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The Politics of Disappointment: Todd Haynes Rewrites Douglas Sirk
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The Politics of Disappointment:
Todd Haynes Rewrites Douglas Sirk
Sharon Willis

Sharon Willis is professor of French and visual and cultural studies at the University of Rochester, where she also directs the Film and Media Studies Program. A member of the Camera Obscura editorial collective, she is the author of Marguerite Duras: Writing on the Body, and High Contrast: Race and Gender in Contemporary Hollywood Film. This essay is drawn from a chapter of the book she is completing on representations of the civil rights movement in narrative film from 1949 to the present.


1. To name just a few of these important interventions: Mary Ann Doane, Patricia Mellencamp, and Linda Williams, eds., Re-Vision: Essays in Feminist Film Criticism (Los Angeles: AFI, 1984); Christine Gledhill, ed., Home Is Where the Heart Is (London: BFI, 1987); Mary Ann Doane, Femmes Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis (New York: Routledge, 1991); Mary Ann Doane, The Desire to Desire (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987); Judith Mayne, Cinema and Spectatorship (London: Routledge, 1993); Tania Modleski, The Women Who Knew Too Much (New York: Methuen, 1988); Constance Penley, ed., Feminism and Film Theory (London: Routledge, 1988); Annette Kuhn, Women's Pictures: Feminism and Cinema (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982); Lucy Fischer, ed., Imitation of Life: Douglas Sirk, Director (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1991).

2. On the liminal status of television in US culture, see Lynne Joyrich, "Epistemology of the Console," Critical Inquiry 27 (spring 2001): 439-67. In arguing that television is both conceptually and structurally bound to the logic of the closet, she contends, "By both mediating historic events for familial consumption and presenting the stuff of 'private life' to the viewing public, the institutional organization of US broadcasting situates television precisely on the precarious border of public and private, 'inside' [End Page 169] and 'outside.' Here it constructs knowledges identified as both secret (domestically received) and shared (defined as part of a collective national culture)" (445).

3. It would be interesting to consider Far from Heaven in light of two other recent films that center on the maternal. Pedro Almodóvar's Todo sobre mi madre [All about my mother] (Spain/France, 1999) presents as its generative moment a mother and son watching All about Eve (dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, US, 1950). The son's death prompts his single mother to revisit figuratively the "moment of his birth," bringing news of the tragedy to the father whose identity he has never known, a transvestite homosexual. The Hours (dir. Stephen Daldry, US, 2002), based on Michael Cunningham's 1998 novel of the same name, features Julianne Moore as the 1950s mother whose remote indifference and ultimate abandonment of her child—maternal lack—generates the whole story and connects its three female protagonists. Some important critical texts concerning cinema and television in relation to the mother are Lucy Fischer's Cinematernity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996); Dana Heller, Family Plots: The De-oedipalization of Popular Culture (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995); Annette Kuhn, Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination (London: Verso, 1995); and Susan Douglas, Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female With the Mass Media (New York: Three Rivers, 1994).

4. Patricia White, Uninvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), 197.

5. We may note here that, in his recasting of Sirk, Haynes offers a kind of "second generation" retrospectatorship. He follows the earlier independent auteur Rainer Maria Fassbinder, whose films frequently reread Sirk as a lens on 1970s German culture.

6. As evidence that Far from Heaven may represent the cutting edge of a growing cultural trend, we may cite NBC's current series, American Dreams, which explores the cultural shifts of the 1960s in a family drama that opens onto the mother's incipient feminism, the father's workplace interactions with his black employee, and the children's confrontations with racial difference, centrally articulated through musical culture. [End Page 170]

7. Meanwhile, critics both inside and outside the television industry indicated that it had reached a nadir around 1957-58. See William Boddy, Fifties Television: The Industry and Its Critics (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990...