Friday, March 11, 2005

Far From Heaven

The film watching on break continued with today's screening of Far From Heaven. But before that, I also saw some other stuff that's worthy of comment.

A couple of days ago, I watched Maria, Full of Grace. This was a good movie, with a really intersting story that's well told, but it didn't engage me. The style is very verite, documentary-like, and it works for the story, but it's not that fun to watch. There's some nasty moments in the movie, specifically the swallowing the drugs scene. If this movie tells you one thing, it's don't be a drug mule, the process is not a pleasant one. I liked the ending, but as I said before, it's a good movie, just not one that hit me in any special way.

Then, I watched The Road Home, a film by Zhang Yimou, the director of Hero. Like Hero, this was a really beautiful film, with some great visual acting by Zhang Ziyi. She didn't have too many lines, but just through her facial expressions, you could understand everything she was going through and it was heartbreaking at times. The story is very simple, but it's in the telling of it that the film works, and it does work. I like the contrast of the color of the past to the black and white in the present, even though the message of the film, like in Hero, is a bit suspect. He seems to be saying that village life and the past are inherently better than more modern life, and I can't agree with that. But, that's more an issue surrounding the film than something about the merit of the film itself.

Yesterday, I watched eXistenZ by David Cronenberg, which wasn't particularly good. It had some cool ideas, and I liked the way he played out video game conventions with real people, but ultimately, the twist at the end didn't have much meaning because he hadn't created characters you care about. It felt like a really elaborate Twilight Zone that had material for a half hour, not a feature film. The film just wasn't made in an interesting way.

However, Far From Heaven was an amazing film, and one I could wholeheartedly embrace. The film is about the issue of racism and homosexuality in the 50s, but it's addressed through the cinematic language of Douglas Sirk, director of 50s melodrama and the man behind the adjective Sirkian.

While I've seen one of Sirk's films, Written on the Wind, I primarily know him secondhand, through the filmmaking of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, a great director behind the film, The Marriage of Maria Braun, and numerous others. He made the film Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, which was a loose remake of Sirk's All that Heaven Allows, and Todd Haynes' film is another take on the same story.

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul was a great film, and I can see a ton of parallels between that and Far From Heaven, most notably the bar scene, which is almost a direct rip. I think Haynes surpasses both Sirk and Fassbinder. He's got a better handle on character development and style than Fassbinder, and he has a freedom to deal with issues that Sirk didn't have. It's really interesting to see a film set in the 50s, and produced in a very strict classical Hollywood style dealing with racism and homosexuality in the way that people in the 50s did. There's no trace of modern attitudes in the film, but as the viewer, we clearly bring a more modern view and that can make it frustrating to watch the film. You don't want the characters to behave in the way they do because they seem like good people, but are flawed.

The relationship between Kathy and Raymond was the core of the film, and it's really well played. You can see why she's attracted to him, and also how the pressures of a racially divided society ultimately destory their hopes. Julianne Moore is one of the best actresses working today, and this is right up there with her best performances. It's very similar to her role in The Hours, but is played in a different way, because of her relationship with Raymond. She pulls off the right blend of 50s inspired acting and more emotionally realistic methods. Dennis Haysbert is surprisingly good as well, and I really felt for his character. His speech at the modern art show perfectly articulates the essential question of the film, and that's is it the surface that matters or what's beneath. Can you see past the surface to the essence of something?

In many ways the real star of this movie is the style. It's gorgeously stylized. I love how their living room always has a heavy blue light when the lights are off, perfectly setting the tone for scenes like the one where Frank slaps Kathleen. Color is really emphasized in the film, and is well integrated into the story with elements like the lilac scarf. The score is great, both imitating classical Hollywood scores, but doing it without the excess of those scores. It compliments the emotional content of scenes rather than overwhelming them.

I could see people who would look at this film and see it as a pointless exercise in homage. What is the point of so slavishly recreating someone's style of filmmaking? I think it does what remakes are supposed to do, but usually don't, and that's take the essence of a work and present in a new modern light, thus exposing previously unseen potential within the work. In this case, Sirk couldn't address prejudice like Haynes does here, and by aping the style of the 50s film, Sirk is able to make you better accept that people could hold these attitudes.

I think the film is one of the best statements against prejudice put on film because rather than telling you that these attitudes are wrong, it makes you feel just wrong they are. The fact that otherwise nice and respectable people can hold these attitudes just drives home how easy it is to be prejudiced, and makes you aware of prejudice's negative effects.

So, I loved this movie, I think it's deep, challening, and beautiful. It engages you as a viewer, and makes you work and think. That's what a film should do.

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