Realism Cuts Nostalgia-Jagged Cynicism and Emotion coexist in "Far from Heaven'





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One of the great thrills of cinephilia is the opportunity to take a fellow movie lover's hand and be swept into nostalgia mode: catching that long-forgotten innocence of ole-time movie fun, peering down the halls of Hollywood heaven, soaking the splendid Technicolor rays. Among the great modern directors is often where you find the deepest passion for those classical movie traditions.

"Far From Heaven" is not that kind of movie. "Pleasantville" is. So is "L.A. Confidential" and everything by Quentin Tarantino. Those are movies seeped in an adoration of golden-age locales and genres and use those traditions so playfully as to explode out of them. Perhaps it is the nature of the 50s melodrama (a.k.a. the woman? weepie, the hankie pic), which this movie follows, that it ends up being confined by its own generic conventions-so trapped in a world of sexual repression and silenced sensibility that the characters appear to decompose in this mausoleum of cinematic sadness.

The swooping shots of the suburban home are grand, and the sets, costumes, and lighting are adorable, but it feels less like "Leave it to Beaver" than a wax museum. Like the classic melodramas of Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray, this is the kind of film that numbs you with its artifice before leaving you to weep.

It's been called a remake of Sirk's legendary "All That Heaven Allows," which also spawned a very different, but equally tragic remake "Ali: Fear Eats the Soul" by Rainer Werner Fassbinder in 1974. Each version brings along different mores and concerns of its generation, but all are about one thing: unattainable love. In Sirk's, widow Jane Wyman can't marry her much younger pretty-boy gardener Rock Hudson because of the gossiping neighbors and her image-conscious children. Fassbinder told the tale in his war-torn Germany, with an aging German woman falling for a sexually virile black Arab ten years younger than she is.

"Far From Heaven," as directed by Todd Haynes ("Safe," "Velvet Goldmine"), transplants Fassbinder's multi-racial romance into Sirk's 50s America, as Julianne Moore is swooned by Dennis Haysbert to the dismay of everyone, including Moore's gay husband played by a very unexpected Dennis Quaid.

Unlike the previous two films, this one is a period piece and is able to directly address issues that had otherwise lurked beneath the surface of Sirk and Vincente Minnelli (namely homosexuality and interracial romance). However, I don't think Haynes makes this move to further criticize that era, but instead, inserts them to jar us and make us uncomfortable, forcing us to question how strongly we really hold our so-called liberal thinking and open-mindedness. Today, we giggle when we see Hudson flex and smile for poor Jane Wyman, but if we saw him kiss a man onscreen, none of us could handle it. So when Quaid, home-town hero of "The Rookie" and our favorite daddy in "The Parent Trap," has his big screen kiss with an attractive young man, our jaws drop.

All of this discomfort to possibly the most elegant of genres. The auburn leaves of the Whitaker household, along with the classic cars and attire prove why this is one of the most fondly adapted of Hollywood periods. And like the great melodramas, there's no room for nostalgia, and certainly no way anybody will get out happy living in this laminated shithole. Behind the Technicolor lighting hide noirish shadows of guilt and despair. As the Moore character cooks dinner for her workaholic husband, we witness Quaid slink into a seedy theater and a bar that's men-only for not your typical Eisenhower-era reasons.

Melodrama literally means melody plus drama, and "Far From Heaven" is inseparable from its extraordinary score by Elmer Bernstein. It's the anti-James Horner -grand without being unbearably epic, the kind of score that should belong in "A Summer Place" or "To Kill a Mockingbird," which not surprisingly was scored by a young Elmer Bernstein forty years ago. And true to the definition of the genre, there's almost never a moment without his glorious strings, seizing us into the characters' lives in a way no dialogue ever can.

Did I mention it was sad? Watch "All That Heaven Allows" and "Written on the Wind" before "Far From Heaven," and you'll see the evolution of a misunderstood genre that deftly straddles art and trash. The weepie surely isn't as good as in the days of Rock and Jane, but seeing "Far From Heaven" reminds us that there really are sparkles in the desert of the modern melodrama whose recent futility is the true tragedy of the genre.

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