Thursday, April 29, 2010

Modern Maestros: Todd Haynes

Robert here, continuing my series on great contemporary directors. This week a director who I knew little about despite loving almost all of his work.  But knowing how popular he is here I knew I'd have to tackle him eventually.  So I gave myself a crash course, not on the films which I already knew, but on the man.  And what a discovery indeed!

Maestro: Todd Haynes
Known For: Art movies about society, identity, music and more masquerading as non-art movies.
Influences: A long list: Jean Genet, Stan Brakhage, Hitchock, Chantal Akerman, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Douglas Sirk (of course), Oscar Wilde,  Orson Welles and on and on and on.
Masterpieces: Far From Heaven and I'm Not There
Disasters: None.
Better than you remember: I doubt many people who actually saw Velvet Goldmine really disliked it, but it is better known for being a commercial flop than for being a quality film.
Awards: Oscar and Globe nominated for writing Far From Heaven. Spirit Award winner for Directing Far From Heaven (and nominated for just about every other movie he's made.)
Box Office: Over 15 mil for Far From Heaven.  That Oscar recognition helps.
Favorite Actor: Julianne Moore in three films.

Todd Haynes has been fooling us, and he's very good at it.  For a little while now Haynes has been tricking us into thinking he makes conventional prestige appeal films.  It's a good trick for someone who truly makes art films.  Since his debut (as part of the New Queer Movement) he's been masquerading art film as pop film successfully, in the 90's by mixing moods like the horror meets suburban quaintness Safe or the Ziggy Stardust meets Citizen Kane Velvet Goldmine.  But the real slight of hand was Far From Heaven.  A movie that seemed to be and was a big awards player (thanks a lot to Julianne Moore, not to mention Hayne's own talents) and yet no one noticed that it was still an art film at heart.  Homage is one thing, but Far From Heaven could be Haynes attempt to make a film entirely inside the reality of another director (with the benefit of fifty years of cultural perspective).  Just as we thought he'd hit the mainstream, Haynes fooled us again with a film so star-laden it had to be accessible at the least.  Instead we got I'm Not There a confounding enigma that required more audience dedication and participation (though it was worth it) than anyone expected.  Anyone except perhaps lifelong Haynes fans who already knew the trick up his sleeve.

I'm Not There was almost audacious in its suggestion that a musical biopic could be more than an extended dramatized Behind the Music episode.  And we shouldn't be surprised that this breakthrough should come from Haynes, for whom music has been one of his favorite subjects.  Muscians naturally lead him toward his favorite topics: how our environment shapes our identity, and how we conform to or rebel against that force.  For musicians their environments are constantly changing, often antagonistic and usually result in a person becoming self-destructive, retreating from the world or fragmenting their own persona.  Another familiar topic for Haynes: women, and as usual the aggressive ever changing cultures that force them to confront their identities.  As for men... sorry guys, we're really just not that interesting.  Unless of course we're gay, and thus perfect for Haynes' cinematic touch.

 Two identities, shaped by the world.

Stylistically don't be fooled by how much his films are influenced by past cinema.  Haynes is his own man. Even when a film lives in another's reality, Haynes has the talent to make it his own.  Later this year Haynes may fool us again.  He's hard at work on the much anticipated Mildred Pierce miniseries, starring Kate Winslet.  Here's a story that fits in perfectly with the director's consistent exploration of women and their place in the world.  But where is the secret art film hiding inside?  We'll all be waiting to see.  Because we all keep coming back.  We're all fools for Todd Haynes.  Nomatter how many times he keeps fooling us.


Leo said...

Personally, I think Safe is his true masterwork. It is a truly unique experience sitting through that one. Plus, for me it holds a special place in my heart since it prompted my undying love for the superb Julianne Moore.

OtherRobert said...

I thought I'm Not There was very good, but Haynes used a mechanic that was already explored to great and polarizing effect on Broadway in Lennon. You know, the highly publicized but short lived Broadway musical biography about the life and work of John Lennon told by an ensemble cast of actors--all ages, races, and genders--taking on the title role of the show. I was actually reluctant to see Haynes' film because it seemed like a blatant rip off. I'm glad I saw it because it is a very good film. I just think it's worth noting the effect is not as novel as people claim it is.

Glenn said...

For me, this masterpieces are [safe] and Far From Heaven. The former being my favourite.

ferdi said...

"I'm not there" is simply stunning and challenging... but "Safe" and "Far From Heaven", oh my God! I want Haynes and Julianne will return to work together someday. Great combination of talents.

Dimitra said...

I loved I'm Not There. It was different, absorbing and thrilling, amazingly acted, especially by Cate Blancette and filled with some awesome quotes,too."I accept chaos. I'm not sure if it accepts me".
My only problem was that Gere's part was a little too long.

On the other hand, I found Far From Heaven overrated. I decided to watch it after all the love it gets from this blog and a 4/4 review by Ebert and was disappointed. I found Quaid's character dislikable (well, that may be due to the fact that I don't like him anyway) and didn't see much chemistry between Moore and Haysbert.

Volvagia said...

Frankly, I think, except for, maybe, Velvet Goldmine and Poison, they're all masterworks. [Safe] is, in my perception, the start of a loosely connected trilogy of films. I call it The Sexuality Birthing Trilogy. [Safe] is, on a metaphorical level, about asexuality, Velvet Goldmine uses bisexuality as a minor story element and Far From Heaven has homosexuality as a major plot element. Now here's my case for [Safe]'s metaphor: 1. The opening date. 1987 was two years after The Bone People was published and was the year of Withnail and I's release. 2. How they almost never refer to having MCS. 3. The communicated utter disdain with the normals (read: sexuals). 4. Haynes predilection for exploring issues of sexual orientation in an open way in most of his films before I'm Not There. I hope he'll deal with asexuality in said open way eventually.

And, one person mentioned the lack of chemistry between Moore and Haysbert in Far From Heaven? That's kind of the point. They were mimicking the stilted '50s melodrama of Douglas Sirk.

Adrian said...

Hilary Swank's gonna play him in the biopic 15 years from now. Oscar #7!!!!


I still find I'm Not There too academic and mechanical. But i love all the rest of his films including Poison.

[safe] and Far From Heaven being genius films.

rosengje said...

How can you post on Todd Haynes and barely mention [safe]? Had he not made another movie after that, he would still be one of my all-time favorite directors.

Burning Reels said...

Excellent piece as always, however brave it was to label I'm Not There a masterpiece;)

I like how unpredictable Todd Haynes' career is - I have no idea when or what type of films he'll make in the future, other than they will be far more interesting than most output.