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.