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Far From Heaven Shows We're Still In Sirk's World
For better and worse.
Far From Heaven (2002) is Todd Haynes’ most explicit tribute to his idol Douglas Sirk. Set in the early 60s, it lovingly reproduces Sirk’s vibrant colors and formal beauty. It also explores the racism and homophobia that underlay the surface perfection. It’s a heartfelt exercise in camp—what Philip Core calls “the lie that tells the truth”—as brittle, over-blooming surface beauty reveals the emptiness underneath. There are so many flowers to mask the smell of the garbage dump.
The film is about the repression and cruelty of the long 50s. But it’s also, I think, about the way that the present day is a kind of embroidered surface on the past. In meticulously refashioning Sirk’s surfaces, Haynes isn’t revealing what Sirk hid. He’s just showing that what we saw is still what we see. The lie that tells the truth is that it’s still Sirk’s world.
The film, like most of Sirk’s melodramas, is centered on a white woman. Cathy Whitaker (Jullianne Moore) has perfect cheekbones, wears perfect dresses, and seems to have a perfect life as the wife of successful ad exec Frank (Dennis Quaid.)
But her happiness is more a marketing scam than reality. Frank is gay; he’s increasingly unhappy in the marriage, and even violent. Depressed, isolated, and alone Cathy turns for understanding and companionship to her Black gardener, Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert). Their budding love affair becomes a major scandal in the town, threatening Cathy’s social standing and endangering Raymond’s young daughter Sarah (Jordan Nia Elizabeth.)
Haynes follows Sirk in suggesting parallels between the sexual repression and racial discrimination. Frank’s longing looks and clandestine rendezvous are mirrored in Cathy’s glances back at Raymond, and in the all-Black bar where the two go for an almost-date. The same people who whisper darkly about homosexuals whisper even more darkly about integration. The bright sunlit world of New England is a façade over its own shadow, where desperate people scrabble for the comfort and love that has been declared debased by men in suits and women in stiff, tight dresses.
But while queer experience and Black experience have some overlap, they also diverge in ways that Haynes has trouble fully representing or articulating.
Specifically, Black hypervisibility in the 60s (and still) creates conditions of segregation and collective impoverishment and collective violence. There isn’t, for most Black people, a question of passing as white, or of entering white society alone and unnoticed. Frank can hide who he is at least until the psychic trauma becomes too much. Raymond can’t, and, having been Black his whole life, he has to know that he can’t.
Yet Raymond is given speeches in which he declares a passionate belief in color-blindness. And blames other Black people for their failure to see beyond segregated spaces as much as he blames white people for shutting him out.
Conservative Black people aren’t that uncommon, so Raymond’s disdain for others in the Black community is feasible. But Haynes doesn’t just have Raymond speak for himself; he’s speaking for the film’s vision of truth. White people throw rocks at Sarah because her dad was seen with a white woman. But Black people also attack Raymond’s house. And Black people are scandalized when Raymond brings a white woman into the Black bar—this despite the fact that the Civil Rights movement was in full swing, and Black people throughout the country were engaged in a dangerous, passionate battle for integration.
Raymond was far from the only Black person who recognized that Black schools were inadequate, and who hoped for something better for their child. And more importantly, as a simple matter of act, it was not Black people who enforced segregation. There are numerous examples of white people who decided to spend all or much of their lives in Black spaces, and were welcomed: Johnny Otis, Moon Mullican, Orson Welles. This account of an interracial couple from the time mentions white violence and disapprobation, not Black. Similarly, this couple faced discrimination from whites, but not from Black people—though the white woman had trouble fitting in when they moved to Mexico.
You can’t (or shouldn’t!) both sides segregation. It was enforced, in fact and in law, by white people. It was deployed against Black people. Haynes wants to show both Cathy and Raymond as brave individuals defying convention and their communities for the sake of love. It’s telling that in doing so, though, he barely portrays Black people other than Raymond, and doesn’t give a sense of Raymond’s social network at all. We’re supposed to infer that Raymond and Cathy are facing the same problems. But the film doesn’t quite believe that, and can’t show it, because its vantage point is white. Its representation of the Black people is as distorted, in some ways, as the views of Cathy’s neighbors.
Haynes’ surface—the immaculate smiling white family—is meant to be penetrated; you’re supposed to read it as a false façade. But the false façade is also a real barrier. Haynes can’t see beyond Sirk, in some consequential ways, because he insists on using Sirk’s lens. The Imitation of Life, brilliant as it is, still had to sideline its Black characters because the turn-of-the-50s default was that white people were more important and their stories more acceptable and marketable. And so too does Haynes’ film, 40 years later, place its Black characters behind a wall of whiteness. Sarah Jane must abide by white norms to achieve her career on stage (and in the film). Raymond has to denigrate the Black community in order to be the hero of the picture.
Haynes white, racist surface is in fact a white, racist surface; the repressive community he adopts as his own is his own. The fake repressive surface which Haynes theoretically disavows is in fact a faithful reproduction of the film’s real dynamics. What you see in Far From Heaven is in fact what you see. Sirk’s world is still a lid which Hollywood and white filmmakers have difficulty seeing through.
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