Far From Heaven: Postmodern Politicizing of Race and Sexual Orientation.

Far From Heaven: Postmodern Politicizing of Race and Sexual Orientation.

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While the task of choosing one specific film that best represents postmodernism and its wide variances is considerable, it seems befitting to discuss, Far From Heaven (2002) as a relevant case study. This film contains many of the “styles and techniques characteristic of postmodern art” [1]  through its use of simulation, pastiche and allegorical intertextuality as opposed to pondering it as parody of similar conventions. Director Todd Haynes drama revolves around its three main characters, a 1950’s Caucasian married couple, Frank and Cathy Whitaker (Dennis Quaid and Julianne Moore) and their African American gardener Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert). Cathy Whitaker discovers her husband Frank is leading a double life of homosexuality and turns to Raymond for comfort. The idyllic life of the couple becomes unraveled as suspicion, hostility and racial prejudice ensue.

The film is cited as New Queer Cinema (NQC) with a lean toward, “a narrative shift of political emphasis,” [2] a trend developed in the American independent film movement of the 1990’s. The political mode, which stands in opposition to mainstream cinema, is an association of gay civil rights with racial inequality through the veneer of classical Hollywood cinema pastiche. This identical message is openly conveyed in the film Any Day Now, (2012) which addresses gay adoption issues, as Rudy (Alan Cummings) argues with his partner that the two equality struggles are “The same thing!” An attachment of sexual orientation recognition to African American civil rights may or may not be reciprocated by those individuals and organizations seeking racial equality. Both films utilize the recycling of surface narrative in raising questions concerning civil liberties facing sexual orientation and racial inequality. Far from Heaven could be categorized as more representative of, “reactionary postmodernism” whereas Any Day Now is a form of “resistance postmodernism” [3]

Far from Heaven has been compared to a style which harkens back to the 1950’s melodrama and more specifically to the Douglas Sirk film, All That Heaven Allows (1955). This conventional trope is emulated through reflexive title and credit sequences, era detailed Mise-en-scene, deep saturated color palette, over dramatic dialogue, creative lighting and broad camera motion.

A playfully placed cue is provided to the observant viewer, which denotes a divergence from mainstream narrative in the Ritz Theatre marquis double bill of Three Faces of Eve (1957) and Miracle in the Rain (1956). Michael Z. Newmans book Indie: An American Film Culture references, Millers Crossing (1990) as an extended allusion to the gangster film, [4] similarly,  Far from Heaven works as melodrama allusion in providing three distinct subplots. Miracle in the Rain is a romantic drama between a man and a woman while Three Faces of Eve details a woman diagnosed with three split personalities. The marquis may be one playful cue that the surface romantic drama between Mr. and Mrs. Witaker will soon divide into three individual paths.

Frank Whitaker first presents as a persona of 1950’s patriarchal masculinity as typified in classical Hollywood. He works for the Magnatech Company, a reference to familiar consumer electronics giant Magnavox Company. Frank lives in an idyllic home with Cathy and their young son. He most often appears in suit and tie, trench coat and hat and presents a heterosexual surface which masks homosexuality. Mr. Whitaker often strays by taking the long way home by under the cover of working late at the office. On one such evening he repugnantly passes by a prostitute who inquires “Where you headed sailor?” Frank enters The Ritz cinema and is presented in oblique camera angles, a technique used to indicate discord within the character and text, behind him a concessions wall poster reads “We promise to satisfy your hunger and thirst”. The dimly lit cinema lobby finds a lone man at the foot of balcony stairway smoking and beckoning Frank to follow him. The image fades leaving the audience to contemplate Frank’s response to the gesture. Perhaps one of the most striking uses of lighting occurs as Frank enters a gay bar, oversaturated greens and oranges create a cavernous environment as an inverse parallel to the bright dress colors worn by Mrs. Whitakers and her social ladies group.

Cathy decides to bring a late dinner to Frank at his office and stumbles upon his double life as she discovers his sexual encounter with another man. This creates an internal crisis for Frank’s character and Cathy seeks out a specialist to cure him of his medical condition determined as a sickness. In the traditional model of a masculine approach to problem solving Frank vows to fix his own problem. The textual tension increases through the use of a film noir aesthetic sequence involving the police questioning his deviant behaviors. This blending of genre conventions fits the criteria of a postmodern pastiche film.  A suppression and inability to control his urges causes Frank to become increasingly resentful and hostile towards Cathy. Following a drunken berating of Cathy at a cocktail party he unleashes his rage and strikes her across the face. This feminism assault sequence is less aligned with a hetero male dominance assertion, as in The Electric Horseman (1979) wherein Robert Redford slaps Jane Fonda, and closer to, although to a much lesser extent, the repressed psycho-sexual fury unleashed by Norman Bates in Psycho (1961). Frank is exposed and ostracized at home, work and socially resulting in Cathy’s request for divorce as he sacrifices everything to his desire for male companionship.

Mrs. Whitaker has existed within her American bourgeois world by the world through the metaphor of rose colored glasses and is laughingly referred to as “Mrs. Magnatech” by her Caucasian socialite lady friends. These women socialize over drinks bantering in open gossip on frequency of performing sex with their husbands. Cathy is reflective on her own relationship and her own rejected advances towards Frank.  Cathy later discovers in Raymond an intelligent caring man with whom she begins to fall in love. The two soon encounter sharp racial prejudice as Caucasian townspeople scorn them both in a diner and on the street. Raymond suggests they go to a nice little place with friendly people that he frequents. The all African American patrons frown on his bringing a “white woman around” and hurl racial slurs such as “What you doin, boy?” Having been shunned from their respective social strata opens a middle ground of dialogue on their racial differences, this is a reflexive discourse is not inherent in traditional melodrama narrative.

Being stunned and hurt by Frank’s homo erotic indiscretions she turns to her best friend for a shoulder to cry on. Her friend can empathize with her plight about Frank as being “One of that kind” but when Cathy confides her feelings towards Raymond her racial prejudice turns her against Cathy. Gossip and rumors spread throughout the town and Raymond’s daughter is targeted and victimized for their taboo relationship. She is cornered in an alley by a group of Caucasian boys who stone the girl into unconsciousness. Raymond is aware that the boys will never be punished and fears for his daughter’s safety. Cathy later realizes that she was a catalyst to the girl’s injury as she rushes to Raymond to apologize. Raymond decides to move to Baltimore and must reject Cathy for the sake of his daughter. Cathy redefines the role of placated feminism in the 1950’s melodrama by breaking social boundaries and asserting feminist dominance in divorcing Frank.

Raymond is initially portrayed as the subservient Negro exploited in classical Hollywood tradition. The Whitaker housemaid and bar patrons also represent a social class that is oppressed by the majority Caucasian society of the small Connecticut town. Raymond quickly moves beyond this portrayal while attending the opening of an art exhibit and is approached by Cathy. He reveals that he holds deep beliefs in the existentialism of modern art as an extension of mankind’s limited capacity to explain religion. This opposes of the stereo typified portrayal of the African American as lacking cultural or intellectual opinion and is an example of pastiche at play in his character.

The intimate allusions of romance between Raymond and Cathy, which often occur in hidden garden alcoves, also subvert stereo-typification of the slave labor Mandingo Negro Buck and “White Lady of the Manor” lusting after one another in southern plantation settings. As the romantic sparks between Frank and Cathy never develop into a sexual discourse and in its place creates a sociological contemplation of prejudice towards mixed race relationships.

Postmodern aspects within Far from Heaven use classical genres and audio visual cues to create a cinematic experience that evokes questions outside the narrative. The final sequence places Raymond aboard a train leaving Cathy standing alone on the station platform. Cathy has acted as a hub between Frank and Raymond and their divergent paths. An affinity for weakness in the males and strength in the female concludes the film with an open ending that lacks narrative resolution. This reverses traditional roles of male and female leaving the audience to grapple with the broader context of race and sexual orientation contained within the film.

 

 

Bibliography

 

Cunyet Cakilar, “Cinephilic Bodies: Todd Haynes’s Cinema of Queer Pastiche” in Kult  

     Kanon, web. http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/1308859/1/Cakirlar_Haynes_KULT.pdf  

     Accessed Feb. 25, 2013.

Hill, John. “Film and Postmodernism” in Film Studies: Critical Approaches. edited by

     John Hill and Pamela Church Gibson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Newman, Michael. Indie: An American Film Culture. New York: Columbia University

     Press. 2011.

 

 


[1] Hill, Film and Postmodernism, 98.

[2] Cakilar, Cinephilic Bodies: Todd Haynes’s Cinema of Queer Pastiche, 164.

[3] Hill, 98.

[4] Newman, 161.

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