[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

German-born Douglas Sirk moved to Hollywood in 1937 and made a name for himself as the maker of “women’s pictures”, melodramas with ill-fated romances and tragic characters. The term melodrama, originally referring to any drama set to music, carries a negative connotation in common parlance, but Sirk’s films infused the form with a critical consciousness that commented on the stories even as it presented them. In his supreme accomplishment, All that Heaven Allows (1955), Sirk uses the trope of forbidden love to mount a heartrending critique of what he takes to be a contemporary American malaise. The film begins with the shot of a church steeple, that symbol of small-time community. The camera descends from its clockface striking noon, glides over red leaves of autumnal trees and scans the identical-looking houses of a nondescript suburb in New England. Perfectly manicured lawns, mothers on sidewalks with their prams and the odd automobile: images of middle-class virtue that David Lynch will parody in Blue Velvet (1986). The camera stops at a randomly selected house where the story begins.

Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) is a widow of about forty resigned to her staid bourgeois existence of respectable motherhood and occasional cocktail parties. There are men in the local country club who make her proposals, decent and otherwise, but the choices she is allowed to have are hardly inspiring: to be the secret mistress of a man who sees her as an object of desire or to be the wife of an old, kind gent who may be in love with her. Her heart, however, has its own way, and she ends up falling in love with her hunky gardener, Ron (Rock Hudson), several years younger than her. Eating with his hand, his collars turned up and shirt unbuttoned, the tanned, subaltern Ron is everything Cary isn’t. Having rejected the rat race, he lives in a glasshouse in the woods, embodying the self-sufficient life Thoreau described in Walden. Ron is presented as a temperamental figure with dubious, even threatening motivations, and so we share Cary’s doubts about him even as we recognize the attraction he exerts.

The affair scandalizes her grown-up children, who expect Cary to “act her age”, and her community, where she soon becomes the object of vile gossip. The film makes it clear that it’s not so much the class difference as the difference in age between Cary and Ron that sends the townsfolk into a tizzy. That an older woman, practically middle-aged, could desire and be desirable to a young, attractive man is an affront to the puritan mores of the community, to whose order sexuality is a threat. Admiring herself in front of a mirror, Cary’s nerdy daughter, a Freud-loving psychology student, says that “sex becomes incongruous” after a certain age, clearly disapproving of her mother dating anyone younger. A moment later, looking at the red dress Cary has worn, her son asks her if it isn’t too revealing. He’ll later accuse her of seeing Ron as a “pile of muscles”. One obnoxious acquaintance at the country club party that evening insinuates that Cary is out of her line for wanting to wear an appealing red dress.

Sirk and screenwriter Peg Senwick caricature the country club as a nosy, disingenuous, gossip-mongering and casually spiteful group. When Cary brings Ron to the club for the first time, in order for him to be accepted by the town, the club members treat him like an alien species and call him names: “nature boy”, “earthy type”. This exoticism, of course, derives from the perceived sexual promiscuity of coloured folk—a subtext that German filmmaker (and Sirk’s protégé) Rainer Fassbinder will make explicit in his remake of the film, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)¸ in which the tanned Ron is replaced by a black man, an immigrant and Muslim to boot. On the other hand, the gathering of friends in the woods that Ron takes Cary to is a natural community, spontaneous in their joy and genuine in their affection. The first-name based intimacy of this group, consisting of rugged immigrants and other lively underclass specimen, is in direct opposition to the suffocative banality of the small talk at the country club, with its stiff formality and fake decency.

The two contrasting communities are an opportunity for Sirk—better placed as an outsider to do so—to bring two specific visions of America in dialectical opposition. Ron and his friends are spiritual inheritors of the 19th century transcendentalist movement, which advocated a life of solitude and self-sufficiency in harmony with nature, away from the corrupting influence of civilization. Cary and her town are, on the contrary, contemporary products of 20th century America. Sirk’s film was made during what is known as the Boomer era, a period of American post-war prosperity, accelerated consumerism and cultural conservatism. One of the defining phenomena of the period was the “white flight”: a large-scale migration of white people from the mixed-race urban zones to newly-developed suburban settlements. The war now over, once-employed women found themselves at home and away from entertainment options in the city, leading to an exponential increase in the sale of television sets across the country. When her son gifts her a television set as a cure to her loneliness, Cary is filmed as a reflection on the television screen, trapped by it.

Douglas Sirk was a true intellectual, perhaps the only one in Hollywood. As a youngster in Hamburg, he studied under art historian Erwin Panofsky, attended Einstein’s lectures on relativity and translated Shakespeare’s sonnets into German. He was an active theatre director working on both classics, in which he was well-versed, as well as contemporary plays such as his by peer Bertolt Brecht. In Hollywood, a land averse to intellectuals, he took on one of the most derided genres, melodrama, transforming overwrought material into clear-eyed modernist works. He managed to let his mise en scène, the ensemble of a film’s plastic elements, always convey more meaning than what the script allows for. His handling of Technicolor, in particular, was exemplary.

In All That Heaven Allows, he heightens the tints at Cary’s home, saturating the light with primary colours and producing dramatic shadows. He contrasts this artificiality of Cary’s milieu with the natural, earthy tones of Ron and his surroundings. Likewise, Cary is often photographed as though she’s imprisoned by her décor: furniture, window grills and their shadows. Her house, a veritable mausoleum in memory of her dead husband, is full of objects against which she is filmed in tight shots. In contrast, Ron’s mill-turned-home is warm-looking and sparsely furnished. Ron’s house and the surrounding nature are photographed in wide shots full of breathing space. Sirk was, in fact, influenced by Brecht’s theory of the theatre, which postulated that the audience must always be kept at a dispassionate distance from the spectacle so that they reflect on the story critically rather than get immersed in it. Sirk’s use of colour and composition was frequently directed to this end.

That, however, does not vitiate the emotional impact that All That Heaven Allows creates. It’s a highly moving work about the anxiety of having to live up to societal standards and the programmed fear of rejecting of them. Sirk, too, has no fear of the excesses the material presents. If the film has endured despite the sometimes clumsy and verbose script (inspiring no less than two remakes, great works in their own right), it is wholly thanks to Sirk’s treatment, which elevates it to another artistic plane.


[Originally published at Firstpost]


Far From Heaven (2002)
Todd Haynes


“Do you think we ever really do see beyond those things, the surface of things?


Far From HeavenTodd Haynes’ Far From Heaven (2002) opens with a shot of red autumnal leaves before the camera cranes down from heaven into the town of Hartford. This shot – a direct reference to Douglas Sirk’s beautiful All That Heaven Allows (1955), whose quasi-remake Haynes’ film is – locates the film squarely within Sirk’s universe and announces right away the derivative and thoroughly cinematic nature of this enterprise. It also signals the film’s preoccupation with the look and sound of the Sirkian world that it wants to depict. Right from the retro typeface of the film’s title card, through the emphasis on era-defining objects of the film’s world and seasonal details such as autumn foliage and clothing, to its use of outdated figures of speech and Elmer Bernstein’s intense score, Haynes’ film is obsessed with the minutiae of Sirk’s universe, with the surface of things. (Haynes shares another trait with Sirk: the two are among the most articulate American filmmakers, directors who are remarkably clear-eyed about their films.) Far From Heaven is the kind of film that academicians instantly cotton on to. It is an analysis of Sirk’s cinema and a case for it as cinematic art (as though that were necessary). It is Douglas Sirk refracted through decades of film theory.

Set amidst the suburban excesses of Eisenhowerian America, the film centers on Frank, an affluent resident of Hartford, Connecticut, and the earning member of the Whitaker family which comprises of his wife Cathy and their two children. Dennis Quaid plays Frank playing the role of a upwardly-mobile businessman with familial responsibilities while Julianne Moore plays Cathy playing a dedicated homemaker and much lauded society woman. The Whitakers are the cynosure of the town’s eyes (Mr. and Mrs. Magnatech), with their professional successes and grand soirees. Frank, however, is struggling to confront his sexuality, a revelation which might bring down all that he’s worked for. Cathy, meanwhile, barely more than a prop in her picture perfect household, takes a special liking to her composed and taciturn African-American gardener Raymond (Dennis Haysbert). Caught between a crumbling marriage and a forbidden love, poised to lose everything that has given her an identity, Cathy must choose between what she wants and what is wanted of her and negotiate the lines between the personal and the social.

One of the things that sets the film apart from its contemporaries is its almost classical use of the mise en scène.  Haynes uses a meticulously picked, heightened colour palette that conceptually takes off from Sirk’s (saturated primary colours for the white denizens and their environment and deep reds and browns for the black community) but produces striking images of its own. Same applies for the lighting that alternates between chiaroscuro and softly graded and the dialectical use of indoor and outdoor spaces. Haynes and crew retain the cinematographic devices of the studio-era, especially the dissolves-in-camera and strategically employed Dutch angles. In fact, Far From Heaven, imbibes much from sources besides Sirk, such as Max Ophüls’ Madame de.. (1953, a film that’s also about the horror of surfaces), Rainer Fassbinder’s remake of Sirk’s film Ali; Fear Eats The Soul (1974, entrapping double-frames using architectural elements) and, of course, Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1976, décor details, which also haunt Haynes’ Mildred Pierce adaptation). Outside of film, it appears as if Haynes’ major aesthetic inspiration comes from Edward Hopper, whose downbeat yet somehow hopeful vision of post-war America and use of incandescent light and chromatic contrasts seem to inform the scenes depicting Hartford at night.


Far From Heaven

The Earrings of Madame de

Far From Heaven

Jeanne Dielman

Far From Heaven

Nighthawks - Edward Hopper

Far From Heaven

New York Movie - Edward Hopper


Period films run the risk of treating History as a closed project, as a fossil frozen in time, clinically isolated from the present. Steven Spielberg’s period films, for instance, are informed by historical hindsight and characterized by current day morality bleeding into the past being depicted. Issues of the past are addressed as just that: issues over and done with. As with most mainstream films, the audience here knows right away where their sympathies and convictions lie and what is morally just. This triumphalist perspective of history offers – not unlike films about poverty, problems faced by Third World women and pre-modern cultural practices, in general – the liberal audience an opportunity to pat itself on the back, to patronize on groups not yet shown the light of the day and to align itself to and ratify the Enlightenment project. On the other hand, ambitious period films, as do ambitious sci-fi pictures, locate what are decidedly concerns of the present – problems affecting us here and now – in a narrative apparently located in a different historical time. They open up history for scrutiny, presenting it as a force that still bears upon us, and undermine our moral convictions. History, as it were, bleeds into the present.

Far From HeavenAdmittedly, and evidently, Far From Heaven attempts to work against conventional narrative approaches to history by trying to retain a radical edge to its story. It replaces partly outmoded taboos of Sirk’s film with ones that are still provocative. The rationale is that today’s audience would find the forbidden love story between an upper-class widow and her working class gardener a bit too easy to resolve compared to the edgy sexual and interracial tensions of Haynes’ film. (Substituting class with race and sexual orientation is, in a way, indicative of the trajectory of Western counterculture, where the more global grand-narrative of class conflict has made way for niche identity-politics and the struggle for economic overhaul has transmogrified into a struggle for cultural change.) The swap pushes the envelope, sure, but is it radical? Hardly. Fassbinder’s remake of Sirk’s film, made three decades before Haynes’, had a younger African immigrant labourer as the object of an affluent widow’s desire. It is, of course, unfair to demand of Haynes’ film to emulate the radicalism of Fassbinder’s by stacking up the odds against the union as much as possible. However, like numerous primetime social experiments with hidden cameras, the moral equations remain so clearly resolved that even a conservative audience would know which side to take.

Perhaps it’s the inherent simplicity of the form that Haynes employs that necessitates the film’s moral clarity. Two obvious questions come to mind watching Far From Heaven: why the 1950s New England milieu and why Douglas Sirk? Why not a current day realist drama? (That’s a question provoked by the entirety of Haynes’ body of work, which consists almost completely of period pieces.) Haynes’ answer is part-Bazinian, part-Godardian:


I think the best movies are the ones where the limitations of representation are acknowledged, where the filmmakers don’t pretend those limitations don’t exist. Films aren’t real; they’re completely constructed. All forms of film language are a choice, and none of it is the truth. With this film, we point out at the start that we’re aware of all this. We’re not using today’s conventions to portray what’s ‘real.’ What’s real is our emotions when we’re in the theater. If we don’t have feeling for the movie, then the movie isn’t good for us. If we do, then it’s real and moving and alive.


One infers that, instead of creating a new schema for this self-conscious artifice, Haynes chooses to adopt a démodé form, to draw from a more primal, more impassioned aesthetic. What is interesting here is that Haynes’s film embraces this form neither for parodying representational conventions (as has become the norm for many films too clever by half) nor for emotionally disengaging the audience (as do many films, including Fassbinder’s, that consciously take to melodrama). Instead, it places full faith in this ornate, innocent yet complex form to generate emotional connection between the text and the viewer. A postmodern exercise with genuine affect, if you please.

Far From HeavenAlthough Haynes is working in an anti-naturalistic mode, he is still very much works in the psychological tradition – an unusual combination that further complicates Haynes’ complex brand of humanism. Despite his post-Humanist approach to his material and his formalist inclinations, there’s always been a streak of real humanism in all his films. Sure, the Barbie doll actors and the subversive documentary trappings of Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1988) are meant to satirize popular culture’s obsession with gender-programming, but it’s also sympathetic towards the plight of Karen Carpenter the person. Carol (Julianne Moore) in Safe (1995) may be the means by which Haynes criticizes the soulless lifestyle of Reaganite American suburbia and its empty concerns, but she’s also fully human. (Carol and Cathy are essentially the same people, separated by space and time.) The many Bob Dylan avatars of the trailblazing I’m Not There (2007) are definitely used to illustrate the politico-cultural space in which he created his music, but the film is also practically a love letter to him. In this film, Cathy is a victim of her ethos, but she’s also a rebel, as is evident from her many acts of defiance. Her osmosis from sacred to forbidden spaces is an act of revolt on par with Dylan’s countercultural gestures. The expectation-defying Far from Heaven ­- a warm and unironic heterosexual drama – like most of the director’s films, likewise, is something of a rebellion on Haynes’ part against a film culture that perennially tries to pigeonhole filmmakers into broad labels and easily disposable categories.