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Two Old-Fashioneds
by Lucius Shepard
December 1, 2002

When I was in junior high, two friends and I sneaked a live chicken into the balcony of a theater in Daytona Beach, Florida during a promotion billed as a “Women’s Matinee.” Below us, hundreds of women were weeping at the sad plight of Lana Turner in her latest tearjerker. My friends and I covered the chicken with ketchup and dropped it off the edge of the balcony into the audience, eliciting shrieks and panicked flight, packs of ketchup-spattered women fleeing the scene while the larger-than-life Ms. Turner continued her overwrought emoting behind them on the screen. The impropriety of this prank is not in question, being offensive to PETA, NOW, the Chicken Rights people, and—I’m sure— Secretaries For A Better Tomorrow; but its motivation is less clear. Doubtless the image of middle-aged women boo-hooing en masse posed a provocation of sorts to my seventh-grade brain; yet I think that even at such a tender age, it was also an inborn distaste for melodrama that goaded me to action. This said, I came to a viewing of Todd Haynes’ much-praised melodrama, Far from Heaven, with great anticipation.

Haynes, who directed Safe, a picture I rank among the ten best American films of the Nineties, is an immensely talented man whose talent lately has been undermined by his obsessions. In his previous movie, The Velvet Goldmine, his fascination with glam rock served to corrupt his usually precise artistic sensibility and the result was an indulgent mess of a film that sought to mythologize a dreary, hackneyed plot by imbuing its milieu with homoerotic mystery, questions of identity, and so forth. Now, in Heaven, he presents us with what must be considered in part a loving homage to the work of Douglas Sirk, who during the 1950s churned out a succession of lurid, campy, Technicolor tearjerkers (most notably, All That Heaven Allows, a Jane Wyman-Rock Hudson vehicle concerning the scandalous romance between a widow and a gardener much younger than she that stands as a direct precursor to Far from Heaven). For some unfathomable reason, perhaps because some academic thought it would be clever to do so, these films have recently been redefined as “important.”

Set in New Haven, Connecticut, during the late Fifties, Haynes’ film seeks to explore the vanished culture of the suburban aristocracy, the exclusive precinct of country clubs, executives with low golf handicaps, Stepfordesque wives who wore white gloves and cooked like Betty Crocker and did charity work among “the Negroes,” a society as structured and fortified and constrained as that of the gentry in the Ante-Bellum South. Julianne Moore plays Cathy Whittaker, the most Stepfordish wife, mother, and hostess of them all, her charity work celebrated in the society pages, leading a superficially perfect life that obscures a terrible flaw in her marriage to Frank Whittaker (Dennis Quaid), one she cannot entirely admit to herself. Frank appears the quintessential successful suburbanite—great golfer, prosperous salesman—but he spends many an evening in downtown New Haven hanging near a movie theater (it’s playing The Three Faces of Eve), then sneaking into a bar tucked away down an alley where he finds solace in “the love that dare not speak its name.” Though he’s not fully able to confront the fact, Frank is gay. After Cathy catches him in the embrace of another man, Frank seeks psychiatric help, hoping to cure what he believes must be a disease. Cathy finds a confidante of her own in Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert), a black gardener who has taken over his father’s landscaping business and is, in his own fashion, as lonely and disaffected as Cathy. Eventually Frank’s struggle to become straight begins to cause him problems at work, and Cathy’s burgeoning (albeit innocent) relationship with Raymond sets tongues wagging—to have even a conversation with a black man is a breech of what is thought to be proper behavior by the town gossips (in case the audience fails to grasp the historical significance of this, Haynes runs news breaks concerning the integration of Little Rock’s Central High School underneath the action). Before too long, Raymond’s daughter is harassed by racists who are offended by his connection with a white woman, Frank reaches a crisis point, Cathy’s idyllic life is shattered, and things swiftly build toward a tear-stained ending.

The acting in Far from Heaven is first water. Following hard upon his excellent work in The Rookie, Quaid continues to reinvigorate his career with a devastating portrait of a man who is part lovesick idiot, part student-body president, and part desolate loser. Haysbert brings an immense Poitier-like gravitas to the role of Raymond, and Moore is simply perfect. Always a luminous figure on the screen, in Haynes’ hands she becomes a figure of almost supernatural intensity, an ikon in whom cracks of unreality have suddenly manifested. Sitting with a group of other wives, listening to them discuss their husbands’ marital demands, realizing that her own husband is never demanding in this way; watching a boy and girl kissing on a bench while waiting for Frank to emerge from his psychiatrist’s office: in scene after scene Moore transcends the parameters of her profession, managing to portray not only Cathy Whittaker, a Rockwellian angel shocked by a recognition of life’s imperfection, but further to sum up all the actresses who have ever played a similar character, to make of this clichéd role a magical archetype. As the shocks to Cathy’s system multiply, layer by layer Moore strips away the artificiality of the character’s personality to reveal the frightened woman beneath. There is every chance that she will receive a long-overdue Oscar for this role.

The art direction (Haynes’ films are never less than brilliantly mounted) and the gorgeous cinematography initially depict the world of mid-century New Haven done in ochres and ambers and coppers and russets and deep leafy greens, making it appear like a cross between an ad for new cars in the Saturday Evening Post and a mystical forest kingdom. As Cathy’s illusion decays and the seasons change, the colors of Haynes’ palette dim, foreshadowing a tragedy to come. But for all Haynes’ talent and precise control of the cinematic elements, or—more accurately—because of these same qualities, there is a mammoth preciousness about this film that inhibits all its virtues. It’s as if we’re being shown not a movie but one of those little globes enclosing a miniature scene that swirl with ersatz snow when shaken. We’re being asked, it seems, to view this tiny incidence of light and color from the vantage of contemporary expectation, to gaze upon it with an arch superiority, to feel good, I suppose, that we live in a less deceitful age, one in which the sickness of the culture—though it remains untreated—has at least been revealed. We’re also being asked to revel in the costumery of the past, to delight in its pretty dysfunction and fakery. Ultimately, what causes the whole of Far from Heaven to total less than the sum of its parts is its unappetizing source materials—the awful films of Douglas Sirk—and the cleverness with which it attempts to reinvent the tired form of the melodrama, a reinvention that cannot completely succeed because it is too dotingly in love with the old-fashioned fashion of the form, with its structural and quasi-artistic conventions. One senses that Haynes has an overweening sympathy for his characters, like someone playing with dolls, painting a tragedy in too-lush colors for an audience overly conversant with tragedy’s actual colors. He cannot restrain himself from proclaiming his cleverness and sympathy in various unsubtle ways—for instance, during the aforementioned scene wherein Cathy watches a young couple kissing on a bench, when understatement would have better served the dramatic purpose, he crowns her head with an exalted, saintly radiance, a heavy-handedness that acts to reduce what might have been poignant to the campy. The idea itself, of making a great Douglas Sirk movie, is wedded to triviality, and the notion of yet another film dealing with the fraudulence of suburban life, a list that includes such recent unfortunate entries as Happiness and the grotesquely pretentious American Beauty, borders upon thematic overkill. It’s a near certainty that because of the power of its performances and—more significantly—because of Hollywood’s embrace of movies that comment upon the glory days of the star system, Far from Heaven will receive a Best Picture nomination. Haynes well may deserve the award. It’s been a bad year for movies. But my feeling is that the award he wanted to win was not this year’s Oscar, but the Best Picture Award for 1956, and that ambition, which pervades the movie, limits the degree to which it can be considered a success.

Another new film that references—albeit somewhat less devoutly—an old-fashioned type of narrative is Phillip Noyce’s (The Hunt for Red October, Clear and Present Danger), remake of The Quiet American. Noyce’s leisurely, understated version is redolent of 1970s filmmaking and hews far more faithfully in style and substance to the Graham Greene novel than did Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1958 glossy disappointment . . .though neither explores as deeply as one might hope Greene’s basic materials, i.e., the nature of American involvement in creating the circumstances that brought about the Vietnam War. Nevertheless, American stands as the best Graham Greene cinematic adaptation since Orson Welles’ The Third Man, succeeding in evoking the overarching theme of all Greene’s novels, the intertwining of coincidence and fate.

Like Far from Heaven, The Quiet American is a piece of technical virtuosity and this is in large part due to the efforts of two accomplished men: cinematographer Christopher Doyle, mostly known for his work with Wang Kar-Wai (Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love), and editor John Scott (Sexy Beast). Utilizing an impressive but always subtly managed array of camera movement and speeds and digital effects, Doyle summons up the lush, steamy, seductive atmosphere of Saigon circa 1952 with such potency, you can almost smell the perfume and the sewage, creating sumptuous images that Scott orchestrates into breathtaking passages of violence and romance. Against this beautifully executed backdrop, Noyce mounts the story of a love triangle that serves as a lens through which we are allowed to view a poorly lit corner of history, the transitional stage between the end of the French-Indochinese War and the beginning of the tragic American misadventure in Vietnam.

At the outset, the body of a young American, Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), is found in the river; an elderly, cynical journalist, Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine), is brought in to identify him. Here Noyce drops us into the past, telling the story in flashback, and we begin to learn how both men reached that moment. Pyle, who introduces himself as a doctor attached to the American Economic Mission, first encounters Fowler at breakfast at the Continental Paradise Hotel. In his blatant naïveté, his bumbling, sloganeering manner, Pyle is the perfect emblem of America during those days, giddy with post-war confidence, bluffly anti-communist, and having an aggressively childlike view of history. Fowler has a mistress, a beautiful Vietnamese woman named Phuong, whom he cannot marry because his wife will not grant him a divorce. Phuong (Do Hi Hai Yen) is a naïf whose chief worry is that she will wind up alone, as have so many Vietnamese women with foreign lovers, and when Pyle falls in love with her, he plays upon this fear, perceiving himself—as he does in all things—as righteous, refusing to admit any possibility that he may be errant in his judgments. Pyle is a fool, not evil, but when political goals are at stake—Greene and Noyce are telling us—perhaps the distinction between these two conditions is irrelevant, and as it becomes clear that Pyle is working in the interests of a shadowy force that is neither the French nor the Indochinese, we understand that for all his talk of good works and right action, this bungling, affable soul is an extremely dangerous man.

The political conflict deepens and Fowler’s detachment from the turmoil around him takes a hit as he becomes aware of hideous atrocities committed against the civilian population and of the increasing American encouragement of and support for a certain Vietnamese general who poses an alternative to those offered by the colonialists and the communists. Despite their romantic rivalry, he and Pyle have developed a friendship, but eventually he tumbles to the connection between Pyle’s American Economic Mission and the general. A terrorist bombing in the heart of Saigon causes Fowler to understand that Pyle is a complicitor in events and he commits to a course of action. The question arises, does he act out of moral concern or he is merely wounded by the fact that he has lost Phuong to the younger American?

Though he has not received due critical attention, Brendan Fraser is beginning to make a case for himself as one of the great supporting actors in the cinema today. In Gods and Monsters he provided the solid perch upon which Ian McKellen could deliver his quirky, birdlike performance. It is doubtful that the Oscar would be resting on McKellen’s mantle had a less generous and genuine actor been in the subordinate role, and I was astounded when Fraser did not even receive a nomination for Best Supporting Actor. In The Quiet American he supplies a similar service for Michael Caine. Everything in Fraser’s bulky, bearish delivery appears designed to focus us on Caine’s subdued moral struggle, and it’s quite possible that the end result will be much the same—an Oscar for Caine and a smattering of off-handed praise for Fraser. Be that as it may, the picture does belong to Caine. His portrait of Fowler must be judged among his most brilliant performances. From the bemused smiles that evidence his earliest reactions to Pyle to the horror he registers when he comprehends the ambiguity of his ultimate motivations, Caine conveys complexities of emotion with exquisitely nuanced gestures and expressions. Simply put, his achievement is remarkable.

As is that of the director.

It appears that Noyce, grown weary of blockbusters, pyrotechnics, CIA superheroes, and ham-sandwich leading men such as Harrison Ford and Val Kilmer, has decided to eschew the demands of commerce and to return to making the smaller, less commercially viable films that marked his early career. Along with American, 2002 will see the release of his Australian-set film, Rabbit Proof Fence, a story of three aboriginal girls kidnapped to serve as household menials who escape and make their way home across the Outback. The Quiet American may not fit the definition of a small film as regards budget and scope, but it is decidedly of questionable commercial potential. It has been sitting on the shelf for a year, obviously held back as a result of the events of 9/11, the thinking being that given the political climate following the destruction of the World Trade Center, Americans might not welcome a movie that portrays our nation’s foreign policy in anything other than a glorious light. In a very real sense, the arbiters of taste in this country seem committed to sustaining in the general populace the same childish view of the world that afflicted Alden Pyle, and one wonders if any film that does not treat history in simplistic black-and-white terms will find a mass audience waiting to embrace it. Hopefully this is not the case. Hopefully movies like The Quiet American, movies that illuminate and inform and challenge the prevailing hot air blasts emanating from the political process, will be perceived as alternatives to idiocy and not as subversive statements. Hopefully those who see the film may be inspired to question if not to resist the heavy-metal red-white-and-blue cheerleading that may soon lead us into yet another uncertain foreign adventure. But as any number of Graham Greene’s characters—men and women who have witnessed too much of the world to be deceived by it—might well have said, “Hope is a splendid thing so long as one does not believe in it.”