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Far from Heaven****

Far from Heaven, directed by Todd Haynes, is a remarkably effective recreation of 1950s America as observed through the medium of a Douglas Sirk movie. The Sirk in question is his 1956 production All That Heaven Allows, starring Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson, the film that also supplied the inspiration for Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Ali--Fear Eats the Soul. Yet Far from Heaven shows what might be called the other side of Sirk, by touching upon a number of subjects that were generally taboo on the screen in those days, most conspicuously homosexuality and interracial romance. Not that the facts themselves were absent from the American scene--but they constituted a blind spot in what official cultural organs such as the movies or the media chose to see.

Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) and her husband Frank (Dennis Quaid) are a model couple living in an upscale Connecticut community in 1957. He has an executive position at a local firm, and she presides over a household replete with two lovable offspring that could have jumped out of the pages of Better Homes and Gardens. Unfortunately, Frank is a closeted gay whom she accidentally finds in the arms of another man when she pays an unexpected visit to the office one evening. Disoriented by her discovery, she seeks solace in the company of her black gardener, Raymond Deagen (Dennis Haysbert) whom she has already befriended. Their relationship hardly reaches the stage of a flirtation, but when she is seen in his company by a local gossip, the occurrence is enough to precipitate the latent racism in the community.

In the meantime, Frank agrees to undergo psychotherapy in hope of straightening out his sexuality. But this attempt fails after he meets an attractive young man when he and Cathy go to Florida for a New Year's vacation. At the end, Cathy and Frank are in the process of getting a divorce and Raymond decides to leave town after his daughter is attacked by some white boys. Cathy and Raymond see each other for one last time at the train station as he and his child are departing for Baltimore. In a conclusion far more reminiscent of Max Ophuls or Jacques Demy than Sirk, there is only the most remote glimmering of hope for the pair ever being reunited in a world that certainly is "Far from Heaven."

No one needs to have seen All That Heaven Allows--available on an excellent DVD from Criterion--to appreciate Far from Heaven. But it is worth noting some significant differences already implicit in the difference between their respective titles. In the older movie, Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) is a forty-ish widow who falls in love with her gardener, Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson), a Thoreau-reading hunk who is somewhat younger than she. What arouses the wrath of the community is not only the difference in class, although Kirby is a prosperous businessman and no mere hired hand, but also the impropriety of a widow consorting with a young stud--this is the USA in the 1950s, remember. Even for the Eisenhower years, All That Heaven Allows is very light stuff in comparison with a movie like Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause.

In his review of Far from Heaven in The Village Voice (11/6-12/02), J. Hoberman characterized All That Heaven Allows as "a sort of bourgeois Lady Chatterley's Lover." That seems a bit exaggerated to me, but sexual frustration lay at the root of many novels and plays of the period--it is only necessary to think of the stage hits of Tennessee Williams and William Inge. The year before the Sirk came out, a classier version of the same scenario, David Lean's Summertime, based upon a play by Arthur Laurents,  starring  Katherine Hepburn, had a huge success with both critics and the public. It would be more accurate to call All That Heaven Allows a bourgeois Summertime, with downtown USA taking the place of Venice, and a homegrown Rock Hudson substituting for the worldly Italian gigolo played by Rossano Brazzi.

But there the difference ceases. The moral of both movies is that what a lone older woman needs more than anything else is a good man in her bed. However, in Summertime, far more of a tear-jerker in this regard than All That Heaven Allows, the heroine has to nobly return home at the end of her summer vacation, with only the memory of her affair to keep her warm on cold nights. At least Cary got to keep Ron Kirby, unlike Hepburn's Jane Hudson, who had to give up Renato de Rossi. In the suffocating cultural and ideological atmosphere of those not so happy days, being unable to get laid could serve as a code for all of the repressed woes of the country. In the mid-1950s, only Norman Mailer in The Deer Park attempted to suggest some of the possible connections between sexual and political repression during the Cold War era.

Hardly less typical of the period is the struggle between conformity and individualism in All That Heaven Allows. Ron Kirby, that ardent admirer of Thoreau, is presented as an embodiment of rugged manhood who thinks for himself and leads his life as he pleases, without giving a damn for public opinion. But the actual price anyone paid for this kind of independence--particularly if the person was not a respectable white member of the community--was articulated in memorable lines a year or so later by Allen Ginsberg in his chant of lamentation for his own lost generation: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked...."

Ginsberg's Inferno is a far cry from Sirk's Technicolor® Paradiso, but not quite as distant from Haynes's Purgatorio. In content, the movie has less in common with Sirk's melodramas than it does with John Cheever's brilliant series of short stories set in the imaginary Connecticut suburb called Shady Hill. In the ironically titled "The Country Husband," the main character, Francis Weed, lusts after his teenage babysitter and dreams of giving up his executive job to lead a bohemian life in Europe. At the conclusion, however, Francis seeks help from a psychotherapist, and takes up woodworking as a way of resolving his existential Angst. Faced with ostracism and financial ruin, Francis capitulates to the powers that be.

In contrast to Cheever's protagonist, Cathy and Frank are accepting second best solutions to their problems less out of cowardice than from an inability to imagine anything better. Yet they do not deserve the blame for their unhappy condition. Where Sirk's characters often give the impression of being trapped in their multicolored heaven, Cathy and Frank are emphatically prisoners, prisoners of the time in which they live. Perceiving the discrepancy between the longings, themselves highly contradictory, of these two characters and the actual historical situation in which the couple find themselves, an audience today can only experience this discrepancy as irony.  Even in a friendlier environment, Cathy and Raymond could not easily settle down together, and Frank seems bound for a rocky future in his relationship with a younger man. Just as Cheever created his most impressive effects by subtly shifting the material of a typical John O'Hara short story, giving an often telling cultural relief to the situations, Haynes has done something quite similar in his film, adding a dimension totally absent in Sirk.   

I know Sirk's admirers--more numerous today than in the 1950s--will retort that his pictures are nothing but ironic. In my opinion, however, this is an optical illusion. The interview with Sirk that accompanies the DVD of All That Heaven Allows makes it clear that he intended the reference to Thoreau in the movie to be taken quite seriously. By contrast, in Far from Heaven the scene of a reception at an art gallery that features a shot of a Miró painting with a pack of shallow culture vultures lurking in the background functions much like the badly played Beethoven sonata that serves as a recurrent motif in "The Country Husband". In either case, nothing could clash more flagrantly with the cultural poverty of the milieu than these discrete allusions to an other than natural "outside". And that kind of irony is inconceivable in a Sirk movie.

I would not necessarily call Far from Heaven a "warm" film--that was much more Sirk's affair--but it regards its characters compassionately, without patronizing them. Haynes, no doubt keeping in mind Thoreau's famous dictum that most men lead lives of quite desperation, manages to steer an even course in his observation of middle class American mores. He never descends to the cheap caricatures of Sam Mendes' American Beauty or Neil LaBute's Your Friends and Neighbors, but neither does he succumb to the hard-nosed cynicism of Todd Solondz' Happiness. Most importantly,  he is aided by an excellent cast, headed by Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid.

Moore has justly received high praise for her performance as Cathy. God knows she is nearer to Katherine Hepburn in dramatic ability than the mediocre Jane Wyman! If I found Dennis Quaid only a little less impressive as Frank, it is because this is Cathy's story and not her husband's. Quaid is a very strong actor, who was quite good as the father in the misbegotten Frequency, and with his faint resemblance to Fred McMurray, he makes a perfect choice for this part. When he falteringly admits his love for another man to his wife towards the end of Far from Heaven, his cry of agony resounds with unadorned pathos since he has made the audience grasp how much it costs Frank to utter this confession.

Todd Haynes has always been a director with a strong sense of visuals--just think about the tribute to Jean Genet in Poison or the mise en scene in Velvet Goldmine--and he has a field day in this movie with the extravagantly kitschy interiors that passed for high style in the 1950s. And the gifted cinematographer Edward Lachmann has served him well with darkly saturated colors that at moments recall the hues of period processing by Metrocolor or Deluxe. But Haynes understands that what is at stake here is more than a decorative recreation of the past. Sirk's U-I spectacles are a depraved artistic vision; Haynes turns the very resources Sirk had employed in creating his false paradise against  the same material to reveal the walls of a prison which is no less one because the characters have contributed to building it themselves.

Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows and Todd Haynes's Poison, The Velvet Goldmine and Far from Heaven are available on DVD from Amazon.com

Production data courtesy of The Internet Movie Database

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