A list of the best films you'll never see, A through K
Mildred Pierce (Expanded Version)
By Paul Brunick
James M. Cain’s father was an English professor and a puritanically prescriptive grammarian. Cain later told an interviewer for the Paris Review that this native fluency in academically correct syntax is what landed him a staff-writing gig at the New Yorker—but his literary style was equally influenced by the boyhood hours spent slumming with the university’s maintenance crews.
Unlike his famously first-person potboilers Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, Cain’s 1941 masterpiece Mildred Pierce deploys (to use a ten-dollar phrase) a “free indirect discourse” that blends high diction with gutter talk. This quintessentially American novelist could draw a bead on any species of speech—professional jargon and adman sloganeering, homegrown vernacular and pidgin-English hybrids, middle-class clichés and aristocratic affectations—and score a lethal hit every time. His work was devoured by both the reading public and critical heavyweights because it so totally transcended the class-bound categories of high and low art.
Such is the postmodern promise of Todd Haynes’s filmography, where pop culture and art-salon style are meant to march arm in arm toward a unibrow utopia of ideological critique. Yet as much as Haynes obsesses over the iconography of mass culture, this arch semiotician has always spoken to and in the language of the ivory tower. Far From Heaven (02) is only Douglas Sirk Redux on a secondary level; it is first of all a faithful translation of the revisionist school of Sirk Studies, i.e., post-Seventies critics like Laura Mulvey, Fred Camper, and Paul Willeman. Haynes’s films are not simply influenced by critical theory. They are theory. They dramatize post-structuralism’s preoccupations and logical rigidity with an almost literal-minded exactitude. His film’s subjects are “subjects”; they self-reflexively point out that there is no self. The heroine of Safe (95) is named Carol White; it’s not just a metaphor (blank-slate anti-essentialism) but a meta-metaphor (what do you mean by “meaning”?) And if you feel like you're losing your way in a mise-en-abyme of endless mediation, rest assured that you're not lost at all.
Am I being anti-intellectual or (dare I say it?) re-inscribing a false duality between intellect and emotion? Umm, I don’t think so. I like academic essays (I have a Master’s degree, sort of!) and regard them as equal to any other kind of writing. But I detect an aspect of willful denial in Haynes’s attempts to redeploy commercial conventions into a political dialogue with non-specialist audiences. Why? Because those people don’t watch his films. But hello—HBO! Mildred Pierce ads slapped on the side of buses! A pointed decision not to reference the Joan Crawford version! Haynes’s miniseries was designed to be his popular breakthrough and it (mostly) succeeds at that task. In adapting Cain’s story of an up-by-her-bootstraps divorcée, Haynes hews close to the text, keeping the focus on the characters and story. A little too close, perhaps, as the series translates the novel through verbatim dialogue in scenes rolled out in ploddingly linear order. The opening episode is a yawn of exposition, but the series reaches cruising speed by the third, and episodes four and five are the honest-to-God stuff of soap opera. The sex scenes are actually sexy, the comic exchanges are almost funny, and the lived-in production design looks really great.
Though many critics have commented on Haynes’s uncharacteristic avoidance of cinematic quotation, I’d say that there’s as much stylistic pastiche as ever, just this time it’s more self-effacing. I observed Fassbinder’s frontal tableaux and vanity-mirror mise en scène, Ophuls’s curlicue tracking shots and aperture framing via doorways and windows. And speaking of windows, there are lots of those: beveled, mottled, mullioned, semi-transparent, draped with curtains and flush with wrought-iron latticework. Every other image in this series is shot through a window. Shades of Douglas Sirk’s through-a-glass-darkly distanciations? Or have I pigeonholed Haynes as a certain kind of filmmaker and now actively seek out allusions I otherwise wouldn’t find? At one point as I was focusing on Haynes’s uncharacteristically fluid use of character-dictated camera movements, I thought to myself, “These compositions are studiously unstudied!” So as insistently as Haynes mediates the drama through visual devices, perhaps there’s a degree to which I’m the one over-thinking things.
The main weakness of the series is that its eponymous protagonist (underplayed by Kate Winslet) never completely comes into focus. Like most of Haynes’s heroines, Mildred is touchingly naïve and something of a cipher, a well intentioned but deluded figure defined by social forces she only vaguely understands. That Haynes regards her stupidity with such tenderness is, I suppose, what makes him a feminist. Cain could be much more cruel to his characters—his tone far sharper, his satire more cutting—but even as he observes Mildred from a critical distance that precludes simple identification, he also allows her more intelligence and self-awareness. Cain individuates his character with a psychological specificity that makes her memorable and unique. Haynes’s characterization seems at once coddling and condescending by comparison. But after five-and-a-half hours where Mildred figures in every scene, the character remains remarkably vague.
I suspect that Haynes doesn’t really understand people on an intuitive level. It’s not just the analytically top-down way he anatomizes his characters’ desires. It’s the recurring feeling you get that certain scenes or line deliveries don’t quite work due to subtleties of tempo, tone, and inflection. You can feel that something’s slightly off. As Jean-Luc Godard, another director of reflexive cinematic essays, once wrote: “Every film is a documentary of its own production.” This fact—that the pro-filmic reality of a movie set has the power to radically transform any given camera setup or line of dialogue—seems lost on Haynes. His awkwardness with actors suggests an almost autistic inability to read people, to grasp the irreducible expressivity of their faces, gestures, and carriage. He certainly feels for his characters, but perhaps too much—it’s as if he overcompensates for a lack of empathy with an excess of sympathy. How else could a film like Far From Heaven feel at once coldly alienated and cloyingly sentimental?
At one point in the novel, Cain remarks of Mildred’s nymph-fatale daughter Veda: “She spoke in the clear, affected voice that one associates with stage children, and indeed everything she said had the effect of being learned by heart.” Such is the feeling one gets from Haynes. Though he has 70 years of perspective on Cain, the novel always seems to remain one step ahead of the film. To examine them side by side is to watch a master go head to head with a very advanced, very hard-working student who nonetheless can’t quite keep up.
If Haynes were a slightly lesser filmmaker, this would probably be a more positive review. But I always sense in his work a potential not quite realized, a kind of brilliance that keeps bumping up against the same creative blockages. Mildred Pierce is quite good—it’s certainly worth five-and-a-half hours of your time—but it’s not quite the masterpiece Haynes just might be capable of.
© 2011 by Paul Brunick