A Gift Opens the Way: A Reflection on Todd Haynes
As a director, Todd Haynes crafts ambitious films that bring elite skill out of his actors.
I have spent parts of the last month visiting and revisiting the films of Todd Haynes, and I've observed a few things concerning my viewing habits with his particular brand of cinema. For one, the only film I finished in one sitting was his 1995 masterpiece Safe. By comparison, it required seven sittings to finish Velvet Goldmine (1998), six to complete I'm Not There (2007), and 12 to finish Mildred Pierce (2011). I'm not completely sure what that says about my compatibility with Haynes' films, but what can be said with certainty is that I enjoy his films tremendously.
Safe is one of the seminal films of the '90s, and stands tall as Haynes' best film, closely followed by the sumptuous Far from Heaven (which I didn't revisit this time around, so as to await a Blu-ray release). From there, it's a toss-up between his abstract and fragmented ode to Bob Dylan in I'm Not There and his paean to personal industry in the depression-era set Mildred Pierce.
Haynes is one of the most talented filmmakers of his generation. You'd be hard-pressed to find another auteur who pays closer to attention to period details, or one who is better at blocking a scene. He writes some of the greatest parts for females in cinema, with the career of Julianne Moore being a testament to how gifted he is with actors. Her performances in Safe and Far from Heaven remain the pinnacles of her lengthy career.
Haynes' films are enormously ambitious, and often aim at being the definitive word on a subject or expansive takes on an era. Is there a better pre-millenial film than Safe that captures the paranoia, anxiety, and helplessness of the individual psyche? Will there ever be a more comprehensive and searching film than I'm Not There that apprehends something of Dylan's genius for allusiveness? Search film history, or wait 20 years and and get back to me.
I was watching the television program Enlightened recently, and came across an episode during the second season that had me eagerly anticipating the credits. I simply had to know who had directed the episode because it stood out in quality from the rest of the episodes by a mile. (That's not to degrade what came before "All I Ever Wanted" or what came after, however.)
Enlightened was a quality program from top to bottom; however, episode 16 made you stand up and pay closer attention. It was a television rarity: concise and thoughtful entertainment that rose to the level of cinema in the quality of its acting and staging.
"All I Ever Wanted" became the dramatic apex of the show, and the complexity of its many hard-won emotions was never duplicated with the remaining episodes of the series. Somebody had brought elite skill out of the cast and crew; I had to know who this ringleader was. You may have guessed: it was Todd Haynes. A gift opens the way.