Signs of the Times

It may not have seemed so then, but the mid-1950s moment of Marilyn and Howl, Disneyland and Songs for Swingin' Lovers, blue suede shoes and The Searchers, represents the acme of American popular culture . . . at least this week. Both movies characterized by a shocking absence of irony, Far From Heaven revises the Eisenhower-era domestic melodramas of Douglas Sirk, while 8 Mile represents Eminem as a nouveau Elvis, if not the latest incarnation of Norman Mailer's "White Negro."

A supremely intelligent pastiche, Todd Haynes's Far From Heaven revisits the high '50s through the mirrored scenarios of Sirk's Written on the Wind, Imitation of Life, and, mainly, All That Heaven Allows—not to mention the rhapsodic Rachmaninoid chords of the Elmer Bernstein score that dramatizes this emotional maelstrom. Far From Heaven is set in the golden autumn of 1957 (the disorienting season of Little Rock and Sputnik) in an upper-class suburb of Hartford, Connecticut, where Cathy (Julianne Moore), who lives a perfect life in a split-level house, together with her successful sales executive husband, two children, black maid, and two-toned station wagon, is startled to find a pleasant young man—also black—standing in her backyard, contemplating a tree.

What is nature? A sort of bourgeois Lady Chatterly's Lover, Sirk's All That Heaven Allows concerned the revivifying if star-crossed romance between Jane Wyman's fortysomething wealthy widow and her young gardener cum fertility god, Rock Hudson. Far From Heaven complicates the age and class problems by making the Hudson figure, a single dad named Raymond (Dennis Haysbert), African American, while reconfiguring Cathy as a special kind of bereft wife. Raymond is not the only extraterrestrial other in Cathy's garden; her adman husband, Frank (Dennis Quaid), has his own secret life, frequenting the green-lit cocktail lounge that may be downtown Hartford's only gay bar.

The limbo of petrified desire: Quaid and Moore (with kryptonite lamp) in Far From Heaven
photo: David Lee
The limbo of petrified desire: Quaid and Moore (with kryptonite lamp) in Far From Heaven

Details

Far From Heaven
Written and directed by Todd Haynes
Focus
Opens November 8

8 Mile
Directed by Curtis Hanson
Written by Scott Silver
Universal
Opens November 8

Femme Fatale
Written and directed by Brian De Palma
Warner Bros.

Adding a gaggle of uptight neighbors and nosy friends (most impressively Patricia Clarkson), Haynes plays out this not-quite-triangle of frustrated longing in a way that recalls the Barbie-doll cast of his underground classic Superstar. Pearled, gloved, and crowned by a major wig, Moore is not so much dressed as she is upholstered—and all the more vulnerable for her crinoline cushion. Quaid, a scowling mass of repression, is corseted in his gray flannel suit, while Haysbert (who, like Hudson in All That Heaven Allows, also favors flannel, albeit in the form of checkered shirts), radiates benign serenity and thoughtful self-assurance. His warm, level gaze identifies him as the most evolved creature on planet Hartford, a taboo-ridden world that will eventually seem but a few police dogs away from Selma, Alabama—and not only because he's able to stun the tittering morons of the local country club with his reflections on a painting by Miró.

The reference to abstract art is telling. Haynes is nothing if not a cerebral filmmaker, but here, as in his kindred Moore vehicle Safe, his habitual stiffness with actors works to his advantage. Far From Heaven, after all, is a movie about the limbo of petrified desire—most eloquently expressed by a yearning gaze. (At times, Haynes seems to quote the long, reproachful looks characteristic of R.W. Fassbinder's tribute to All That Heaven Allows, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul.) Similarly, Far From Heaven derives considerable pathos from the invisible thought balloons—"psychotherapy," "conformism," and "prejudice"—that gather like storm clouds above the heads of the unhappy couple at one point named for the television manufacturer for whom the husband works. "You are truly Mr. and Mrs. Magnatech," the society columnist for the community newspaper gushes in recognition of Cathy's perfect life. Just as on TV, everything is a sign, and alienation is a form of social realism.

As in Sirk (and thanks, in good measure, to cinematographer Edward Lachman and production designer Mark Friedberg), Far From Heaven is superbly projected as a world where meaning is derived from mise-en-scène, artifice is the essence of expression, and pathos is a factor of entombment. The shadows in a palatial suburban living room might have been styled by an interior decorator, and the knickknacks glow like kryptonite. Even nature is reduced—or perhaps elevated—to decor. The flowers feel like funeral wreaths, the trees are posing for wallpaper landscapes, and the autumn leaves blow on cue. (Could there have been a leaf wrangler?) The atmosphere itself seems viscously tranquilized. The ambience is less sur- than hyper-real, at least until Raymond takes Cathy into his world. Suddenly Negroes are everywhere—two members of the NAACP actually show up at Cathy's door, one of the many things that could never have happened in Sirkville.

Sirk is a figure who has thrived on exegesis, his own and others'. For those familiar with the Sirkian text, Haynes (like Mark Rappaport in Rock Hudson's Home Movies) has done a splendid job of filmed film criticism. Without resorting to camp or parody, Haynes (like Sirk, but differently) has transformed the rhetoric of Hollywood melodrama into something provocative, rich, and strange. For those who are not Sirk-literate, Far From Heaven may seem even more startling—a full-bodied simulation of a genre that, historically speaking, should no longer exist. It may well be the American movie of the year.

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