Far from Heaven

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Jul 4 09:06:23 MDT 2003

Recent decisions by the US Supreme Court defending affirmative action and 
striking down sodomy laws have been described as "centrist". In reality, 
the court was simply reflecting the sea change that has transformed 
American society. If anybody needs a reminder of the dreary status quo 
ante, I recommend Todd Haynes's brilliant "Far From Heaven", now available 
in video/dvd.

For anybody growing up in an affluent small town or suburbia in the 1950s, 
the film will create a strong sense of déjà vu. Though "Far From Heaven" 
takes place in Hartford, Connecticut in 1957, it suggests any municipality 
that upheld the kind of "traditional values" that so many youth rebelled 
against a few years later.

When we first encounter Cathy and Frank Whittaker (Julianne Moore and 
Dennis Quaid) in their spacious home, they seem to be poster children for 
the Eisenhower-era. Indeed, they seem to be exactly the kind of couple that 
George W. and Laura Bush style themselves after. In this household, Frank 
Whitaker wears the pants. After arriving at home in the evening, Cathy is 
sure to attend to his every need while their two children obey their 
mother's every word. As Engels pointed out, within the family the husband 
is the bourgeois and the wife represents the proletariat. If this is so, 
the Whitaker children are a subproletariat. In nearly every exchange of 
dialog between husband and wife, or parent and child, authority is on 
display. The Whitaker home is a gilded cage.

As Tolstoy said, "All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy 
family is unhappy in its own way." The unhappiness that is visited upon the 
Whitakers is a function very much of the issues that came before the 
Supreme Court recently. Despite Frank Whitaker's square-jawed, 
hyper-masculine image, we (and his wife) soon discover that he has a sexual 
preference for other men.

After a chance encounter at his office, where she sees him in the arms of 
another man, they go to a psychiatrist in order to cure his "problem". This 
might involve electroshock and other forms of "aversion" therapy. Quaid's 
performance as the anguished closeted husband is masterful, as is Moore's 
as his loyal but despairing wife. With little understanding of his 
underlying desires or any ability to see a road back to "normalcy", the two 
characters command our pity. Ultimately, the only solution to the kinds of 
contradictions they faced would come in the form of the gay liberation 
movement, which once and for all legitimized alternative sexuality. Once 
this genie was out of the bottle, all attempts by the likes of Rick 
Santorum to put it back in are doomed to fail.

As Cathy Whitaker finds herself feeling more and more isolated and 
abandoned, she finds herself drawn to their African-American gardener. 
Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert) is a handsome and well-educated man who is 
the one character in the film who seems capable of self-awareness. Perhaps 
it is his immunity from the sham values that pervade white Hartford that 
attract Cathy Whitaker to him above all. After agreeing to a drive in 
Deagan's pick-up truck to get away from the sorrows at home, they drop into 
a restaurant in the black section of Hartford, where they share a cocktail 
and a slow dance. In her own way, she is demonstrating the longing 
expressed by Jack Kerouac in "On the Road":

"At lilac evening I walked with every muscle aching among the lights of 
27th and Welton in the Denver colored section wishing I were a Negro, 
feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy 
for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night."

Since Cathy Whitaker is not really able to leave bourgeois society behind 
her as the beat generation did, she is doomed to suffer. Todd Haynes has 
crafted a film very much in the tradition of Douglas Sirk, who made a 
series of "weepers" featuring women in conflict with the phony values of 
bourgeois society. In his 1959 "Imitation of Life", Sirk explores the same 
sorts of themes. Lana Turner stars as a young widow who struggles to make 
it on Broadway. Meanwhile, the light-skinned daughter of Turner's black 
maid is tempted to pass for white.

Despite his affinity for material that bordered on soap opera, Sirk was 
active in the German theater of the Weimar Republic and frequently staged 
the works of Brecht. He fled Germany with his Jewish wife after the rise of 

Along with the late Rainer Fassbinder who consciously emulated Sirk in 
films such as "Martha" (the heroine lives on "Douglas Sirk Street"), Todd 
Haynes has chosen to make a film in the Sirkian mode. In a November 10, 
2002 NY Times article by J. Hoberman, we discover that "Mr. Haynes, a 
graduate of Brown University with a degree in art and semiotics, first 
encountered Sirk in college in the 1980's at a moment when academic 
interest in his movies was stimulated by a feminist reappraisal and radical 
rereading of so-called women's pictures." Although this could have led to a 
dry, academic approach to the material in "Far From Heaven", his overall 
skill as a director and story-teller yields not only one of the finest 
American films of last year but one that repudiates all the attempts by 
conservative America to turn back the clock to a desperate and unhappy past.


Louis Proyect, Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org

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