Of Our Time

The Role of Nostalgia in the Films of Todd Haynes

Todd Haynes is a director who wears his cinematic influences on his sleeves. From his very first full-length film, Poison (1991), to his latest work, Wonderstruck (2017), his films are often defined by the era in which they take place and how they mimic the cinematic language of that era. For Haynes, implementing these styles is done for many reasons, as is the case for any director who attempts to make a nostalgic film. Not only is it a chance for Haynes to employ the style of films he loves, but it is also a chance for him to critique the representation of social issues of the time through the lens of a film from that period or provide him with an opportunity to deliver representation to a group underrepresented in cinema of the time.

At the center of his reliance upon this nostalgia filmmaking, however, is his film Wonderstruck. Serving as the one of the chief examples of Haynes’ repeated attempts to mimic the style of classic films, the film further serves as a representation of what Haynes seeks to do in his work. For him, his filmography serves as a museum, full of exhibits of past styles and ideas that he has carefully curated to tell a new story. Rather than merely represent history as seen by the world at the times his films take place, Haynes takes nostalgia, peels back its glossy exterior, and uses his own worldview and ideals as a means of providing audiences with the dark truth.

The “Nostalgia Film”

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From the very beginning of his career, Haynes firmly established himself as the leader of what is now known as the New Queer Cinema movement, which seeks to reject heteronormativity and explore the lives of LGBTQ characters without relegating them to the background. His debut, Poison, or successive films such as Safe (1995), Velvet Goldmine (1998), Far from Heaven (2002), or the more recent Carol (2015), all focus on characters who are LGBTQ or on themes that are important to the LGBTQ community. However, in line with his leadership within Queer Cinema, Haynes has established himself as a filmmaker who seeks to shine the light on marginalized members of every society, whether it be in terms of race in Far from Heaven or the deaf in Wonderstruck. To tackle these issues, Haynes often integrates these themes as an undercurrent or the focus of films that would best be described as “nostalgia films”.

By taking the more modern and progressive sentiments of films with the New Queer Cinema movement, Haynes’ films travel on a trail previously blazed by revisionist westerns. Seeking to rectify the racism towards Native Americans in classic westerns, 1970s western films such as McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), High Plains Drifter (1973), and Dances with Wolves (1990) sought to take similar characters, themes, and styles from earlier westerns while altering their thematic content to more appropriately tackle issues regarding Native Americans and their marginalization within American society or in appropriately assessing the lack of heroism possessed by the cowboys/frontiersmen who moved west. For Haynes, his films serve the same purpose, as he takes the styles of films from yesteryear and revises them to tackle important issues within society that existed in that period and still remain an issue today.

At the core of any nostalgia film, however, is the theory of postmodernism. A largely pessimistic theory, postmodernists believe that originality is dead as each work of art is doomed to merely repeat what has already been said by countless other works. Fredric Jameson, a postmodernist, took a particularly political view of postmodernism and the world, arguing that art and ideas repeating themselves were the ramification of capitalism having won out over all other forms of thought. This has led history to become nothing more than “emptied out stylizations that can be commodified and consumed.” For Jameson and others, this has led the art world – particularly film – to a place where it has opted to embrace this postmodernist ideology, admit there is nothing new to say, and instead take past styles and genres to make a “new” product ready for modern consumption. This, per postmodernist theory, is the nostalgia film. It is a film set in the past that, using codes, and memorable items from an era – such as music, clothes, or manner of speech – seeks to commodify the past in a way that is enjoyable to the audience, but becomes ‘more real’ than the actual history it allegedly depicts. Films such as American Graffiti (1973), Back to the Future (1985), or Peggy Sue Got Married (1986) are examples of nostalgia films as they use songs, clothing styles, old-school diners, or popular “hangout” spots for teens from the 1950s in such a way that they become more than mere representations of the past. Instead, they become how the past is viewed, becoming more easily identifiable to the audience as being the way the 1950s were rather than a particular representation of the 1950s. Despite being a rather pessimistic theory regarding the future and past of art, postmodernism nonetheless informs many modern films, including those by Haynes.

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Yet, aside from Wonderstruck, Haynes’ films often paint an unflattering portrait of the past. In his pursuit of “revising” old films to reveal the gay subtext, racism, or the harsh truth of the times, Haynes winds up going against the aforementioned nostalgia films. When one watches Back to the Future, 1950s America is idyllic, quaint, and a place in which the audience comes to derive great pleasure from traversing. In stark contrast, films such as Poison, Far from Heaven, and Carol, do the opposite. They present cold, unrelenting, and bleak pasts. Carol is a film with considerable warmth, but it is only this way when its Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese (Rooney Mara) are able to be together, with both actresses and the cinematography communicating this passion. When apart, the isolation and coldness of the era is felt, particularly when it comes to homophobia. In Far from Heaven, scenes of Cathy (Julianne Moore) and Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert) together are filled with the warmth of fall. The red and orange leaves with the homely feeling of Connecticut winters are felt to a considerable degree. However, as the racism of Hartford bubbles to the surface and Cathy’s quaint and idyllic life with a happy husband devolves into divorce and neglect, Haynes bathes the film in cold greens and blues, while the harsh streets of Hartford are coated in snow and grayness. As such, though Haynes uses the trademarks of the era to transport audiences to the era as any number of nostalgia films do, he opts to take those codes and tear them down to reveal the true nature of the era from a socially conscious perspective. To Haynes, as his films show, the eras he opts to present in his films are not ones to be fondly viewed with nostalgia. Yet, he draws the audience in with this nostalgia before taking everything they love, pulling back its mask, and revealing the harmful social constructs of the time that made life unbearable for so many.

Poison

Haynes’ debut film Poison often perfectly fits this idea. Structuring Poison as three separate stories intercut with one another – entitled Hero, Horror, and Homo – Haynes explores homosexuality, among other themes, in a rather unique fashion using both the historical past and classical filmmaking styles. In Hero, Haynes tells the story of a young boy who killed his father as he was beating his mother. Detailing the boys’ bullying at school, his mother’s belief he was an “angel of judgment”, and the often homosexually-inclined bullying he both doled out and demanded, Hero is told in the style of a murder mystery show with interviews with locals who knew the boy and the family. A jarring piece of drama in the film, Hero is less indebted to nostalgia than the other parts, but does hint at a few elements in line with Haynes’ filmography. First, he creates a suburban and decidedly American setting for the boy’s crimes and the occurrences in the film, akin to what he would later do in the setting for Far from Heaven. In the process, he accomplishes the second goal of Hero: to show that the young Richie Beacon was different. In this idyllic and perfect American suburban community with a quintessential family, his mom was having sex with the Hispanic gardener, Richie was bullied, and his father was abusive to both him and his mom. This firmly establishes Richie as an outsider to the community, one who cannot quite accept himself, and one who is bullied due to – what his mother describes as – his “meek soul”. Given the film’s role in the New Queer Cinema movement, it is not hard to read into Hero with a gay subtext, as characters in this portion of the film avoid ever labeling Richie as being “gay”, but use code and suggestive phrasing to suggest that he was suspected of being gay. As this community is firmly established as being greatly conservative and possibly damaging for this young boy, it is no surprise that Haynes’ revisionist history would see the boy championed as an angel as opposed to succumbing to the intense pressure of the society around him.

In Horror, Haynes is far more straightforward with his usage of nostalgia. Styling the section similar to a 1960s psychological horror film, Horror is a segment of Poison that details the horrific result of a doctor’s experiments. Seeking to capture and bottle the human sex drive, Dr. Graves (Larry Maxwell) accidentally drinks the concoction, turning himself into a murderous leper. Killing women who catch leprosy from him, becoming known as the “leper sex killer”, and being forced to see how the leprosy crisis spreads around his small town, Dr. Graves is seen as a monster. It is hard to not think of stories such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as Graves becomes ostracized, mocked, and is known as a mad scientist by the surrounding community, while being overtaken by an insatiable urge to kill when kissed. With echoes of Repulsion (1965) directed by Roman Polanski due to a reliance on shaky handheld camera work while probing the fractured mind of the protagonist, Graves begins having horrible visions. These visions only further exacerbate his descent into madness, as he feels the brunt of the societal rejection he faces due to his appearance and the perception that his appearance was the “result of some indulgence” and that he is spreading a “despicable contagion”. In line with many films of the 1960s and the moral code of the era, there is a clear message intended by the depiction of Graves messing with godly elements such as hormone regulation as well as the punishment he receives for his sins.

Yet, in line with how Haynes uses nostalgia in his work, he takes all of the elements of a 1960s psychological horror film with a moral/Christian message and spins it in a way that is decidedly against the era. As the final message from Graves demonstrates, this is not a story about a man with leprosy. Accusing the crowd watching him prepare to jump from his apartment window of “all being the same” and telling them they will never know how it feels to have pride, Haynes uses these words as a means of positioning Graves as not just a leper, but also a man who is representative of the LGBTQ community. He is in love with Nancy Olsen (Susan Gayle Norman), but retains the marks of his activity in the gay community with a disease – in Haynes’ filmography, HIV and its treatment is always at the center, as in Safe – that is spreading through the community at an alarming rate due to how contagious it is, while this disease is spread through kissing. He becomes a sideshow to the community due to his appearance and he feels surrounded by anybody near him, perceiving random passersby to be looking at him and aware of his secret. Viewing this portion of the film with a gay subtext further clarifies the community’s equal concern between his murders and the “indulgence” for which he is allegedly being punished. This indulgence being his bisexuality and the community’s focus upon it being representative of their homophobia. As such, even if he were not a murderer, they would seek to remove him from the community, for fear of his disease – HIV or homosexuality – spreading amongst the more impressionable people in the community. However, akin to Hero, Haynes paints Graves as the community views him: a murderous beast from the pits of hell who suffers from a noticeable disease and is wholly immoral. Demonstrating the alienation and mental strain that can impact even the most brilliant of men, Horror is a chilling representation of the isolated and depressing life of a man in 1960s America who opts to live according to his desire.

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The final section of the film, Homo, is one that explores the homosexual feelings of a prisoner. Influenced by the work of author Jean Genet, this section is set in 1940s America and demonstrates the marks of the era from the very beginning. In the introduction to John Broom (Scott Renderer), Poison shows him arriving at the prison where a guard asks if he partakes in a different kind of sex before asking if “homosexual” is spelled with one or two words. Treating it with an entirely taboo nature and demonstrating his own ignorance, the issues of homosexuality is more at the forefront of Homo as prisoners bully one another for being “faggots”, while indulging in homosexual acts themselves. Cutting between John’s time in prison and his time at a juvenile facility for boys where he first meets his crush (who is also a prisoner with him) and engages in homosexual activity, Homo demonstrates a few elements from 1940s America. First and foremost, the aforementioned ignorance towards homosexuality that forces members of the community into hiding and, secondly, the repression of homosexual feelings by many within the community. Bullying one another, hating one another, and even attacking or raping one another out of pure rage at how they feel internally, Homo demonstrates the dangers inherent in being gay in the 1940s. Not only is it misunderstood, but it is a feeling that people reject so fully that they force themselves into the “closet” and act out with hostility towards others within the community. Thus, this allows Haynes to use the settings of a juvenile boys facility and a prison as a means to symbolize this “closeting” and repression, as the men come to see this as the sole place where they can express themselves and their desires.

These portrayals of both gay men and gay youth points to Haynes’ intent to critique the nostalgia held for these eras. For Haynes, he sees old films and television as works that hid the gay subtext via suggestive language or action. Thus, he plays into it or he subverts it entirely in Poison. In Hero, he leaves it up to slight interpretation and suggestion. In Horror, he relies on symbolism. In Homo, he brings it to the forefront. In a way, he mimics film history in the progression of gay representation within these three stories, but he also demonstrates that the marginalization did not just occur in film. Though the characters in these sections serve to represent or symbolize the plight of gay men in their respective eras, gay men of the past truly were seen as wicked or simply hated themselves. With the familiarity of a prison film, a 1960s horror film, and a tabloid murder mystery show to audiences,. Haynes demonstrates the dangerous social constructs that forced these men into hiding with feelings of paranoia, self-hatred, anger, and fear dominating their life. It allows him to lull the viewer into a sense of familiarity via the style of presentation, only to then wholly alter this style to cast aside the heteronormativity and religious morality messages offered by the films of old, in favor of a message far more progressive and beneficial to members of the LGBTQ community.

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