Understanding Todd Haynes

I’m Finally There, Thanks to New Book

Mar. 30, 2013
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  Let me confess: the films of Todd Haynes were always off-putting to me. Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story struck me as mocking the fallen pop singer; Safe just seemed sterile (but that’s the point!); and his generally acknowledged masterpiece, the fractured Dylan biography I’m Not There, somehow seemed brilliantly wrong.

Well, I was probably wrong on all counts—or just never in the right mood. In Todd Haynes (University of Illinois Press), Film Quarterly editor Rob White cogently analyzes the director’s oeuvre, locating Haynes’ films within (and without) their genre conventions and historical connections. Superstar told the Carpenters’ story through dolls and yet established a human connection with the characters so represented—more so, as White indicates, than the live actors in a made-for-TV movie called The Karen Carpenter Story. Was Haynes being merely ironic in his appropriation of the Carpenters’ songs? As the director explains in an interview with White: “We know all too well how manipulative that music is and how plastic and unreal, and so we’re so unsuspecting of a true emotional connection that we’re in the best possible place to receive one.”

Haynes was an experimental filmmaker coming of age in the ‘80s, when the cinematic avant-garde turned from the blind alley of formalism to embrace, as Hayes says, “narrative, genre, and emotion.” Blue Velvet was a touchstone, with its “ironic positions around discarded generic styles, but without denying emotional access.”

As for I’m Not There, White quotes critic Greil Marcus: “The film is confusing only if one demands that a dream explain itself.” All right, I was wrong. I wanted Dylan served straight up but the mercurial artist warrants something less linear. Many of Haynes’ films are concerned with undermining the prison of cinematic realism—and I’m with him. The boxes of “realism” are wide enough to store shoes but not enough to encompass life. Thanks, Rob White. I’m ready for Todd Haynes’ next movie.


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