Monday, November 16, 2009

Far From Heaven is about the most apt title I can imagine

Jackie Stacey's 1988 essay "Desperately Seeking Difference" is in clear contrast to Laura Mulvey's theories in her 1973 essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Stacey uses her essay as a critique of Mulvey's theories of psychoanalysis and voyeurism. I believe the different time periods and films of their time explain these differences in view.

Todd Haynes' 2002 film Far From Heaven tells the story of three main characters: Cathy and Frank the white married couple, and Raymond their black gardener. They live in idyllic Hartford, Connecticut town circa 1957. On the surface, Cathy and Frank have the perfect marriage, perfect kids, perfect job, perfect house, and perfect community. Instead, Frank (Dennis Quaid) harbors a secret attraction to men, and Cathy (Julianne Moore) is drawn to her new friend Raymond (Dennis Haysbert, better known as the president on 24). As the title implies, the true existence is far from it. The film was nominated for several Academy Awards: for Best Actress in a Leading Role (Julianne Moore), Best Original Screenplay (Todd Haynes), Best Cinematography (Edward Lachman), and Best Original Score (Elmer Bernstein).

What is the significance of the gaze in Far From Heaven? Frank still possesses the male gaze, although his gaze is now fixated on other men. In fact, the film offers no other content to the male lovers of Frank. They are image only. They have no dialogue or meaningful scenes. They only serve as an device of physical attraction for Frank, which create conflict between characters. During the scenes of Frank's encounters, visually the camera is set at odd angles and the scenes take place in shadows.

Cathy is the protagonist but, in tune with Mulvey's theory, Frank pushes the narrative along. At the same time, the local magazine columnist and photographer snap photos of Cathy at home and abroad, surprising her. This too is a type of gaze, but it is a gaze on the surface image of the person, not the reality. Modern audiences sympathize with Cathy but at first may not relate to her because of her initial robotic, Stepford Wife personality. In other scenes, the white status quo characters gawk at Cathy as she speaks on a coeval basis with Raymond, and black characters stare at Raymond dancing with Cathy. Even in a state without legal segregation, the people do not rub elbows.

Mulvey's essay cites the concept of the buddy movie (p. 384), which dispenses with the problem of erotic contemplation in the characters by having homosexual eroticism of the central male figures carry the story without distraction. In Far From Heaven the "buddies" could be twofold: Cathy and Raymond, or Frank and his lover(s). Either way the homosexual relationships are not under the surface at all. Frank has more than one sexual encounter with men and eventually leaves his wife and children to be with a man and the film does not shy away from showing the encounters. Stacey, writing 15 years later, claims that gender and sexuality should be separated (p. 394). This is a more modern view and is slowly being adapted to the media depictions of people. Notice that Far From Heaven is a mainstream Hollywood film produced by Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney, and starring multiple major actors. It was not an underground art film.

The differences between Douglas Sirk in 1955, Mulvey in 1973, Stacey in 1988, and Todd Haynes in 2002, shows a clear progression of social views. Stacey's article references Desperately Seeking Susan, a possible homosexual buddy movie starring two women in which one is asked outright if she is a lesbian. An essay written in 2009 may be different still. On that note, what films about unconventional relationships could Mulvey have considered in 1973? I can cite two off the top of my head, neither of which are particularly controversial today: Guess Who's Coming to Dinner in 1967 and Harold and Maude in 1971. The most shocking thing about Guess Who's Coming to Dinner today is not that Sidney Poitier and Katharine Houghton are an interracial couple, it's that Poitier is 20 years older than his young fiancee. In Harold and Maude the age difference is closer to 60 years.

What is the significance of the role reversals in Far From Heaven? The film seems to be inspired by Douglas Sirk's 1955 film All That Heaven Allows. That movie starred Jane Wyman as an upper-class widow and Rock Hudson as her gardener, two people from opposite sides of the tracks. Hudson is now known to be a closeted gay star and he died of AIDS related illness in 1985. Todd Haynes is an openly gay director, and you can see why he was interested in "remaking" the 1955 film with race and sexuality as the themes rather than class differences. His sensibilities as a gay white man may present a different style than another director with a different background.

Far From Heaven functions as a parody of the stereotypical depiction of the post-WW2 ideal as seen in Leave it to Beaver and the Donna Reed Show. The most realistic, down to earth, and honest character in the film is Raymond. He graduated from college with a degree in business and is raising a daughter alone. He is the only character who not only knows direct hardship but he has faced it head on and is a better person for it. He is less sheltered and more worldly. The white residents of Hartford all seem to live in a little pampered bubble.


  1. Harold and Maude is my favorite movie! I don't find it all that controversial, but I get what you are saying with its mention.
    You did well encorporating all of the readings for the film.

  2. I noticed you mentioned Harold and Maude in your profile, which is what got me thinking about movies of that era.