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Essay

Backstory: Running in Sirk-les

“It was a simpler time” rings the mantra of the Greatest Generation when reflecting upon the American 1950s.  Enshrined in our memories by iconic shows like “Leave it to Beaver” and “I Love Lucy,” the 1950s housewife has assumed an almost mythical presence in our cultural consciousness, lamenting an easier time of economic prosperity when neighbors greeted one another in their driveways, kids played stickball in the streets till dusk and the idyllic June Cleaver eagerly awaited her husband’s return from work with a plate of piping hot dinner in her carefully manicured hand. 

When Todd Haynes took up the mantle of the iconic Hollywood Technicolor classics of the 1950s in Far From Heaven, he did so with an acute awareness of the fetishism that accompanies this period in American history.  In his 2002 homage to Douglas Sirk’s 1955 classic All That Heaven Allows, Haynes carefully reconstructed the melodramatic structure of the original, meticulously recreating not only the period’s signature speech cadences, but also the lush lighting and decadent costumes cherished in old Hollywood.

Set pointedly in 1957, the same year that Little Rock, Arkansas made headlines throughout the United States, Far From Heaven delves into the societal unrest beneath the carefully manicured surface.  While Sirk’s leading lady faced high society scrutiny over her affair with her socially inferior gardener, Haynes chose to explore issues surrounding homosexuality and race through his heroine, Cathy Whitaker, caught between a sexless marriage with her closeted husband and an emotional entanglement with her black gardener.   

From the first sweeping shot of suburban Connecticut in Haynes’ film, his mirroring of Sirk’s style in undeniable.  While Haynes attests that his opening iconic images are not frame-by-frame reproductions, he successfully employs Sirk’s signature angles and color palette to explore the careening emotionality within his subjects.  From the soft fades-in to the saturated and lush colors that explode off the screen, it’s impossible not to feel Sirk’s presence in every frame.  Despite a “mere” $14 million budget, Haynes talked about his desire for “just one Technicolor print” from the movie that would capture Sirk’s essence, toiling for weeks with his team to establish the broad colorful spectrum of the Whitakers’ world. For Haynes, it was crucial that the colors be as lush and adventurous as the original ’50s melodramas to create a story that “refuses a lot of familiar narrative touchstones and contemporary codes of naturalism,” allowing for “a completely synthetic language that comes directly out of the world of film.”  

It is with this reverence that Haynes approached the seemingly superficial language of the film: “it’s all on the surface in a way that we’re not accustomed to in our naturalistic codes of acting today.”  Instead, Haynes’ stylized language frees his characters from verbally summarizing their emotions or situations allowing the lighting and music to speak for themselves, imploring viewers to draw their own conclusions.  In this manner, the flat archetypes that we associate with the 1950s are given new vitality, their rigid language masking worlds of emotions that we are finally able to access.

Amy Taylor Rosenblum, Musical Theater Resident
February, 2012