I’ve been bumping into Todd Haynes for years. We know each other well enough that he can offer two thumbs up to my shirt.
“That colour of pink – it goes well with your colouring.”
A fat red Ulster head.
“I wouldn’t say that. Ha ha!”
Haynes has been on radar since the release of early, experimental short films such as Superstar in the late 1980s. That notorious piece – telling the story of Karen Carpenter with Barbie dolls – drew attention from academics, hipsters and (most damagingly) Richard Carpenter's lawyers. The urbane Brown University Graduate was suddenly a provocateur. His subsequent feature Poison was a key text in the New Queer Cinema. As the decades drew on, pictures such as Far From Heaven and Carol secured actual grown-up Oscar nominations. His latest film, Wonderstruck, written by Brian Selznick of Hugo fame, could almost be called a family film.
Has he changed or have the movies changed? Does the mainstream accommodate him or does he accommodate the mainstream?
“I don’t think we’ve become more liberal,” he says. “For me, back then, the question of content was always coupled with notions of form and style. We were challenging narrative conventions. I think the culture has moved forward in terms of, say, representing gay characters and status. But that culture has become no more intellectually interested in deviations as regards narrative or form.”
We're already deep into the argument here. So what distinguished the New Queer Cinema – also taking in work by Gregg Araki, Gus Van Sant and Tom Kalin – was as much its technique as its subject.
“That’s why I was proud to be in that group,” he says. “It really wasn’t just to do with content. We were trying to do something that actually changed things.”
A charming man
Haynes will forgive me if I suggest that he talks like the academic he nearly became. That is not to say he lectures the interviewer. A charming man, with a round face younger than his 57 years, Todd is a listener as well as a talker. He asks questions and is interested in the answer. But, by Golly, he can theorise.
Many things that are in the story are about how the end of the silent era segregated that [deaf] population from a universal popular art form
There's a lot of potential for such pondering in his latest film. Wonderstruck weaves together two stories set half a century apart. In 1927, a young deaf girl runs away from her father to track down her mother, an actress currently working on Broadway. In 1977, a young boy seeks his own father in New York. The early sections have the quality of a silent picture. The later story touches down with the noisy cinema that emerged with Martin Scorsese and John Cassavetes.
“Ultimately, I wanted to get back and see silent films I’d never seen before and then do the same with films from the 1970s,” he says. “But the film had to be a single organism. It had to be integrated. One thing you realise when you look back at silent film is that almost every single technique in cinema had been established: stylistically, generically, formally. It’s all there.”
Many film writers have noted that something was stripped away when sound arrived: a kind of visual poetry. Few have noted the particular loss picked up in Haynes’s film.
“The film reminded me of my own innate curiosity about questions concerning deafness,” he says. “Kids have different ways of dealing with limited abilities. Many things that are in the story are about how the end of the silent era segregated that population from a universal popular art form. That was such a sensitive observation by Brian.”
It's true. To that point, cinema was equally accessible to deaf and hearing audiences. Wonderstruck is full of such half-buried observations. Brian Selznick's script swings between the point at which education for deaf people took a step backwards and a time when that community began to redefine itself. All this is packed into a film that might actually be suitable for children. This from a man who, in the early 1990s, was hounded by conservatives when it transpired that the National Endowment for the Arts funded his transgressive gay horror film Poison.
“I was consciously making a film that I wanted kids to see,” he agrees. “I wanted it to argue for the sophistication of kids to go places we may not think they’re open to. I mean that in terms of how it unfolds formally. It tells stories without dialogue. There is intercutting. There is complex interplay. But the really cool thing about it – all this intercutting, this marriage of form and content – is that it’s all part of a mystery. The movie is a mystery. That’s something I hadn’t done before.”
The film marks his third collaboration with Julianne Moore. After standout turns in Safe and Far from Heaven, the smart, focused actor plays different, related roles in either story.
“I just don’t know if there is any leading actor in film who penetrated the medium better than Julianne,” he says. “It’s about a resistance to being fully accessible and knowing that’s where the power of acting lies. It’s to do with navigation of access and readability. That’s what film is.”
One can hardly imagine a better summary of Moore’s art. Listening to Haynes talk a very good game, remembering that he read semiotics at an Ivy League university, one wonders if the young Todd ever imagined he’d end up here. Raised in a well-off Californian family, he must surely have suspected that he’d end up before a blackboard in a corduroy jacket.
“I thought I’d end up as an experimental film-maker,” he says. “There were examples of people like that around then who taught and who made their own films. There was a community who wanted to see those films. They didn’t make money. But they had venues and a lot of those venues have not really persisted either.”
Haynes journey was unlikely. He has not turned into any sort of George Lucas (who astonishingly also began in experimental film), but, swept up in the rebirth of independent cinema during the 1990s, Haynes has certainly become an oak of his cultural generation. Far From Heaven, his tribute to Douglas Sirk, was among the most praised films of the previous decade. He directed an epic version of Mildred Pierce for HBO. He now has followers. That combination of playful experiment and intellectual acuity is worth aping.
Yet he feels that something has gone out of the medium. Those independent cinemas that showed non-narrative, experimental films are almost entirely extinct. Younger film-makers would, of course, argue that such "content" is now more easily available on the internet. I am told that (not that I'd check) Superstar defies legal prohibition to thrive online.
“I feel the internet doesn’t broaden people’s views,” he says sadly. “Everyone thinks it’s all about user-driven culture. Everyone wants to be the driver of their own media. But that puts us into cul de sacs of like-mindedness. We’re just looking out for things we’ve already seen and we know we already like. We live in smaller and smaller worlds. We need teachers. We need curators.”
There’s a point here. Todd and I, growing up in the years before video, were forced to watch whatever old film was in the telly. It did us no damn harm! Right?
“I miss the fact that we all watched the news at the same time and the same movie at the same time,” he says. “I liked that there was no choice but to share cultural moments – the present moment. We had to come together. It was anther aspect of capitalism but it brought us together.”
Still, Todd sounds chipper about his current status. He made Carol and Wonderstruck almost back to back. A restored version of Superstar just played at Sundance where Richard Linklater described it as "the first great film of my generation". Haynes lives quietly and happily in the achingly cool north-western city of Portland.
“I have a yard where I can grow tomatoes,” he says. “I spend a lot of time in New York, but I am not going to be lured back.”
A very agreeable life.
- Wonderstruck opens on April 6th
THE THEATRICAL FEATURES OF TODD HAYNES
POISON (1991) Working on themes from Jean Genet, Haynes's feature debut is a triptych concerning murder, desire and disgrace. A key text of New Queer Cinema
SAFE (1995) Julianne Moore plays a middle-class woman who seems allergic to the 20th century. A breakthrough for director and star.
VELVET GOLDMINE (1998) A meditation on Bowie and Iggy Pop featuring Ewan McGregor and Jonathan Rhys Meyers, the picture was a little too disorganised for its own good. It has fans though.
FAR FROM HEAVEN (2002) Moore plays a woman who falls for her African-American gardener in a picture that pastiches Douglas Sirk while remaining its own beast.
I'M NOT THERE (2007) Crazy, delightful, unfathomable study of Bob Dylan featuring Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett and Richard Gere as variations on the great man.
CAROL (2015) Blanchett and Rooney Mara play a couple caught up in illicit romance in an overdue adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's The Price of Salt. Inexplicably denied a best picture nomination.
WONDERSTRUCK (2017) Busy, ambitious drama starring young Millicent Simmonds as a deaf child seeking her mother in 1920s New York. We intermittently flash forward to find the city in 1970s decay.