By the end of the 1950s, British cultural production had fallen out of step with the realities of British life. Still in thrall to the drawing room comedies of Noel Coward and the well-made plays of Terrence Rattigan, British theatre was about to undergo a paradigm shift that would banish romanticism and replace it with a commitment to unflinching social realism. Though usually associated with the establishment of the National Theatre, the rise of Kenneth Tynan, and the emergence of the so-called Angry Young Men, Britain’s realist turn was also evident in cinemas as producers fell over themselves to turn realist plays and novels into films that held a mirror up to the realities of life in modern Britain.
Films like The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, This Sporting Life and A Taste of Honey took inspiration from Robert Hamer’s It Always Rains on Sundays and focused their attentions on the hardships and tragedies of working class life. Confrontational and unapologetically left-wing, they critiqued a society in which the poor were left to rot while the rich enjoyed all the benefits of economic renewal. While this vogue for social realism manifestly did very little to slow the rising tide of social inequality, the belief that drama should project us into the world rather than help us escape it endured for generations. Even once the revolutionary energy began to drain from the British film industry, a commitment to ‘kitchen sink’ realism survived in TV strands such as Armchair Theatre, the Wednesday Play and Play for Today. Traces of it can even be detected in that very British tendency to produce dramas and soap operas about the lives of the working class rather than the upper-middle class families favoured by American TV dramas.
Hollywood has never shared Britain’s interest in chronicling the lives of the poor and desperate. Up until the Second World War, the studios made it their business to provide audiences with glimpses of lives more glamorous than their own. In fact, the 1930s actress Kay Francis was explicitly marketed as the best-dressed woman in the world and many of her films feel like little more than excuses for her to change into a series of expensive-looking outfits. However, while the studios may have been reluctant to shine a light on the lives of America’s dispossessed, they did regularly produce films that were critical of the status quo… you just needed to look beyond the big houses and glamorous wardrobes.
From the silent era all the way till the 1960s, Hollywood produced films with female audiences in mind. Usually built around a bankable female star, these so-called women’s films focused on the emotional realities of women’s lives including love-triangles, affairs, spousal estrangement, parenting problems and mental illness. For example films like Curtis Bernhardt’s Possessed and Otto Preminger’s Whirlpool feature women who are driven insane by uncaring husbands and manipulative lovers. Many of these films are now quite difficult to find as the term ‘women’s film’ is itself somewhat problematic. Though still in use until the 1960s, many critics consider the genre to be little more than an expression of institutionalised sexism as saying that certain films are ‘for women’ seems to imply that men are the cinema’s natural audience. As a result of these problems, many women’s films are today referred to as melodramas.
Melodramas are often criticised for their political conservatism in that they introduce us to people whose lives are literally torn apart by the injustices of American society only for said people to either die or return to the roles allotted to them by virtue of their gender and social class. For example, George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun features a working class Montgomery Clift who falls in love with wealthy society girl Elizabeth Taylor only to have his shot at social mobility destroyed by a combination of jealousy and unwanted pregnancy. Viewed in a certain light, the film is all about a man being brought down by his own hubris but, seen in a different light, it is also about social class and the difficulty of finding happiness in a capitalist society. Though ostensibly conservative, many melodramas and women’s films can be read as subtle critiques of an American society that would rather kill, immiserate and drive people insane than allow them to find happiness on their own terms.
While many great directors made films in the melodramatic style, the idea of the melodrama as subtle social criticism is most closely associated with the films of Douglas Sirk. Born in Germany in the late 19th Century, Sirk abandoned a successful theatrical and cinematic career in 1937 when his political convictions and Jewish wife forced him to leave Germany. Initially dismissed as a purveyor of commercially successful fluff who made films that were unimportant, dull and ludicrously over-stylised, Sirk is now understood to have been a fiercely principled intellectual who moved to America with a plan to make films that hid their social criticism beneath a veil of irony. The re-discovery of Sirk is said to have begun in the late 1950s when the fiercely leftist Cahiers du Cinema began defending his work but the use of irony in films like All That Heaven Allows and Imitation of Life continue to pose something of a critical challenge. As the late Roger Ebert once put it:
To appreciate a film likeWritten on the Wind probably takes more sophistication than to understand one of Ingmar Bergman’s masterpieces, because Bergman’s themes are visible and underlined, while with Sirk the style conceals the message.
Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven is a loving tribute to the films of Douglas Sirk. Shot in a style similar to Sirk’s using similar colour schemes, similar camera angles, similar compositions and similar sound-recording techniques that litter the soundtrack with echoing footsteps and rustling crinoline, Far from Heaven is a traditional Hollywood melodrama, right down to its brutal critique of American culture.
Set in 1957, the film revolves around the Whitaker family of suburban Connecticut. Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) is a proud mother and loving wife who spends her days trying to make her family’s life as pleasant as possible. The Whitaker family home is immaculate, the Whitakers’ only son is polite and Frank Whitaker (Dennis Quaid) is an up-and-coming executive for a local advertising company. In fact, the Whitakers are such a flawless 1950s American family that the local society pages seem eager to turn Cathy into a figurehead for the entire community. The Whitakers, it would appear, are a family on the up.
The first sign that things aren’t right comes in the form of Frank’s fondness for working long hours. At first, this oddball behaviour passes muster as Frank is known to be a real go-getter and Cathy is always on hand to smooth things over with the kids and make apologies on his behalf. One night, when Frank seems reluctant to come home at all, Cathy drives into town to surprise him with dinner. What she discovers is Frank passionately making out with another man on his own desk. Frank, it turns out, has been living a double life for years. Far from being a spur of the moment decision, this latest dalliance is the product of months spent exploring Connecticut’s underground gay scene.
Cathy is understandably distraught but her first reaction is to treat Frank as though he were suffering from an illness. She encourages him to visit a doctor and undergo conversion therapy while she continues to smooth things over and make apologies. True to the spirit of the project, Moore and Quaid play their characters in the same stylised fashion that was common in 1950s melodramas, which is to say that while their characters are manifestly dying inside, you would not necessarily think it to look at them. Moore is particularly impressive in this regard as Cathy’s discovery of Frank’s double life seems to result only in more smiling and an even more emphatic performance of 1950s motherhood. There is something really quite distressing about the extent of Cathy’s emotional labour as Frank is visibly struggling to do his part. In fact, Frank’s unhappiness rapidly manifests itself as a terrifying drinking problem.
Cathy’s commitment to maintaining the illusion of perfect happiness is so complete that she initially refuses to talk about her marital difficulties to anyone, including her best friend. However, she does find it quite easy to talk to Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert), an African American widower who looks after the Whitaker’s garden. Haysbert is not exactly what you would call an A-list actor as his most enduring role is that of Pedro Cerrano, a Cuban baseball player in search of spiritual enlightenment in the Major League series of sports comedies. Compared to Quaid and Moore, Haybert’s performance is ever-so-slightly wooden and yet this emotional restraint perfectly captures the essence of a black man who works for white people and so has learned to remain on his best behaviour. In fact, the chemistry between Haysbert and Moore only begins to manifest itself once Cathy decides to confide in Deagan, effectively taking their friendship to the next level.
Far from Heaven is a textbook example of a character-driven film in that the entire plot flows from decisions made by the characters. However, as pleasing as this may be, the film’s true power lies in the willingness to explore the consequences of those actions. For example, what drives Frank to drink is neither self-disgust nor Cathy’s anger but fear of social consequence. Fear that, should his double-life become public knowledge, he will be subjected to forms of discrimination and oppression that nobody would even dare to acknowledge in public. Indeed, while Haynes makes suburban Connecticut look absolutely delightful, it is actually a place where the line between person and non-person is policed with ruthless brutality.
Given that Far from Heaven’s point-of-view character is Cathy and not Frank, it is unsurprising that we are not told very much about what happens to men who are suspected of being queer. We see the terror in Frank’s eyes and sense his projected anger but we only see 1950s Connecticut turn nasty when Cathy moves closer to Deagan.
Haynes uses colour to suggest a link between the experiences of Cathy and Frank. When Frank first visits a gay bar, he uses green lighting to give the scene a queasy and unnatural feel. This light then resurfaces when Cathy accompanies Deagan to a bar full of African Americans who are absolutely horrified by Deagan’s decision to be seen out and about with a married white woman. In true liberal style, Cathy is completely oblivious to the risks she is taking by cultivating a romance with Deagan. At first, Haynes limits the fallout to whispers and giggles but it isn’t long before Deagan and Cathy’s transgression of 1950s racial politics is stirring up trouble that culminates in the hideously Freudian spectacle of three white boys throwing stones at Deagan’s daughter in a bid to remind her of her place. Where would the urge to punish come from if not from overhearing the conversations their parents have behind closed doors?
The link between Cathy and Frank is made even more explicit in a scene where Frank explodes with anger after realising that while he has been agonising over his infidelities and working hard to keep his affairs secret, Cathy has been openly running around town with an African American. Drunk and furious, Frank beats Cathy to the ground ending their relationship once and for all.
Disgraced and terrified of drawing yet more ire from their respective communities, Cathy and Deagan part company until Cathy and Frank can be divorced. Once the decree absolute comes through, Cathy drives to a station to meet Deagan only for him to imperceptibly shake his head… not only can they not be together, they can’t even be seen together. Slowly, Deagan extends a hand and waves as the train pulls out of the station… society has made its wishes clear and even so small a gesture feels heroic.
It is easy to see why this type of film might have passed under the radar of 1950s film critics in that Far from Heaven deals with race in much the same way as A Place in the Sun or All That Heaven Allows deal with social class. Haynes’ use of race makes the film’s critical agenda more obvious but it is easy to imagine watching this type of film and assuming that it is little more than a romantic tragedy, particularly when said films were marketed almost exclusively at women. What makes this type of film ironic is that, rather than having the characters directly criticise the values of their peers or openly reject the values of the society that nurtured them, Sirk and Haynes simply allow terrible things to happen… things that could only happen in a society operating under a set of cruel and unjust rules.
As Ebert correctly pointed out, this type of irony tends to fly over audience’s heads. For example, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street shows all sorts of terrible things happening and yet, because none of the victims stand around lamenting their fates and no authority defeats the evil Jordan Belfort, many critics assumed that the film was celebrating rather than critiquing a society where people like Belfort were allowed to prosper. This lack of critical sensitivity is particularly alarming given that Scorsese has been making ironic films for decades.
Both Goodfellas and Casino revolve around a group of characters that initially find success only to implode as a direct result of the personality traits that brought them that success in the first place. For example, the brutality and paranoia that made Joe Pecsi’s Nicky Santoro such a good watchdog in the opening act of Casino are the exact same traits that make him such a disruptive influence in the second act and a toxic presence in the third. This principle is even more pronounced in Goodfellas where the law that you should “never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut” somehow translates into misplaced loyalty and a culture of secrecy and paranoia that dissolves the open friendships of the film’s opening act. Though obviously situated well inside the traditional boundaries of the crime genre, Goodfellas and Casino add a darkly satirical edge by suggesting that America not only rewards the ruthless and amoral but the stupid and selfish too.
The difference between the British directors of the new wave and people like Sirk and Scorsese is that while they all hold a mirror up to the ugliness of society, only Sirk and Scorsese suggest that your new haircut actually suits you… and therein lays the problem with this film. Haynes makes the racial and sexual politics of his film far more obvious than they are in the films he is attempting to pastiche. As a result, he created a film that simply would never have been released by a 1950s Hollywood studio. I suspect that Haynes made his film’s sexual and racial politics more explicit in an effort to compensate for the audience’s anticipated failure to cope with cinematic irony. This means that while Far from Heaven is nowhere near as subtle and clever as the melodramas of the 1950s, watching it is a bit like what it must have been like to watch and understand Sirk’s films when they were first released. While I may admire Haynes’ technical prowess and the message he is trying to send, I cannot understand the urge to remake complex, experimental works of art whilst removing much of what made them complex and experimental in the first place.
I’ve seen FAR FROM HEAVEN (and one of Sirk’s films), and I get your point. Also, since I write fiction I know firsthand about the problem with using irony that goes over the readers’ (and critics’) heads.
One can get away with practically anything by being subtle, by omitting the parts that scream “Message!”. Sure, it’s liberating in a sense to say things without explicitly stating them — but at the same time it’s very frustrating that there’s no noticeable reaction, no howls of outrage, no hate mail. One will never be sure: Did somebody out there “get it”?
This is one of my favourite films, and I quite like your take on it, Jonathan. I’m quite taken with your idea that Haynes increased the explicitness of his message in order to decrease conceptual “noise” from signal to audience reception. I had always assumed the explicitness was simply a matter of different conditions of production (in that Sirk and Haynes are working in two similar but different eras of respectability politics and permissibility) but I suspect that you’re correct.
Audiences are not conditioned to think for themselves, as you’ve mentioned (curated experiences), which means subtlety in tone and meaning can go awry. Case in point, Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers: some are convinced it’s a paean to fascism while some take it as careful satire. I think the line is purposefully blurred by Verhoeven so that no singular interpretation can stand without compromise.
I think Haynes’s proximity to queer cinema and its transgressive nature (the political “queer” from Halberstam and countless others: to destabilize) probably limited his desire to really muddy the waters. What we’re left with is a film that seems obvious in its aims (critique the 1950s, heteronormativity, racial politics, etc) by using a form (melodrama). The audience doesn’t even need to be familiar with Sirk’s form to “get the joke” if you will.
I guess you have the satisfaction of doing a good job and knowing that your art will be comprehensible to the right people :-)
And the joke can be explained in interviews and media stuff where everyone dutifully explains how subtly ironic Sirk’s films could be.
I think Far from Heaven falls into a similar trap to Mad Men in that the critique of 1950s values is so on the nose that it feels more like a film that celebrates how enlightened we are now than a film that actually provides substantial critique.
Good point, Jonathan.
If Douglas Sirk made films today, depicting the present-day Western World, what repressions and taboos would he bring up? (I think the really big taboo in the U.S. today is Class/Caste — often submerged under the code word “race”…)
I’d like to say that Sirk would probably do much better now as there are loads of people interested in race, gender and how society grinds you down but I suspect they’d rather watch Marvel as they’re definitely ignoring all the film and TV that does try to say smart things about that.
In terms of taboos… I think that masculinity and male heterosexuality are long-overdue a proper deconstruction from an insider. I also think that the idea that sexuality and gender are fixed and stable is something that needs to be looked at. Class is definitely problematic as most Americans seem to deny its existence.
In some alternate universe, Douglas Sirk made the Hollywood production LIGHT OF DAY, SHADOW OF NIGHT:
In the public eye, New York-based superhero “Man of Justice” is a crime-stopping vigilante, a moral beacon with a squeaky-clan image… but “Man of Justice” has a secret life: He/she is a cross-dressing shapeshifter. By night, he/she gives in to his/her other side, morphs into a female body and becomes the ambigious vigilante “Miss Shade”, who might as well steal from the rich as fight for the poor.
And while the masculine daytime identity lives like a monk, the night-time identity is promiscuous and seen as a criminal by the (middle-class) public. Eventually, both identities collide when Man of Justice falls in love with a woman… and Miss Shade falls in love with a man.
(Someday, this film will be made in our universe. Not in Hollywood, though…)
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