Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Far From Heaven

The 1950s were a transitional time in American society. The economic boom following World War II put a chicken in every pot, while the baby boom guaranteed there would be plenty of mouths to feed it to. Men wore hats. Women wore gloves. Children were seen but not heard. So were blacks. Homosexuals were neither. Conformity ruled, but there were rumblings of a seismic shift to come. Like a tour guide from Hell, Elvis Presley arrived at mid-decade to point the way to a less inhibited way of life. In Alabama, a black seamstress named Rosa Parks refused to surrender her bus seat to a white person. The boycott of the transit system that followed was led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who argued that though there was a chicken in every pot, too many blacks didn’t have a pot to put the chicken in.

Few films captured the tension in these repressed times better than those of director Douglas Sirk. Dismissed at the time as “soap operas” or “women’s pictures,” glossy melodramas like All That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind are now championed by the likes of Martin Scorsese for providing an emotional barometer of the period. Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven is both an homage to Sirk’s canon, and an update that takes advantage of our more permissive climate to see his work in a new perspective.

Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) is a Connecticut housewife and mother married to straight-laced Frank (Dennis Quaid). But those laces are coming untied when he can no longer suppress his homosexual feelings. As he enters into an affair with another man, Cathy finds herself unable to resist the friendly attentions of her black gardener (Dennis Haysbert).

These issues are discussed as they likely would have been at the time, reluctantly, with shock and disapproval. Haynes doesn’t cheat by filtering them through a modern perspective. He avoids sneaking in our more enlightened attitudes on homosexuality and interracial romance. To Frank, his homosexual urges are a sickness, an aberration that he intends to overcome with the help of psychiatry.

The filmmakers are aware that the provocative subject matter dealt with here was hinted at in Sirk’s films with less controversial “problems” like nymphomania and alcoholism substituting for the more taboo issue of homosexuality. In retrospect, the casting of Rock Hudson as the male lead in many of these films suggests the director clearly intended that this daring subtext be present in his work. Hudson’s closet door was opened to the public shortly before his 1985 death from AIDS related complications, but the matinee idol’s homosexuality was an “open secret” in Hollywood from the moment he achieved stardom. The more attentive viewers of Hudson’s early films can often swear they see clues to his orientation sprinkled throughout.

Far From Heaven recreates and pays homage to Sirk’s legacy with breathtaking results. The cinematography and art direction are a marvel. The autumn leaves that were never as colorful in nature as they were when photographed in the now defunct Technicolor process, could have been imported from the set of All That Heaven Allows, the Sirk film to which Haynes’ film owes its strongest debt. The film’s look is almost surreal, appropriate, since, for blacks, and particularly homosexuals, the quiet life of the 1950s must have been as twisted as a painting by Salvador Dali. Except for rock and roll, it is often considered an unremittingly dull era, so tightly buttoned-down that it cut off the circulation. For the more conspiracy minded, it was the real life equivalent of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the 1956 science-fiction classic in which space aliens use sea-pods to overtake the earth, replacing the human population with non-thinking, unfeeling automations. It was the calm before the societal storm that was the 1960s, but in Far From Heaven, Todd Haynes, like Douglas Sirk before him, is aware that life was calm only because so much was hidden, including the yearnings for equality that led to both the civil rights movement and gay liberation.

© 2002 Brian W. Fairbanks


1 comment: