Let me preface this by saying that it has been an incredibly long time since I last posted a review here; a lack of time and proper inspiration has prevented me from engaging in the blogging action. Next month, I plan to recap all of the movies I have viewed for the first time in the last six months, just so I can get out my thoughts about them. That being said....
Far From Heaven
, 2002; directed by Todd Haynes
Often when a director pays homage to or emulates the style of another director, genre, or theme years later, it is given a "modern" twist. By this I mean that while the look and feel of the film may be derived from a different time in history, the crux of its delivery of story and characters reflects the contemporary cultural temperature--examples of which would include Quentin Tarantino's entire film canon and Pleasantville.
Or, historically-based films set prior to the 1970s New Hollywood movement that are made today offer what are supposed to be more honest and truthful representations of reality than could ever be made at the time such things were actually occurring due to looser censorship. The '60s-era TV show Mad Men is a far cry from the actual shows Hollywood produced at that time--infidelity, abortion, and distrust in the workplace were never so openly acknowledged on television screens.
Haynes' inspiration for Far From Heaven
is lucidly drawn from 1950's melodrama auteur Douglas Sirk
's All That Heaven Allows.
Much care and diligence was taken on every detail of the film to make it look like a film that could have been released in the 1950s--the grandiose score by legendary musical director Elmer Bernstein (The Ten Commandments, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Escape)
, the opening and closing credits, the latter of which ends with 'THE END' (when was the last time a new release ended on such a storybook note?), the blatantly faux street background shots whenever someone is driving in a car, right down to the Andy Griffith dialogue.
Yet Haynes, who wrote the screenplay as well, complicates Sirk's original storyline of an older woman widow falling in love with the younger, virile, lower-class gardner, and throws in the travails of homosexuality and race, two subjects that were either completely ignored or glossed over in the Old Hollywood system. One could say that things have not really changed on film in either respect. But things have admittedly gotten a little better.
So why does Far From Heaven insist on getting itself wrapped up in 1950s film cliches when it attempts to address issues that should be discussed more openly? The biggest problem I had with this movie was the way in which the relationship between housewife Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) and her black gardner Raymond Deegan (Dennis Haysbert) is portrayed. To start, the story is told from Cathy's point of view, not Raymond's, so yet again Hollywood is really only interested in the white person's story (we see this again and again after this movie is released, most recently with Sandra Bullock's award-winning role in The Blind Side). The camera pans of disapproving glances by the white Connecticut townspeople as Cathy strikes up conversations with Raymond in public are endlessly tedious, and seem to only affect the former, as we never truly get a hint that the black man feels uncomfortable or threatened by the hostility.
There is no denying Sidney Poitier's place in American film history, and his talent as an actor should never be discounted--he simply came to prominence in a time of extremely stilted Hollywood conventions. But even he will admit that many of the roles he had to play were little more than a painfully constructed attempt to "deal" with race without really getting to the bottom of it. He was, unfortunately, all too often forced into the thankless role of saintly Negro, putting whites' well-beings before his own, and never truly being rewarded for it, except to be stripped down to a one-dimensional, mild-mannered character. Raymond is just that, and feels less like a fully-fleshed human being and more like a character created by Haynes to serve as a prop used for conveying "important" messages about forbidden attraction and prejudice.
The film looks as beautiful as a Sirk piece, but it also comes across as stodgy and superficial as the Old Hollywood "message" films of the '50s and '60s. We can give such films as A Patch of Blue or Lilies of the Field a pass because they are a product of a time when "For Whites Only" was an acceptable law in some places and interracial dating was all but an oxymoron. Now there is no excuse, no reason why such a story should continue to be told without reaching below the surface, and seeing how such things can affect the minorities involved. It's a shame, but not a surprise, that in a medium that likes to "update" itself frequently with new versions of old formulas, the most potentially contentious themes are usually stuck in the past.