Todd Haynes's films are intricate and purposeful, combining the intellectual impact of art cinema with the emotional accessibility of popular genres. They are also underpinned by a serious commitment to feminism and queer theory. From his 1985 student film about Arthur Rimbaud to his shapeshifting portrait of Bob Dylan in I'm Not There (2007) and the riveting HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce (2011), Haynes has made films whose complex weave of stories and characters reveals dark, painful intensities. His taste for narrative experimentation and pastiche is haunted by anguish.
Rob White's highly readable book, which includes a major new interview with Haynes, is the first comprehensive study of the director's work. Special attention is paid to the fascination with music culture (from the Carpenters to glam rock) and to the rich pattern of allusions to, or affinity with, predecessor filmmakers (Fassbinder, Ophuls, Sirk, and many more). But White's chief concern is the persistence of a queer impulse to explore social coercion and the possibility that there may be some way of escaping its cruelty.
About the Author
Rob White, the editor of Film Quarterly, is the author of Freud's Memory: Psychoanalysis, Mourning and the Foreign Body and the BFI Film Classics study on The Third Man.
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By Rob White
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 2013 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Misery the World Is Made Of
The Cinema of Todd Haynes
There are moments in Todd Haynes's films when someone is so unnerved that it is difficult to imagine that any good can come from the experience. In Safe (1995), Carol White (Julianne Moore) is suddenly distressed while she is talking to her husband: "Oh God, what is this? Where am I? Right now?" It is as if she feels that there is almost nothing left of her as a result of psychic erosion she never knew was occurring. Then, in the five-part miniseries Mildred Pierce (2011), the title character played by Kate Winslet is overcome while she listens to her estranged daughtera piercing, quicksilver coloratura soprano on the cusp of famesinging an aria by Delibes on the radio. Mildred's face is seized by an expression that first looks like shock and then looks like frozen desperation. After a few moments of glaciation she stumbles away to a jetty nearby, and it is not clear as she stands above the ocean, struggling to breathe, whether the sound of the broadcast that has hurt so much can even still reach her.
Carol and Mildred are less than they seem. There is something empty about them, an I'm-not-there-ness. They are not safe. In certain circumstances, unprotected, they are more like shadows or ghosts, and their evanescence is linked to Haynes's resistance to naturalism. Far from Heaven (2002) is a tapestry woven from the threads of other filmsstrands of dialogue, character, mise-en-scèneand even briefly ornamented, he explains during the DVD commentary, by an actual piece of scenery from Douglas Sirk's melodrama Written on the Wind (1956). Far from Heaven's environment is a patchwork world, with no true identity. Since it is socially regimented and hostile too, the film realm might just as well be called an ingenious dungeon. "I have the impression we are all in prison" (80), wrote the theorist Guy Hocquenghem in his 1973 text The Screwball Asses, and Far from Heaven conveys something similar, strange though it may seem, given that the setting is Connecticut in 195758.
One of the ways in which Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1988) violates realistic conventions, apart from using dolls instead of actors, is to have image formats crash together within a single shot, as when a refilmed television clip almost devours another scene of psychic meltdown, this time involving the anorexic singer who has left an oppressive family home only to be even more tormented on her own. Such stylizations depict a whole world of pain, and in my understanding of Haynes's harrowing films, some good does come out of the portrayalif a sense of how much is wrong can be called good.
Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story
Haynes got there first, unofficially, but The Karen Carpenter Story is also the title of a 1989 TV movie directed by Joseph Sargeant, first broadcast by CBS. After "Rainy Days and Mondays" plays over images of a memento wall of Carpenters photos (altered to contain the faces of the film's actors), a cut reveals the body of Karen (Cynthia Gibb) being attended by medics. A creepy scene at the hospital ensues: the gurney carrying her is a passed by a roller skater, who turns out to be the singer as a teenager, magically transported into the future. She looks down mildly at her dying older self before skating off back to 1960s California, where the main narrative begins. In a later scene, the Carpenter matriarch Agnes (Louise Fletcher) tells a therapist that she does not "put much stock in this psychiatry business," and it makes sense that the TV film doubles Karen in the hospital: it is a way of getting at the idea that she was broken in some way without suggesting either psychic split or damaging home environment.
Richard Carpenter, Karen's brother and bandmate, was the executive producer (and the Internet Movie Database names him as uncredited codirector) of Sargeant's film, and it reflects the family's stance that Karen's death was either genetic or inexplicable. Writing for TV Guide in 1988, Richard stated: "She would have suffered the same problem even if she were a homemaker." And elsewhere: "I have no answers. People have been trying to get that out of me. If I had it, I'd give it" (qtd. in Schmidt 78). Interviewed by Richard Dyer at London's Tate Modern on June 4, 2004, Haynes explained Superstar as a challenge to this vague orthodoxy: "We wanted to redeem Karen Carpenter's image and felt that she was a victim of not only an eating disorder, but an incredibly ... invasive family drama.... Even in death she was still being controlled by her family ... and it just seemed like there was no escape, and we wanted to do our little movie out of a desire to make you cry for Karen."
If different ways of posthumously telling the late superstar's story involve a clash between family values and psychological traumabetween roller skates and gurneythen the former wins out in The Karen Carpenter Story. A telling scene occurs just after Karen has admitted her fantasy of family to Richard (Mitchell Anderson). ("I'm gonna find somebody who just wants me," she murmurs. "I can just see it now. I'll have the cottage in Connecticut, and the station wagon and the kids, and my husband will wear those plaid flannel shirts.") It is summer 1974: the siblings visit the house they have bought for their parents before Karen announces, to Agnes's dismay, that she will not be moving into the room Agnes has prepared for her. Her usually taciturn father, Harold (Peter Michael Goetz), replies: "I think if you took a look at the room your mother fixed up for you, you'll find there aren't any bars on the window." Imprisonment (and worse) is, however, precisely what Superstar insists on.
The Carpenters' music itself complicates these matters, especially when it combines frustrated romantic yearning with jubilant instrumentation. The epitome of this uneasy mix is "Goodbye to Love," composed by Richard, who was inspired by a song that is named but never heard in the Bing Crosby film Rhythm on the River (dir. Victor Schertzinger, 1940), together with John Bettis. It is an early instance of a pop power ballad and the first to include ecstatic "fuzztone" guitar solos (by Tony Peluso). "Goodbye to Love," true to its title, professes (with a hint of Christian piety) the abandonment of Eros, but it is an assertive abandonment in which forsaking becomes a perverse form of companionship that is cherished not only in the lyrics"Loneliness and empty days will be my only friend"but also in Karen's singing, which builds in energy until, ushered in by celebratory backing vocals, the distorted electric guitar realizes the underlying exultation ... as if this were after all a love song and not a renunciation song. Given its triumphalism, does "Goodbye to Love" truly relinquish desire, as its words purport? Better to say that the erotic abstinence is itself tragically passionate.
"Goodbye to Love" suggests not an absence but a crisis of desireand thus implies the anorexia nervosa that would kill Karen. "Anorexia" means "without appetite," but what is involved in the illness is a fierce and sometimes unstoppable dedication, an addiction, a tormented appetite for appetitelessness, not any feeble habit of omission. Since Richard constructed the Carpenters' music, it might be tempting to imagine a form of sibling rivalry and make a distinction between his flamboyant musical arrangements and Karen's vocal melancholy, between extravagance and sadness, but it was Karen who lived out the entire ardent drama of renunciation to a fatal limit.
It is February 4, 1983 (according to a title card), and Karen is found by her mother sprawled on the carpet: "Karen! Oh GodHARRY!! Harryit's Karen! Oh God ... HARRY!!" Agnes's desperate cries repetitively stitch the names together just at the moment when the family has been torn apart. With a menacingly slow touch of pastiche in his voice, an offscreen male narrator intervenes: "What happened? Why, at the age of thirty-two, was this smooth-voiced girl from Downey, California, who led a raucous nation smoothly into the seventies, found dead in her parents' home?" Mixing up the mode of sensationalist TV documentary with the flashback storytelling of such classical Hollywood crime films as Mildred Pierce (1945) and Sunset Blvd.(1950"Let's go back about six months and find the day when it all started"), which both open with murder scenes, Haynes's narrator summons the story away from the corpse and into the past"Let's go back, back to southern California, where Karen and Richard grew up"and as he does so, the dead singer's yearning voice rises up with its own agenda of reminiscence.
"Long ago, and oh so far away," she sings in a fragment of "Superstar," as the opening titles appear over a traveling shot of suburban homes. This song, originally entitled "Groupie," was written by Leon Russell and Bonnie Bramlett and first performed by Rita Coolidge (and later Bette Midler): a groupie listens to the radio, hears music by the rock star she has spent a night with, and longs to "sleep with" him again. In the Carpenters' version, the chart-friendly "be with you again" is substituted for "sleep with you again"; bouncy layers of backing vocals and even trumpets reinforce the makeover. The sexual frankness is, in an ordinary showbiz way, censoredagain renounced. But this time, especially in the song's intro (oboe, strings, French horns) and the way Karen sings the plaintive first verse, a profound desolation and sorrow can be heard, without any trace of euphoria or dutifulness, the exhausted sadness of someone who has drifted far out to sea and can only look in despair at the faint lights of human habitation on shore that she will never get back to.
Superstar recounts the Carpenters' stellar career in snappy scenes and mini-music-video montages. Hearing Karen singing to herself at home one day, it is Agnes who suggests to the more precociously musical Richard that his sister would make the perfect bandmate. The duo is soon signed to A&M: "You kids are young and fresh, and it'll just be up to us to make young and fresh a happening thing." As it proceeds, punctuated by voiceovers from the lugubrious male heard at the beginning and then a second, female narrator, Superstar intersperses such sitcom-like accelerated storytelling with more title cards that parody health-information campaigns, flashes of archival footage, and jokey talking-head commentary. The way the scene in the record-company office continues is typical of the film's stylistic amalgam. The character called Mr. A&M (Herb Alpert, the label's cofounder, signed the group) closes the deal by saying, "All you have to do is put yourself in my hands." Then, as the script puts it, "Music and intercutting between KAREN and MR. A&M build as a shadowy, slow-motion close-up of a human hand moving ominously toward a handshake takes over his final line." The sound track turns sinister again as the storytelling yields to nonnarrative imagery: the character's trust-me speech is slowed and distorted before a woman's screaming takes over as the grisly, disembodied hand points the way to a "black-and-white Holocaust image of an emaciated female carcass being thrown into a pit." Again horror intrudes, suddenly revealing a terrible dimension adjoining the lighthearted biopic episodes. A lengthy card borrows from radical feminist theory's account of the cruelty of both psychic and domestic interiority: "As we investigate the story of Karen Carpenter's life and death we are presented with an extremely graphic picture of the internal experience of contemporary femininity. We will see how Karen's visibility as a popular singer only intensified certain difficulties many women experience in relation to their bodies."
Fame and success follow swiftly for the siblings: hits, TV appearances, awards. The narrator situates the group's astonishing career (by 1981, A&M had sold seventy-nine million Carpenters singles and LPs) in terms of its feel-good repudiation of youth rebellion: "The year is 1970, and suddenly the nation finds itself asking the question: what if, instead of the riots and assassinations, the protests and the drugs, instead of the angry words and hard-rock sounds, we were to hear something soft and smooth, and see something of wholesomeness and easy-handed faith." It is a time of triumph and celebrity, but the horizon darkens as Karen begins to obsess about her appearance. "You have just been so fanatical about your weight," Agnes says. "I just want to start watching what I eat," Karen replies. Karen eats less and less, and starts using laxatives to slim down. In 1973 the Carpenters sing for Richard Nixon at the White House.
Various personages, including the DJ Todd Donovan (played in wrap-around sunglasses by Haynes), debate the group's music in another interlude. A card notes Karen's friendship with such luminaries as Dionne Warwick and Olivia Newton-John, but adds: "It was the inner relationship with herself that dominated Karen's life." Richard implores her to eat more during a tour, but she is oblivious. More cards theorize the existence of "a complex internal apparatus of resistance and control," propounding a catastrophic dramaturgy of anorexia: "an addiction and abuse of self-control, a fascism over the body in which the sufferer plays the parts of both dictator and the emaciated victim." The world war inside Karen is reaching a crisis. One day in Las Vegas, Richard finds her passed out in her dressing room. He berates her"What are you trying to do, ruin both our careers?"and she starts to cry. Later, Karen collapses onstage. She wakes up in the hospital.
Nearing her twenty-fifth birthday, having apparently recovered, Karen announces to her reluctant parents that she is moving to a condo in Century City. She holds a housewarming party and proudly shows off her huge TV set, but in the next scene Richard furiously confronts her when he finds laxatives again. Karen counters calmly and mysteriously: "I'll tell ... about you and yourprivate life!"
When she is home alone later, hallucinatory hectoring voices overwhelm her. The camera work is jittery, stoned; "Superstar" can be heard again, but its miserable words are muffled and distorted now, as if emanating from behind the wall of a padded cell. Karen's condo has become a haunted, alien home, not the refuge she hoped it would be. The disintegrating vocal also loops back on itself: "Long ago, and oh so far away" echoes again, the song unable to move forward, as if it were itself stuck in a room, lost in darkness and limbo time. Karen stumbles, filmed from a low angle, while the visuals fragment deliriously and chaotically. Superstar is nothing other than a horror film now. An infestation of what the script calls "strange, belated images" crowds out Karen from the screen. She is thus eaten away audiovisuallyas a protagonist, she no longer holds her own against the onslaught of clips. Replicating the way the contorted singing repeats, these invading imagesa plate with food that looks like a fluorescent bacillus, a doll-spanking scene shot from above, bodies falling or being dragged, a Partridge Family performance, and another screen showing only jagged electronic feedbackrecur to increase the impression of trauma and fracture.
In the middle of this nightmare montage, Karen sits ... eating. Behind her, huge, is that same wholesome TV dance routine. It is not playing on the trophy set in the corner but fills the whole background in the fashion of a cinematic rear projection. Indicative of Superstar's whole approach, a clip that should epitomize family-friendly pop culture becomes a monstrous threat; the rescaled TV set is transformed from a square of entertainment in the corner of a room to an outsized vortex devouring domestic space, as if the side of the apartment had been silently ripped off without Karen noticing it to reveal an encroaching parallel universe out of The Time Tunnel or Poltergeist (dir. Tobe Hooper, 1982). Simultaneously a chorus of persecution builds: "What are you doing with these? ... I was constipated.... Oh, you LIAR! ... Why can't she find a nice place in Downey? Why does she have to be out in the middle of ...? All you have to do is put yourself in my hands.... You have just been so fanatical about your weight.... All you ever eat is salad and iced tea.... What are you trying to do, ruin both our careers? ... That thing really went to your head.... Do the Carpenters have something to hide?" The voices of Agnes, Richard, and Mr. A&M knot together in a clamor. Karen has become a kind of ventriloquists' dummy, a host for treacherous parasitic voices; much of the pathos of Superstar has to do with the idea that the Karen who might have been able to voice reasons, griefs, and sorrows had begun disappearing long ago, even before she started to starve her flesh away. There is a subjective as well as a corporeal erosion, and what is eaten away makes space for these rattling fragments of other people's opinions, taunts, and demands. They blow through this nightmare room like the wind through motheaten cloth.
Excerpted from Todd Haynes by Rob White Copyright © 2013 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
The Misery the World is Made of: The Cinema of Todd Haynes 1
Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story 3
Dottie Gets Spanked 34
Velvet Goldmine 57
Far from Heaven 74
I'm Not There 92
Mildred Pierce 106
Interview with Todd Haynes 131