Far From Heaven (2002) – Melodrama, Irony, and What Lies Beneath

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.

 

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Stranger By The Lake (2013) — Places Made of People

It is now quite common to speak of a need for greater diversity in the media that we produce and consume, but where does this ‘diversity’ reside? Are we calling for a more representative creative class or media that speaks to the desires and interests of a more diverse population? Clearly, taking a monolithically straight, white and American cultural form such as the contemporary Superhero film and adding a few token non-whites and non-straights would do little to improve the situation. One diversity-container that frequently gets overlooked is the idea of ‘spaces’ and how those spaces help to shape experiences and build cultures. This is something of a pity as LGBT cinema does spaces better than almost any other form.

The unrivalled king of gay spaces is the French director Jacques Nolot. One-time lover of Roland Barthes and protégé of Andre Techine, Nolot has devoted his cinematic career to the marginal spaces around gay culture. His second film Glowing Eyes is set in a porn cinema and explores not only the fluid nature of the identities and relationships created by the space, but also the importance of such spaces as venues for experimentation and self-expression. While Glowing Eyes is all about a space that allows entrance to different forms of sexuality, his third film Before I Forget examines the end game and the almost post-apocalyptic spaces opened up by disease, death and the end of gay men’s lives. These is a lovely scene in Before I Forget where Nolot’s character lets himself into an old boyfriend’s house in order to secure something of value for all those years of companionship. What he finds is that the dead man’s family have swooped in to pick the place clean forming an unspoken case for gay marriage at least as powerful as the one buried in the subtext of Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra. Structured like a thriller, Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the lake is perhaps not quite as brave as Nolot’s thunderously un-commercial works but his desire to recreate and explore a gay space is no less fascinating.

 

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Shinjuku Boys (1995) — Even When Words Fail

The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote that “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”. What Wittgenstein actually meant remains a subject of philosophical debate but we can read his comment as a reflection upon the two-way relationship between our perception of the world and the ways in which we talk about it.

Intuitively, facts should always take precedence over language and whenever we encounter a fact that does not fit with our use of language, we should simply update our vocabulary to better reflect the facts on the ground. While there are certainly institutions and groups who try to educate people about ‘correct’ language use, the meaning of a word is always determined by the way it is most commonly used by a given population. What this means in practice is that while experts may be forever inventing language that is a better fit with current thinking about a particular phenomenon, having those new terms filter down into general usage is subject to the same structural biases as any other attempt at changing the way that people think.

The problem with the rigidity of our spoken language is that the vernacular often contains concepts and assumptions that are not only out of date but actively harmful. For example, if we define masculinity in terms of having a penis then someone who identifies as male despite not having a penis must simply be wrong about their gender. While there was a time when our culture was quite happy to make this type of judgement, our understanding of gender has now evolved to the point where terms like ‘male’ and ‘female’ are becoming increasingly hard to pin down.

The language of gender and sexuality has evolved with almost unprecedented speed over the last few decades and new conceptual iterations seems to generate more and more political heat as words are fought over by people with different needs and ideas. If the limits of our shared language mean the limits of our world then the battle to control the conceptual underpinnings of our language is also the battle to control our world.

Directed by Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams, Shinjuku Boys is a documentary about a group of people who were assigned female at birth but identify more closely with the male gender than the female. Made all the way back in 1995, I am sure that many of the terms used in this documentary are horrendously outdated but while Shinjuku Boys may struggle with its pronouns, it does show how people will continue to perform and negotiate their genders even when words fails them.

 

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REVIEW — Silent Youth (2012)

FilmJuice have my review of Diemo Kemmesies’ almost silent film Silent Youth.

It would have been easy for Silent Youth to come across as either a dry technical exercise or an incomplete proof of concept; Little more than seventy minutes-long, the film is best understood as an exploration of how a romance might evolve in the absence of spoken cues. However, while that description may invoke memories of weird experimental works like Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence, Diemo Kammesies’ first film is actually a really quite affective and effective love story involving two young men who are too terrified to speak about what they feel, let alone who they are.

Silent Youth is a beautifully shot film that positively revels in its long silences. However, despite shifting from one pregnant pause to another, the film never feels repetitive as each of the silences reflects a different mood and another stage in the boys’ burgeoning relationship. Sometimes the silence is framed with sunlight and uncut grass in a way that evokes warmth and lust, other times the silence finds Kirill leaning back into a darkened corner as a means of capturing a momentary panic over the decision to have sex with a man. Despite this being his first feature film, Diemo Kemmesies’ direction is subtle but assured and the performances he coaxes from his actors are nothing short of mesmerising.

My review points out that Silent Youth can be seen as an art house film that makes use of storytelling techniques developed in the era of silent film but — on a more visceral level — this is a film about living in the shadow of homophobic violence and finding a way to reveal your feelings to another person without getting your head kicked in. Kemmesies establishes this fear of homophobic violence quite early on when Marlo’s love interest talks about being stripped naked and beaten up during a visit to Russia but while that fear is never again alluded to, it does explain why Marlo’s lover is definitely the more cautious of the two.

The fact that I didn’t initially pick up on this subtext says something about the lightness of Kemmesies’ touch but it also says quite a lot about yours truly: I can completely understand being reluctant to express one’s interest in another person for fear of being rejected and spoiling a potentially rewarding friendship but fear of being physically attacked either for expressing an interest or rejecting one is definitely outside of my lived experience. I guess this would be one of those ‘check your privilege’ moments then…