The 100 Essential Directors Part 4

Samuel Fuller - John Huston

by PopMatters Staff

11 August 2011


Todd Haynes

Todd Haynes
(1961 - present)

Three Key Films: Safe (1995), Far From Heaven (2002), Mildred Pierce (2011)

Underrated: Superstar as a whole. Produced in 1987 and withdrawn from public screenings in 1990 due to licensing issues, the film investigates Karen Carpenter’s rise as a star and descent into anorexia with utmost humanity. Haynes does this through the use of Barbie and Ken dolls, with an intricately whittled away Barbie in the Karen Carpenter role. The 43-minute film has seen the light of day via Youtube and Google video, and even in this lower quality one can sense the pains Haynes took to elevate the oft-ridiculed Carpenters, revealing the human tragedy underneath.

Unforgettable: I’m Not There (2007), one of the boldest films in recent memory (as well as a revolutionary take on the biopic) was also one of the most ignored. Many critics wrote it off as cluttered and over-indulgent, overlooking Haynes’ ambitions and his success in achieving them. Even those who found I’m Not There a bit too wide in scope must concede that Cate Blanchett’s Dylan incarnation is head-scratchingly uncanny in the best sense. Everybody remembers this bold transformation and gender reversal.


Far From Heaven (2002)

The Legend: Todd Haynes is a stylist with no signature style. Each of his films have indelible looks and leave stunning traces on the brain, but—a few key elements and recurring actors aside—his films rarely look like they have been made by the same person. Some—think debut feature Poison (1991) and Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There—don’t even look like the same film from beginning to end. It is no small chore to put out a glam-rock fantasy that takes narrative cues from Citizen Kane then follow it up with a homage to the melodramas of yesteryear, but Haynes did just that, with Velvet Goldmine and Far From Heaven, respectively.

An openly gay filmmaker born in California in 1961, Haynes is one of the most notable progenitors of the Queer Cinema movement of the late 1980s/early 1990s, even though pigeonholing him as such—no matter the import of that pigeonhole—overlooks such qualities as his knack for effortlessly illustrating rock and pop myths and tragedies. Haynes often aims to champion society’s outcasts, be they lost gay boys,  subversive and contravening artists, suburban black men living in the ‘50’s, or successful women living during the Great Depression.

“I’ve always felt that viewers of film have extraordinary powers. They can make life out of reflections on the wall” Haynes has said, and Haynes has always ensured what his viewers are watching are indeed reflections. He does this via the use of hyperbolic dialogue (the “horror” portion of his first feature, Poison), nods to older cinematic styles (Douglas Sirk homage Far From Heaven) and the mutability of his actors (I’m Not There with its six Bob Dylans).

If not always successful, Haynes’ risks are at least easy on the eyes. For all its inconsistency of plot, Velvet Goldmine has just enough glitter to appeal to glam rock fans without descending too far into camp. Far From Heaven offered a misleadingly beautiful depiction of another era long before Mad Men, and for all its unease, his 1995 breakthrough Safe‘s sense of foreboding and barren take on suburbia keeps the viewer gripped. No matter where Haynes goes, his fans are ensured a most blissful sensory overload as a result. Maria Schurr



Double Take: 'The French Connection' (1971)

// Short Ends and Leader

"You pick your feet in Poughkeepsie, and we pick The French Connection for Double Take #18.

READ the article