempts at pigeonholing, including his own.
For me, I’m Not There is a nearly overwhelming experience. Its complexity, as you mention, is part of that. Dylan’s music is part of it, too: Dylan was, for me as for many others, the first artist who I ever got really excited about, who really connected with my sensibilities. So Haynes’ film, which creates a massive, visceral Dylan collage in both the imagery and the audio, is bound to be particularly exhilarating for Dylan fans (provided they aren’t expecting a more conventional biopic of their hero, of course). It’d be easy to watch the film and just get caught up in spotting all the references and resonances, like the way the Richard Gere/Billy the Kid segment (the most divisive part of the movie, it seems) stands in for Dylan’s retreat from society following his motorcycle accident, or the way Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character is a composite of several Dylan girlfriends, particularly Suze Rotolo (a distant relative of my wife, which only makes the reference-spotting more interesting). There are plenty of others: virtually every moment, every image, every line of dialogue, is packed with references both obvious and oblique, and a diagram of the film’s connections would probably look like an enormous spider web.
Which would mean absolutely nothing if Haynes didn’t weave together Dylan’s life, art and times into a complex, emotionally affecting, utterly unique patchwork that ranges as far in terms of themes, emotions and narrative as it does in its subterranean probing of Dylanology. It’s this depth and, as you say, intricacy, that makes the film so great, that elevates it above the level of the spot-the-reference game that some viewers (like that chuckling superfan behind you at your first screening) have wanted to make of it. One thing I love about the film is that it occasionally and unexpectedly even goes beyond its Dylan foundations to tell stories with only a tangential relationship to the singer. The romance and break-up of Robbie (Heath Ledger) and Claire (Gainsbourg) is perhaps an evocation of the private Dylan, the relationships and romances of Dylan’s life, but it’s also a touching and affecting love story in itself, even without that implicit reference. When, after a long and stormy relationship full of sweet ups and violent downs, Robbie comes to visit and is greeted by his happy kids, and the couple shares a surprisingly warm smile as he finally accepts and signs the divorce papers, it’s really powerful, in ways that have little if anything to do with the film’s focus on Dylan. It’s just a great human story about the intersections of politics, life, art and change.
JB: It’s interesting, and something of a relief, to hear you say that, because the first time I watched I’m Not There I found the Robbie-Claire chapter to be the most moving by far, not just in terms of what that chapter is about but also in terms of how Haynes presents that story cinematically. And, indeed, I found the Billy the Kid chapter to be the most frustratingly obscure, though to be honest I think what makes that segment awkward and thus divisive is that it’s the last storyline to be introduced. If it were possible to put the Billy the Kid chapter first, I think it would go down easier, even though the giraffe walking through the town of Riddle would be startling no matter when it happened. (I love that shot, by the way.) In other words, it’s a pacing issue as much as anything, an effect of adding a new and extremely meditative subplot more than an hour into a movie that at 135 minutes might stay on stage a bit too long for its own good. As a self-contained entity, the Billy the Kid chapter has fewer flaws than the repetitive Jude chapter, in my opinion. But I digress.
Getting back to the point: Your observations suggest that, indeed, there is a treasure-hunt element to I’m Not There, and so it’s only natural that a passionate and knowledgeable Dylan fan like yourself would have a significantly different reaction to the material than someone like me, who knows enough not to call “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” by the lyric “Everybody must get stoned,” but who is neither an expert on Dylan nor a loyalist, who adores some of Dylan’s music but is so ambivalent about it on the whole that he could even commit the heresy of admitting that he likes the slow, breathy interpretation of “I Want You” by Sophie B. “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover” Hawkins as much as Dylan’s original. (So sue me. The only part that embarrasses me about that is the related admission that I ever heard Hawkins’ version in the first place.) If the Robbie-Claire chapter is perhaps the most generic, and if that’s the one I responded to, even on my problematic first viewing, I think that goes to show how the lack of blatancy in Haynes’ films can be somewhat alienating to the uninitiated. But, again, that’s his right.
I’d like to get to some of the specifics of I’m Not There, but before we move forward let me back up once more to address the issue of contradiction. I think you’ve done a great job of articulating why the film’s approach to Dylan isn’t a contradiction, or, perhaps more accurately, why it is an intentional and even artful contradiction. Likewise, having sent the film three times now, I want to recognize that Haynes comes out and admits as much within the film itself. The final minutes of I’m Not There have several explicit endorsements of elusiveness and even backwardness, with Billy the Kid and Jude observing, “God save the secrets” and Jude observing that “mystery is a traditional fact” and “meaninglessness, it’s holy.” And then there’s that juicy moment when Jude concludes his last rant by saying “Everybody knows I’m not a folk singer,” and then, after staring out the car window for a while, turns and looks into the camera and gives a sly smile that says, “Or maybe I am.” So where did I get the idea that I’m Not There was somehow self-negating? In retrospect, I admit that I latched on to the scene much earlier in the film when Jude is approached by a superfan who rambles about the meanings of a song called “Generation Dungeon” as if he wrote the damn thing and then snaps at a publicist who dares to call a member of Jude’s inner circle by the wrong name, as he were a part of that inner circle. In that moment, I somehow came away with the impression that Haynes himself was unaware of the contradiction. But that’s plain wrong. It was the grunting superfan behind me who didn’t see it.
EH: I think Haynes even includes that scene with the possessive fan as a warning not to take his own interpretations and analyses of Dylan as gospel. Instead, Haynes wants to explore multiple paths suggested by Dylan’s music. Sometimes those paths lead to strange places, like the Billy the Kid chapter, which, you’re right, is bound to be the most frustrating one to the Dylan non-fan. That said, I think this chapter also provides a very good illustration of the film’s overall depth and complexity, of the careful thought that we’ve frequently said characterizes all of Haynes’ work. The town of Riddle, I think, represents Dylan’s imagination. It is populated with carnival outcasts, old-timey caricatures, outlaws, freaks, circus animals, the kinds of characters who drift through Dylan’s songs. It is “Desolation Row” come to life, a place where the surrealism and the collage aesthetic of Dylan’s lyrics can be seen in vivid life, all the weird disjunctions and non-sequiturs in his songs embodied in the flesh.
It is also, of course, a reference to Dylan’s soundtrack for Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and by making Billy himself one of this film’s Dylan avatars, Haynes suggests that Dylan saw something of himself in the outlaw when writing those songs. This segment also ties back into some of the thematic currents running through the rest of the film, notably the artist’s engagement or lack of engagement with the larger world, with politics and social issues. Billy, like Jude, is running from society, retreating into a self-imposed disguise: in Billy’s case, he’s fleeing the law, while Jude is fleeing his own reputation as a particular kind of artist, an image that had become too limiting. The Billy the Kid segment is thus a metaphor for Dylan’s retreat following his motorcycle accident, a time when he went into isolation with the Band, recording privately and prolifically, experimenting with folk and traditional music, making music just for himself, not meant for public consumption. (That’s the reason this segment is introduced so late, too: it’s the Jude character’s retreat from the spotlight once the pressure becomes too intense.)
The key sequence here begins with an absolutely stunning performance of “Goin’ to Acapulco”—a song from Dylan’s Basement Tapes period, naturally—by Jim James of My Morning Jacket, backed by Calexico. It’s a gorgeous piece, expressing the desire for escape from ordinary responsibilities, and James sings it in the whiteface makeup that Dylan wore on his post-comeback Desire tour, further building the continuities between multiple incarnations of Dylan, suggesting that the need for escape and disguise is the one constant in this artist’s work. But Billy can’t necessarily escape his responsibilities very easily, as he’s confronted by Pat Garrett (played by Bruce Greenwood, who also plays the clueless Mr. Jones). In this version of the story, Garrett is a corporate monster and Billy is a noble outlaw, a rebel who’s looking out for the good of the common people. And it’s fascinating to see how Billy gets pulled back into the world, first speaking out against Garrett’s cruelty while wearing a mask, then shedding this disguise to confront him with his own face. It’s an elegant and entirely visual metaphor for the way that the artist ultimately can’t avoid commenting upon and responding to the world; isolation is not a viable alternative for very long.
This moment, Billy’s decision to forgo escape and re-engage with the world, echoes back to two earlier scenes that unite the multiple incarnations of Dylan in this film. Early on, the young black blues singer Woody (Marcus Carl Franklin) is told that he needs to “live your own timeÖ sing about your own time,” a call to create art that engages with the present, with the world beyond the song, rather than existing in a hermetic dialogue with the past. The other moment is Jude’s rambling press conference, in which he desperately tries to explain himself to a room full of journalists who just seem puzzled and annoyed by his cryptic answers. But in the midst of his poetic epigrams and surreal asides, Jude provides one of the film’s best explanations for Dylan’s infamous shift away from protest songs, when he says that protest songs simply allow audiences to feel comfortable and complacent, to feel that they’re on the “right” side of an issue. Protest songs, he suggests in his gnomic way, foster the feeling that one is doing something just by listening, whereas his new songs are still engaged with the world, just in a less obvious way, a way that perhaps requires more thought to unpack. Taken together, these scenes build a powerful thematic foundation for the film, an exploration of the artist’s relationship to society and the imperative for art to engage with the state of the world.
JB: I’m not sure I would go so far as to say the film suggests an “imperative” for art to engage with the state of the world. The film suggests that artists can only dodge the truth for so long, which is kind of the same, but not exactly. The Billy the Kid chapter includes a moment in which a rapid-fire slideshow of the other Dylan avatars wakes Billy from slumber like an alarm clock. The montage suggests that Billy has tried to shut his eyes to the world and to his previous selves without success. And this is hardly the only time the film criticizes Dylan for pretending. Woody, of course, is trying to be something he’s not. Robbie is an actor who tries to convince himself that he’s the center of his own world, in need of no one else. And then there’s Jude who prides himself on his inscrutability in an effort to make an identity out of being unknowable.
You’ve already mentioned the way the Jude chapter uses Bruce Greenwood’s reporter as a symbol of the ills of literalism and the danger of compartmentalization, but we must be careful not to overlook that the reporter also exposes the fallacy of Jude’s posturing. In their initial debate in the car, Jude wins the early rounds, first asking, “Who said I was sincere?” and then observing, “You just want me to say what you want me to say.” But then the reporter strikes, capping off their argument by saying, “You either do truly care about nothing at all or tremendously much that people think so.” This sends Jude into such a fit that he says he doesn’t even have the basic emotions of fear and love. Jude has become so wary of standing for something that now he stands for nothing. His wisdom could be wisdom, or it could be a pose. In the moment, even Jude doesn’t seem to know. But, as I said, Haynes suggests this kind of act can only last for so long. By the end of the film, in the Billy the Kid chapter, the truth catches up. Billy eventually runs away and in the process he finds himself, picking up Woody’s guitar off the train and gently dusting it off, ready to start over again, but slowly.
EH: Yes, dusting off the guitar case and finding the enigmatic words “this machine kills fascists,” a phrase that comes from Dylan’s idol Woody Guthrie, a reminder for Billy of both his roots and of the power of music. When two hobos see the film’s Woody with his guitar case early on, they think it’s a weapon, a prophecy that’s fulfilled with that insert of Jude and his band machine-gunning the audience at a folk festival, where their electric music really does come across as violent and dangerous. Maybe you’re right, maybe Haynes doesn’t suggest there’s an “imperative” for art to engage with the world: it’s more like he’s saying it’s inevitable that it will engage with the world, whether it’s meant to or not—if it’s any good, anyway. Great art, he seems to be saying, reaches out beyond the artist, beyond whatever hang-ups and poses might affect a conflicted artist like Jude, to resonate in the world regardless of whether the artist intended it to or not. The Basement Tapes is a great example: never intended for public release, bootlegs leaked out anyway and eventually motivated Dylan and the Band to release some of the material officially (though the bootlegs, rough and raw and sprawling, are arguably still superior to the more polished and augmented official product).
As you say, in addition to rediscovering the merits of speaking out and playing music, at the end of the film Billy the Kid is starting over. This is another constant theme in the film, whether it’s Robbie and Claire reaching a new, awkward status quo as a divorced couple, joined together still in a shared love of their kids, or the folk singer played by Christian Bale early on in the film re-emerging later as a preacher, his gravelly voice mumbling now over gospel choirs. Dylan’s conversion to Christianity and the subsequent slick, spiritual albums he made in the early ‘80s represent a period in his career that many don’t really know what to make of. It’s a puzzling detour in a career full of puzzling detours, but I’m Not There places it in context as yet another search for meaning and identity from an artist who made this search his one perpetual theme. If Jude believes in nothing and Billy is starting to believe again, the ‘80s preacher incarnation of Dylan is one possible end point of that belief. And by making Bale the only actor to play two different versions of Dylan, Haynes draws a connection between the protest singer and the preacher: two different forms of passionate belief and advocacy, united by depth of feeling rather than content. Even so, despite this thematic resonance, this is the one segment of the film that feels a bit lackluster, as though Haynes doesn’t really know what else to say about this especially bizarre and unexpected version of Dylan. Maybe Dylan, chameleonic and unpredictable as ever, managed to throw even Haynes a curveball with this particular transformation.
JB: I absolutely agree that the Bale segments are lackluster compared to the rest. They are not without their moments. Something about Haynes’ intimate cinematography during Jack’s performance of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” always gets under my skin (that’s a compliment). But other than that moment, the Bale segments are noticeably less intimate, a product in part of the fact that Julianne Moore’s Alice Fabian spends more time describing Jack than he spends revealing himself. What I respect about Haynes’ approach to the religious conversion chapter, which is only reinforced by the bit of Dylan history you provided, is that Haynes doesn’t look to hammer his question marks into exclamation points. It’s as if he’s admitting, “This is as close as I got to figuring it out.” There’s beauty then, rather than emptiness or frustration, in Dylan’s unknowability.
But as you already touched on a while back in referencing the Robbie-Claire chapter, I think my favorite thing about I’m Not There is how universal it is. It’s easy to get lost in the embedded Dylan references, in the music-geek Da Vinci Code treasure hunt. But I see now that the ultimate effect of all of the film’s specificity is, ironically and amazingly enough, malleability and inclusiveness. It’s one thing to take a Forrest Gump approach to the life cycle in which the world changes but the subject does not. It’s another thing to take a Curious Case of Benjamin Button approach in which the body changes but the soul does not (or at least no more uniquely than anyone else’s). But I’m Not There is something far more radical: a suggestion that over our life span we change so significantly that, while linked to our former selves, we are entirely redefined, over and over again. I’m Not There achieves this not just by using multiple actors and narratives to play Dylan (though that’s certainly a noteworthy factor), but also by juggling tones, moods, cinematic aesthetics and, last but not least, timelines.
By the end of the film it’s clear that there’s a surprisingly traditional character arc providing a spine for all these stories, but as I’m Not There unfolds time vibrates forward and backward so quickly that it essentially stands still. The Robbie-Claire chapter provides the best example. Their relationship begins at its end, with the couple divorced, and then flashes back to the moment in which through alternating slow zooms Haynes captures Richard Nixon’s announcement of the end of the Vietnam War and Claire’s stunned expression as she digests this historic moment as some kind of symbolic closure in her tumultuous relationship with Robbie. From that scene, we flash back to Robbie and Claire’s romantic first meeting at a coffee shop and their passionate early sex. While we’re here, it’s worth pointing out that Claire’s moment of sadness in her living room is captured in a warm, golden glow, while the first blush of romance unfolds under an equally contradictory cold, blue haze. In these shifts in time and tone, our souls are suggested to be bits of our experiences smashed together like a mosaic. Haynes’ attempts to reveal Dylan have a remarkable way of reflecting humanity at large.
EH: I like the “Hattie Carroll” scene, too. It helps that that song sends chills up my spine whenever I hear it, in whatever form or context: it’s one of Dylan’s best protest songs, simply shattering in its brilliant use of repetition and the outrage that Dylan encodes into every syllable. That’s one of the reasons that I wish Haynes had used the fiery original rather than a cover version, which is not bad but no substitute for Dylan. At his best in this era, Dylan seemed to be spitting his words, forcing such vitriol into every phrase that he put the comparatively mild-mannered folk of his peers to shame. It’s easy to forget, now, that Dylan was never truly part of the peace-and-love folk movement of his contemporaries, even if songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind” have become anthems for that vision of ‘60s folk. For the most part, his was a very angry, personal form of political protest and rebellion. When others were putting flowers in the barrel of a gun, he was warning the warmongers that he’d like to see them dead. He could be funny, too, and romantic and whimsical and, even on his earliest work, surreal, but when he buckled down to write a protest song, it was invariably dripping with anger and contempt. In a way, songs like these are the best possible answer to the later disconnection and flatness of affect that Jude professes to feel. Listening to Dylan sing this song, it’s impossible to miss the passion in his voice, the very real engagement he feels with the racism and injustice at the heart of this story. (For that matter, it’s impossible to miss that passion, in a very different form, in the electric music Dylan was making later in the ‘60s.) Maybe, after feeling this intensely, after pouring so much of himself into songs like this, the Dylan of later years had to temper things a little; although his music would remain very personal throughout his career, almost without exception, never again would he seem as naked as he does on performances like this, or “Masters of War,” or “Only a Pawn in Their Game.” The disguises, masks and new identities of Dylan in the post-protest era can be seen as layered over this nakedness, this core of outrage and righteous anger that seemed to come from such a deep place within the young Dylan. Haynes enhances this moment, as you say, through its intimacy, by making it an off-the-cuff performance by the side of a truck, with an audience that seems to have just wandered up to hear Dylan vent his frustrations at a system so blatantly unfair and biased.
But, as I mentioned, he also dilutes the scene a bit by using a Mason Jennings cover rather than Dylan’s own version from The Times They Are A-Changin’. It’s not that it’s a bad cover, but I think—and maybe I’m just biased by my love of Dylan’s music and my particular love for this song—that the scene’s meaning and effect are enriched by my reaction to the performance I imagine being there rather than the one that’s actually there. This is particularly true since Jennings doesn’t really deviate from the original in any significant way that would justify the cover. For this reason I think Haynes’ frequent use of Dylan covers in place of the originals is mostly a poor choice: more often than not, even when the covers are decent, I’d rather hear the original unless an artist is really re-imagining a song in a substantial way.
There are only two exceptions here, both cases where the original song is changed in a substantial way, its effect and meaning altered by the new rendition. One is the Jim James performance I’ve already mentioned, a union of music and visuals that, as far as I’m concerned, is matched only by Rebekah Del Rio’s turn in Mulholland Dr. and a select handful of other sublime cinematic/musical fusions. The other is Marcus Carl Franklin’s stomp through “Tombstone Blues” while jamming on a porch with some black blues and folk musicians, including Richie Havens. That’s a performance that completely alters the original song by translating it into this rollicking country blues idiom, drawing a lineage between Dylan and the black musicians who influenced him and built a foundation for his own music. At other times, Haynes seems to switch interchangeably between Dylan originals and cover versions of varying quality that are mostly pretty similar to the original anyway, and I’m not sure why. Maybe he couldn’t get the rights to everything he wanted, or maybe he felt that it was a way to suggest Dylan’s enduring influence on new generations of musicians and the fact that he’s been so frequently covered, but either way it’s an occasional distraction in a film that otherwise bowls me over on nearly every level.
JB: Let me come at Haynes’ use of covers from a different angle. I’d argue that the use of covers suggests the influence and spread of Dylan’s music, even when the covers aren’t significantly different from the original. I’d argue that consistently giving us Dylan songs but not always Dylan helps us focus on the music itself and not Dylan’s aura around it. I’d argue that using Dylan’s own versions sparingly heightens the impact of the times we do hear Dylan’s originals. I’d argue that getting away from Dylan’s voice allows the multiple interpretations of Dylan to stand for themselves rather than seeming like Dylan puppets and nothing more. And I’d argue that if this was all Dylan all the time, even with the film’s strong writing and narrative intricacy, I’m Not There could have started to feel like a dramatized documentary or, worse, a mockumentary in which the dramatizations are to be chuckled at more often than not.
That last argument goes a bit far, I admit. But my overall point is that it’s seemingly odd decisions like this one—to not always use Dylan cuts in a movie about Dylan—that make I’m Not There as rich as it is. Moving toward the center, toward the standard rock biopic, in any way would have been against the spirit of everything else going on here. And there’s also this: Sometimes covers are the best way possible to alter one’s rigid interpretations about a musical artist. To hear James singing “Goin’ to Acapulco” is to hear something that sounds nothing like Dylan, not to a non-Dylanologist, at least. I realize that’s the extreme, and that you’d have happily supported more bold diversions like that one, but even in the more faithful “Hattie Carroll,” and more traditional interpretations like it, Haynes gets us beyond the stereotypical Dylan image—the nasally voice, the harmonica, the whine—and that’s core to the film’s mission. Besides, goodness man, there’s plenty here for the Dylan devotees, stuff that Haynes has buried for them and only them. So maybe the covers, even when mostly faithful to Dylan and not as impressive as his own versions, are urging fans like you to loosen your grasp on what the legend’s music is or isn’t. In the least you should be happy that Haynes didn’t use Sophie B. Hawkins.
EH: That’s fair enough. I realize I’m just nitpicking with that complaint, and that it’s bound to bother only a pretty big Dylan fan. But, as you say, I just wish that if Haynes was going to use so many covers, there were many more new perspectives like the James/Calexico collaboration, and less slavish imitations of the original. Your point about covers providing contrast and offering up alternate interpretations is well-taken, but I don’t know how well that purpose is served by covers that hew so closely to the original tune. There’s a great compilation called Painted Black, on which a number of electronic and avant-rock artists cover the Stones’ ubiquitous “Paint It, Black,” and each track deconstructs and re-imagines the song in different ways, offering up new perspectives, some of which focus on the rhythms of the original, some on the mood, some on hints of the melody, and so on. I wasn’t looking for anything so radical here, by any means, but more stuff like Jim James, and less like Eddie Vedder, would’ve been much appreciated.
In any event, this is a fairly small quibble, and on the whole I’m Not There is a masterful work that represents much of what’s best about Haynes as an artist. It’s a summation of his themes, encompassing his interest in fame, music, the impact and meanings of art, identity and the self, and the role of the outcast, the unusual person, in society. And as always it represents a skillful blending and balancing of disparate cinematic styles. He tells the story of ‘60s-era electric Dylan in a black-and-white style that mixes D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back, the most famous cinematic representation of this era in Dylan’s career, with Fellini’s 8 1/2, another story of an artist who has trouble living up to society’s image of him and dealing with his internal problems at the same time. The film also blends in Haynes’ usual fixation with documentary conventions, his Godard influence (directly quoting from Masculin feminin, that ultimate document of mid-‘60s naïveté and ennui), references to pop culture and world history, and more. And yet, rather than being daunting or only for those who get all the in-jokes, about Dylan or otherwise, it is, as you say above, universal.
That’s why I love your analysis of the film as a radical reconfiguration of the Forrest Gump/Benjamin Button plot structure where a character passes through history. Haynes’ destabilizing structure uses historical markers much more loosely, but in the process winds up presenting a much more convincing portrait of history, because it captures the mood of historical eras rather than simply showing clips from a highlights reel. This film captures the spirits of rebellion, protest, upheaval and, naturally, change, that ran through Dylan’s life and the ‘60s generation in general. Haynes, as I’ve kept saying throughout this conversation, might be very cerebral and intellectual—his is undoubtedly a cinema of ideas, in the best sense—but he’s equally attuned to mood and emotion. That shows through in this film’s kaleidoscopic evocation of the flickering pace of time and history, as it does elsewhere in the fastidious but bitingly satirical recreation of ‘50s middle America in Far from Heaven or the lurid music video aesthetics of Velvet Goldmine’s glam fantasia. Haynes may visit the past often, but that hardly means he’s looking backward; his dissections of earlier eras resonate forward into our own and beyond, as visions of what the world once looked like, what it looks like now, and what it might look like someday in the future.
JB: That’s beautifully put, and I think it’s accurate. At the outset of this discussion, when I was praising Superstar, I suggested that part of that film’s power over me might be attributable to the fact that it was the final Haynes film I watched in preparation for this conversation. On a similar note, I think watching Haynes’ films in close succession has had a significant effect on my rapidly increasing admiration for I’m Not There. Because it’s in looking at Haynes’ filmography in near totality that the depth of his filmmaking is best revealed. This could be said of many auteurs, of course, and indeed going film-by-film through the works of Fincher, Mann and Tarantino in our previous conversations helped me to discover recurring themes I had previously overlooked when seeing their films spread out over time. But I think Haynes benefits from a broad understanding of his work more than many writer/directors, if for no other reason than his lack of blatancy, which we debated. Though I don’t want to imply that Haynes’ films can’t be powerful in a vacuum—indeed, someone could see just one Haynes film and be blown away by it—it’s by watching several of Haynes’ films that the once camouflaged or ambiguous or just inconspicuous becomes unmistakable.
That’s why if someone first encountered Haynes by watching Safe and found the film unengaged, or if someone’s initial exposure to Haynes was I’m Not There and he or she found the film random and imprecise, I wouldn’t be entirely surprised. And my advice to that hypothetical person wouldn’t be to watch those specific films again, but rather to watch some of Haynes’ other films and only then to reconsider what they’d already seen. This would probably be good advice in almost any situation in which someone had a small sampling of an auteur’s work, but I think it might be particularly effective in the case of Haynes, precisely because of my theory that his films often pass through the brain to the heart instead of going straight for the gut. I mean, if someone got introduced to Hitchcock by watching Rear Window, how likely is it that their understanding of that film could be completely rewritten by seeing North By Northwest and Vertigo immediately afterward? Not likely, I’d guess, in most cases. Themes might be spotted, repeat viewings might be enriched, but the thrust of Rear Window is self-evident the first time around, no matter how many Hitchcock films a viewer has encountered before. I wouldn’t say the same thing about I’m Not There, which is an intricate, thoughtful and emotional picture, but which might not seem that way to the person unfamiliar with the work of Haynes (and Dylan). Seeing several of Haynes’ films is the difference between suspecting there’s great meaning in some of his movies’ smallest gestures and knowing it for a fact.
As before, I make this observation not to disparage or otherwise insult Haynes’ films but to attempt to articulate the way his films work and the reason that his films feel so different from the American norm. I think Haynes is fully aware of the kind of films he’s making. I think he knows that, by subtly encoding his films with meaning, he runs the risk that his meaning won’t always be apparent. I think that looking at Superstar, Poison, Dottie Gets Spanked, Velvet Goldmine, Far from Heaven and I’m Not There it’s obvious that Haynes is capable of making almost any kind of film he wants, so we can only conclude that there’s a reason he makes the kinds of films he does. If Haynes wanted to be in the mainstream, he’d jump in. If Haynes wanted to be blatant, he’d lift his films out of the mist. That’s not his intent. Haynes’ films are by no means inscrutable. They are layered, subtle and thought-provoking (indeed, sometimes I find them more interesting to think about than to experience; but that’s me). Best of all, they are personal. Even when Haynes’ films don’t mean tremendously much to me, I never doubt that they mean very much to him.
Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema.
Jeonju IFF 2019: Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, L. Cohen, & Introduzione all’oscuro
These are three enigmatic, challenging, and weird works of art by filmmakers pushing at the boundaries of the cinematic form.
Shortly after arriving in Jeonju, the mid-sized Korean city about 200 kilometers south of Seoul that serves as the site of the Jeonju International Film Festival, I pulled my bedraggled, jet-lagged body over to the guest center to pick up my press credentials. As I made my way through the carnivalesque open-air city block known as Jeonju Cinema Town, I found myself, to my surprise, in the midst of a rather peculiar, almost surreal scenario as a bunch of white- and black-suited stormtroopers marched in lockstep toward me, weapons at the ready, flanking none other than the Grand Imperial Poobah himself, Darth Vader.
The group maneuvered around me without incident, eager to pose for selfies with the crowd of locals assembled in the area, but after over 20 hours of travel, the encounter took on a vaguely sinister air, as if the forces of Hollywood monoculture had been dispatched to this relatively remote cinephile retreat to ensure that no one here got the wrong idea: Have fun with your cute little art films, but remember who really wields the power in the world of cinema.
I suppose these are the sorts of strange inclinations that strike you when your body’s circadian rhythms have been shaken up like a snow globe, but, despite the presence of the Walt Disney Company as one of the festival’s premier sponsors, the films I saw—personal, challenging, at times exhilarating work from all across the world—couldn’t have seemed further away from the market-tested franchises that clog American cineplexes. Having said that, it’s with some irony that one of the first films I took in at Jeonju IFF was in fact a sequel—albeit one whose eccentric sense of humor and repetitive, unresolved narrative mean it’s never going to be mistaken for the latest from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The sequel in question is Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, Bruno Dumont’s follow-up to Li’l Quinquin. One of the great left turns in the history of auteurism, Dumont’s 2014 miniseries signaled his transition from austere Bressonian miserablism to a singular brand of deadpan grotesquerie that gleefully explodes the thin line between the clever and the stupid. Dumont doesn’t vary his style too much for the sequel, as it’s another bizarre sunlit mystery set in the windswept countryside of Dumont’s native Nord-Pas-de-Calais. And Dumont has reassembled the same cast of non-professional local oddballs led by Bernard Pruvost as Commandant Van der Weyden, a twitchy, hapless police detective investigating matters way beyond his depths.
Dumont, though, still finds ways to mess with his audience’s expectations, starting with the baffling and completely inexplicable change of the title character’s name. If the earlier film felt like Dumont’s riff on popular international crime dramas like Broadchurch and The Killing, Coincoin turns out to be his spin on The X-Files, a sci-fi pod-people procedural featuring a mysterious black goo from outer space that inhabits its victims and forces them to give birth to their own uncanny clones. Like many stories about body-snatching, the series is a satire—here on provincial racism, the poor treatment of African migrants, and the rise of the French far right—but Dumont isn’t simply interested in topical point-scoring against Marine Le Pen, the anti-immigrant politician who represents Nord-Pas-de-Calais.
Rather, with its ambling, directionless narrative and lackadaisical long shots that perversely undercut the screenplay’s gags, Coincoin evokes a deep-rooted spirit of reactionary malaise, of people whose lives are hopelessly circumscribed by their own fears and prejudices. Dumont rigorously resists developing his plot or deepening his characters: They’re all trapped in an absurd loop, doomed to endlessly say the same things and reenact the same jokes.
Van der Weyden sums up that mentality in a single line: “Progress isn’t inevitable.” There’s a group of black men who periodically appear throughout the film only to be consistently and summarily dismissed in a fit of racist panic. Each time, we expect the film to create some meaningful interaction between the white townsfolk and these migrants, and each time we’re rebuffed—that is, until a final musical explosion of kumbaya-like camaraderie that’s somehow goofy, moving, tedious, and invigorating all at the same time.
Dumont is one of the few artists in cinema willing to risk exhausting his audience to induce a particular effect, but he’s not the only one, as demonstrated by James Benning’s L. Cohen, a 45-minute static shot of a seemingly unremarkable field with a mountain visible in the distance. It’s an elegantly composed frame, reminiscent of an American Regionalist painting and whose centrally located peak perhaps coyly refers to the Paramount logo.
After 20 minutes, even the most hardened cinephiles are bound to be squirming in their seat, at which point Benning reveals his remarkable trump card: As the sky quickly darkens and blackness falls over the Earth, we realize that we’ve been watching the leadup to a total solar eclipse. It’s a moment of quiet astonishment and confusion for anyone who doesn’t know it’s coming, bringing us close to the feeling a caveman might’ve had when the same event occurred. With typical mathematical precision, Benning has placed the eclipse at the exact center of the film, allowing us to explore the subtle shadows that precede and follow it.
The film, however, isn’t just some academic structuralist exercise, as it’s also a meditation on death, a fact highlighted by the next startling moment: the inclusion of Leonard Cohen’s “Love Itself” on the soundtrack, a stark divergence from the ominous drone (identified by Benning during his festival Q&A as the hum of airplanes flying overhead) that fills the rest of the film. This song and the dedication of the film to the recently deceased Cohen add a deeper layer of meaning to Benning’s precisely calibrated study of light and time.
L. Cohen is in essence a meditation on temporality. All things are fleeting, even grand interplanetary ballets. Considering the brief alignment of these celestial bodies puts one in a cosmic mood and calls to mind a cryptic, haunting line from a different Cohen song, “Stories of the Street”: “We are so small between the stars, so large against the sky.”
One could also find the specter of death looming over Introduzione all’oscuro, an expressionistic tribute to director Gastón Solnicki’s good friend, Hans Hurch, the recently departed director of the Viennale, the Vienna International Film Festival. Described by the director not as a film about Hurch, but a film for him, Introduzione all’oscuro dispenses with biography entirely, instead evoking its subject’s buoyant, ragtag spirit in an almost subliminal fashion: through music, film, and the city of Vienna. Hurch “appears” in the film primarily through his letters and through his voice, recorded by Solnicki when he provided notes on one of the director’s previous films. Solnicki does appear on screen: a comically lonely figure visiting some of Hurch’s favorite Viennese haunts—such as the Café Engländer, from which he would periodically steal cups—on a journey that drolly recalls Holly Martins’s investigation into the apparent death of his pal Harry Lime in The Third Man.
Like Solnicki’s Kékszakállú before it, Introduzione all’oscuro is what might be called “slideshow cinema”—a procession of taut, piquant compositions whose relationship to one another isn’t precisely clear but which, when taken together, create an indelible impression of a highly specific milieu. Structured more like a piece of avant-garde music than a narrative work or traditional documentary, the film has a hypnotic yet often dissonant allure. It pulls us into a strange liminal zone where Hurch seems to be simultaneously present and absent, haunting the film like a benevolent spirit. Solnicki simply has one of the best eyes in cinema today, and it’s the pungency of his images which makes the film such an endlessly compelling experience, even when the reasons behind Solnicki’s individual choices remain obscure.
Abstruseness, though, is no crime. In fact, the greatest pleasures of Jeonju IFF were to be found in grappling with “difficult” films such as Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, L. Cohen, and Introduzione all’oscuro: enigmatic, challenging, and even downright weird works of art made by filmmakers pushing at the boundaries of the cinematic form.
The Jeonju International Film Festival ran from May 2—11.
Review: As Teen Comedy, Booksmart Is Sweet and Nasty in Fine Balance
It’s an R-rated teen comedy that proves that you can center girls’ experiences without sacrificing grossness.3
An uncharitable way of describing Olivia Wilde’s feature directorial debut, Booksmart, is as a gender-flipped version of Superbad. Like Greg Mottola’s 2007 film, it concerns a pair of best friends who’ve spent their high school years as outsiders but, at the end of their senior year, decide to attend the biggest, coolest graduation party imaginable. As in Superbad, getting to the party devolves into an almost picaresque gauntlet through suburban nightlife, consisting of comical encounters with outlandish characters (both films even feature a “creepy car guy”). Booksmart and Superbad also share a ribald, R-rated sense of humor and a sex scene interrupted by vomit—even the same casting director (the venerable Allison Jones).
For all that, Wilde’s film is less a derivative of Mottola’s teen comedy than a corrective to it. Its exaggerated universe is less mean-spirited than the one depicted in Superbad, where so much of the humor depended on Jonah Hill loudly proclaiming his character’s misogyny. Booksmart isn’t above getting laughs from sex jokes that land somewhere between honest and outrageous—there’s a recurring bit about Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) masturbating with her stuffed panda doll—but it does show that teenage conversations about sex can be funny without being demeaning. And its belief in its main characters as more than just stand-ins for the most distorted beliefs that virginal high schoolers have about sex gives the film a fuller, more satisfying arc.
Amy and her best friend, Molly (Beanie Feldstein), are their elite Valley High School’s A-type-personality do-gooders, well-meaning in their ambition and their wokeness, but with streaks of haughtiness and self-righteousness. Beanie is class president, the kind of kid who pushes the school principal (Jason Sudeikis) to arrange a budget meeting with the juniors on the last day of class. In contrast to the brashly assertive Molly, Amy is meek, barely able to eke out syllables when talking to her crush, Ryan (Victoria Ruesga), but she’s also intensely woke, adorning her denim jacket with feminist-slogan patches and her car with “Elizabeth Warren 2020” bumper stickers. The pair are so close that they’re often mistaken for being a couple (Amy has been out since the 10th grade), and they definitely don’t party.
As school is letting out, Molly discovers that her and Amy’s monk-like approach to high school life has been for naught. Although the two pride themselves on respectively getting into Yale and Columbia, it seems that virtually all of their classmates have a similarly propitious future lined up. Even the horny goofball Theo (Eduardo Franco), who repeated seventh grade three times, was recruited for a six-figure job with Google. Molly adopts partying as her new project, dragging the reluctant Amy, all the more anxious because Ryan will be at the party, along with her. The problem is that, not being a part of their school’s social scene, they have no idea where the party actually is, and limited means of figuring it out.
The obliviously indefatigable Molly is a star-making role for Feldstein, who keeps let her highly dynamic character—Molly can be both very rigid and very foolhardy—from feeling inconsistent, or leading to broad caricature. As the quieter Amy, Devers’s role is mostly reactive, but, in the tumultuous climax, she supplies the film’s most poignant and relatable moments. As the omnipresent Gigi, a troubled party girl who inexplicably appears at each of the girls’ wayward stops on their journey to the party, Billie Lourd channels a chaotic energy, becoming the film’s strung-out jester. Lourd is just part of an altogether impressive ensemble that also includes Jessica Williams as the teacher who loves Amy and Molly perhaps a bit too much, and Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow as Amy’s super-Christian, super-supportive parents.
For the most part sharply written, and tighter and more consistently funny than the fragmented improv-style Superbad, Booksmart nevertheless has a couple of stretches that don’t quite land. There’s a claymated ayahuasca-tripping sequence that neither suits the rest of the film nor is followed up on in any way by the narrative. And the film’s conclusion is more than a little formally messy, with Wilde relying on a too-rapid succession of non-diegetic pop songs as emotional accents and to fast-forward the plot—at one crucial moment even drowning out the dialogue. But despite these small missteps, Booksmart feels like an innovation, an R-rated teen comedy that proves that you can center girls’ experiences without sacrificing grossness, and that you can be gross without being too mean.
Cast: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Jessica Williams, Jason Sudeikis, Billie Lourd, Diana Silvers, Mason Gooding, Skyler Gisondo, Noah Galvin, Eduardo Franco, Lisa Kudrow, Will Forte, Mike O’Brien Director: Olivia Wilde Screenwriter: Olivia Wilde Katie Silberman, Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins Distributor: Annapurna Pictures Running Time: 102 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Terminator: Dark Fate Official Trailer: Going Back to the Well with Sarah Connor
Linda Hamilton at least makes a killer impression as Sarah visits fiery justice upon Gabriel Luna’s terminator.
Today, Paramount dropped the trailer for the sixth entry in the Terminator series, Terminator: Dark Fate, which promises to deliver…more of the same? With this film, Deadpool director Tim Miller aims to give the series a reboot: by pretending that none of the films that came after Terminator 2: Judgement Day ever existed (sorry, Rise of the Machines fans), maybe even Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. “Welcome to the day after judgment day,” reads the poster, promising the badass return of Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor. And on that front, the film looks to deliver, as Hamilton certainly makes a killer impression as Sarah visits fiery justice upon Gabriel Luna’s terminator.
But based on everything else that’s on display throughout the trailer, we’re worried that there’s not anything new that a film in this series stands to bring to the table besides running and gunning, with the occasional wink thrown in for good measure. Cast in point: Mackenzie Davis stars as Grace, an “enhanced human” who looks to fill the hanger-on role to Connor that Edward Furlong’s John Connor did to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800, now apparently living in woodsy retirement, and at the ready to give sage advice. In short, we’re not impressed, and that also holds true of that cover of Björk’s “Hunter” by some zombie man singer.
Watch the official trailer below:
Paramount Pictures will release Terminator Dark Fate on November 1.
Review: Woodstock Offers a New Look at the Three Days that Defined a Generation
Throughout, the era-defining yet problem-plagued music festival astounds in large part for all the disasters that didn’t occur.3
According to Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation, the 1969 Woodstock festival seemed fated to fail. But a rare convergence of good luck, good intentions, and good vibes somehow snapped into place and crystallized over a few days in August the aspirations of a counterculture about to hit its peak. The festival’s planners, mostly promoters and music-industry pros, talk off-camera throughout this gloriously gleeful documentary about their somewhat spur-of-the-moment concept in a purposefully overlapping mosaic that makes it difficult to determine who’s saying what. Their original idea was simply a big concert that would celebrate the opening of a recording studio in the bucolic artist community of Woodstock, NY and take advantage of the musicians living nearby.
That conceit ballooned into a sprawling three-day cultural amoeba of feel-good psychedelia billed as “An Aquarian Exposition” to be held in a bucolic setting. It would ideally seem, according to one organizer, “like visiting another world.” Creating that gateway to paradise, however, hit one snag after another. Conservative fears about an invasion of hippies led to much anger among locals and triggered permitting issues. Original desired stars like Bob Dylan, the Doors, and the Rolling Stones all passed on the vent. Months’ worth of construction at the original site in Wallkill, NY had to be scrapped at the last minute.
But Woodstock shows also how both lucky circumstances and in-depth planning saved the day. The lineup swelled with a killer roster of acts whom David Crosby defines simply as “everybody we thought was cool”: Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Sly and the Family Stone, Santana, Creedence Clearwater, Janis Joplin, and so on. According to writer Bob Spitz, interest grew as the organizers put the word out through the underground press, and though their top estimates of attendance topped out at 150,000, the eventual total was closer to a potentially unmanageable 400,000. Seemingly foolhardy ideas like hiring Wavy Gravy’s Hog Farm commune to handle what they termed “security” and what Wavy defined as trying to “spread grooviness,” helped the increasingly massive enterprise maintain an appealingly mellow tone. Then, a Republican dairy farmer named Max Yasgur, who just happened to have a visually gorgeous sweep of land shaped like a natural amphitheater, agreed to host the festival.
Just about everyone interviewed in Barak Goodman and Jamilia Ephron’s documentary still marvels a half-century on at the scope and tranquility of what happened, though the potential for disaster provides some dramatic grit to the narrative. Much of the festival’s harmoniousnes was a result of on-the-spot empathetic resourcefulness, from Hog Farm’s thrown-together Sunday-morning “breakfast in bed” and “freak-out” tents for people on bad acid trips to the previously resentful locals who spontaneously emptied their pantries to feed the long-haired kids who had been tromping through their front yards. The crowds were soothed by the reassuring voice of the festival announcer, whose “we”-focused addresses over the PA system strengthened the communal spirit, which is then echoed in the film’s starry-eyed reminiscences of interviewees who all sound as though they wish they could go back.
Woodstock cannot hope to supplant Michael Wadleigh’s more symphonic and experiential 1970 documentary. But conversely, its tighter, narrower focus on narrative and context ultimately tells a bigger story at roughly half the length. Co-director Goodman has shown in some of his darker work for PBS’s American Experience, like his episode about the Oklahoma City bombing, a knack for building suspense. He deploys that skill here marvelously when showing the sea of humanity converging on Yasgur’s farm, balancing a fear of impending disaster (short supplies, last-minute glitches, a crowd many times larger than the highest estimates) with the dawning realization that things might just work out.
That tightrope-walking drama is maintained through the actual concert portion of the movie. The musical highs, Hendrix’s squalling “Star-Spangled Banner” and Richie Haven’s raucous two-hour jam (filling the gap while helicopters ferried musicians in over the blocked roads), play out while the vast crowd contends with food shortages and an unexpected rainstorm. But even though the attendees rushed past the mostly unbuilt fencing and by default created what organizer John Roberts here terms “the world’s greatest three-day freebie,” he and his partners appear now happier about the instant community that metamorphosed in the mud than the fact that as a business venture the concert was “in deep shit.”
Woodstock hits many of the expected notes about the concert’s place in the nation’s cultural history. But it’s refreshingly less self-satisfied than awestruck at the simple beauty of what happened at the Woodstock festival and the utopian example it provided to the world. Though unmentioned here, the disastrous music festival that occurred four months later at Altamont Speedway, in the hills of Northern California’s East Bay, where the organizers’ callous indifference to advance planning led to chaos and multiple deaths, shows just how rare the event that occurred in Bethel across three days back in August ‘69 remains to this day.
Director: Barak Goodman, Jamila Ephron Distributor: PBS Distribution Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir Is a Knotty Trip Down Memory Lane
Its stylistic fluctuations are a sign of a filmmaker really wrestling with how she became the woman and artist she is today.3.5
True to the mission of its protagonist, a well-meaning student filmmaker working on a thesis feature about a community foreign to her, writer-director Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir is engaged in a running dialogue with itself around the notion of how—and how not—to make a personal narrative. Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is a London-based, upper-middle-class young woman coming of age in Margaret Thatcher’s England who feels a moral imperative to transpose her own experiences onto a fictional story set in working-class Sunderland, and she’s given ongoing opportunities in her film workshops to try to articulate why that is. Hogg, who based the character on her own early experiences as an artist, views Julie’s trajectory tenderly but through the lens of a greater maturity, dotting the young woman’s path with interlocutors who challenge and redirect her inclinations. Gradually, Julie’s certitude seems to fall out from under her, transforming Hogg’s film in the process.
Pivotal among these forces is Anthony (Tom Burke), a spectacularly smug older man with ambiguous professional and personal affiliations who becomes inexorably drawn to Julie, and she to him. When he first appears on screen across a table from Julie at a café, Hogg frames the scene in the kind of spacious, sophisticated master shot that defined her 2013 film Exhibition, snapping The Souvenir out of the close-up-heavy, fly-on-the-wall aesthetic with which it opens. The shift in style registers the exhilarating impact Anthony has on Julie, who is up to that point seen as a wallflower at college parties, taking photos and rolling a Bolex in the corner while bouncing in and out of conversations. Sizing up Julie’s film project with suave dismissiveness, Anthony suggests that she might heed the influence of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who were able to express personal emotions free of the constraints of realism, and later proposes that “it’s not enough to be sincere or authentic.”
Julie takes such counseling in stride even when it comes from her casually condescending professors (also men), giving her a headstrong resilience that Swinton-Byrne beautifully underplays. But Julie’s toughness doesn’t equate to stubborn pride, and soon The Souvenir turns away from its portrait of early filmmaking ambition and toward the knotty dynamics of Anthony and Julie’s strengthening relationship—itself modeled off a fling in Hogg’s past. The director orchestrates this formal shapeshift with sly subtlety, first introducing the couple’s scenes together as elliptical diversions from the central storyline, then gradually lengthening them until the sequences set in and around Julie’s film school take a backseat entirely. Now sharing an apartment, Anthony and Julie go through the growing pains of coexistence—the former posits a “Wall of Jericho” made of pillows in a reference to It Happened One Night to solve his discomfort in bed—but nonetheless find a strange harmony in their dissonant personalities, with his brutal honesty charming her and her placidity disarming him.
In Anthony’s case, however, this apparent personality yardstick proves misleading, as it turns out that he’s frank about everything but his own life. Talk of a vague government job creates an impression of a posh background belied by Anthony and Julie’s trip to visit his parents, and later, an offhand remark made by one of Anthony’s friends when he’s in the bathroom yields the startling revelation—cued by spatially disorienting mirror shots and the gentle use of Dutch angles—that Julie’s boyfriend is a heroin addict. Hogg omits the scene where Julie confronts Anthony about this revelation, but the mark it leaves on their relationship is implicitly, delicately apparent in every part of The Souvenir moving forward. The neatly organized, white-walled apartment where much of the action takes place becomes charged with tension, not only from the threat of dissident bombing that percolates outside its windows (a reality contemporaneous to the film’s early-‘80s setting), but also from Anthony’s frequent, unexplained comings and goings, which starkly contrast Julie’s more fixed physicality as she spends her time hunched over a typewriter.
The Souvenir flirts with a few conventional movie premises—the doomed romance, the spiral into the hell of drug addiction, the pursuit of self-actualization—without ever fully engaging one, which doesn’t indicate an uncertainty on Hogg’s part so much as a supreme confidence in the intricacies of her own material. Likely to some viewers’ dismay, Julie’s story isn’t one that ever comes to hinge on an a-ha moment, a sudden realization that she’s strayed from her artistic passion in her entanglement with a toxic partner. Rather, Hogg evokes both the seductive appeal of an irrational romance and the less sexy but nonetheless potent comfort of falling into the role of nurturer, a discipline shown in a few touching scenes to be inherited by Julie from her mother (Tilda Swinton). What’s more, it can’t be said that Anthony’s influence is purely deleterious, as his bouts of real vulnerability, carried off with a persuasive display of wounded pride by Burke, repeatedly push Julie toward greater sensitivity and awareness.
Perhaps ambivalent herself to Anthony’s recommendation that Julie seek inspiration from Powell and Pressburger’s work, Hogg shoots in a grainy, underlit 16mm palette that has less to do with period fetishism than with draining the sparkle from Julie’s privileged upbringing. The Souvenir is shot from a measured distance, often with the camera in rooms adjacent to the actors so that walls and other objects populate the foreground, and the resulting sense is of being simultaneously immersed in the spaces of Hogg’s early adulthood and at an intellectual remove from them, a fusion seemingly reflective of the director’s own mixed emotions in revisiting this story. In this case, however, that quality of fluctuation isn’t a deficiency but a virtue, a sign of a filmmaker really wrestling with how she became the woman and artist she is today, and the mark of a film that’s beholden to no recipe but its own.
Cast: Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton, Jack McMullen, Frankie Wilson, Richard Ayoade, Jaygann Ayeh Director: Joanna Hogg Screenwriter: Joanna Hogg Distributor: A24 Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Aladdin Is a Magic Corporate Ride to Nowhere Special
Guy Ritchie’s live-action remake is content to trace the original’s narrative beats with perfunctory indifference.1
Compared to a few other recent live-action remakes of Disney’s animated films, which at least attempted to bring striking story wrinkles or an auteurist perspective to bear on their interpretations, Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin is a remake in the most literal sense. Much of the film’s first act traces the narrative beats of the 1992 animated feature, and in shot-for-shot fashion: Thieving street rat Aladdin (Mena Massoud) meets and charms the princess of his native Agrabah, Jasmine (Naomi Scott), and ultimately runs afoul of scheming grand vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), before obtaining a magic lamp containing a genie (Will Smith) who has the power to transform the young pauper into a prince worthy of Jasmine’s station.
The steadfastness with which every aspect of the original is replicated by this new Aladdin makes Ritchie’s film a grueling example of the streaming-era notion of art as content. Because there’s no chemistry between Massoud and Scott, the legitimacy of Aladdin and Jasmine’s flirtations is largely sold on the basis of the viewer’s preexisting knowledge that these two will become a couple. Elsewhere, the relationship between Jafar and the Sultan (Navid Negahban) is an even paler imitation. In the original, Jafar’s viciousness was at least partially driven by his hatred of the Sultan, who issued inane commands to his grand vizier in all sorts of parodically infantile and buffoonish of ways. Here, though, the Sultan is a negligible figure, neither callous nor especially influential, thus robbing his subordinate of a compelling motive. The Jafar of this film is evil simply because he’s been designated as the story’s big bad.
If the dogged faithfulness of Ritchie’s film to the original proves consistently stultifying, it’s the most noticeable deviations that ultimately damn the remake. In an attempt to give Jasmine something to do other than be the object of men’s affections, Ritchie and co-writer John August blend the character’s traditional frustrations at being trapped behind palace walls with a newfound resentment over how her capacity to rule as sultan is thwarted by traditional gender roles. Nonetheless, her desires to lead are bluntly articulated and reflective of a broader tendency among the film’s characters to express their awareness of their own repression by tilting their heads back and staring off into the distance as they speak extemporaneously about their dreams. Poor Scott is also burdened with the film’s big new song, “Speechless,” an instantly dated empowerment anthem that suggests the sonic equivalent of that old woman’s botched restoration of the Ecce Homo fresco in Borja, Spain.
The film does come somewhat to life during its musical numbers. Though these sequences are marked by simplistic and unengaging choreography, they don’t quell the verve of Howard Ashman and Tim Rice’s original songs. Less successful is Smith, who, unable to match the intensity of Robin Williams’s performance as the Genie in the original film, leans into his signature drawling sarcasm to bring his spin on the character to life, effectively draining the Genie of everything that made him so memorably larger than life in the first place. Even when portraying some of the Genie’s more antic behavior, Smith mostly takes the path of least resistance, injecting just enough energy into his performance to hint at Williams’s memorable take on the character but without seeming as if he’s actually working up a sweat.
Elsewhere, Massoud mostly goes through the motions in establishing Aladdin as a rakish pauper, but the actor comes alive in a comic scene that sees his street urchin, newly styled as a prince by the Genie, presenting himself to the Sultan’s court. Having never been trained on any points of social graces, Aladdin can only stammer out pleasantries, using strange honorifics to refer to the Sultan as he curtsies instead of bows. Later, the Genie helps Aladdin perform an elaborate dance by controlling the young man’s body in order to wow the Sultan’s court. Impressively, Massoud manages to perform complicated steps while looking as if every movement is done against his will, giving Aladdin’s flailing motions a slapstick quality.
Such flashes of personality, though, are few and far between in this remake. Certainly there was a lot of room to bring a contemporary perspective to this material—to counter the original’s problematic representation of its Middle-Eastern milieu and deepen its characters. Instead, the film settles for telling you a joke you’ve already heard and botching the delivery.
Cast: Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Will Smith, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad, Alan Tudyk, Frank Welker, Billy Magnussen Director: Guy Ritchie Screenwriter: John August, Guy Ritchie Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 128 min Rating: PG Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack
Review: Brightburn Is a Soulless Mishmash of Disparate Genre Elements
The way the film shuttles through its 90 minutes, it’s as if it’s been stripped of its most crucial narrative parts.1
Like a lot of kids squirming through puberty, Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn) is an asshole. Unlike most, however, he’s from outer space and possessed of formidable superpowers. Soon after learning of his abilities, he stalks a classmate, Caitlyn (Emmie Hunter), who consoled him in class after he was teased for his incredible smarts. Brandon makes a show of controlling Caitlyn’s laptop before appearing outside her bedroom window, eerily floating in the air. By this point in director David Yarovesky’s Brightburn, one is still optimistic that Brandon’s creeper tendencies will be the most insidious of his problems. But when Caitlyn calls him a pervert, after letting him fall to the ground during a “trust fall” exercise in gym class, Brandon crushes the bones in her hand after she’s forced to help him up. By the end of the film, Caitlyn will prove to be one of the lucky ones.
That Yarovesky and screenwriters Brian and Mark Gunn don’t exactly push the link between Brandon’s pubescence and his growing self-awareness isn’t the first sign that something is amiss here. Right out of the gate, Brightburn reveals itself unwilling to animate its characters’ emotional dramas, using visual shorthand to simply hint at them. In the opening scene, set more than 10 years in the past, the camera pans across a bookshelf full of fertility books, informing the audience that Brandon’s parents, Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denman), really want to have a baby. Later, while helping his dad with chores, Brandon accidentally throws a lawnmower halfway across the family farm. This is when he recognizes that he has superpowers, but rather than prolong the kid’s doubt across more than one scene, the film zips straight to the moment where he’s about to shove his hand into the lawn mower’s spinning blades to confirm his suspicions that he’s nothing short of invincible.
More genre films—more films, period—could stand to have a lot less fat on their bones, but the way Brightburn shuttles through its 90 minutes, it’s as if it’s been stripped even of its most crucial narrative parts. Outside of one pulpy hallucination sequence, the film stubbornly refuses to give a concrete sense of the desperation that drove Tori and Kyle to adopt Brandon, just as it can’t be bothered to give shape to the mythology of his creation—or rather, his arrival. For a spell, though, this suggests a purposeful show of evasion. Much is made of the red light that peeks out from the floorboards in the family barn and to which Brandon is drawn throughout the film. If you’re a fan of Larry Cohen’s canon, you may wonder if the kid will be revealed as a kindred spirit of the ever-glowing human-alien antagonist from God Told Me To, here to make sport of our biological urge to procreate in our increasingly decaying world.
No such luck, as Brightburn is a meaningless mishmash of disparate genre elements. The truth of what lurks beneath the floorboards turns out to be of no particular consequence—not exactly a red herring, just a bit of hogwash that confirms Brandon to be a gene splice of Damien and Superman. Maybe a sense of majesty, of mythic grandeur, might have made him feel as if he was less arbitrarily willed into being, though Yarovesky certainly conveys the weight of the kid’s killing spree. Not its existential weight, only its repugnant force. At one point, one of his victims struggles to hold up the lower part of his grotesquely shattered jaw, as Brandon pulls off the mask that he wears because, presumably, he understands that that’s what someone with superhuman powers should do. Brightburn never shows us how Brandon came to such a realization, but it does let us glimpse the stone-cold delight he takes in erasing human life—a spectacle of violence that exists for its own soulless sake.
Cast: Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A. Dunn, Jennifer Holland, Matt Jones, Meredith Hagner, Becky Wahlstrom, Gregory Alan Williams, Steve Agee, Emmie Hunter Director: David Yarovesky Screenwriter: Brian Gunn, Mark Gunn Distributor: Screen Gems Running Time: 90 min Rating: R Year: 2019
The Nightingale Trailer: Aisling Franciosi and Sam Claflin Star in Jennifer Kent’s Follow-Up to The Babadook
Today, IFC has released the first trailer for the film, which is set during the colonization of Australia in 1825.
Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, the Aussie filmmaker’s much-anticipated follow-up to The Babadook, premiered way back in September at the Venice Film Festival, and to mostly positive notices. Today, ahead of its U.S. theatrical release in August, IFC has released the first trailer for the film, which is set during the colonization of Australia in 1825 and follows a young Irish convict settler, Clare (played by Aisling Franciosi), who, after finishing her seven-year sentence, struggles to be free of her abusive master, Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin). According to the studio’s official description of the film:
Clare’s husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) retaliates and she becomes the victim of a harrowing crime at the hands of the lieutenant and his cronies. When British authorities fail to deliver justice, Clare decides to pursue Hawkins, who leaves his post suddenly to secure a captaincy up north. Unable to find compatriots for her journey, she is forced to enlist the help of a young Aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) who grudgingly takes her through the rugged wilderness to track down Hawkins. The terrain and the prevailing hostilities are frightening, as fighting between the original inhabitants of the land and its colonizers plays out in what is now known as “The Black War.” Clare and Billy are hostile towards each other from the outset, both suffering their own traumas and mutual distrust, but as their journey leads them deeper into the wilderness, they must learn to find empathy for one another, while weighing the true cost of revenge.
Watch the official trailer below:
IFC Films will release The Nightingale in NY and LA on August 2.
Cannes Review: The Lighthouse Is a Hilarious and Grotesque Genre Pastiche
Robert Eggers loosens the noose of veracity just enough to allow for so much absurdism to peek through.3
Willem Dafoe farts and Robert Pattinson masturbates vigorously in Robert Eggers’s creepy and unexpectedly, if grotesquely, hilarious follow-up to The Witch. Set in 1890s New England, The Lighthouse finds Eggers again mining the past for an air of mythic portent but loosening the noose of veracity that choked his meticulously researched yet painfully self-serious debut just enough to allow for so much absurdism to peek through.
From the moment that lighthouse keepers Thomas Wake (Dafoe), an experienced old “wickie” with a shuffling gait and a hair-trigger temper, and Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson), his handlebar mustache-sporting assistant, set foot on the tiny island where they’re to spend the next four weeks, they start to get on each other’s nerves. Wake is a slave driver who’s said to have made his last assistant go crazy, and who ignores any and all regulations, while Winslow, who’s on his first assignment as a lighthouse keeper, refuses to drink and be merry with Wake, which causes its own problems. Before long, the two men kick into motion a game of one-upmanship, a raising of the stakes to see who will be the first to drive the other to madness—with flatulence and horniness among the many, many factors fueling that pursuit.
Eggers’s willingness to get goofy, and to not worry about humor defusing his narrative’s macabre horror—as in, say, the cartoonish pummeling that a devious seagull receives—makes The Lighthouse something of a breakthrough for the filmmaker. Diverging from the formula of coiled tension followed by sudden and jolting release that’s favored by so many contemporary arthouse horror films, Eggers parcels out the action in the film, steadily and methodically building toward the psychological breaking point of his characters.
Dafoe and Pattinson are crucial to selling that trajectory, ensuring that every moment here bristles with performative bluster. Dafoe’s surly former sea captain is a blowhard who’s given to sentimental reverie whenever he gets hammered, while his foil is played by Pattinson with slyly vacillating docile subservience and scheming spitefulness. The veteran character actor and dressed-down movie star play off each other exceptionally well, especially when, as is often the case in a two-hander, they have to pull-off a tricky role reversal.
Taking advantage of a bigger budget than The Witch, Eggers shot The Lighthouse on 35mm film. He’s also utilized the 1.19:1 Movietone aspect ratio, which was briefly standardized in the 1920s and is tighter than the already boxy 1.37:1 academy ratio, as a means of emphasizing his vertical compositions and the at times literally stratified relationship between his main characters. At one point, Dafoe’s old codger refuses to share lantern duty, while Winslow toils down below, swabbing decks and maintaining the dilapidated station.
Eggers successfully approximates F.W. Murnau’s stark and dynamic use of light and shadow in images that ensconce his characters in darkness and place them in geometrically unbalanced positions within the frame. But the quirkiest influence on this film is Night Tide, Curtis Harrington’s 1961 supernatural farce of a noir, which Eggers cribs from blatantly in a surreal sequence where Pattinson’s character has an erotic fantasy about a mermaid, and in a delirious body-horror montage—realized through largely practical effects—that co-opts Harrington’s hybridization of Roger Corman and Kenneth Ager’s stylings.
And like Night Tide, a send-up of beach-party movies and cheap ‘50s sci-fi, The Lighthouse aims for self-aware pastiche and pulls it off without smugness. Unlike Harrington’s film, though, it doesn’t register much affection for the forms it’s working with, and can come off like a calculated exercise. Still, Eggers’s ability to take the piss out of his inflated genre movie pastiche, without lapsing into parody, is an impressive and an entertaining feat.
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe, Valeriia Karaman Director: Robert Eggers Screenwriter: Robert Eggers, Max Eggers Distributor: A24 Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Maryland Film Festival 2019: The Hottest August, Donbass, & American Factory
This year’s selections exhibit a scope and ambition that should continue to draw adventurous filmgoers for years to come.
Judging from the enthusiasm of the surprisingly high number of New York filmmakers and critics this writer met in Baltimore this past weekend, the Maryland Film Festival isn’t seen as a pale shadow of Big Apple filmgoing. Rather, it’s a vital supplement to it—a program that compresses many of the festival season’s essential offerings into a manageable four-day run in an easily walkable city with comparatively chill crowds.
Those who made the commute to Baltimore for the festival this year had the chance to encounter one of the more trenchant New York-set films of recent memory in Brett Story’s The Hottest August, an essayistic documentary made in the intellectually vagrant spirit of Chris Marker. Shot in August of 2017 around a principle of “organized spontaneity,” per producer Danielle Varga, the film spans New York City’s five boroughs while adhering to a nebulous, difficult-to-define but nonetheless valuable objective: to take the temperature of the times we live in and tease out the collective mood of the country’s most densely populated area.
Willfully biting off more than it can chew, The Hottest August features rich people, poor people, scientists, skateboarders, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, barflies, artists, and more waxing extemporaneous on topics including climate change, economic inequality, automation, racism, and the future. The mood is off the cuff, conversational. A pair of women in lawn chairs joke about how their street’s rat population has swelled as a result of gentrifying construction in adjacent neighborhoods. Two former cops reframe the term “racism” as “resentment” in a sports bar just moments after demanding that no politics enter the hallowed space of the drinking hole. A loft-dwelling futurist pontificates on what the tax system might look like if the country embraced robotics instead of fearing it as a job killer. Occasionally we hear the filmmaker off screen, tersely prompting her subjects with open-ended questions, but mostly this is an ensemble of eager talkers, their openness running contrary to the old chestnut about closed-off New Yorkers.
Finding form in this seemingly disconnected mass is editor Nels Bangerter, who managed a similar feat with Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson. The film drifts subtly from subject to subject, pointedly using B roll not just to evocatively provide a sense of place, but to extend someone’s thought or offer counterpoint. Three streams of information exist at once: whatever opinion is being put forth by the person on screen; whatever in-the-moment perspective Story takes on her subject’s response through the questions she asks or the camera angles she chooses; and the question of how that segment ultimately interacts with the film in its final form, where images have been invested with meaning through context.
The Hottest August is a film that’s constantly “thinking,” and that thought isn’t fixed or authoritative, but rather in flux and negotiable. Story isn’t setting out to answer any pressing political issues so much as capture the tactile sense of how those issues permeate everyday settings. Hers is a form of ambient reportage that feels very welcome in our contemporary moment, when the daily barrage of information can sometimes make it difficult to recall how one felt about something two days earlier, let alone in that turbulent August of 2017.
Similarly macro in its approach is Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass, which adopts a sprawling, vignette-driven structure as it catalogues the miseries and grotesqueries of the eponymous eastern Ukrainian territory. A region occupied by pro-Russian paramilitary forces (specifically the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics) ever since the Ukrainian Revolution in 2014, present-day Donbass is a morass of conflicting sympathies and ideologies that Loznitsa doesn’t so much seek to clarify with this film as reflect in all its muddy complexity.
In fact, Loznitsa goes so far as to call into question the very possibility of the truth of this situation he captures on camera. Whenever reporters appear on screen, they’re portrayed as ineffectual stooges waiting to be chewed out as propaganda peddlers by their political opponents, and the film’s bookending sequences, set at the trailer park of a movie set, build toward a thesis statement on the dubiousness of contemporary reporting with its tendency to stage and reframe reality according to the mandates of whatever affiliation is being placated.
Cameras, we’re repeatedly reminded by the mise-en-scène, are violators, as they merely augment the dangerous power of the person wielding them. Donbass’s most harrowing elucidation of this theme comes in a scene on a public street, where a Ukrainian loyalist, tied to a telephone pole by a pair of armed separatists, endures a humiliating beating at the hands of a growing mob of passersby, one of whom decides to record the grisly spectacle with his smartphone. As Loznitsa’s camera circles the action, the heckler’s phone presses right up into the face of the prisoner, relishing in the man’s suffering, and we get the sense that the escalation of violence may have never come to pass in quite this way were it not for the spontaneous idea to turn it into a video meme. Later, the recording gets shown to a hooting crowd of Novorossiya sympathizers at an absurdly overemphatic wedding celebration, assimilating smoothly into the atmosphere of nationalist fervor.
Donbass is fueled by such collisions between the grave and the comic, a tonal oscillation mastered by Loznitsa in his documentaries and carried over here to support a vision of a society cracking under the weight of its own inconsistencies, corruption and mob mentalities. Less tightly structured than Loznitsa’s preceding fiction work, the film adopts the immersive observation of films like Maidan and Victory Day with a more active, roving camera but a similar degree of durational endurance. In one scene, Loznitsa even seamlessly integrates an extended use of documentary language into a longer fictional setup when his camera descends into a cramped and overcrowded bomb shelter, where a local host, lit by a camera-mounted source, walks us through the destitution of those living inside. As with the later street scene, the dreariness is eventually spiked by a dash of absurdism, but the counterpunch isn’t intended to lighten the mood so much as further disorient, ultimately giving Donbass an unnerving precarity that must come somewhat near the feeling on the ground.
If these two films, content as they are to revel in ambivalence, seek to grasp the experience of the now in all its bewilderment, Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar’s American Factory takes a more committed stance on an issue that’s equally topical. Fuyao Glass America, an outgrowth of a global glass manufacturer owned by a Chinese billionaire, opened in Moraine, Ohio in the shell of a shuddered General Motors plant toward the beginning of the decade, persisted financially for years while pursuing its awkward goal of unifying Chinese and American work cultures, and then inevitably ran up against controversy in 2017 when safety concerns and low wages encouraged the local employees to vote to unionize.
American Factory charts this entire compelling history with surprising comprehensiveness: When a late scene plays out as an illicit audio recording from an employee over a black screen, it stands out for being one of the only instances when the filmmakers don’t appear to have unencumbered access. But this sprawl has its downsides. Though briskly edited and tonally varied, Reichert and Bognar’s documentary skims over the surface of some of its most fascinating threads while in pursuit of a rousing decade-long tale.
The American workers depicted in the film, disgruntled by their diminished earnings and recalling a recent past with less bureaucratic oversight, too often blend into one undistinguished mass of Midwestern homeliness, and the few individuals who do get singled out for attention—a woman living in her relative’s basement and a rancher who befriends one particular Chinese co-worker—often get neglected for long stretches of time. The Chinese are perhaps even less differentiated, their insistence on dogged work ethic and company allegiance repeatedly emphasized almost to the point of xenophobia. That Fuyao chairman Cao Dewang, who weaves through the film as an amusingly oblivious villain for its majority, eventually gets a moment to fondly reminisce on China’s pre-industrial past and contemplate his own complicity in the country’s shift to globalized capitalism comes across as penance for the film’s occasional treatment of foreigners as misguided corporate drones.
What American Factory ultimately amounts to, however, isn’t an exploration of culture clash or a penetrating depiction of rust belt dejection, but rather a rallying cry for worker solidarity (in America, if not across the globe), a message it pulls off resoundingly in the final hour. Reichert and Bognar smartly detail all the insidious ways in which corporate messengers mischaracterize unionizing as a threat to individual liberty, and the populist filmmaking vernacular they employ as the union vote nears—fluid crosscutting between different intersecting narratives, plenty of emotional close-ups, a score of almost Spielbergian grandiosity—gives the documentary a genuine shot at trafficking radical politics to a relatively wide audience. If it’s any indication of future success, American Factory was one of the most well-attended screenings I went to during my time in Baltimore, but it’s a testament to the Maryland Film Festival’s outreach that healthy crowds congregated throughout the weekend. Though modest and inviting, this year’s selections exhibit a scope and ambition that should continue to draw adventurous filmgoers for years to come.
The Maryland Film Festival ran from May 8—12.
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