11 01 2016

CarolEarly in Todd Haynes’ “Carol,” a group of young adults sits up in the projection booth a movie theater. As Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” flickers on the screen, one astute observer sits taking notes while the others fool around. He remarks that he seeks to find “the correlation between what they [the characters] say and how they feel.”

Most people watching “Carol” will find themselves in a similar position. With the film’s gentle pace gradually yet methodically moving the action along, every moment becomes dissectible. Haynes, however, does not simply stop conveying the souls of his characters with words. (Neither, for that matter, did Wilder.) Each composition is a delicate painting, gracefully staged to emphasize, contradict or contextualize the action taking place within it.

The frames throughout “Carol” tell a rather perverse narrative. On the one hand, Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) and Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) are given vast amounts of space to move about on screen. The surroundings do not seem to claustrophobically encase this pair of illicit lovers, though the pressures of a disapprovingly baffled society try their best to do just that. Yet, at the same time, both are given so much “headroom” at the top of the frame that they become minimized within it.

So free, but so small. This paradox resonates for both the 1950s setting of the film as well as the 2010s audience viewing it.

“Carol” finds Todd Haynes working once again in his sweet spot of recreating a photorealistic past while addressing entirely contemporary concerns. Though he has yet to make a film set in the present day, he continually finds ways to evoke a sense of immediacy with forms of storytelling otherwise regarded as outmoded and the disregarded. Working within the so-called “woman’s film,” the classical melodrama as well as the romance, Haynes finds rich emotionality in reorganizing various elements to focus on female experience and pleasure.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (May 7, 2015)

7 05 2015

PoisonIn a matter of days, Todd Haynes will unveil his latest film under the bright lights of the Cannes Film Festival’s red carpet.  Just a quarter of a century ago, however, Haynes operated on the fringes of cinematic culture but emerged onto the indie stage with a bang thanks to “Poison.”  This early Sundance winner sparked what critics often call the New Queer Cinema with its fearless embrace of gay themes and stories.

In a way, “Poison” almost feels like it merits inclusion under the banner of my “Classics Corner” category since the film is such a touchstone for decades of audacious work.  While it assumes the status of a revered cultural object to knowledgable viewers, “Poison” still works as a pick for my “F.I.L.M. of the Week” (which stands for First-Class, Independent Little-Known Movie).  Decades later, this artistic triumph still maintains an edginess and avant-garde aura about it.

Haynes tells three tales in one with “Poison,” each taking place in a different era and involving different characters.  They are not short films, either; he intercuts them with increasing frequency and rapidity once he establishes their tempo.  (Not to be outdone, Haynes would later weave together double the narratives in his unconventional Bob Dylan biopic “I’m Not There.”)  While every section has its own aesthetic and genre styling, too, Haynes does something renegade to disrupt our expectations.

All three threads running through “Poison” circle themes of alienation, repressed identity, violently passionate outbursts, and the lingering stigma of past incidents.  Whether a scientist in a 1950s style pulp film discovering the key to sexuality, a prisoner in the 1910s trying to maintain a masculine facade, or a child in the 1980s only spoken about in vague anecdotes by those left reeling in the wake of his shocking violence, each fascinates with compulsion and repulsion in equal measure.  To say much more spoils the sensation and the surprise, so just know that “Poison” is completely worth swallowing.

F.I.L.M. of the Week (January 17, 2014)

17 01 2014

You’ve seen biopics of complex figures, but director Todd Haynes isn’t interested in presenting his portrait of musician and cultural icon Bob Dylan like anything else ever made.  His “I’m Not There” is a bold experiment, manifesting the fragmentation of Dylan’s persona by literally splitting him into six characters.  This iconoclasm pays off in a rewarding and challenging experience, leading me to name the movie my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

It’s not necessary to know Bob Dylan or his music really well to admire “I’m Not There.”  Rather, all it takes is a willingness to see the connection between the six pseudo-Dylans … or perhaps their incongruity.  The Dylans take many different shapes, including a young African-American (Marcus Carl Franklin), an older man (Richard Gere), a born-again folk singer (Christian Bale), and an actor attempting to get inside of him (Heath Ledger).  We float through each of their lives and struggles in bits and spurts.  Just when we think we get a grip on Dylan, he slips away.

Oddly enough, the one who looks the most like the Bob Dylan we know … is played by a woman.  Cate Blanchett is Jude, a raspy-voiced chain smoking folk musician.  Not unlike her work in “Blue Jasmine,” Blanchett disappears inside her character and makes us forget that aura of regality she so often conveys.

She captures all the frustration of misunderstood artistry along with all the pains of drug addiction.  Blanchett brilliantly fulfills the most frequently recognized Dylan iconography yet also breathes something deeply human into her character, something no amount of cameras or reporters could ever really capture.   She’s at once vulnerable and inaccessible.

Much like Jude, “I’m Not There” floats between all these contradictory lives of Dylan, back and forth with well-orchestrated indirection.  It never settles, never aims for some sort of absolute truth.  It’s like a fictionalization of the concepts brought up in a documentary like Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell.”  We are many different things to many different people, and there is no fixed point from which to observe reality or memory.  Perhaps we just exist as the sum total of the masks we wear.

F.I.L.M. of the Week (January 1, 2010)

1 01 2010

The first “F.I.L.M.” of the new decade is Todd Haynes’ “Far from Heaven,” a well-crafted examination of 1950s outlooks on sexuality and race.  The movie draws a great deal of strength from two fine-tuned performances by Julianne Moore, recognized by the Academy Awards as one of 2002’s finest, and Dennis Quaid, criminally ignored.  But in my mind, the movie’s real strength is Haynes’ original screenplay, which makes melodrama bearable.

Moore plays Cathy Whitaker, who leads a seemingly perfect li(f)e.  She has a husband moving up in the corporate world, two beautiful children, an exquisite home, and a high standing in the social sphere of Hartford, Connecticut.  Yet this charmed existence is about to come crumbling down at an unprecedented rate.  She discovers her husband (Quaid) engaging in acts that, if discovered by the judgmental town, would be social suicide.  In order to vent some of her stress, Cathy often strikes up conversations with her African-American gardener Raymond (Dennis Haysbert).  But once again, the town looks upon any sort of kind interaction between the two races as shameful.  As disdain mounts against her, Cathy must decide what she values most: social approval or the satisfaction of following her heart.

Moore is a staggering force as she tries to maintain a facade of proper decorum while her life falls apart.  She plays the sweet, submissive wife with such grace that the contrast is incredibly stark when she loses control of her emotions.  However, this is no surprise from an actress who consistently delivers hard-hitting performances.  The real revelation is Dennis Quaid.  I have never particularly thought him a strong actor, but he shows more raw emotion here than all his other movies combined.  The friction of his desires is played with a gripping intensity that grabs your attention.  “Far From Heaven” is quite melancholy, but Moore, Quaid, and Haynes pull it off with such finesse that it is hard to feel depressed after they release you from their rapturous hold.

(Sorry about the trailer, but it’s the only one on YouTube! The music you are supposed to hear is Elmer Bernstein’s mesmerizing score, which earned him an Oscar nomination.)