- Written on the Screen:Mediation and Immersion in Far from Heaven
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Recently, while engaging in one of my favorite forms of procrastination—using my computer to search for mid-century modern bargains on eBay rather than using it to engage in more rigorous, or at least more legitimated, intellectual pursuits—I, quite by accident, came across an interesting listing: one "'FAR FROM HEAVEN' red '50's [sic] Eames era purse," described as looking like it could have been taken right off the set of the film. This was a lucky find, not because of the object itself (however lovely), but because of the ways in which the listing encouraged me to reconsider assumptions about what might operate as a legitimate intellectual pursuit and how that operation occurs, specifically in regard to the media and consumer pursuits both representative of and represented within Todd Haynes's melodrama Far from Heaven (US/France, 2002). Thus, while I did not bid on that eBay item (nor on another purse, this time in black patent leather, also listed under the heading "Far from Heaven"), one might say that it nonetheless gave me purchase in helping to crystallize my thoughts about Haynes's work—especially concerning what that work reveals about how we, as viewers and consumers, relate to [End Page 187] and through mass-mediated culture. For here was an instance of a film providing a language with which to express a particular identity (whether a consumer, aesthetic, or fan identity)—a film producing semiotic and epistemological cues for recognition (and indeed, achieving the status of keyword cue on eBay is clearly one sign of approving recognition in today's mediated universe). The phrase Far from Heaven was used here to signify not an actual item from the film, but a "look" presumed to be known and appreciated by viewers of both computer and film screens. This suggests how deeply cinematic and other media texts enter our consciousness, providing us with objects in which to invest—whether materially, as in the case of the bidder who bought the purse, or more elusively, as in the case of spectators such as myself who simply invest emotionally and epistemologically in the film itself.
Of course, as film and media scholars have long argued, there is nothing simple about investing in a text.1 Furthermore, and more to the point of my argument, this notion of investing in cinema—using film references as a language with which to express one's concerns—is not something only enacted on a film like Far from Heaven by others (whether eBayers or film critics): given the text's link to films past, it is already fully enacted and inscribed in Far from Heaven itself. The film's narrative traces the dissolution of the marriage of characters Cathy and Frank Whitaker (played by Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid) as they attempt to escape the confines of their 1950s white, middle-class, suburban environment by exploring other social and sexual yearnings—yearnings that are seen by the characters as problematic, if also somewhat mobilizing, in terms of race, class, gender, and sexuality. Yet this narrative is further supplemented by one that additionally traces the problematic, if also sometimes mobilizing, confines of cinematic and other media texts as well.
The claim that Far from Heaven addresses cinematic as well as social issues is hardly a startling one. Practically all critics writing about the film have noted (and Haynes himself has made clear) that the film, in its articulation of social issues in and through domestic and romantic entanglements (and, as I will argue, in and [End Page 188] through media entanglements), stands as a kind of homage to, or reworking of, the melodramas of director Douglas Sirk.2 It references most clearly Sirk's 1955 film All That Heaven Allows (with its story of an upper-middle-class woman [played by Jane Wyman] who scandalizes her social circle through her romantic involvement with her gardener [Rock Hudson]) but also brings in key...