“Far From Heaven is one of the most peculiar movies I’ve ever seen; and given that I’ve seen pro-life Filipino vampire movies and Japanese samurai movies featuring a ninja shlepping around a baby carriage with booby traps all over it, that’s saying a lot,”
proudly proclaims Poddy Jr. in his column for the “National Review”.
Why take time away from dealing with the weighty issues of the day, not to mention the coming war, to write about a movie? Because it’s not really a movie that Poddy Jr. is writing about. It’s himself and his class, and marriage — an institution that Poddy Jr. has ever so recently entered.
“Writer-director Todd Haynes takes extraordinary care to recreate the tone and style of a certain type of film popular in the 1950s. Then he spends the entire course of the movie, which opens this weekend, complaining that the genre he is fetishizing right before our eyes; the big, florid, overripe melodramas that usually starred Rock Hudson; refused to confront the reality of life.”
And that, needless to say, is not what Far From Heaven does at all. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
“Julianne Moore is a perfectly coiffed and dressed corporate housewife in 1957 Hartford. Her husband, Dennis Quaid, is a fast-rising star at a company called Magnatech. He’s tormented by homosexual yearnings. Over the course of the movie, Julianne finds solace and companionship in the company of her gardener, a dignified and educated Dennis Haysbert. He’s black. Tongues wag. Her friends desert her. His friends throw bricks through his window.”
There’s a lot of other stuff too, but the Pod-man is about to hone in on his point so to speak.
“There’s a motion-picture director you’ve never heard of who’s the real subject of Haynes’s movie. His name was Douglas Sirk.”
And here we come to the beating heart of the matter. Who is Poddy Jr. to presume what I do or do not know? Well no one he knows has ever heard of Douglas Sirk. Dollars to doughnuts he ran the name past Mom (the inimitable Midge Decter) to be treated with a confused stare, followed by a pursed smirk, and a relaying of the details that follow.
“He made most of those Rock Hudson melodramas, and there are books and essays and academic studies and frame-by-frame analyses of Sirk’s work written by people who really should have found something a mite more productive to do with their lives.”
That last bit is purest Midge — She Who Always Knows What Others Ought to Be Doing.
“They even coined an adjective to describe his style, which mostly involves cameras slowly panning in, out and around mirrors to suggest the dual lives of his characters. The word is “Sirkian.”
I’d like to coin an adjective in response. That adjective is “Get-a-life-ian.” “
And this last bit is pure Poddy Jr. One imagines he imagines that’s what P.J. O’Rourke would say.
And he’s probably right.
“Far From Heaven stands as the most expensive and obsessive academic study of Douglas Sirk; or just about anything else; ever undertaken. It stitches together some of the plot and situation from two Sirk films, All That Heaven Allows and Imitation of Life, and then brings out themes that Sirk-fanciers believe were hiding in the celluloid closet. You see, in the 1950s, gay men had to live furtive lives and racism was rampant. But Hollywood melodramas of the 1950s refused to show us such things. Instead, we had to watch Rock Hudson feign interest in women (as in All That Heaven Allows) when we now know he was gay and watch a young black girl pass for white (as inImitation of Life).”
Well being an actor, Rock Hudson had to feign all sorts of things. And in Sirk’s Imitation of Life, it’s a young white girl, (the lovely and talented Susan Kohner) who passes for black. But that’s a minor detail as far as the Spawn of Neocon is concerned. And you see in 2002 a great many gay men still have to leave furtive lives. In fact, such Leading Moral Lights as Gertrude Himmelfarb insist that all gay men would be much better off if they did.
“This might be a useful exercise in polemic if Americans were still fascinated by Rock Hudson movies.”
Again, presumptuous in the extreme. If Poddy Jr. actually travelled in film circles (why bother when Mom can assure you that they’re just a pack of noxious “postmodern deconstructionists” anyway?) he’d know that barely a day goes by without someone invoking Rock Hudson’s name for one reason or another. He was a movie star of the kind “they don’t make anymore.” Still, were he alive today he’d dountless thrive on one of the innumerable “Crime Scene Investigation” shows. Or perhaps he’d be head of surgery at some television hospital, or star attorney at some fictional network law firm.
“But why exactly should we care that overwrought 1950s melodramas didn’t grapple openly with issues like homosexuality and racism? What possible difference does it make to an audience watching Far From Heaven in 2002?”
Maybe it’s because contemporary moviegeors find the notion of a cultural time-trip to be an appealing one? How far have we come from the world depicted in Haynes’ film anyway? Surely there are well-heeled middle-class women in 2002 trapped in loveless marriages to closeted spouses. Obviously there are interracial couples who wouldn’t get the support so eagerly extended Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his white trophy wife.
“It makes no difference, of course. People who go to see Far From Heaven
will simply be watching its characters interact and its plot unfold without any knowledge of the work of Douglas Sirk. So the question is: Does Far From Heaven
work as a movie?
The answer is: Yes and no. It’s absolutely gorgeous to look at and listen to (watch next March as 80-year-old composer Elmer Bernstein collects his first Oscar for the musical score).
Elmer already has an Oscar, Jr. — for Thoroughly Modern Millie. But I guess Mom never saw that one.
And much of Far From Heaven is surprisingly affecting. Julianne Moore is sensationally good as the proper housewife whose life begins to crumble around her. But the really stunning performance here is by Dennis Quaid, who completely disappears inside his tormented, enraged, sadistic, pathetic, glad-handing, hopeful, and hopeless character. After a decade of wandering aimlessly, Quaid has found himself again as an actor in what can only be described as a definitive performance.
Really now? What, praytell, is Dennis Quaid “defining”? Surely Poddy Jr. isn’t claiming Quaid to be a “gay deciever” a la Hudson, is he?
“But Haynes’s obsession with mimicking the conventions of the Sirk movies forces a terrifically problematic tone onto Far From Heaven. There are times when the dialogue and acting are so dreadful that you laugh at it. But are you laughing at it or laughing with it? Does Haynes want us to feel superior to his characters, or is Haynes so buried deep inside his magnificent obsession that he doesn’t know how these scenes play?
Or maybe it’s because Poddy Jr. hasn’t seen Magnificent Obsession or any of the other works by “a motion-picture director you’ve never heard of.” Staking a claim to cultural superior can be truly tough going at times.
“Despite Haynes’s insistence on distancing us from his characters so that we can see through the artifice, the actors and situations are real and painful enough to involve us. We come to care for these people, even though Haynes keeps telling us they’re merely cogs in a monstrous Hollywood machine.”
So the film is emotionally effective in spite of itself? What a powerful unconscious artist that Haynes lad is!
“Haynes’s failure of tone will be explained away by Far From Heaven’s partisans as part of his effort to capture the mood of the Douglas Sirk movies. But that’s a crock. And indeed, Far From Heaven is a crock, though an enjoyable one”
No, it’s Poddy Jr. who is a crock, particularly in light of a recent column by his “National Review” campadre Dnesh Dsouza who climactically declares of the current political climate —
“But what is the need for this coyness? The Democrats should stop hiding behind “freedom of choice” and become blatant advocates for divorce, illegitimacy, adultery, homosexuality, bestiality, and pornography. Indeed the Democrats could become the Party of the Seven Deadly Sins. The political advantage of this approach is that the Seven Deadly Sins are immensely popular. Imagine the political opportunities if all vices were associated with the Democratic party!”
Yes, the tone is indeed “terrifically problematic.”
Perhaps we should call it Dsouzian.