If there’s a word that summarises Todd Haynes’ career, it’s melodrama. "I love how melodrama is a denigrated term — a lower-class citizen to other genres. And yet that's what life is, man. We don't live in Westerns, noirs, murder mysteries and s***,” the American filmmaker explained to The Guardian in 2011.
His career may have spanned only seven features in nearly three decades, but Haynes has become the master of conveying emotional realities in all their splendour — from the pressures of modern-day existence in Safe to the yearning of love beyond society’s excepted bounds in Carol to the adventurous search to belong in his upcoming Wonderstruck.
Haynes is the second filmmaker in the spotlight in SBS VICELAND’s The Vice Guide to Film. Before you watch Vice’s tribute to his work and impact, we present the essential info you need to know about the director’s output.
Vice Guide To Film S1 Ep2 - Todd Haynes
The Haynes essentials
When Haynes took on Karen Carpenter’s tragic tale in the short film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, he used Barbie dolls, posing and voicing them in the same way that kids play with toys. When he took inspiration from David Bowie’s '70s glam rock phase in Velvet Goldmine, he had to spin it into a fictional story without the iconic figure’s songs after failing to get permission to use his tracks. And when he examined the impact Bob Dylan had on American music and society, he populated I’m Not There with six different actors playing six different versions of his subject. Popular music and its influence continue to fascinate the filmmaker, as do the way that identities are constructed and perceived. Just as intriguing to Haynes is relaying boundary-breaking tales while doing the same.
Indeed, to watch Haynes’ films is to witness life’s contradictions ebb and flow. Breathtaking to look at while charting pain, sorrow and struggle, his features seethe with emotion and relay as much through their style as their stories. It's a trend that started with Superstar and was cemented in his first full-length effort. In Poison, the Los Angeles born and raised writer/director packaged a triptych of tales in recognisable genres and formats, telling AIDS-era queer narratives in the style of television news reports, '60s horror and prison drama. It would win Haynes the Grand Jury Prize Dramatic at the Sundance Film Festival in 1991.
The rest of Haynes’ work follows a similar pattern, not that he can be accused of making the same movie twice. In Safe, the Douglas Sirk-style Far From Heaven and lesbian romance Carol, he stepped behind the picture of suburban existence so often sold as an idyll to discover the troubles and secrets lurking within, as well as the women trying to break out. On television, the Kate Winslet-starring Mildred Pierce did the same. Based on the novel by Hugo author Brian Selznick, Wonderstruck might appear a departure, focusing on pre-teen protagonists in 1920s and 1970s New York, but it demonstrates Haynes’ specific talent for making his familiar themes seem new again. Each of his features proves rich and resonant, while also visually, narratively and emotionally distinctive in its own way.
Two things you mightn’t know
- A court ordered all copies of Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story be destroyed after a copyright lawsuit was brought by Carpenter’s brother, Richard. The Museum of Modern Art was allowed to retain one, as long as it isn’t screened.
- Haynes wrote additional dialogue for Office Killer, the only feature directed by photographer and artist Cindy Sherman. It’s also the only film Haynes has a writing credit on that he didn’t direct.
Five films you really need to see
Poison: Haynes started his feature filmmaking career as he meant to go on, with his three-part debut exploring AIDS-era tales and demonstrating his willingness to subvert perceptions from the outset.
Safe: One of the under-appreciated highlights of the '90s, the first of Julianne Moore’s collaborations with Haynes casts the actress as a housewife suddenly allergic to the trappings of her affluent life.
Velvet Goldmine: The best film about David Bowie that doesn’t actually say the singer's name, Haynes’ third feature is a glam rock masterpiece, complete with stellar performances by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Ewan McGregor and Christian Bale.
Far From Heaven: Julianne Moore’s fourth Oscar nomination came from this sumptuous, heart-swelling, ’50s-set and -styled melodrama, as did Haynes’ only nomination to date — for best original screenplay.
Carol: Widely considered the best film of 2015 — although it didn’t release in Australia until 2016 — the Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara-starring film turns Patricia Highsmith’s lesbian romance novel into an aching portrait of desire.
Who’s sharing the Haynes love?
Julianne Moore: Haynes’ four-time star — first in Safe, then earning an Academy Award nomination in Far From Heaven, next playing a Joan Baez-type in I’m Not There and most recently featuring in a supporting part in Wonderstruck.
Kelly Reichardt: Writer/director Reichardt boasts a filmography as impressive as Haynes, including Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff, Night Moves and Certain Women. Haynes has acted as an executive producer on all of Reichardt’s features, with the exception of her debut, River of Grass.
Kyle Chandler: The Friday Night Lights and Bloodline star played Harge Aird, husband to Cate Blanchett’s titular character in Carol.
Christine Vachon: Vachon first met Haynes while they were studying at Brown University. She has produced all seven of his features, as well as the likes of Happiness, Boys Don’t Cry, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Still Alice and Beatriz at Dinner.
B Ruby Rich: The American film critic and author coined the term "new queer cinema" in 1992, partly in reference to Haynes’ Poison, and later wrote the book New Queer Cinema: The Director's Cut.
Watch The Vice Guide to Film Tuesday nights at 10:40pm or stream it at SBS On Demand.