Having enjoyed and appreciated I'm Not There (which I posted about here), I read with considerable interest an interview with its director, Todd Haynes, in the March/April issue of The Believer by Robert Polito. Here are a couple of excerpts:
TH: [At Brown University] the first class I took was on sound theory, and it was taught by Phil Rosen, who was Mary Ann Doane's husband. I remember sitting in a class with him talking about the classic Hollywood text, and he said, "Of course, it comes to the obligatory heterosexual closure. And just hearing the words heterosexual closure was so radical to me, it was so meaningful, because it named something that our society basically suggests is natural and inevitable, and doesn't need a name, and doesn't doesn't need to be distinguished as a choice. And there are so many more examples of how through poststructural film theory I found a parallel language to things that i was already feeling and thinking. And ways that I might already have applied them in my work, but found an academic tradition and theoretical tradition to articulate it. So I just think it helped me mature, and be able to clarify things. But really, if it doesn't come to you from your gut, through your own life and experience-- it's meaningless. It's a trend, it's fashionable. It may have been that for some of my peers at Brown. But when it connects to your own experience and way of seeing the world, then you're set free.
RP: Is that questioning of traditional aesthetic paradigms one of the ways in which you would see your films to this day as political?
TH: Yes. Definitely.
RP: I'm glad you say that. Because as sharp as I'm Not There is about Bob Dylan, it seems to me this isn't just or even mainly a film about Dylan, or even the 1960s, for all the specific references to civil rights, Johnson, Nixon, or Vietnam. Of course I'm Not There is about Bob Dylan, but watching it the other day for the second time I started thinking, This is a film about now, about a country during a terrible war, and how you-- someone, anyone-- keep your art alive amid that war, and all this incessant media saturation, and how you sustain your politics.
TH: It's a desperate attempt to remember other ways of keeping your politics alive, and your creative voice alive, against a war, against political policies that one begins to find abominable, deeply flawed, and helplessly persistent. But I also felt I was trying to conjure up a lost consciousness or distant planet of existence in looking at and studying the 1960s during the height of the Bush-Cheney years. So it was and wasn't-- it was sort of an antidote to where we were on so many levels as well, but I think obviously I was fueled by a lot of contemporary rage and helplessness from our era.
A few paragraphs later, he notes his sense of "worlds being foreclosed and not fully accessible to us today."
And here, he talks about genre:
RP: I'm also wondering how you think about genre, because it seems to me that all your films play with, and play against, genres. Obviously there's a sense that I'm Not There is a biopic, the way that Far from Heaven was a woman's film, or Safe a disease film. How do you think genres operate inside your films?
TH: I think they are both utilized and hen pried open. But they have to maintain enough of their original shape and form to be able to excite and activate the reactions in a viewer, and that's what I am most interested in. What the genres do to the viewer, and the kind of expectations that they set i motion. So you have to excite them and get them going, and then hopefully broaden them and redirect them in ways that draw a different kind of consciousness to those expectations. Safe is maybe the cleanest example. The resolution in a disease film is one that is sort of antagonistic, or has an antagonistic component that I think most disease movies masks over, because disease movies basically ask their subjects to identify with their illness, and come to some kind of acceptance and acquiescence to their state. That often puts them in a very rigid box, one that reifies our whole cultural way of thinking of illness as at some level something that the subject is responsible for.
And so, in this film, you're supposed to accept your illness, and become a cancer survivor, or become an advocate for this or that. And when Julianne Moore does that at Wrenwood, it's basically asking her to say, "I really hated myself when I first came here, and I'm going through this process of accepting culpability for my illness." And you both want that because that's what the narrative expectations and the generic expectations require. But then you watch that basically crush this fragile person into acquiescence and self-hatred. So what you want a narrative level, you have to question on the human level.
TH: Do conventional biopics operate along those same lines here?
TH: Yes, I think so. They kind of crush and belittle the great artist, who we're supposed to comprehend in a line, or a brief summation. They reduce the person while also aggrandizing them.