17 November 2002

"what do you think of modern art?" gardener raymond deagan asks this question of his employer, cathy whitaker as the two view a painting by miro. in the hartford of 1957, modern art is as strange a sight as a black gardener and a white housewife standing side-by-side, speaking to each other with familiarity. raymond sees modern art as a continuation of spiritual art, a stripped-down continuation: everything unnecessary is removed and the emphasis is on shape and color. cathy's contemporaries prefer the work of michelangelo; her reply to raymond -- "i know what i like and what i don't like" -- is typical of her position and class (upper-middle), but, though she can't quite express it, one senses that her appreciation of miro is genuine...as is her appreciation of andrew.

the evaluation of art is ultimately in the eye of the beholder. take douglas sirk, for example. his detractors think his melodramas of the fifties were trashy and vulgar. so too do his fans, but they also realize that there's more than just what meets the eye. todd haynes belongs to this latter camp, and his new film, far from heaven, from its florid title card to its bold use of color, is an homage to the master and a brilliant, affecting work in its own right. as the film opens, a close-up of a canvas adorned with brilliant red, yellow, and orange brushstrokes fades into the foliage of a tree in a quiet, rustic neighborhood where autumn is in full flight. this transition from painting-to-reality is the obverse of the film: in far from heaven, norman rockwell's saturday evening post covers are put under the magnifier, revealing layers and details unobservable from a normal distance.

cathy whitaker is a suburban housewife with two delightful children and an impeccable home, a woman whose good deeds do not go unnoticed by the society pages of the local paper. like her friends, she wears long, frilly dresses and scarves; says things like "perfectly lovely" and "darling" and "a wretched mistake"; she even wraps dinner and delivers it to her husband when the demands of business dictate long hours. frank whitaker is a successful sales executive for magnatech, manufacturer of televisions and radios. in fact, the whitakers are 'mr. and mrs. magnatech,' the thoroughly modern couple pictured in magnatech advertisements. look closer at the ad and, amid the colored dots, you'll see strain marking the face of mr. magnatech and concern troubling the countenance of his wife.

frank has a problem, the nature of which i won't divulge in this review. after its discovery, neither he or cathy are able to talk about it properly. cathy, at first, tries to ignore it. when frank brings it up, cathy notes her inability to deal with it. for his part, frank is hardly more eloquent, unable to complete a full sentence. they decide to together to get help for him, though it proves a difficult road. frustrated, frank screams, "i just want to fucking get it over with!" and, given the film's context, it feels like a backhand strike.

it is in the midst of this family crisis that cathy strikes up a friendship with raymond deagan, the family's gardener. he is sympathetic and a calming presence. besides working as a gardener, he also owns a supply store. his discourse at the art show demonstrates that he is cultured. he is also a widow with a young daughter. during their first meeting, cathy is being profiled by the local newspaper. overseen by the reporter, cathy is noted as "being kind to negroes" in the article. her friends note that she's always had something of a liberal streak in her, performing plays with "sweaty jews" in her youth, the kind of action that earned her the nickname "red." as her marriage devolves and her friendship with raymond develops, cathy finds herself the victim of the eyes of hartford: their judgement unleashes grievous consequences upon both her and raymond.

far from heaven may be exactly the kind of film sirk would've liked to have made in the 50s. his last major film, imitation of life, hints in this direction; perhaps the inability to do so was one of the reasons behind his early retirement. the hollywood code would never have allowed many of the things that occur in this film to find their way on screen. deagan asks, "can't we see beyond the surface, the color of things?" his question seems to have a double meaning: it can be directed at those who love sirk merely for the appearance of his films, ignoring his critique of society, but it's also intended for the audience. beyond the code restrictions, this film could never have been accepted in the fifties: the sympathy for deagan and cathy would not be there; filmgoers would not rally behind raymond's plea for acceptance. thus, the reason why far from heaven needed to be a work of modern art: a contemporary audience realizes how silly a lot of what happened in the fifties was: the styles, the sayings, the gender roles, the racism. haynes allows us to strip away all of that which is unnecessary. as we look beneath the surface and examine the film carefully, we see that what was essential back then remains so today: love, understanding, compassion.

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