Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Todd Haynes's Far from Heaven

In Far from Heaven, Todd Haynes’s melodramatic homage to the films of Douglas Sirk, Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) is a suburban housewife in 1957 whose husband Frank (Dennis Quaid) is a closet homosexual, and in the process of dealing with this revelation and the disintegration of life as she knows it, she befriends her new gardener Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert), a black man. Haynes forces the audience to relate to his characters in two distinct ways: exploiting the modern perception of the 1950s, and using the lens of modern society in order to view the film. This causes a couple of surprising characterizations to form, the first the purposeful separation of Raymond from the typical stereotype of a black man in 1957 and the conflation of Frank with the effeminized homosexual, causing one to question how progressive the characters in Haynes’s movie truly are.

As we are first introduced to the character of Raymond, it is obvious that he is not the stereotypical N
egro of the late 1950s. His dialect is refined and educated, not surprising after we learn that he as obtained a business degree. In fact, he runs a successful small business in addition to the gardening operation his father ran before his death. When they encounter each other during an art exhibition, Raymond spends an inordinate amount of time intelligently discussing the modern art scene with Cathy, showing him to be cultured as well. After being struck by her husband, an occurrence in the 1950s that seems not to be as frowned upon as today, he is displayed as progressive enough to offer his sympathies, firmly making the stand that spousal abuse in wrong. These ideas help the audience identify with the character, for he seems a man out of the present day as much as a man from the 1950s, but this depiction also serves a more important purpose.

Though the idea of miscegenation was taboo during the film’s setting, it remains an issue in the present day. While no longer a taboo subject, interracial relationships today still provoke a level of discomfort even among self-identified progressives. Therefore, depicting Raymond as an intelligent, cultured man with the sen
sibilities and attitudes of a modern audience (at least their idealized attitudes) helps to persuade the audience that in fact this particular relationship between a black man and white woman is nonthreatening and to be approved. Yet Raymond’s depiction also adds the necessary verisimilitude to explain why Cathy would be attracted to him in the first place: he not just another Negro, he’s a practically perfect one. Only by fracturing his identity and separating it from the idea of the 1950s Negro is Raymond’s relationship to the world and to Cathy a believable one. While this is not an altogether complex way of looking at race, the 1950s setting gives this straightforward presentation more weight than it would have set in another period.

Yet while the fracturing of Negro identity to raise up the individual is necessary for Raymond, Haynes deploys the opposite approach with Frank. A closet homosexual with a family and a lot to lose, Frank is arrested for loitering (cruising) and later is shown in a gay bar, stereotypical behavior of a gay man in this era. His character arc in the movie is well done, yet completely unoriginal. As he struggles with his homosexuality, he is caught by his wife, attends therapy in order to repress the urges, seeming is on the right track, and then finds true love with an
other man, forcing him to admit to himself that he is in fact a homosexual.

However, this characterization is not just a product of the story arc, but also of the way Frank speaks and is spoken about. After his sexuality is discovered by Cathy, a drunk Frank teases Cathy in front of guests by saying that their life is nothing but ‘smoke and mirrors,’ telling the men that they should see Cathy before she ‘puts on her face.’ His body language when saying these lines is akin to that of the flamboyant yet technically closeted homosexual portrayed in the mass media (as one critic suggests, Paul Lynde).

Frank is earlier conflated with the typical effeminate homosexual when Cathy’s friend Eleanor describes an art dealer (responsible for the aforementioned art show) as a ‘bit flowery for my taste…a touch light on his feet?’ Eleanor, like most men and women of the era, prefer ‘all the men I’m around to be all men.’ Rather than depicting Frank as an individual who happens to be homosexual, he is conflated with the typical perceptions of homosexuality in the 1950s. And though Haynes is able to due this to an extent because modern views are a bit more progressive, for instance most people would admit that there are all sorts of personality types among homosexuals as there are among any sexual, racial, or ethnic group, there is still enough oppression and stereotyping today to render this approach insufficient.

What does the embrace of one stereotype coupled with the rejection of another say about Haynes’s movie? He shows that certain social groups are confined to one area of society, and some have no place whatsoever. Since he made the film in 2002, we must ask ourselves what message he is trying to impart to a contemporary audien
ce. In my opinion, Haynes is attempting to show that both the homosexual community and the members of society that are a part of mixed race marriages are as excluded in our society now as they were forty-five years earlier. Yet since the gay rights movement has gained more traction and it is fairly common to see men and women who are openly homosexual, it may have been necessary to remain with the stereotypical depiction of Frank’s character to demonstrate how isolated the gay community was from mainstream society in the 1950s in order to achieve this distancing effect. While existing, it was more of a shadow society that existed hidden on the fringe of what was considered acceptable at the time.

Yet in contemporary times the Civil Rights movement has done much to change mainstream societ
y, there still is friction between most of mainstream society and the relationship of a black man and white woman. This friction also usually isn’t between people and the interracial couples they know, but a response to strangers instead. Therefore, an audience might have been more receptive to Raymond’s relationship with Cathy since he is portrayed as the opposite of many black stereotypes. Not only does this add some verisimilitude to their relationship, for it seems unlikely that Cathy would have found a connection with the stereotype, but it also allows the audience to judge the relationship as being between individuals rather than as one being merely between a white woman and black man.

While this reading is fairly disheartening and bleak look at contemporary society, I believe it does address the issues of why one stereotype was used while another was turned on its head. That said, Far from Heaven is a complex film working on many different levels, and such a critique of society may not hold up among a broader examination of the film.

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