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October 23, 2002

Moviegoing: "Far From Heaven"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Friedrich --

I just caught a screening of the new Todd Haynes movie "Far From Heaven," starring Julianne Moore. Do you know Haynes' work? Very downtown-gay, hyper-artificial, theoretical and studied in a knowing way -- the knowingness, I suppose, meant to help transcend the studiedness, if you can imagine that. I managed to get through Haynes' early "Poison," a Genet derivative, but was out of the theater in about half an hour when I went to see his recent glam-rock epic, "Velvet Goldmine."

During "Far From Heaven" I drifted off a few times. But I was semi-held by Julianne Moore's performance, and by the peculiarity of the project itself.

far from heaven.jpg
Quaid, Moore: A not-so-perfect suburban idyll

If you can imagine the John Stahl and Douglas Sirk women's melodramas of the '50s as one long movie, and "Far From Heaven" as a remake of all of them at once, you're in the ballpark. It's like "Imitation of Life" or "All That Heaven Allows," only with the racial and gay material openly dealt with.

Dennis Quaid plays the embittered-handsome Robert Stack role, Dennis Haysbert the man-of-nature Rock Hudson role. Autumn leaves, soupy Elmer Bernstein score, color-coordinated everything, the occasional touch of pastel and spearmint, much focus on the anguish of the gracious leading suburban lady.

Not quite as peculiar an act of movie-director karaoke as Gus Van Sant's shot-by-shot remake of "Psycho," but almost. An exercise in (mostly) straight-faced affectedness -- ie., theoretical camp, parody with no zest. Everything's deadened. Even the sunlight has no sparkle, and the sounds are made thumpy and hollow -- the entire movie looks like back-projection.

Film buffs seem to be wild about the movie, which has already been featured on the cover of Film Comment, but how is the mall audience going to take it? Will it seem to them just a civil-right/homosexual-rights period drama played in the most bizarre style?

Being a longtime film buff and Village resident, I'm familiar with the gay art strategies at use here. I'm overfamiliar with them, actually, and tired of them. Here's how Haynes talks about the tradition in the press kit: "What happens in the best melodramas is that there is a sense in which you are observing it from afar and you're seeing what they're doing...But you can't help getting drawn in emotionally at the same time."

He's hoping to achieve something similar. But Sirk and Stahl had real audience chops, and knew how to reach out with the women's-magazine material. Haynes seems a hollow, rather academic and postmodern soul, hoping that his post-camp strategies and P.C. themes will provide the spark that makes the whole deliberately-deadened thing leap to life.

Julianne Moore, though, was terrif. I'm not usually that much of a fan, are you? She picks interesting projects, she's willing to go out on a limb, she'll let herself get naked and look unglamorous. But I often find her work self-conscious, as well as a little indistinct and blurry, and I keep seeing other actresses and their mannerisms in what she does -- a little Faye Dunaway here, a little Gwen Welles there. She's all actress. But which actress?

Here, though, she keeps her feelings and performance in crisp focus -- only in the longer speeches does she fall back on "Julianne Moore". The rest of the time, she has a persuasively-'50s stillness and poise, and she lets the camera do the work. When the big emotions do come, they really rip through her.

What makes the diff? I'm guessing that it's the project's concept and the walking-in-the-footsteps-of-other-actresses role. Given her usual tendency to channel and bounce off of other actresses, she's perfect for a karaoke project. She's playing "suburban lady as we remember suburban ladies through the performances of actresses like Lana Turner," and Moore moves right into that fantasy. As an actress she's got a substantiality and a flow; she seems freed by the extreme artificiality of the project's demands. And she and Haynes manage a couple of woman-opening-up-to-the-camera-with-all-her-yearning-and-pain shots that are quite spectacular.

The movie's skippable otherwise, though it's an interesting art-film puzzle for film buffs to wrestle with.

Do you have any taste for overdone '50s melodramas? I had to cultivate mine -- it didn't come naturally or easily. I was won over, or maybe just worn down, by other people's enthusiasm. I'll never be an enthusiast myself, but I do see the (claustrophobic) point.

Rowdy camp is something I took to the moment I ran into it. Ah, for the days of the great Charles Ludlum, early John Waters, and early Almodovar. But these days the fizz seems to have gone out of much camp, or camp-derived, art. Haynes's work is strikingly joyless, no Almodovar movie has made me happy in a decade, and even John Waters seems like yesterday's champagne.

I'm not the first to make this observation, but... Isn't it strange how, as society has become more open to gays, the old dizzy gay art genius seems to have subsided? I wouldn't wish a life in the closet on anyone, and I'm sure there's much less homosexual misery around these days than there once was. But can it be that the zaniness, the high degree of stylization, the wit -- can it be that they were all partly a consequence of life in the closet? I'm guessing that's so. I'm further guessing that in a generation, even gays will be wearing Dockers.

In any case, fizz or no fizz, I'm here to report that the Sirk obsession lives on, though these days one sometimes wonders why. Did you catch the highly-praised thriller "The Deep End" about a year ago? Also a film that, ahem, "referenced" Sirk.



posted by Michael at October 23, 2002


Why aren't gays as gay as they used to be?

I think a big turning point in gay culture was in 1967 when the New York police department stopped sending undercover cops into gay bars to arrest men for propositioning them. Over the next decade gay liberation (i.e., the right and feasibility to have _lots_ of sex) spread nationwide. Of course, this brought on the AIDS epidemic, which not surprisingly took a lot of the fizz out of gay life.

But, there's another reason why gays aren't as gay as they were back in the closeted purple Ascot-wearing Paul Lynde days. Back then, police oppression made massive promiscuity difficult, so many gay men expressed themselves by indulging their campy sides. After gay liberation came along, the emphasis switched to being sexually attractive. But being a bitchy little nelly like Jack on "Will & Grace" is not sexually attractive to gays. They want Real Men to have sex with (just read gay personals to see how much discrimination their is against the effeminate - for further evidence, look at the ridiculous casting of Dennis Quaid as gay in this movie). So, you had the development of the Clone Look and all its macho offshoots, as gay men try to act more masculine to attract other gay men.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on October 24, 2002 3:00 AM

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