Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Auteurs #3: Todd Haynes



Coming from the new wave of gay cinema in the early 1990s. Todd Haynes helped re-define the world of gay culture in the early 1990s at a time when homosexuality wasn’t being told much in Hollywood. Though the openly-gay director would step out of the world of gay cinema later in his career. He would eventually become one of the most profound, independent voices in American cinema. In 2011, Haynes goes to television for a five-part, five-hour miniseries in his adaptation of James M. Cain’s 1941 novel Mildred Pierce. While a project about a woman trying to win the heart of her ungrateful daughter might seem like a very ambitious project. It works into Haynes’ repertoire as a provocative yet stylish auteur.

Born in Los Angeles on January 2, 1961, Haynes grew up into a world where a lot was happening in film and art. In 1978, Haynes would get his first taste into the world of film with a short called The Suicide that he produced while in high school. In 1985, Haynes was in Brown University to study semiotics where he was inspired by the works of the openly gay poet Arthur Rimbaud. As a thesis, he created a short film about Rimbaud and his relationship with Paul Verlaine called Assassins: A Film Concerning Rimbaud. The short would become part of Haynes’ exploration into famous figures as Rimbaud’s work later be revisited in Haynes’ 2007 film I’m Not There as it also featured an early appearance from Laura Linney as an extra.

After graduating from Brown and moving to New York City where he discovered the independent film movement there. During a tenure studying at Bard in the mid-1980s, Haynes would take the time to learn the trade of filmmaking. It would be at this time Haynes would start his first real short film that would give him some attention.



His 1987 short film about Karen Carpenter, the vocalist/drummer for the 1970s pop duo the Carpenters, was an eerie forty-three minute short about Carpenter’s battle with anorexia that led to her tragic 1983 death. Having Barbie dolls portray various characters including Karen. The film showed the group’s rise to success along with Karen’s struggle with maintaining a wholesome image and the expectations from her family.

When it was released through film festivals and art house theaters all over the U.S., the short grabbed a lot of attention including Richard Carpenter. Karen’s brother and the other half of the duo was upset by the film over its portrayal of his family and himself where Haynes insinuated that Richard Carpenter is gay. Because Haynes was unable to attain the rights to use the Carpenters’ music for his short film. Carpenter sued and won a lawsuit from having the film be barred from any public viewing. Though bootleg copies was available and eventually posted on the Internet. The film would prove to be a success for Haynes as the short would recall the themes of feminist repression, music culture, and homosexuality that he would explore in the years to come.



Based on the works of Jean Genet, Poison was a film in which Haynes took three of Genet’s stories into a film that would have Haynes explore his themes of repression and homosexuality. With the three sections each presented in different styles, Haynes devised an idea which defied traditional film narrative. Instead of showing each section as one standalone piece, he inter-cut all three sections into one entire piece.

Helping Haynes with this narrative approach is James Lyons who stars in the provocative yet confrontational Homo section of the film as a convict named Jack Bolton. Lyons was also at the time, Haynes’ boyfriend, as he would become one of Haynes’ key collaborators until his death in 2007 from HIV complications. Lyons served as editor along with Haynes where the two created a style that Haynes would later refine with 2007’s I’m Not There whom he would dedicated the film to Lyons. Another person that would be a key collaborator for Haynes is Christine Vachon who Haynes knew many years earlier. Vachon would help produce Haynes’ film as Poison would become their first collaboration.

With its three sections, the film was told in three different styles. The section of Hero was a cheesy TV documentary story about a strange boy who kills his abusive father and flies away. Horror was an ode to 1950s B-horror movies about a man who accidentally drinks an elixir that causes him to become a leprosy-ridden monster. In Homo, it’s a prison love story set in the 1950s about a man meeting another inmate whom he had known years earlier in a French prison. While Horror and Homo had strong narratives that each provided ideas of what was going on at the time. Hero was the weakest as it was the one with the least development and wasn’t engaging in comparison to the other stories.

When the film premiered at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival, it was considered to be a landmark film for the emerging New Queer Cinema as it won the festival’s top prize. Since the film was partially funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, the film also drew controversy from conservative figures including the Reverend Donald Wildmon on the American Family Association. Claiming that it promotes homosexuality and all sorts of accusation, the controversy didn’t hurt the film but rather helped it as it became a modest art house hit. Even as it helped raise Haynes’ profile.



The 1993 short film that was shown on PBS was a strange coming-of-age story about a shy six-year-old boy who is obsessed by a TV star named Dottie. His obsession has him drawing pictures of Dottie while becoming fascinated by the idea of spanking. A visit to the TV set where he won a contest to meet her has his obsession increased including a moment where he watches Dottie gets spanked.

Based on Haynes’ own childhood experiences watching I Love Lucy along with the days of growing up around that time. The short was a comedic film that had Haynes revisit the early 1960s while making fun at the world of late 1950s/early 1960s TV. Haynes also added surrealism to the short in the dream sequences of the short’s protagonist Steven (J. Evan Bonifant) where he’s a king in his dreams. For a short that is sort of about sadomasochism, it’s a strangely innocent short feature that allows Haynes to not only broaden his ideas. It would also set the course for the period films he would make in the years to come while proving he has a weird sense of humor.



For his 1995 sophomore feature-length film, Haynes would break away from his experiments along with his themes of sexuality for something different. Safe told the story about a 1980s Californian housewife whose idyllic life is changed by the moment she suffers multiple chemical sensitivity. In response, she becomes afraid of chemicals and eventually becomes sick. Then she is taken to a retreat to help her recover from her disease.

The film is told through a lot of detachment as Haynes shoots the film with his camera being distant from the film’s protagonist Carol White. Throughout the entire film, there is rarely a close-up of Carol until the end as she seems to look at herself for the very first time. Throughout the entire film, there are elements of fear and paranoia as there are references to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. Even as the film features backgrounds and images of the environmental issues that were happening in the late 1980s. While it’s a mostly serious yet provocative character study of a woman falling apart. It’s also a satire of sorts where by the third act, Carol goes a new age retreat where its headed by a guru who has a overly-loving tendency about how to deal with issues.

Playing the role of Carol White is Julianne Moore, who at the time was an actress on the rise with such appearances in mainstream films such as Chris Columbus’ Nine Months, Andrew Davis’ The Fugitive, and Curtis Hanson’s The Hand that Rocks the Cradle along with a memorable appearance in Robert Altman’s 1993 film Short Cuts. The film wouldn’t just mark as a breakthrough for Moore but it was also be the first collaboration Moore would have with Todd Haynes. Moore’s performance of a woman who is quite unremarkable as she is more concerned at first about the color of a couch as well as the routines she has in her life. By the time she becomes sick, there is something haunting about Moore’s performance from the way she reacts to a child sitting on her lap at a baby shower to how she looks with no makeup and carrying an oxygen tank with her.

Helping Haynes present his detached yet haunting vision of the film are editor James Lyons and cinematographer Alex Nepomniaschy. Lyons’ editing definitely creates a slow yet entrancing style that helps build to Carol’s sense of fear and eventual breakdown. Even as Nepominaschy camera creates a sci-fi like feel to the photography though it’s not a sci-fi feel that is truly complemented in the film’s opening credits sequence. Another element of the film that is truly memorable is Ed Tomney’s eerie, electronic score that is driven by a dense synthesizer that also adds a sci-fi element to the film. Notably for the fact that it plays up to Carol’s newfound sense of isolation and loss.

When it was released in the summer of 1995, the film drew massive critical acclaim and was a hit in the art house circuit. The film not only helped Julianne Moore’s rising film career but also gave director Todd Haynes a wider audience. Leaning away from gay cinema, it allowed Haynes a chance to take on new projects that would show what ambition he has.



If Safe was Haynes’ breakthrough as a filmmaker, his 1998 film Velvet Goldmine was a stylish misstep. Exploring the world of 1970s glam rock with the music of artists like David Bowie, Lou Reed, Marc Bolan, Roxy Music, Iggy Pop, and Brian Eno. Haynes wanted to create a film that played up the crazy days of glam rock while creating a story about a 1980s reporter revisiting his youth in the days of 1970s glam rock while profiling a glam rock singer named Brian Slade along with his relationship with proto-punk singer Curt Wild. The narrative was also inspired by the storyline of Orson Welles’ 1941 classic Citizen Kane while the film’s title was named after a David Bowie B-side.

The film had an amazing ensemble cast that included Christian Bale, Ewan McGregor, Toni Collette, Eddie Izzard, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Brian Slade. While many of the film’s narratives alluded to the influence of Oscar Wilde along with references of the rise of David Bowie in the world of glam. The film also had references to other individuals such as Lou Reed and Iggy Pop in the Curt Wild character while Eddie Izzard played a variation on Bowie’s 1970s manager Tony DeFries, and Toni Collette as Bowie’s 1970 wife Angela. With Bale as the reporter who is enamored by the world of glam in his youth only to repress it in the 1980s. It’s a film that had a very interesting story with some entertaining sequences as well as amazing musical performances from Meyers, McGregor, and a cameo appearance from the British band Placebo.

Though Haynes and co-writer/editor James Lyons had an idea that was interesting. Not everyone liked it by the time was to go into production. One person who got a chance to read Haynes and Lyons’ script was David Bowie in the hopes that Bowie would be involved with the project. Instead, Bowie disliked the script and in response, denied Haynes the permission to use his music. That forced Haynes to re-work ideas for the script as well as having to use other people’s music performed by other musicians such as members of Radiohead, Suede, Sonic Youth, and other acts including Roxy Music’s Andy Mackay and the Stooges’ Ron Asheton.

While the film was praised for its stylized take on glam as well as the music, it received criticism for its story. Though it would become a cult hit, the film didn’t do well in the box office. Even worse was that the film received its harshest criticism from people involved in the glam rock scene such as David Bowie, Lou Reed, photographer Mick Rock, members of the band Roxy Music, and other luminaries. 80s pop singer Boy George of Culture Club was also critical of the film claiming it was an insult of his youth. A lot of the criticism felt Haynes exaggerated a lot of the things that happened including an orgy scene with gay and straight lovers. Despite the criticism, it was another exploration of Haynes’ fascination with pop culture icons and music scenes that would he later refine years later.



After a break from the disappointing reaction of Velvet Goldmine, Haynes decided to go back into his themes of repression. This time around, he sought inspiration from the films of Douglas Sirk. Sirk’s films of the 1950s were filled with melodrama, lush colors, and stories of unrequited love. After moving from New York City to Portland in 2000, Haynes was working on two projects. One of which he would do later on as the other project inspired by Sirk would be his next film called Far from Heaven.

Re-teaming with Safe’s Julianne Moore in the lead as Cathy Whitaker, the film is set in the 1950s as it’s about the idyllic wife of a New England’s housewife is shattered by her husband’s homosexual tendencies. With her husband dealing with his supposed homosexuality, Cathy becomes infatuated with her new, African-American gardener named Raymond who possesses a warmth that Cathy is gravitated to. The film also starred Dennis Quaid as Moore’s husband Frank, Dennis Haysbert as gardener Raymond, Viola Davis as Cathy’s maid Sybil, and Patricia Clarkson as Cathy’s best friend Eleanor.

With Edward Lachman providing the film’s colorful, lush cinematography that pays true to the lushness of Sirk’s films. Elmer Bernstein also provided the film’s sweeping score that plays to the melodrama. In look, the film was truly extraordinary while the story was also something that was unconventional and daring. Even as it carried themes that were considered taboo like homosexuality and interracial romance. While Haynes admitted that he was influenced by Sirk for the film’s look, he also went to the dramatic works of controversial German director Rainier Werner Fassbinder as an influence for the film. Yet, it is presented in a dramatic fashion as Haynes’ direction suddenly showed a newfound maturity for a director known for being very radical.

The film received four Oscar nominations including a Best Actress nomination for Julianne Moore. The film also drew the best review of Haynes’ career as he also received accolades from various critics awards including the New York City Film Critics awards. The film proved to be a massive success for Haynes as he would take a five-year break from the scene to work on his next project.



The success of Far from Heaven allowed Todd Haynes to take on any project, Haynes chose to go back to the route of famous musical figures. This time around, his next project would be an ambitious yet experimental project about Bob Dylan. In 2000, Haynes moved to Portland, Oregon on a cross-country road trip from NYC to Portland where his soundtrack was Bob Dylan. Knowing that a project about Dylan would be difficult and Dylan not easy to contact. Haynes contacted Dylan’s son and fellow filmmaker Jesse Dylan and Dylan’s manager about the project. This proposal that Haynes had was finally delivered to Dylan as Dylan through his manager gave Haynes absolute approval to do the project.

Named after a famous bootlegged song from The Basement Tapes sessions, I’m Not There was a radical project that had six actors play different personas of Bob Dylan. With the name of Dylan not mentioned throughout the project, Haynes had a cast of actors with varied different backgrounds to play the personas of Dylan. For the pre-fame Dylan named after folk singer Woody Guthrie, Haynes chose a young African-American child actor named Marcus Carl Franklin to play the role that was based on exaggerations. For the dual rule of folk-era Dylan Jack Rollins and the late 1970s Christian-era Dylan named Pastor John, Christian Bale of Velvet Goldmine was to play the role.

Others who were brought to the film included young British actor Ben Whishaw as a character named Arthur Rimbaud who is based on a variation of Dylan from an infamous interview where he said inane things. Heath Ledger played an actor named Robbie Clark that chronicled Dylan’s personal life and relationships with women. Richard Gere played an aging Dylan named Billy the Kid lost in the world of Americana. The last person to play a Dylan variation is Cate Blanchett as the androgynous Jude Quinn, the electric-era Dylan.

Also featuring Haynes regular Julianne Moore along with Charlotte Gainsbourg, Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, and David Cross as Allen Ginsberg. The project was the antithesis of music bio-pics as it had an extremely unconventional narrative. Even as the music bio-pic was becoming clich├ęd in formula by 2007. The film was to be released with a Judd Apatow-produced music bio-pic parody coming out called Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story that also made fun of Bob Dylan. The film did receive positive reviews and modest box office while some critics felt the film was too unconventional. Yet, it drew a great reception from fans of Dylan who felt it was the definitive bio-pic about Bob Dylan.



During his time after the release and promotion of I’m Not There, Haynes became interested in another project that was an allegory to economic problems in the U.S. It was in James M. Cain’s novel Mildred Pierce about a woman in the Great Depression trying to fend for herself in order to raise her two daughters. Eventually succeeding and opening a restaurant, she finds love while having trying to earn the love of her narcissistic, selfish daughter Veda. Haynes felt the story was true to what was happening with economic issues of the late 2000s as he chose the story for his next project.

Though a version of Mildred Pierce was made back in 1945 by Michael Curtiz as a noir-like melodrama that won Joan Crawford an Oscar for Best Actress as the title character. Haynes’ approach was going to be far different as he and producer Christine Vachon went to HBO to make it into a five-part miniseries starring Kate Winslet as Mildred Pierce. At nearly six hours, Haynes’ take on Cain’s novel is closer to the book than Curtiz’s film while Haynes brings in a 1970s cinematic approach to the film. With a cast that also includes Guy Pearce, Brian F. O’Byrne, Mare Winningham, Melissa Leo, Hope Davis, and in the role of Veda Pierce, Morgan Turner and Evan Rachel Wood.

Haynes’ approach to the story has Mildred Pierce often looking out at something to not only her isolation but also in being detached to the world through the progression of her character. She starts out as a housewife who loses her husband by infidelity and becomes a waitress to take care of her two kids. Then, she becomes a success by creating her own chain of restaurants despite the tragedy she would endure early in the miniseries. While the character of Mildred would be successful, she would also encounter heartbreak and betrayal. Notably from her daughter Veda as the ambitious, ungrateful young woman would create drama and heartbreak for Mildred as it would eventually lead to an emotional confrontation.

The miniseries is definitely Haynes taking the ambition he had from Far from Heaven and I’m Not There while centering it on this woman and her tumultuous relationship with her daughter. While it is more than five hours, it allows Haynes to delve into the story and the characters from 1931 to 1940. Notably in the way he portrays the period with some realism but also give it an old-school Hollywood feel. The project proves that Haynes can create something that is ambitious but also play around his themes while adding ambiguity to a story as broad as Mildred Pierce.

Additional Projects


Aside from features and short films that Haynes has directed in his career. He’s also been involved as a producer as he’s helped fund projects for the films of Kelly Reichardt while serving as an executive producer for the 2005 Sundance-award winning film Quinceanera. Still, the projects Haynes has directed outside of film work has been diverse. Among them is a video for the song Disappearer for the legendary alternative rock band Sonic Youth in 1990. The video features images of people peeling off hair from their faces along with members of the band driving around with clips of them performing. The video would mark a relationship with Haynes and the band as they would contribute music for Haynes’ films like Velvet Goldmine and I’m Not There where they did a cover of the latter.


While commercials might not seem like a cool idea for anyone that’s an auteur. Yet, it helps pay the bills as Haynes directed a commercial for Heineken beer with its Share the Good campaign. The ad has people pass the beer along to other individuals as an act of love. With people of various different cultures and ideals going from one place to another to share in the joy of Heineken is not only filled with different sets and places. It also has a catchy song by Chris Knox as it’s one of the most entertaining beer commercials ever presented.


While Todd Haynes has no upcoming projects in the works at the moment, he’s already created a library of films that has made one of American cinema’s revered auteurs. Whether it’s taking on a period piece in the 1930s or 1950s, exploring the music world of glam rock, 70s pop, or folk music. He’s always doing something very different while giving voice to people who don’t fit in to a certain part of society or just rebel what is happening. Whatever project Todd Haynes will do next will surely anticipated as the projects he’s made as he is currently one of the best living film directors working today.

© thevoid99 2011

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