Perhaps the most salient point in Rob White’s auteur study of Todd Haynes comes within his discussion of B. Ruby Rich and her statement that Poison (1991), a pioneering film of New Queer Cinema, is “homo-pomo,” which involves appropriation, pastiche, and irony, among others. More importantly, she claims the movement’s films to be “irreverent, energetic, alternately minimalist and excessive…full of pleasure.” It’s an alteration of the last claim that defines White’s book, where he acknowledges that Poison is “witty and playful” (or pleasurable), “but it builds to an intense pathos.” That pathos—and its significance—is where White seeks footing within the oeuvre of a filmmaker who appears to operate with equal parts practice and theory in mind. After all, Haynes studied with prolific film theorist Mary Ann Doane at Brown University, which White sees as a potential influence on Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1988), given the film’s preoccupation with “female subservience and the honorable authority of the medical profession,” which is a central concern of Doane’s classic monograph The Desire to Desire. Also on White’s agenda: navigating through the litany of cinematic influences on Haynes’s films and carefully investigating the various modes of transgression present throughout much of his filmography. Ultimately, the balancing act is an impressive mix of high and low criticism.
Low, in the sense that White has visibly reigned in the academic arsenal, making only glancing references to the likes of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari—names that will be (painfully?) familiar to anyone who’s logged hours as a grad student in cinema studies. In this case, the short shrift isn’t only welcome, but supplemental to the core of White’s analysis, as he refrains from bogging the films down in unnecessary theoretical explications. Though Haynes’s filmography is potentially riper for such discussions than others, White’s own delicate prose takes its place. For example, White states regarding Superstar that objects are “better described as deathlike than lifelike.” Such an acute approximation trumps paragraphs of theoretical examination. Moreover, the discussion leads to equally proficient conclusions; regarding Poison, the author states that “horror represents the politics of futile protest.” In stridently identifying these tendencies and qualities, White combines the best of critical and academic writing.
Perhaps even more fruitful, however, are the discussions regarding Haynes’s intertextual play. While such contexts are more obvious to a conversation on Far from Heaven (2002), which can clearly be seen to form a triptych with the films R.W. Fassbinder and Douglas Sirk, White is intent upon qualifying nearly all of Haynes’s work in this way. With Superstar, he makes a convincing case for the film’s consistency in theme with Now, Voyager (1942), Le Plaisir (1952), and The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), in terms of the “doomed performer.” By linking Haynes with such an eclectic set of stars/filmmakers, White enervates the need for theoretical vigor. Furthermore, White discusses Haynes in the context of Sam Fuller, Ed Wood, Chantal Akerman, and Luchino Visconti. It takes a cinephile to know one, and White adeptly showcases his own knowledge, while revealing the reflexive depths that inform Haynes’s own, unique knowledge of cinematic history.
Almost out of necessity, White finds a particularly prominent motif throughout Haynes’s work: a fascination with the out-of-line family. With the exception of Dottie Gets Spanked (1993), all of his films deal with marital breakdown. Most notably, Safe (1995), which gets heavily aligned with Jeanne Dielman (1975) for its many allusions to Akerman’s film. In fact, White goes so far as to parallel the films, asking: “Does Carol (Julianne Moore) live the same kind of alienated existence that drives Jeanne (Delphine Seyrig) to murder? If so, does Carol enact a nonviolent form of resistance to the domestic torpor?” While this serves as more of a rhetorical gesture (White does not actually seek exact solutions), it solidifies how Haynes is being psychologized in this particular study—as a filmmaker that must begin with cinema before anything else. That is, his films seem to come from previous films, but, to return to his alteration of the B. Ruby Rich claim, Haynes finds a certain pathos that allows his films to not only avoid being derivative (pinpointing the sensibility of influence is often difficult, which makes White’s work all the more essential), but stake out territory as something more than pastiche for the melodrama set. White’s only significant misstep is in his discussion of Far from Heaven, stating that Haynes is “like a DJ remixing a dozen tracks.” While the assertion is meant to be complimentary, the “filmmaker as DJ” line is not only tired, but pejorative at this point. In fact, it serves to reinforce the “homo-pomo” line that the bulk of White’s book seeks to revise.
White makes up for it, however, with an excellent closing discussion of Mildred Pierce (2011) as Bergmanesque neo-noir and an informative interview with Haynes conducted by White himself, which unsurprisingly offers keen insight into the autobiographical dimension of Haynes’s oeuvre, as well as specific characters, scenes, and significance from his films. While discussing every Haynes film in a relatively compact space could prove unwieldy, White manages his various lines of inquiry with precision and a streamlined sense of significance and pacing, making this book an excellent addition to the “Contemporary Film Directors” series.
Rob White’s Todd Haynes was released on February 6 by University of Illinois Press. To purchase it, click here.