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Todd Haynes (#110 of 28)

Cannes Film Festival 2017 Todd Haynes’s Wonderstruck

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Cannes Film Review: Wonderstruck
Cannes Film Review: Wonderstruck

Full as it is with ideas from, and allusions to, Todd Haynes’s other films, Wonderstruck still represents the director’s most dispiriting work to date. This story of children finding themselves through their discovery of art and the past is adapted from Brian Selznick’s Y.A. novel of the same time, so it inevitably bares some resemblance to Martin Scorsese’s 2011 film Hugo, which was also a Selznick adaptation. But the better comparison, ludicrous as it sounds, is an entirely different Y.A. adaptation, one released the same year as Scorsese’s: the execrable Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Haynes, with a film light on dialogue and entirely too reliant on Carter Burwell’s impressive, ever-expanding and changing but nonetheless incessant score, draws on the hollow sentimentality of his premise rather than the emotional specificity of his characters’ engagement with the art and history that saves them.

Cannes Film Festival 2015 Carol

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Cannes Film Festival 2015: Carol
Cannes Film Festival 2015: Carol

Adapted by Phyllis Nagy from Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, Carol is a continuation and refinement of Todd Haynes’s signature concerns, slotting into his filmography like a wintry, understated cousin to Far from Heaven. While the normative forces of society once again threaten a burgeoning love affair, this time around it’s the wistful glances, passing touches, and wordless complicity of love itself that take center stage.

It’s Christmas 1952 and Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), a smart, unassuming wannabe photographer, is making ends meet by working at an upmarket department store. One customer cannot help but catch her eye: the older, married Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), who follows her sales suggestions without hesistation and just happens to leave her gloves on the counter as she walks off. The return of the items ushers in a lunch, which in turn ushers in drinks at Aird’s country house, with Carol’s angry, soon-to-be ex-husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler), the only real fly in the ointment. The growing attraction between Carol and Therese is never verbalized, but rather emerges with organic grace in gazes and gestures. The most ravishing example of this comes when Carol drives Therese to her estate for the first time, Therese’s eye wandering across the landscape of Carol’s face as the car enters a tunnel, its gleaming lights illuminating and obscuring Blanchett’s smile in equal measure, before one immaculately gloved finger presses the necessary button and the strings on the soundtrack merge with the song that now starts up on the car radio.

Hearth of Darkness Rob White’s Todd Haynes

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Hearth of Darkness: Rob White’s Todd Haynes
Hearth of Darkness: Rob White’s Todd Haynes

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.

Body of Work Ben Whishaw

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Body of Work: Ben Whishaw

Columbia Pictures

Body of Work: Ben Whishaw

Was it fate that John Hurt provided the narration for Ben Whishaw’s 2006 breakout, Perfume? Because in the lineage of impeccably-voiced, male British stars, whose hyper-articulate pipes could make poetry out of Rebecca Black lyrics, there’s Richard Burton, there’s Hurt, and now there’s Whishaw, a delicate character actor who, if reciting your last rites, may well make you believe in a hereafter. Whishaw’s velvety coo doesn’t have that Hurt-Burton gruffness, but it’s still terribly commanding, an aural delight that perks up ears and adds instant pathos to films that need it. Consider the total blandness that might have befallen Brideshead Revisited if Whishaw weren’t the one waxing melancholic as Sebastian Flyte, giving genuine life to Evelyn Waugh’s words. The actor’s innate amenability to the classics was something shrewdly observed by Jane Campion, who cast him as John Keats in her unsung masterstroke Bright Star, a film that finally and literally gave Whishaw poetry to recite.