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The Politics of Disappointment: Todd Haynes Rewrites Douglas Sirk
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Camera Obscura 18.2 (2003) 130-175

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Figure 1
Julianne Moore and Dennis Haysbert in Todd Haynes's Far from Heaven (US/France, 2002)

Condensation and Displacement

Far from Heaven (US/France, 2002), Todd Haynes's lush, lurid, strikingly amplified homage to Douglas Sirk, bristles with reworkings of Sirk's signature effects as it consistently evokes his 1950s melodramas of heterosexual longing and disappointment. This film's credits and opening sequence feel almost "traced," as if superimposing its frame onto that of All That Heaven Allows (US, 1955). Both films begin with a shot of a clock tower in which a flowering branch obtrudes on a diagonal from the upper left frame. This image gives way in each film to a slow pan left and upward to a high-angle establishing shot of the town, fixing on a two-tone—robin's-egg blue and white—station wagon. Yet, in All That Heaven Allows, unlike in Far from Heaven, this is not the heroine's car, but that of her friend, Sarah (Agnes Moorehead). And this is just an early signal that Haynes's film will work through subtle condensations and displacements of the sort that mark dreams and fantasies.

Far from Heaven's plot trajectory follows All That Heaven Allows, in which an affluent suburban widow risks scandal and ostracism on account of an unconventional love relationship. In that film, widow Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) falls for her gardener, the younger, inner-directed, Thoreauvian Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson). In the almost electrifying network of condensation and displacement that structures the Haynes film, Far from Heaven also amalgamates elements drawn from Sirk's Imitation of Life (US, 1959) and Written on the Wind (US, 1956). Cinematically, Far from Heaven shares with these Sirk productions an obtrusive score, a meticulous attention to color, strikingly truncated interiors, and a rhythm of hysterical eruptions. However, as it consistently elaborates its difference from Sirk's universe, this film opens onto a social and historical perspective that explores the shaping effects of the 1950s on the contemporary culture.

For instance, in addition to rewriting All That Heaven Allows, Far from Heaven recasts Written on the Wind's drama of heterosexual discontent, in which upright geologist Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson) anguishes over his love for Lucy Moore Hadley (Lauren Bacall), the increasingly disappointed and disrespected wife of his wealthy and dissolute boyhood friend, oil heir Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack). Where the Hadleys' marriage founders on Kyle's fears about his own potency and his blindness to his wife's loyalty, Far from Heaven presents a drama of marital impasse between Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore), in her wishful heterosexual blindness, and her husband Frank (Dennis Quaid), who struggles with the escalating unmanageability of his homosexual urges.

At the same time, Far from Heaven deftly filters this heterosexual disappointment and failure through Cathy's scandalous relationship with her black gardener, Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert). That is, it reframes the drama of the suburban middle-class wife and mother through a "racial angle." Thus the film also borrows the terms set up by Imitation of Life, which stages its twin maternal melodramas within the framework of inter- and intraracial difference. That film turns on parallel mother-daughter conflicts. Ambitious single mother Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) pursues her acting career while remaining consistently indifferent to the concerns of her daughter Susie (Sandra Dee), even to the point of failing to see that the two are in love with the same man, Lora's woodenly persistent suitor, Steve Archer (John Gavin). On the other side of the film's structuring racial divide, Lora's maid, Annie (Juanita Moore), as overattentive to her child as Lora is inattentive to hers, remains painfully and futilely hopeful that her "mulatta" daughter Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) will eschew the desire to pass as white and accept her blackness. As it thus refracts the plot of All That Heaven Allows through the concerns of Written on the Wind and Imitation of Life, in a process that resembles nothing so much as filmic "dreamwork," Far from Heaven furnishes its viewer with a...

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