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Some things never change

Todd Haynes revisits the Eisenhower era

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Who better than Todd Haynes to pay homage to director Douglas Sirk, best known for a series of sumptuously designed 1950s melodramas including Magnificent Obsession and Imitation of Life. After all, Haynes, the director of Safe and Velvet Goldmine, is a visual stylist in his own right.

To look at his new film, Far From Heaven, audiences might think they'd stepped back in time. Beneath the surface, though, his indie upbringing challenges a lot of the studio conventions of those Sirk films. Set in 1956 New England, Julianne Moore plays a suburban wife and mother confronted with a level of hand-wringing personal crises Lana Turner or Jane Wyman never could've imagined. Not only is her husband (Dennis Quaid) secretly gay, but she also finds herself attracted to her black gardener (Dennis Haysbert).

Creative Loafing: You were a college student when you first took note of Douglas Sirk, and I'm assuming you re-screened a lot of his films in preparing for Far From Heaven. How did they hold up?

Todd Haynes: I've always thought there was a lot more going on in those films, a lot more self-knowledge in what Sirk's trying to do than people often give him credit for. When I first saw them in college, though, there was definitely a lot of snickering in the room, which told me something about the divide between contemporary audiences in looking back on things from the past.

Do you think that "divide" is more pronounced now? How do you set about fashioning a Douglas Sirk homage for modern audiences who may have never heard of him before?

Well, I don't think you need to know anything about Sirk to have a way into this film. I mean, it does require a certain context, and there's the guarantee of a certain emotional integrity to the story, at least. But it isn't exactly a film history lesson, either. Visually, the challenges were mostly economic. Thematically, though, I definitely wanted my film to ask questions about how far we've come as a culture. It's so easy to dismiss the '50s as this example of an incredibly naive and conservative period in our history from which so many cliches about Americana derive. But it was a moment of prosperity that encouraged blind spots -- this kind of weirdly isolationist refusal to deal with any other issues besides those happening within the walls of your own house.

The performances are so highly stylized and of that era. Was there a risk the characters might come across as somewhat cold or aloof by today's standards?

We never wanted to wink at the audience just to make them feel more comfortable. We had to play it straight. It was always about weight and balance. The shock value of seeing an interracial romance or seeing two men kissing or hearing the "f" word has long since worn out. So part of the fun and the challenge was creating a whole universe of terminology that was restrained enough elsewhere, so that when these startling developments happen in the story, it makes an even stronger impact.

Far From Heaven is already getting more glowing reviews than any movie Sirk ever made. The problem for your film isn't the critical response -- it's finding a mainstream audience. What does it say about the state of movies that a so-called "woman's picture" like this is cause for such rejoice?

I think it says a lot about how little we've actually progressed from the '50s -- if we haven't retreated, in fact -- that simply doing a film with a woman as the central focus is considered a radical experiment -- a financial risk, unless Julia Roberts happens to be starring in it. It was a struggle at every turn, even in terms of finding two actors who were willing to play secondary roles to the woman in the story. With all due respect to Dennis Quaid and Dennis Haysbert -- both of whom are better in their roles than I ever could've hoped for -- you'd be surprised how many big stars refused to even consider it.

bert.osborne@creativeloafing.com



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