January 2, 1961–Todd Haynes:
”In the quiet darkness of cultural learning, there are also little patches of the illicit. I hope that’s still true in academic or cultural life. It was a factor for me.”
Controversial among my ardent film fan friends, I think Hayne’s Carol is a masterpiece, and one my favorite films of 2015, but then again, I thought that it was a weird year. Something was in the air. That first whiff of Fascism? Maybe that’s why it resonated for me. The film received critical acclaim and many accolades including six Academy Award nominations, five Golden Globe Award nominations, and nine BAFTA Award nominations.
In 1987, when Haynes was 26-years-old, he began the first film that the public really noticed, though he had been making films since grade school. It was a film about Karen Carpenter titled Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, with Barbie and Ken dolls playing siblings Karen and Richard Carpenter. The mock documentary was made while Haynes was working on his M.F.A. at Bard College (his undergraduate degree is from Brown, where he studied Art and Semiotics). To represent Karen’s anorexia, Haynes carved away the doll’s face as the film unfolded. Superstar is an intellectual exercise about roles and societal pressures. The critical reaction was characteristic of all Haynes’ films. Academics and critics loved it. But, it received a cease-and-desist notice from Richard Carpenter’s people and it was withdrawn from circulation in 1990 after Haynes lost a copyright infringement lawsuit.
Superstar became an underground hit, shown in museums, film festivals and clubs. The Husband saw it as a ”secret feature” at the Seattle International Film Festival in 1988 and raved about it. That cease-and-desist order from Richard Carpenter, ended up being a legal move that helped put Superstar on Entertainment Weekly’s Top 50 Cult Films Of All Time.
Around that time, Haynes was living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and he had been a founding member of Gran Fury, the artists’ collective within Act Up, the AIDS activist group. With Christine Vachon, his Brown classmate, he ran Apparatus Productions, a set up for short independent films that eventually produced Haynes’ first feature film Poison (1991). This film established Haynes as a leader of something called the New Queer Cinema, a movement that is as significant for the gay themed stories it told as for the way in which it told them from a gay point of view. Poison is a film with three interwoven stories: an AIDS-inspired horror film, a mock television documentary and a Jean Genet-ish story about a homoerotic experience at a French prison. It won the grand jury prize at that year’s Sundance Festival. More infamously, because Haynes had received a National Endowment for the Arts grant, it was taken up by Congressional Republicans and priggish Conservative commentators, who called it ”filthy gay porn”. Haynes’ little art film helped put a stop to federally funded films forever.
Haynes’ next film was the brilliant Safe (1995). Julianne Moore stars as a suburban woman with an undiagnosable environmental illness. It’s partly a horrifyingly intense study of suburbia and partly a comedy of manners. Wes Craven called it the scariest film of 1995. It also works as a metaphor for the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Unlike Poison, Safe tells a straight-ahead story. At the time, Haynes’ lover was sick from HIV, and Haynes visited him in the hospital in the mornings before going to the set.
Haynes first visit to Portland, where his sister lives, was to write Far From Heaven (2002) my favorite of his films, one of my favorites period, and his first box-office success. The film was nominated for four Oscars. Far From Heaven is a tribute to Douglas Sirk’s melodramas of the 1950s and early 1960s. Moore stars again, this time as a perfect 1950s housewife who discovers that her husband, played by Dennis Quaid, is gay; she then falls in love with a black man, played by Dennis Haysbert. I am just crazy for this flick.
I have spotted Haynes around Portland. He has come into my husband’s shop in downtown. This town is a lo-fi, a do-it-yourselfer’s paradise, and a place where, your career is not necessarily your entire identity. I have known people for weeks that never asked me what I did for a living. Haynes:
”When I moved to Portland, I was more social and productive than I’d ever been in my entire life. I remember being at an opening, talking to Gus, and people were just saying: ‘Hey Todd! Hey Todd!’ I just felt available, and I loved that feeling. In New York, if someone came and knocked on your door without telling you, you ‘d be like: ‘Get out’.”
This ”Gus” dude he mentions is Gus Van Sant, who directed me in Drugstore Cowboy (1989). Van Sant also lives in Portland.
Haynes, who is openly gay, bought an old Arts and Crafts bungalow not that far from my place. He planted a garden that is just nutty. But, the house is just a regular Portland Four-Square. You would never know it is the home of a man that directs Academy Award nominated films.
I am a big fan of his work. I always watch his homage to Glam Rock, Velvet Goldmine (1998) whenever I happen upon it while channel hopping. I have yet to sit down for his eight-hour version of Mildred Pierce (2011). Have you? I did really dig his enigmatic Bob Dylan story, I’m Not Here (2007), although it is all rather fuzzy; I was quite high when I saw it. But, I was cognizant for his contribution to the HBO documentary Six By Sondheim (2013).
This year, Haynes’ Wonderstruck was premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and opened in theatres in October. It is an adaptation of Brian Selznick’s children’s book of the same name. Wonderstruck stars Julianne Moore and is produced by Haynes’ frequent collaborator Vachon. The film looks at two deaf children, one in 1927 and the other in 1977, who embark on separate quests to find themselves. When asked why he’d made a children’s film, Haynes explained to NPR:
“I felt like it spoke to something indomitable about the nature of kids and the ability for kids to be confronted with challenges and the unknown and to keep muscling through those challenges.”
Haynes is set to direct an untitled Peggy Lee film based on a screenplay by Nora Ephron, starring Reese Witherspoon. He is also developing an HBO television series based on the documentary The Source Family (2012) about a utopian commune, and he is currently working on a documentary about the seminal band, Velvet Underground. Haynes:
”It will rely certainly on Andy Warhol films but also a rich culture of experimental film, a vernacular we have lost, and we don’t have, and that we increasingly get further removed from.”
Haynes has stated that the challenge has been that there is so little documentation on the band. However, there will be interviews with the surviving members and others from the 1960’s arts scene:
”They’re the most influential of bands, as Brian Eno said, everybody who bought Velvet Underground & Nico started a band. Their influence has nothing to do with sales or visibility or the ways we portion ideas of success.”
The Velvet Underground was formed in 1964 and they were one of the first bands to a mix the Avant-Garde with Rock ‘N’ Roll. The band was briefly managed by Warhol himself. The band’s 1967 debut album featured German model Nico. Commercially unsuccessful at the time, The Velvet Underground are now considered an iconic band and an inspiration for several generations of musicians. With Haynes track record, I just know this documentary will be totally amazing.
I sometimes ride my bicycle past his house, hoping he will look up from his gardening and say :”Hey, I need to have an old man on a bike in all my future films!”.
Thinking of Haynes on his birthday, I am reminded of a line from Poison:
”I can hear the angels farting on the ceiling.”