Of Our Time

The Role of Nostalgia in the Films of Todd Haynes

I’m Not There

In discussing Poison, it is appropriate to move into Haynes’ I’m Not There (2007), given the similar structures of both. Though I’m Not There is, ostensibly, a biopic on Bob Dylan, it takes a similar structure to Poison in balancing a docudrama-style, a black-and-white portion, and a more typically styled section in exploring the various personas and sides of Dylan without ever introducing a character named Bob Dylan. It is a film as undefinable as its protagonist, but also one that is deeply indebted to nostalgia. As is stated early in the film, folk music itself is about nostalgia. Given that the film is set in the 1960s, this nostalgia mainly concerns the Depression or even McCarthyism as folk musicians envision themselves to be from the past rather than their own era, as is evidenced in Dylan-persona Woody Guthrie (Marcus Carl Franklin). A burgeoning musician, one woman who hears him sing tells him he should sing about his own time – such as the race riots in 1959 – rather than writing songs about times he did not live through. Yet, nostalgia is the name of the game for folk music in the eyes of Haynes, as is the case with his film as a whole. Not only does its film poster appear to be an edited version of A Face in the Crowd (1957) or a section of I’m Not There clearly feed off of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), but the film’s setting in 1960s America comes to play a dominant role via the film’s iconography. Focusing on the nostalgia for the music of the decade, the festivals, hippie culture, and counter-culturalism, Haynes takes I’m Not There and sets it alongside Vietnam War, intrinsically changing the reading of its surface-level nostalgia.

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Largely contributed via the storyline concerning actor Robbie Clark (Heath Ledger) and his girlfriend/wife Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), their time together is often punctuated by scenes from the Vietnam War shown on television. Whether it be the horrors of the war, the rising protests, or even Richard Nixon’s live announcement that the war had been ended, the relationship with Robbie and Claire is tied to tragedy. As is stated by the narrator (Kris Kristofferson) when they first meet, “We first met in New York, in January of ’64 in the Village. They’d just buried their president. Love was in the air.” There is even additional dialogue in which the narrator states, as Claire watches the television as the war ends, “That’s when she knew it was over for good. The longest-running war in television history. The war that hung like a shadow over the same nine years as her marriage.” To some respect, Haynes ties this to Robbie’s love of other women that is demonstrated repeatedly in the film whenever he is on the road, but it serves a greater purpose: a counter to the nostalgia on display. Amidst this rise of folk music, this love of Bob Dylan, the iconification of him immediately, the rise of television that gave rise to star-making (and the tearing down of stars), and the popularity of hippie culture among the youth, the 1960s were a time of great change and tragedy. Whether it be the war in Vietnam or the assassination of Kennedy, the 1960s were a decade in which the world political stage was in great turmoil and America was in the throes of the Cold War with events such as the Bay of Pigs invasion opening the decade. In America itself, riots and racism further complicated the issue. Through the celebration of hippie culture and the belief in “peace and love”, nostalgia has allowed the 1960s to somewhat lose this bloodied edge over time. To Haynes, it was a time of fear and one that left an indelible mark on society, with both positive and negative change occurring. The absurdity of the belief that it was, first and foremost, a time of peace and love is highlighted by Haynes’ somewhat tongue-in-cheek contrast between the Kennedy assassination and love being in the air when Robbie and Claire first meet. However, this idea is perhaps best exemplified as Dylan-persona Billy the Kid (Richard Gere) pauses for a moment to look over the forest around his home. Admiring the green beauty of the world around him, Haynes overlays the serene shot with images of Agent Orange, bombs, and screaming Vietnamese citizens on a television broadcast. It is a jarring image, but one that firmly cements where Haynes stands in regards to 1960s nostalgia. There is certainly great beauty to the era with Haynes even being guilty of falling into the lure of nostalgia with regards to Bob Dylan, but nothing is entirely positive. The 1960s are not only a time of societal progression, but also one of great strife and tragedy, just as Dylan was not only a great musician and poet. He was also a man who possessed personal challenges with drugs and women. Nostalgia for the era and for Dylan both overlook these sides, but Haynes embraces them and seeks to show this dark underbelly of both that are oft-overlooked in favor of the glossier and more appealing sides.

Far from Heaven

Set in 1957-1958 Hartford, Haynes’ fourth feature-length film Far from Heaven is styled similarly to the work of Douglas Sirk, in particular All that Heaven Allows (1955) with racial themes in line with Imitation of Life (1959). The film centers on the life of Kathy Whittaker (Julianne Moore). With her husband Frank (Dennis Quaid) slowly discovering he is gay and with Kathy developing feelings for their black gardener Raymond (Dennis Haysbert), Haynes is able to work with themes in a way that Sirk could never have imagined in the 1950s. Using the same basis as Sirk with Kathy as an upper class but repressed housewife falling for a man of a lower class – akin to a socialite housewife played Jane Wyman falling for a lower class gardener portrayed by Rock Hudson – Haynes manages to explore the sexual repression of women in the 1950s and classism as Sirk did in All that Heaven Allows, with his revisionism coming in via the focus upon homosexuality and racism. In mirroring Sirk’s work, however, Haynes relies upon an old-school opening credits sequence with an orchestra-based score playing in the background, dresses Julianne Moore similarly to Jane Wyman, and uses a similarly vibrant and welcoming color palette as Sirk. However, Far from Heaven departs from Sirk by relying on cold blues and greens as opposed to the warm reds, oranges, and browns of All that Heaven Allows that created a homely feeling. Though the colors pop on the screen similarly to the glorious Technicolor of Sirk’s films, allowing Far from Heaven to be nearly as visually lush as its inspiration, the impact is vastly different. By capturing 1950s America in a similar way to Sirk – both visually and thematically through the class system of Kathy’s neighborhood – Haynes elicits nostalgia, but the color scheme hints at something entirely different from All that Heaven Allows. Rather than being a film defined by its warmth, Far from Heaven is a film that relies on cool colors to capture the isolation and alienation of Kathy and Frank for their indulgence in social taboos.

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Far from Heaven’s exploration of homophobia and racism in the 1950s is simple to observe. In terms of homophobia, Frank, as with the prisoners in Homo, self-represses. He goes to a gay conversion doctor while Kathy refuses to mention his issues with homosexuality to any of her friends. The mere suggestion of him being gay would ruin his reputation, as demonstrated by Kathy’s friend Eleanor (Patricia Clarkson) and her homophobia in describing a man she thought was gay by calling him, “a bit flowery” and “light on his feet”. It is these euphemistic terms that define homophobia, as people of the time – as Eleanor says – “prefer men to be men”. Though Sirk touched on racism in Imitation of Life, none of his films touched on gay men in America, hence Haynes’ revisionism. Here, he takes what was left for subtext or forgotten entirely and brings it to the forefront. Though he keeps the taboo of adultery from All that Heaven Allows, this addition of a gay lover for Frank adds further depth to the “repressed housewife in suburban America finds love in a melodrama” story forged by Sirk so many years prior as it shows the issues faced by men who also had to pretend in this era. Not only are the housewives repressed, but so are the men as they are often unable to explore their own desires and sexuality for fear of public rejection. As a successful advertiser, Frank stands to lose everything if he embraces his homosexuality. Thus, he is forced to pretend and play straight to keep his position in the community and the world, forcing him to indulge in his repressed desire in the dark and in secret as in Homo. He is a man forced to live in the shadows, hiding out in his dark office at night – an office that is often engulfed in either blue or green whenever Kathy visits – to finally give into the passion he feels.

However, if Frank is akin to the prisoners in Homo, then Kathy is akin to the leper in Horror. As she spends time speaking to Raymond with no sexual undertones to the discussion and later accepts his kind offer to go to lunch as a means of getting her mind off her issues, Kathy becomes a pariah. From celebrated upper-class housewife to the subject of gossip regarding her being seen with a black man, the town reacts with an uproar. Wherever they go, they are stared at by everyone in sight. Raymond’s daughter is hit with a rock by boys who were fine with playing with her just a few weeks prior while black neighbors throw bricks through Raymond’s window. As Kathy tells friend Eleanor about how she feels something for Raymond, she is met with disgust. By the time the film reaches its climax and final act with Kathy and Raymond somberly waving goodbye to another before Kathy walks off – with similar feelings to films such as Brief Encounter (1945) or Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) elicited through their unalterable circumstances – Haynes makes it clear that this is not All that Heaven Allows. As opposed to Wyman and Hudson, Kathy and Raymond will not be getting together in a warm and idyllic cabin. There is no war against classicism they can win, as not only must they face classicism, but they must face racism. This cold rejection and anger is what is left for them should they fight back and, considering what it has already cost them, it is not a price worth paying for either of them.

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Despite the great warmth and love between the two, there is nothing but isolation waiting for them, as Haynes beautifully portrays through their final interaction in which Raymond informs Kathy he is leaving town. Cutting to Kathy crying on her bed as Frank calls her to let her know when they can sign the divorce papers, Haynes bathes her bedroom in blue and uses the scene as a further crushing realization. For Kathy, racism has doomed her to a life of solitude and isolation while her husband leaving her for another man has forced her to come to the same realization as the audience: life in 1950s America was not idyllic. Kathy and Raymond were just two victims of an era that victimized many, largely due to prejudice. As such, Far from Heaven paints a picture of a world that is far from the heaven envisioned in any number of nostalgia films set in the 1950s. It even stands counter to the films of Sirk that portrayed societal issues in All that Heaven Allows, but still wound up leaning on happy endings where people easily overcome these social tensions. This world, however, is a mere facade and it is the one that people choose to remember. Far from Heaven, thusly, serves as a reminder to the audience that the world according to these classical films did not exist. Nostalgia and rose-tinted glasses have obscured this fact in favor of a world with small shops, nice neighbors, station wagons, and perfect white picket fences. However, as Far from Heaven demonstrates, this is only part of the story. For those willing to buck the societal norms, a world of isolation, pain, and suffering was all that was there and any idyllic elements that are so celebrated in today’s lexicon were akin to a foreign country they could not enter.

In assessing Far from Heaven and its role in Haynes’ filmography, the film manages to not just embody Haynes’ ideas regarding nostalgia and the styles of classic films, but it also provides a summation and admission by Haynes of what his work does. At a modern art opening attended by Kathy and Raymond, Raymond asks Kathy what she thinks about modern art. As she speaks to how it makes her feel something for reasons she does not quite understand, Raymond agrees and takes it a step further. He speaks on how he believes that modern art picks up where religious art left off. To him, it seeks to create the same divinity and feeling as religious art, but presented in a way that is new or unexpected. This – especially in consideration of the  postmodernist belief that originality is no longer possible – feels as though Haynes spells out his own philosophy in filmmaking. He picks up where the masters left off, presenting ideas in a new way that had been unavailable to them and using themes that were either not utilized or not allowed by the production code. His films, as such, create similar feelings of loss, love, anger, or horror, but in a new package and style that, even as it shares similarities to films of the past, is wholly his own.

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