Thursday, June 12, 2014

Far From Heaven: Gay Pride and Prejudice

Director: Todd Haynes
Starring: Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert, Patricia Clarkson
Length: 1 hour 47 minutes
Rated: PG-13

I'm still not sure what to make of Todd Haynes's "Far From Heaven." I wonder if director Haynes intended the film to be a serious drama, a "queer cinema" homage to the films of George Cuckor or one of the darkest, camp movie in-jokes of all time. Whatever his intentions, "Far From Heaven" works on all these levels. Like David Lynch's "Blue Velvet," Mr. Haynes takes the viewer on a tour of the hidden life below the surface of an ideal suburban family circa 1957.

Frank and Cathy Whitaker (Dennis Quaid and Julianne Moore) are the perfect couple. Frank is the wonder boy of the Magnatech Company. He works hard promoting innovative television equipment so as to keep his wife and two children living in the lap of luxury just outside Hartford, Connecticut. Cathy is the ultimate wife. She maintains her posh home, with the help of Sybil (Viola Davis)her 'colored' maid and Raymond (Dennis Haysbert) her 'colored' gardener. Of course, Cathy is a 'liberal.' She admires and supports (with lip service only) the NAACP. Yes, Frank and Cathy are living the Norman Rockwell dream. Except for Frank's 'problem' that is.

"Far From Heaven" opens with a lush, beautifully shot panorama of Americana. There has not been a film shot in this style since the late 1950s. Elmer Berstein's score rises to a dramatic crescendo as the movie's title flashes on the screen in bold, flowery letters. The camera follows Cathy as she returns home from shopping. Cathy speaks in curt, proper Yankee tones. She meets her kids, maid and best friend at the end of her driveway. After ordering Sybil to put up the groceries, Cathy talks with Eleonor (Patricia Clarkson) about the posh engagement they will be attending that evening. Both women have every hair in place, and not a petticoat is ruffled. Of course, Cathy will not make it to the party. Instead, she receives a phone call from the Hartford police. Frank tells her there has been some sort of mix up. The police picked him up for 'loitering.' Cathy dutifully picks her husband up from jail and doesn't ask any questions. She doesn't even read the police report the desk sergeant hands her. After all, Cathy and Frank ARE 'Mr. and Mrs. Magnatech'!

Turns out that Frank is having a reoccurrence of his 'problem.' Frank is fighting to stay in the closet, but those damn hormones won't let him be. After Frank spends several late evenings at the office, Kathy surprises him by bringing his hot dinner to him at work. The closet door is broken down when Cathy catches Frank making out on his desk with a man he met in a bar. This is not something that Cathy can discuss with her friends. Raymond catches Cathy crying in the back yard. He offers her comfort. Raymond isn't your usual gardener. Raymond has interesting opinions about such diverse topics as modern art and poetry. Cathy and Raymond become friends. After all, Cathy believes in the NAACP. None of her friends do, and the once popular socialite finds herself on the outs with her privileged friends. "Far From Heaven" examines the topics of homosexuality and racial prejudice in a unique manner.

If you were to watch "Far From Heaven" without any sound, you would swear you were watching a big budget, Technicolor film from the 1950s. I haven't seen such lush photography and art direction on the big screen except when older films have been re-released after being restored. Todd Haynes's eye for detail is amazing in this film. During the 1950s, the production code began to lose its grip on the morality of the movies. More mature topics were being dealt with in films like "Peyton Place," "The Bad and the Beautiful" and "Imitation of Life." The rules weren't completely relaxed. American Filmmakers of the era were limited as to what they could show and discuss. Topics such as rape, homosexuality, incest and adultery were spoken of in cinematic code. If you were sharp, you knew what was going on. Haynes pays tribute to that code in one of the best scenes in the movie. After Cathy's shocking discovery, Frank comes home to find her sitting on the couch. Both characters are partially shrouded in shadows. The shadows symbolize Cathy's confusion and Frank's hidden life. They discuss what happened in half sentences. Nothing is said overtly, but everything is said 'in code.' It is a powerful scene which both shows the dilemma of dealing with taboos subjects during a time when such things weren't discussed, or even imagined by people like the Whitakers. Dennis Quaid's face almost looks like a plastic Ken doll during the scene. His stoic facade as 'good husband' is crumbling. His 'problem' is rearing its ugly head. After this powerful scene is over, you see that the couple is going to try and seek professional help. You know this, even though it wasn't said. This is but one brilliant scene, in a movie full of such scenes.

Dennis Quaid has never been better in his career. Mr. Quaid's mannerisms, inflection and on screen choices show a level of acting talent he has only hinted at in the past. The choice of Dennis Quaid for the role was a stroke of genius. Quaid's All-American, rascal persona makes him an unlikely candidate to be a homosexual. Cathy's friend Eleonor says "Never in a million years would I have thought Frank..." Neither would the moviegoer. Quaid is assured an Oscar nomination.

Julianne Moore is a wonder to behold as Cathy. She is a Stepford Wife whose circuitry has gone bad. She has a warm blooded heart trapped in a plastic Barbie doll world. Ms. Moore's eyes alone should be nominated for an Oscar. She wants to break through to a real place that can't comfortably exist in her well-manicured life. She realizes that the world's moral impositions are corrupt. She wants to be able to treat others like real people. She is weak though, and doesn't like the pain others inflict on her for daring to be a caring human being.

Dennis Haysbert (the doomed getaway driver in Michael Mann's "Heat") as Raymond gets to deliver the only 'free' performance in the entire movie. Raymond is flesh and blood. He knows the rules. He dares to bend them, but he also knows the consequences if he does. Cathy is mesmerized and enticed by his freedom. Cathy wants to think for herself also. Cathy doesn't know the score though. Mr. Haysbert and Ms. Moore have great onscreen chemistry. Mr. Haysbert has shown himself to be a thoughtful and intense actor in the past. Hopefully this role will lead to more substantial roles in the future. He has what it takes to be both a leading man and a great character actor. I'm glad somebody besides me has realized this, because I don't have the power to cast him in roles that usually go to Denzel Washington.

Quills: The Pen is Mightier Than the Cat o'nine Tails

Director: Philip Kaufman
Starring: Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, Michael Caine, Joquin Pheonix
Length: 2 hours 3 minutes
Rated: R

      As the credits roll over a dark screen, the heavy breathing of a woman is heard. The woman's face appears on screen and a voice over tells the viewer that this woman was a passionate person who's lust knew no bounds, for whom nothing was forbidden. The viewer finds themselves becoming aroused as the young woman pants. The voice over informs us that the woman then met a man who's own tastes and appetites surpassed her own. The large heavy hands of the man come in to frame and cup her face. Are they lovers? No. He is her executioner. Director Philip Kaufman's camera pulls back and reveals that this woman is standing on the scaffold during the reign of terror that was the French Revolution. The voice belongs to the Marquis de Sade who witnesses the beheading from his cell in the asylum at Charenton. Director Kaufman expertly set the audience up with this brilliant if upsetting opening sequence. An audience which was quickly finding itself aroused is suddenly shown a little bit more which sends them into a state of confusion. This is art at work. The essence of artistic expression and those who would censor objectionable material is the question at the heart of this masterpiece.

      Who better to carry on a dialogue about the freedom to read, write or think what one wants than the Marquis de Sade and a truly open minded and compassionate cleric? Philip Kaufman's brilliant "Quills" is a disturbing, erotic, and profoundly deep examination of the freedoms guaranteed us by the first amendment. Adapted for the screen from his play of the same name, Doug Wright examines the rights and responsibilities that an artist has in their quest for artistic expression. The choice of de Sade as the catalyst for launching this free speech dialogue was a brilliant choice by writer Wright. Some of the topics touched on in this movie include sodomy as a vehicle for religious desecration, pederasty and necrophilia. Needless to say, most would find these subjects indefensible in art. If society is to be free of the thought police, then these subjects must be as accessible to the masses as are other more mainstream forms of art and literature. I strongly believe this. This movie is hard to watch at times. There is no way to sit through "Quills" and not reexamine your thoughts on this important subject matter.

      Set almost entirely with in the confines of the infamous asylum for the criminally insane at Charenton, the plot of "Quills" deals with the attempt to silence the pen or quill of its most notorious inmate, the Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush). Through Madeleine (Kate Winslet), a sexy chambermaid, de Sade smuggles out manuscript pages of his book Justine for publication. Once published, the sadomasochistic novel is brought to the attention of the emperor Napoleon. As Napoleon sits for his portrait, on of his advisors reads him a passage from the book in which Justine is sodomized by a high church official using a communion wafer. Napoleon orders de Sade shot, but the advisor persuades the emperor to do what others have failed to do, cure the Marquis. Along these lines, Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) is enlisted to bring his medieval methods to bear on the horny free spirit. The asylum is run by Father Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix). Father Coulmier is a compassionate priest who believes that if the Marquis is allowed to write, he will exorcise the dark thoughts which pervade his soul. Dr. Royer-Collard is sent to put pressure on Father Coulmier to tame de Sade. Father Coulmier was unaware that the novel Justine had been published. Father Coulmier appeals to de Sade's rational side to persuade him to cease publishing his work. Of course he fails at this. I will reveal no more of this rich conflict.

      The ideas examined in this movie are the real reason to see "Quills," however, the film is populated with brilliant performances by all involved. Geoffrey Rush is perfect as one of the most evil humans ever to draw a breath. It is ironic that, as written, the Marquis is a sympathetic character. I won't educate the reader as to the historical nature of the Marquis other than to say that he was not the nice guy we see in this movie. As in "The People Versus Larry Flynt" the pornographer is presented as a hero of free speech. As a tool to further such a discussion, I applaud the choice of using the Marquis. Were the movie's purpose to promote the torture of women, as the real de Sade did, then I would be outraged. That is not the case here, and I believe such criticism is politically correct tripe and censorship of the darkest nature. Rush, as with several other's in the cast, delivers an Oscar worthy performance.

      Michael Caine as Dr. Royer-Collard is a sinister and truly dangerous man. The likes of Dr. Royer-Collard present more of a threat to society than de Sade ever did. This supposed man of God is cut from the same cloth as Vincent Price's character is the brilliant "Witchfinder General." Dr. Royer-Collard says that he is not here to win any popularity contests, he is here to get results. His idea of therapy is a barbaric dunking chair applied vigorously over a period of months. Caine too delivers an Oscar caliber performance. You hate this man and all he stands for.

      Doug Wright is to be praised for writing the character, Father Coulmier. Wright goes against the typical Hollywood grain and creates a Christian as a real human character. Phoenix brings this three dimensional character to life. He holds his own against these seasoned veterans. He shows a range of talent which he has never shown before. While Dr.Royer-Collard presents the argument for total censorship, Father Coulmier presents the argument for tolerance and understanding. Strange world when the man of science is a close minded bigot, and the man of God preaches tolerance and understanding. While he doesn't condone the content of de Sade's work, he believes it has a purpose. I was impressed that Father Coulmier actually read the Marquis' work before discussing it with him. I thought this was a nice touch on Mr. Wright's part, especially in light of the religious right's reaction to Scorsese's "Last Temptation of Christ." Many from the right condemned the work sight unseen. I was upset and offended by that film, but I took the time to watch it before discussing it with others. I again thank Mr. Wright for writing such a character. Some who read this, may wonder about this praise after seeing what becomes of Father Coulmier. I respond by saying that we all have a dark side to us, none is immune.

      Kate Winslet is also wonderful as Madeleine, a poor peasant girl work works as a chambermaid at the asylum. Madeleine is the virginal object of love of both the Marquis and Father Coulmier. She too loves Father Coulmier but realizes that there is no future with the handsome young priest. Maybe this is what draws her to the Marquis. I know this sounds cliched but there is no other way to say it: Oscar worthy. She is such a warm, funny, sensual person. Her character is the heart of the film in that she represents the public and how they are affected by unrestrained artistic expression. At one point, Father Coulmier says to her, "if I knew your tastes (her enjoyment of de Sade's writing) I never would have taught you to read." It is ironic that the historic de Sade reveled in the torture of women, but in this film women are liberated by reading his work. The literary license may be forgiven considering the end result of the movie.

      Director Kaufman has created a truly adult movie. Kaufman is the only American mainstream director who discusses adult topics in an adult manner. I thank Mr. Kaufman for not dumbing down his subject matter. As he did in "Henry and June" and "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" Kaufman examines human sexuality in a serious and insightful manner. I wish more directors had his balls.

      "Quills" is filled with disturbing images and words. But thank God we live in a country where we have the right to view, say and hear such words and images.