The Time Is Now

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The suburbs became as important to American cinema after World War II as they were to land developers, spawning what now looks like a whole film genre. Though the '50s and early '60s appear to be a period of cinematic celebration of suburbia, a few films, such as those of Douglas Sirk, employed subterfuge to express criticism of the suburban mentality.

From the late '60s onward, however, Hollywood took off its gloves and began to overtly question the conformist and the isolationist nature of tract-lot life. Films like The Stepford Wives and Smile (both 1975) sent up the soullessness behind the burbs' cheerful facades, finally reaching apotheosis with David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986). More recent tours, including The Ice Storm, American Beauty and the overlooked Pleasantville, penetrate further into this heart of American darkness.

Portland director Todd Haynes has often found inspiration in his own suburban upbringing in L.A. From the grainy images of neat houses in Superstar to the noxious house of Safe (one of the great films of the American dystopia), Haynes explores the cultural cul-de-sac of our times. With his latest, Far From Heaven, he makes a return to the very beginning of the suburbs' ascendancy.

A crane shot of a New England town framed through dying leaves. Lush orchestration backs the opening credits, swelling at the title's introduction. A vertical pan to the town's streets reveals (through the sartorial elegance of the populace and the voluptuous build of their cars) the landscape of the 1950s. So begins Haynes' film, as well as Sirk's All That Heaven Allows (1955), which Haynes used as his template.

Long dismissed as a hack of melodramas, Sirk is now honored for his painterly control of light and composition, as well as for the subversive irony running through his films. Haynes attempts a complete return to Sirk's lost Eisenhowerite world of formican conformity and silent desperation. It's a world of sheen and surfaces where women armored with smiles and beefy men sausaged in gray flannel are condemned to a diet of dry martinis and to the dry beds of their relationships.

In Far From Heaven, Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) is the seemingly contented wife of advertising executive Frank (Dennis Quaid). Frank is the genius behind popularizing Magnatech television sets--he's so successful that he and Cathy are referred to as "Mr. and Mrs. Magnatech" by their friends and neighbors.

Frank seems driven by his job, often getting home late. Soon it comes out that what keeps Frank out is his cruising for queer sex. When Cathy discovers the truth, she finds herself drawn to and befriended by an African-American gardener, Raymond (Dennis Haysbert). The two soon form a bond that stokes local gossip. Things eventually fall apart, leaving all three stranded in unknown emotional territory.

As in Sirk's All That Heaven Allows, Far From Heaven's theme is repression. But Sirk expressed the subject indirectly, as the age demanded discretion. Throughout Sirk's sagas are trenchant criticisms of class, convention, racism and materialism, but they lie just under the glossy surface. Haynes is free, however, to tackle repression full on, as in a scene where Frank's nocturnal quest for affection takes him to a darkened balcony of a cinema. Quaid lingers nervously around the foyer more as a voyeur. But after the film (The Three Faces of Eve), he follows two men who did connect in the theater's recesses, trailing them into a grim queer dive where Quaid finally, dangerously allows himself to make eye contact with another man.

But in such scenes, Haynes finds himself trapped between creating an exquisite homage to an age's aesthetics and molding a film that tries to honestly provoke consciousness of the age's conditions. Haynes grafts onto his homage a more forthright and modern approach to queerness and race than '50s cinema allowed, as mere replicas of Sirk's people would only produce parody. But it does leave Haynes subverting a subversive, at the same time erasing the ambiguity that made Sirk's characters so fascinating.

Still, Far From Heaven succeeds. Haynes' script is filled with intriguing ideas about the period, such as suggesting that homosexuality was less problematic to the culture than miscegenation. As a director, he shares Sirk's mastery of composing scenes and marshaling light (from the blazing loom of fall woods to the neon severity of a back-alley club).

The cast is impeccable. Moore's performance as a woman suddenly thrown from the illusions of her life is moving. Moore captures completely the tremulous steps Cathy takes toward sloughing the apron's restraints to find liberty, though Haynes makes it clear that her range of options remains considerably narrower than the men's. Quaid's tortured Frank is an intense portrait of a lovesick, shame-afflicted man with a gin-carved map of Hell on his face.

Far From Heaven should create a wider audience for Haynes, long considered one of America's leading independent directors. Though Safe and his other two major films, Poison and Velvet Goldmine, have all won awards and followers, his latest should establish him as one of the country's most innovative filmmakers and bring him, finally, to suburban audiences.