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Camera Obscura 19.3 (2004) vi,1-21

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Pathos and Pathology:

The Cinema of Todd Haynes

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Figure 1
Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Brian Slade/Maxwell Demon in Velvet Goldmine (UK/US, 1998). Courtesy Miramax
[End Page iv]
Because infinity—for the eye—begins just a few meters away from the retina. . . .
—Roger Caillois, "The Image"

There are at least two shots in Todd Haynes's work that recur so frequently one might almost call them signature shots. The first appears in Superstar (US, 1987) and Poison (US, 1991) and functions as the opening shot of Safe (US/UK, 1995). A long tracking shot, sometimes marked as originating from inside a car, traces row after row of classic suburban houses—all basically the same with only slight differences, all overly familiar—in a seemingly endless movement reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard's lateral tracking shots in Le Weekend (The Weekend; France/Italy, 1967). In Safe, the point of view is through the windshield of the car (and here we have haute suburbia), of streets with identical lampposts and houses, trash carefully placed at the edge of driveways, of serial production, of sheer separation from the rest of the world as signified by the gate at the end of the Whites' driveway. The suburban house in its many incarnations is the site of both the familiar [End Page 1] and its etymological kin, the family, the site of the potentially explosive repressions and power structures so carefully delineated in each of these films. It connotes the safe haven, the negation of the city with its crime, its complexities, and its uncertainties—the promise of the economically and racially homogeneous. It is so heavily laden with implicit cultural meanings—as indictment, as stereotype—that it has virtually become the stereotype of all stereotypes, a kind of metastereotype. But at the same time, Haynes's tracking shots are saturated with subjectivity, even in their quasi-documentary incarnations in Superstar and in the "Hero" section of Poison. In Safe, this shot is clearly marked as the point of view of the protagonist, Carol White (Julianne Moore), the one who is victimized by the restraints and repressions of suburban life, but victimized most, perhaps, by the relentlessness of that gaze (her own), the illusory promise of its movement, of its transformations.

This figure serves as an echo of the trope that most seems to epitomize the woman's film of the 1940s and 1950s (a genre that has clearly had a strong influence on Haynes)—the close shot of the woman looking through a window or waiting at a window. (Douglas Sirk's 1955 All That Heaven Allows [US] has an exemplary instance of this shot that Haynes repeats in Far from Heaven [US/France, 2002].) In the 1940s and 1950s, the window had a special import in terms of the social and symbolic positioning of the woman—the window was the interface between inside and outside, the feminine space of the family and reproduction and the masculine space of production. It facilitated a communication by means of the look between the two sexually differentiated spaces, but also acted as the site of the specific pathos associated with the woman. In Haynes's work, it is the look again, often through a car window, yet this time not necessarily sexually differentiated, but a moving look (in both senses of the term), from the exterior of the house into the dark recesses of the familial quagmires that form the basis of the pop-psychoanalytical explanation of the self. It is a striking figure because it holds in apparently contradictory conjunction the deepest secrets of subjectivity and the preeminently stereotypical suburban landscape. It is a different, [End Page 2] less familiar mode of relating exteriority and interiority, the superficial and the deep, seen for instance in the ubiquity of long, wide-angle shots in Safe, in the paradoxical insistence on a certain conjunction of distanciation and pathos in viewing.

The second signature shot is less formally consistent and centers on...


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pp. vi, 1-21
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Archived 2005
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