Melodrama, Sickness, and Paranoia: Todd Haynes and the Woman's Film

By Belau, Linda; Cameron, Ed | Film & History, Winter 2016 | Go to article overview

Melodrama, Sickness, and Paranoia: Todd Haynes and the Woman's Film


Belau, Linda, Cameron, Ed, Film & History


Filmmaker Todd Haynes has claimed that his films do not create cultural artifacts so much as appropriate and recombine the ones that audiences think they already know (MacDonald 2009, 57). This approach seems particularly true of the films in which Haynes puts the woman at the center of a melodrama--the genre traditionally associated with feminine sensibilities. (1) He self-consciously returns to generic touchstones like Mildred Pierce and Far From Heaven, for example, to explore the effects of the Motion Picture Production Code prohibitions and the paternal authority on which the classical woman's film relied (Superstar and Safe). (2) How many of the familiar tropes of the "woman's film" have made their way into today's film culture? What anxieties persist in a genre that now has so much appeal precisely for its liberation from yesterday's film culture?

According to Mary Ann Doane, the classical woman's film is beset culturally by the problem of a woman's desire (a subject famously explored by writers like Simone de Beauvoir, Julia Kristeva, Helene Cixous, and Laura Mulvey). What can a woman want? Doane explains that filmic conventions of the period, not least the Hays Code restrictions, prevented "such an exploration," leaving repressed material to emerge only indirectly, in "stress points" and "perturbations" within the film's mise en scene (Doane 1987, 13). Thus, Doane advocates what she calls a symptomatic reading of the classical woman's film in order not only to recover the repressed narrative content but also to reveal the patriarchal formal mechanism by which the classical Hollywood discourse "wishes ... not to think" (Doane 1978, 44).

In that spirit, Haynes re-works the classical woman's film to express the return of repressed feminine desire--and anxiety--that had been concealed by the Hays Code in service to an essentially masculine experience of cinema. He sets out to remake the very subgroups Doane describes as traditionally feminine--the maternal melodrama, the love story, the medical-discourse film, and the paranoiac narrative--in order to articulate the limits of this classical form (Doane 1987, 36). With his recent HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce, for example, Haynes has managed to create a fractious maternal melodrama that could not have been produced at the time of the original film. With Far From Heaven, Haynes updates the woman's love story in a manner that could only be implied in Douglas Sirk's melodramas of the 1950s. Likewise, Superstar and Safe present Haynes's original offerings of the traditional medical-discourse film and the paranoiac narrative, respectively. Because the former two films are technically re-makes of classical woman's films, even set in the original historical period, they can best be understood as Haynes's post-Code "recombinations" of the classical Hollywood woman's film, dismantling the paternal metaphor that anchors it. The latter two radically update the genre to express the malaise that is symptomatic of the contemporary era, an era in which the fading of the paternal order and the accompanying loosening of repression, which were not characteristic of the Classical era, are now the norm. Through this interpretive framework, Haynes's woman's films move beyond the postmodern pastiche and into systematic cultural and aesthetic critique.

Mildred Pierce and the Maternal Melodrama

Typical of post-classical, post-Code cinema, Haynes's 2011 HBO adaptation of Mildred Pierce is able to show more or less directly not only what happens throughout the entirety of James M. Cain's novel but what obviously had to be avoided in Warner Brothers' 1945 original cinematic adaptation. Cain was regarded as one of the "most cinematic of novelists," honing his skill while living in Los Angeles and working for Paramount and, later, for Columbia Pictures as a script assessor (Schwerz 2011, 88). But, as novelist, he had license to describe the parts of stories the movies could not depict. …

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