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Hollywood's Avant-Garde Storyteller
Here, Haynes talks through his filmography and discusses the conceptual scaffolding that reveals the sometimes hidden purpose within his projects.
"Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story" (1987) is a mock docudrama that tells the story of Carpenter's ultimately fatal eating disorder, using Barbie dolls.
"Initially, this was an experiment in narrative form. . . . If you didn't have real actors playing the roles but you followed the [biopic] genre very closely, with dolls instead of actors, you could still elicit the same emotional reactions. But that became a lot deeper and more complex of an experiment with something as real and poignant as Karen Carpenter, and what happened beneath the surface of those songs every time you hear them. . . . They seem completely plastic and perfect on the outside but, at the same time, there's such a complex reservoir of emotion and suffering on the inside." (The film was yanked from theaters, as Haynes did not secure the rights to the Carpenters' songs on the soundtrack.)
"Poison," (1991) a triptych of stories related to the works of Jean Genet, caused an uproar among the political right for its federally funded depictions of hard-core gay sex. It also won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.
The French playwright, Haynes explains, "was always interested in what was considered criminal about homosexuality, and how it undermined mainstream sensibilities. And in the AIDS era, the gay communities that had flourished in the 1970s were being assaulted by disease and the implication, from governmental policy, that their lives weren't as valuable as others. Genet's desire to reverse the degraded image of gay people was needed."
"Safe" (1995) examines the physical and psychological deterioration of a California homemaker (Julianne Moore) as she becomes increasingly sickened by the various toxins around her, from car fumes to household detergent.
"It was a way of looking at questions of identity and illness, and using the vehicle of the disease movie of the week, almost, as a way of challenging the kind of culpability that we attach to illness," Haynes says. Traditional disease movies, he continues, conclude with the main character learning something about themselves in relationship to their illness. Although Moore's character is told she made herself sick by hating herself, the film "questions this feeling, that we can determine our own conditions and own health."
"Velvet Goldmine" (1998) tracks the rise and fall of a fictional g lam - r ock star (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who inspires many fans to re-explore their sexuality, but who ultimately fakes his death to escape his pop persona.
The movie, Haynes says, not only celebrates "the electric, glittery instability" of the glam period, it "explores the openness that the genre offered youngsters who were figuring out their own sexuality." It also suggests that Oscar Wilde was a direct ancestor of glam, with his rejections of "the idea that sexuality and identity were organic." The clue comes at the beginning: Wilde is imagined as an orphan dropped on a doorstep from outer space with a magical emerald brooch in his possession that's passed from hand to hand throughout the movie.
"Far F rom Heaven" (2002) follows a 1950s Connecticut housewife (Moore) as she endures her husband's homosexual awakening, and hostility from her neighbors after she befriends a black gardener.
"Many people will say it was bringing content into the form and style of a 1950s maternal melodrama in a way that wouldn't have been possible at the time, but I'm not so sure. I feel like those films were always about controversy in their day. There were layers of interesting, latent homosexual readings in the films of Rock Hudson. I really wanted to just bring out what was both an innately, socially critical form of mainstream genre but also one that was absolutely purely emotional, so those two things could coexist in a popular and a very discredited genre of the melodrama, and make it both pertinent and accessible and critical at the same time."