Magazine article The Christian Century

Trapped in the '50S. (Film)

Magazine article The Christian Century

Trapped in the '50S. (Film)

Article excerpt

TO UNDERSTAND and appreciate the revisionist genius behind Far from Heaven, directed by Todd Haynes, one needs to appreciate the cinematic impact of Douglas Sirk (1900-1987), a director whose jaundiced view of American life played out in a series of films in the 1950s that have been rightly celebrated for their panache.

Born in Denmark, Sirk moved to Germany as a teenager, and eventually became an accomplished stage director. Movies followed, and he was on his way to a successful film career when the Nazis came to power. Sirk had always been left-leaning in his politics, and since his second wife was Jewish, he left, eventually landing in the U.S.

His American career proved successful (not, at first, with the critics), but he never was able to get over his sense that something was not quite right in this country. He came to regard America as morally complacent, inclined to ignore its developing class system, its racism and sexism, and its penchant for greed. He returned to Germany in the early 1960s.

Sirk's best-known films are All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Written on the Wind (1956), which use screaming Technicolor, arched production design, ornate costumes and lush music to tell sparkling tales of moral ambiguity and personal deceit. These and other Sirk films were sometimes called "women's pictures" or "domestic melodramas." They often involved men who are living a lie and women deeply trapped by social roles--so trapped it takes a major shock to make them realize just how isolated and unhappy they are.

Haynes, 41, goes far beyond merely adopting Sirk's visual style and storytelling technique. If that's all he wanted to do, it would have been easier, cheaper and a lot more fun to set a Sirk-style tale in 2002. Rather, he goes back to the 1950s to dig a bit deeper into the issues that easily might have surrounded and stifled characters of that era. And by borrowing the cinematic consciousness of an earlier generation, he is able to merge the idea and the technique until it is impossible to separate the message from the messenger, the style from the story. In other words, by telling the tale through the prism of Sirk he is commenting not only on the perpetrators of the emotional crimes but also on us, the passive and fearful onlookers.

Julianne Moore (who also starred in Haynes's Safe) plays Cathy Whitaker, a seemingly content and upwardly mobile Connecticut housewife with a cheery smile, a fabulous wardrobe, a lovely home, a black maid, two obedient children and, best of all, a handsome and successful husband named Frank (Dennis Quaid). …

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