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In-Depth: Todd Haynes

I remember my final year of film school and how excited I was to have a professor who had more on his resume than a few Cirque du Soleil commercials or a 60-minute “feature” that took more than a decade to make. This was not some glorified ex-grip looking for an easy buck between gigs and authority over burgeoning minds. No, this was Mr. Jack Epps, Jr., the screenwriter behind such ’80s American milestones as Top Gun and The Secret of My Success (not to mention Anaconda, but we’ll leave that one off the list for now).

It was The Secret of my Success, starring a budding Michael J. Fox and an already budded Helen “Supergirl” Slater that helped forge my pre-pubescent sensibilities, as well as my image–if ever so glamorized–of the “adult world” that lay before me. So, I didn’t think it was too presumptuous to return the favor by presenting Jack with a few films from my world. He came back to me a few weeks later and explained that whereas he did quite enjoy the first few films, particularly James Merendino’s SLC Punk!, he just couldn’t get into Todd Haynes’ Poison.

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“I tried watching it, and after about an hour,” he grimaced, racking his “maverick” brain for the right words, “I… I just got it. I got it.” Meaning, of course, that he couldn’t quite handle the varied styles, the homoerotic dreaminess, and perhaps the fact that the whole thing looked like something that was made on Betamax at best and Pixelvision at worst. I think it was the spitting sequence lifted from Xala that was the final straw.

Years later, I still look back on the instance as a true victory. I made the writer of Top Gun watch Poison… and he couldn’t handle it! These days, at least a handful more people know who Haynes is from his work on such films as Safe, the Academy Award-nominated Far From Heaven, and his most recent film, I’m Not There in which he somehow made a biopic about Bob Dylan–no small feat in itself–without ever using the notoriously private troubadour’s name.

Now living in Portland, Haynes stopped by the Whitsell Auditorium to inaugurate the Expanded Frames film series as organized by the NW Film Center. Interviewed by avant-garde film scholar Scott MacDonald, the drizzly October night not only let paying customers in to the world of commercial avant-garde cinema, but also allowed them to see a few excerpts from Haynes’ lesser known and earlier works.

“Most films we put out horrify us,” began MacDonald, “us” being the American filmmaking community. Oy vey. Going on to compare this observation with his experience watching an early screening of I’m Not There, MacDonald delighted in the fact that whereas many of the people in said audience walked out after about 10 minutes, most of the viewers remained. “Oh my god,” he went on to say. “Todd Haynes made an avant-garde film that people actually stayed for!” We all shared a chuckle at the notion, and the night had officially begun.

Haynes himself looks older these days. No more do we see him in his late ’70s Warhol suits a la Studio 54, replete with brightly-colored ties. Now, it’s Portlander Haynes, or perhaps “emo-Haynes,” what with his tight flannel shirt, his wind-blown Brechtian haircut, his tight jeans, and strangely squinty smile that forever seems forced… but perhaps just embarrassed to be plastered to such an acerbic filmmaker’s face.

As the conversation moved to Haynes’ days as an MFA student, he confessed: that he never intended to be a filmmaker, believing that his sensibilities were far too abstruse for mainstream audiences, that he also never intended his darkly wacky paean to Karen Carpenter, Superstar, to reach a an audience larger than his MFA class, and that he never ended up receiving his MFA in the end, anyway.

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Aside from dressing up Barbie dolls to look like Richard Carpenter and Dionne Warwick, Todd–as one of two filmmaking students–spent his days in graduate school at Bard investigating avant-garde filmmakers who were beginning to employ genre: the Kuchar Bros, Sally Potter, Warhol himself, who went from shooting hours of a man eating a mushroom in slow-motion to presenting films with actual actors, actual props and even actual plots.

Haynes went to establish Apparatus, a three-year career that took him into the realm of assisting struggling filmmakers. Along came early-days cinematographer Barry Ellsworth and producer Christine Vachon, who not only stuck with Haynes, but has also made inroads into her own infamous and prodigious corpus of work. So it was that at the end of Apparatus’ run and all throughout, Haynes, Ellsworth, and Vachon produced and helped to produce homemade works with tiny crews that allowed filmmakers to remain innovative, unfettered and truly independent. It was here that they, as Haynes told us in his impressively laid-back yet erudite manner, answered “less questions on formal concerns.” The triumvirate was now striving for larger audiences, both for their own work and those being assisted by Apparatus (with a generous endowment from Ellsworth’s family).

Discussion of Haynes’ troubles with legal issues concerning Superstar–namely the fact that he never received any permission whatsoever from either Barbie’s Mattel or the Carpenters’ Richard Carpenter–brought the room again to laughter, as we all well know that perhaps we’ll never get to see a clean cut of the film that Haynes himself revealed he feels should look degenerated and filtered. After all, the film’s main subject Ms. Carpenter was an evanescent figure in both a physical and symbolic sense, and so too should her film be visualized. Sardonic wit meets infantile justification, or perhaps the utter truth? With Todd Haynes, you just don’t know… particularly because both answers may very well be applicable.

Moving on to his influences–Laurie Simmons, et al–Haynes explained to us all that “there’s nothing original in what I do…My work is more about responding to popular culture, perhaps as much in form as in the content.” After noting that the “Barbie people,” who were the first to sue him after the limited release of Superstar, in fact sent him cease-and-desist notices per individually copyrighted Barbie body-part, the first excerpt of the night was shown. We all sat back and watched a remarkably clean cut of his Carpenter biopic, an early presage to I’m Not There.

Along with everyone else in the theater, I would bet dollars to donuts all of whom have seen the film more than twice, I at first laughed… then cried… then settled into the notion that indeed this young college student’s grainy short feature is perhaps true American filmmaking at its best. MacDonald seconded my private notion, saying after said excerpt that the film presents us with “all that there is in American avant-garde filmmaking.”

Next on the slate was Haynes’ “family film,” another very short feature entitled, Dottie Gets Spanked. Inquiring about Haynes’ major motif in this film, “getting spanked,” MacDonald opened a can of worms that lasted the duration of the Dottie conversation. There we were, an entire audience, listening to Todd Haynes filibuster for at least 15 minutes about his experience with getting spanked, or lack thereof in his case, as a child. His childhood fantasy about getting spanked by his uncle. His subtle envy of other kids he knew who were spanked frequently.

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And, finally, that which brought Dottie all together: his experience going behind the stage of a Lucille Ball television show (whose title he couldn’t quite dredge up), in which he watched this “child-girl,” as he referred to her, who could alternate between “general of the behind-the-scenes” and a bumbling lost soul a la Gracie Allen while on camera. “I find spanking to be this fascinating theater in a family setting,” concluded Haynes before we sat back to watch an excerpt of Dottie, one that proved Haynes is far more autobiographical than you’d ever imagine.

Thereafter, we moved full-steam ahead into Haynes early features, with MacDonald lauding the filmmaker’s ability to so deftly capture the ’50s, most notably with Far From Heaven. “I learned a lot about the ’50s from the films of the ’50s,” replied Haynes. “Something about melodrama is so satisfying. Julianne Moore [who portrayed Haynes’ protagonist in Heaven] told me melodrama is the easiest style to perform because everything is so superficial.” This, tacitly, being Haynes’ main rouse throughout his canon of films: seemingly prototypical, melodramatic pieces that at heart are twisted and deconstructed into something far more sinister and yet sympathetic and real.

Comparisons were then made between Jean Genet’s work and Poison (duh), and Velvet Goldmine and the work of Jack Smith. Again, MacDonald applauded Haynes’ ability to capture yet another realm of American culture, this time the Swingin’ Sixties. “I just love the way the work of those artists and ‘happenings’ wove into life,” explained Haynes. And here we were, back to I’m Not There, and the fact that perhaps the one clear through-line on a thematic level throughout all of Haynes’ works is the idea of “the quest to be free from identity.” How fitting of a title then, no?

I’m Not There, then, is the ultimate commercial avant-garde film,” finished MacDonald, who then opened the floor to questions, half of which were about Haynes’ being influenced by Fassbinder’s 15-hour epic Berlin-Alexanderplatz. The final question referred back to Poison, as Haynes described his troubles marketing the film despite outcries from the religious/conservative community. The filmmaker laughed off the idea, revealing that he was referred to as “the Fellini of fellatio” and that Poison apparently made one conservative senator’s wife state the film made her want to “bathe in Clorox.”

And here we are, bringing it all back home again. Poison, the film that made the man who coined the phrase “Your ego’s writing checks your body can’t cash” cringe, the film that led one frantic senator’s wife running to the cleaning closet for bleaching cleanser, is the very same feature that led Todd Haynes into a world that he never intended to get into: making movies for more than just his fellow students and friends, making movies for you and for me.

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by Mathew Klickstein

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