Monday, July 2, 2012

FAR FROM HEAVEN (10 years later and I still don't know if I like this or not)

Far From Heaven is the ONE Todd Haynes film I've always had conflicted feelings about. Even with my limited knowledge about Bob Dylan (and by limited I mean almost none) I’m able to enjoy I'm Not There as it was kind of a return to his early 90's style of light experimentation like with Poison & Dottie Gets Spanked. I own Far From Heaven on DVD and always find myself watching it at least once a year which always leads me to questioning as to whether or not I like it. It’s the one work in his filmography that sticks out the most because at the time of its release this was the first film of his to receive major recognition. I remember when this came out I though; 'Did Todd Haynes just sell out?" (of course he didn’t sell out). Haynes used elements from every one of his previous films and incorperated it in to Far From Heaven. The repressed homosexuality of Dennis Quiad's character is the same as the young Christian Bale character in Velvet Goldmine or the lead actor in "Homo" (Poison). The somewhat "empty"/flighty housewife played by Julianne Moore in Far From Heaven has many similarities to Carol (also played by Moore) from Safe. And the seemingly "leave it to beaver-esque" 1950's setting is similar to Dottie Gets Spanked. It’s almost as if Dottie Gets Spanked and Far From Heaven take place in the same universe. And if not that, the story of Steven in Dottie Gets Spanked could very well be the back story of Dennis Quiad's character in Far From Heaven.

This was Hayne's first (and to this day only) exploration in to racism and the taboos of interracial relationships during a time when it wasn’t really possible. Drawing inspiration from Rock Hudson and Jane Wayman in All That Heaven Allows (a love story about an older woman and a much younger man), Haynes took that story and replaced age with race, similar to what Fassbinder did with Ali: Fear Eats The Soul. And the fact that Far From Heaven, a film partially about repressed homosexuality in the 1950's, is a loose adaptation of a movie that starred Roc Hudson kind of adds an additional subconcious layer to the movie's atmosphere.
Far From Heaven is pretty to look at, features great (and underrated) performances from Dennis Quiad and Dennis Haysbert, and it references the work and overall style of great filmmakers like Fassbinder and Douglass Sirk. And at the end of the day Far From Heaven is one of the few “mainstream” films to try and bridge the gap between race & homosexuality.

Opening & Closing Credits from Far From Heaven (L) and All That Heaven Allows (R)

Far From Heaven is about a 1950's New Haven housewife ("Cathy", played Julianne Moore) who has recently discovered that her husband ("Frank", played by Dennis Quaid) is a closeted homosexual who has to seek treatment to "cure" his homosexuality. At the same time Cathy is starting to develop romantic feelings for her black gardener ("Raymond", played by Dennis Haysbert). These two intercrossing stories bring up many questions and concerns: Is it worth expressing you love for a black man in a time/era when you know it won’t be accepted? Is Cathy more concerned about the fact that her husband is unfaithful or does she care more that he's been unfaithful with men? When she walks in on Frank kissing another man she isn’t upset at all. She's confused and almost scared. This isn’t the typical reaction of a wife walking in on her husband with someone else. Sure there's exceptions but generally speaking, she reacted more to the homosexuality than the infidelity. Haynes intentionally shows racism & homophobia (the two main issues in the film) quite differently. The racism is more out in the open and accepted whereas homosexuality is only hinted at. There's moments of racism like intentionally visible black servants, terms like "boy" thrown around, and there's even a scene when Raymond's daughter is the victim of a racist attack by a gang of white kids. But to my knowledge at no point is the word "Gay" or "Homosexual" used by any of the characters in the film yet it’s all around them. In conversation, the characters stop themselves mid-sentence or say stuff like "he's...ya' know..." (obviously implying that someone is gay). There's that quick moment in Safe where two women have a conversation about homosexuality without hardly saying anything. Haynes even gets a little bold (for a white director at least) and shows black on black bigotry in Far From Heaven. Setting the film in New Haven is an interesting choice. For me, films that deal with racism set in seemingly harmless/neutral places like Connecticut, Maine or even somewhere in Canada are a breath of fresh air. I think most people understand by know that the racism in the south is on another level. The northeast doesn’t have the same history as the south so it’s interesting to see racism somewhere besides Mississippi or Alabama. Similarly, it’s interesting to see homosexuality shown in the 1950's instead of today's homophobic environment. Homosexuality was kept so hush-hush back then because of those generic American family values that you'd think it didn’t exist. Shit, people thought it was a "disease" back then.

Not only does Todd Haynes pay homage to Douglass Sirk's use of rich, bright colors (All That Heaven Allows), but he blends the actors in to the environment. Notice the red train train lights in the background behind Julianne Moore (wearing her red jacket and gloves) or her hair and how it kinda blends in to the background, as well as Dennis Haysbert's jacket and how it subtly camouflages him in with the leaves...

My two issues with Far From Heaven have to do with Raymond's naivety and the way Frank is portrayed in the story. Todd Haynes goes out of his way to show that Raymond is an intelligent & sophisticated man who's aware of his environment. Given that he's such a wise human being, why would he do some of the things he's does in the film out in the open like aggressively grab a white woman's arm on a crowded (mostly white) sidewalk? Why would he essentially take a married, well known white woman on a "date" or the world to see? That kind of stuff just doesn’t add up to me. I know love is strong and can make us impulsive but that still doesn’t jive with Raymond's character. He acts as if it’s no big deal to stroll around town out in the open with a white woman in 1950's America. And speaking of love, I can never make up my mind if Raymond is even in love with Cathy to begin with. It’s obvious she's head over heels for him (almost in a curious/fetishist way), but sometimes Raymond seems like he just wanted a friend. Am I the only one who picked up on the disconnect between those two characters?
Frank is a little more complicated (both in a good way and a bad way). Todd Haynes took the stereotypical American male who occasionally slaps his wife when she gets outta line and made him gay. Technically Dennis Quaid is "A-list" and has been in his share of great movies but when you think of your favorite actors, chances are his name isn’t going to come up these days. Far From Heaven is by far his greatest performance. And it goes beyond the fact that a straight actor stepped outside of his comfort zone and portrayed someone gay. There's plenty examples of gay performances that were a bit overrated just because they were portrayed by straight actors but Quaid was great. His aggression, his repression, the scene at the end when he breaks down and cries in front of his family...everything. All that stuff I liked very much. But at the end of the day he's portrayed as a spineless snake (especially in the last scene when he talks to Cathy on the phone). I know it wasn’t Todd Haynes' intention to show a gay person in that light (after all, he's openly gay), but is this homophobic world we live in that already hates gay people to begin with ready for such a spineless, cowardly gay character? That’s all homophobic people need to fuel their ignorance.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...