Look Twice at the Present: Discussing Douglas Sirk with Todd Haynes

At a Douglas Sirk retrospective, the director of "Far from Heaven" talks about the films and influence of Hollywood's great melodramatist.
Keva York

All That Heaven Allows (1955).

“The studio loved the title All That Heaven Allows,” Douglas Sirk remarked of the second Jane Wyman/Rock Hudson vehicle he made for Universal in 1955, a project assigned to him after the box office windfall of Magnificent Obsession (1953). “They thought it meant you could have everything you wanted. I meant it exactly the other way round. As far as I am concerned, heaven is stingy.”1 The irony coursing through Sirk’s films was something that went largely unnoticed during his years in Hollywood, obscured—in the most popular of them—by lavish Technicolor and the soapy narrative trappings of the woman’s weepie. It was not until the late sixties, a decade after the German emigré had ditched California, and filmmaking, for the medicinal climes of Lugano, Switzerland, that the crueller contours of his work started to come into focus.

Todd Haynes would forgo any such prevarication in titling his pitch-perfect homage to Sirk, Far from Heaven (2002). A riff on All That Heaven Allows—with elements borrowed from Written on the Wind (1956) and Imitation of Life (1959), as well as Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Sirk homage, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)–the film signals the limitations of its Eisenhower-era New England petri dish from the outset. Haynes was unwilling to pretend—to pretend to pretend?—that Julianne Moore’s primped-and-proper white housewife might find lasting happiness in the arms of her gardener, Dennis Haysbert’s gentle, modern art-loving Black man. Too great are the chasms of race and class that divide them, in the eyes of Moore’s country club set at least. But Far from Heaven, a breakthrough for Haynes (his fourth feature, again demonstrating him to be the most chameleonic stylist of the New Queer Cinema), comes equipped with its own Sirkian feint in the form of the period setting: In taking place in the past, it distinguishes itself from both All That Heaven Allows and Fear Eats the Soul. It’s tempting to imagine the social progress made in the half century between Far from Heaven’s 1950s and its release date as the paratextual happy ending to Haynes’s tangle of retro-tinted repressions. Whether you can find comfort in such a reading depends, in some sense, on how stingy your idea of heaven is. 

Twenty years on from its debut, in August, Far from Heaven played to a full house at the Locarno Film Festival. It was one of a handful of films selected to complement the Sirk career retrospective lovingly assembled by curators Roberto Turigliatto and Bernard Eisenschitz (who also penned the accompanying tome, Douglas Sirk, né Detlef Sierck, currently available only in French) for the festival’s 2022 edition. Comprising all of the director’s 40-odd shorts and features—except, mysteriously, the 1951 Universal comedy Week-End with Father—plus the homages sidebar, this Sirk-tacular accounted for a gloriously substantial portion of the full festival program—a solid, studio-era counterpoint to the curlier, more personal modes of filmmaking that Locarno is known for showcasing. It seems apt that the GranRex theater was given over to the occasion of the retrospective—becoming, for the festival’s duration, a monument to Sirk, and a haven amidst a line-up that otherwise necessitated criss-crossing between the cinemas scattered through the alpine resort town.

“Just pure adrenaline pleasure,” Haynes effused about the chance to experience Sirk’s films on the big screen. Turigliatto’s first encounter with the director, the curator told me, was through black-and-white versions of the big hits, dubbed in Italian, that had played on TV when he was a teenager. (In fact, he said, Imitation of Life remained one of the most popular films on Italian TV right up until the nineties.) Haynes’s introduction came via 16mm prints at college—a few steps up, to be sure, but still not a medium equal to the emotional scale or beauty of Sirk’s best films. “They’re astonishing things to watch on the big screen because they’re just so vivid,” the filmmaker continued, sunlight streaming into the meeting room at his hotel, perched high above the town center.

I had come to speak with Haynes about his relationship to Sirk, as a director whose tradition of social critique gave shape to Far from Heaven, of course, but beyond that, to his outlook as an artist: as in many of his forebear’s films, there is no villain in Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1988), or Velvet Goldmine (1998), or Carol (2015) greater than the pressure to conform. In our conversation, unfolding an hour or so by train from Sirk’s final resting place, Haynes traced the impact this uniquely Brechtian populist had on him and spoke to the significance of playing with dolls, suffering as a source of consumer pleasure, and the scourge of handheld cinematography.  

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974).

NOTEBOOK: Douglas Sirk is a director who looms large in your filmography. His influence is felt most keenly in Far from Heaven, broadly as a melodrama and specifically as a reworking of All That Heaven Allows. Your film is also an homage to Fassbinder’s Fear Eats the Soul. These two directors—Fassbinder and Sirk—are intimately linked to each other and to you. I'm curious as to which you came to first. 

TODD HAYNES: In my mind, it all commingles from my college days. And of course, there's a historical reason for that, which is that Sirk had only just been re-evaluated by feminist film theorists, and by Fassbinder, throughout the seventies. I was in college in 1980, and I didn't quite realize how quickly after all those writings—that new attention on melodrama, on Sirk, and on Chabrol—that I was there. I knew I was in this weird program at Brown—the semiotics program wasn't yet a department, though it would become one—so I understood that that was sort of a new thing. But I was learning it all in real time, and it's only later that I realized, “Oh, that had just happened”—and that we were in a very fortunate position to be right on the cutting edge of that in an American university. Later, cultural studies programs would evolve and spread throughout most liberal arts colleges, but that really hadn't been the case quite as it was at Brown. So Fassbinder and Sirk were taught together—and then Fassbinder died, and then there was his last film [Querelle, 1982], so it all felt very in the moment.

NOTEBOOK: In Far from Heaven, Julianne Moore has this very doll-like quality and she lives in a sort of dollhouse—and then there’s Superstar, one of your first films, which famously has a cast of actual dolls. There's something very Sirkian about this way of approaching performance, or the simulation of performance in the case of Superstar, insofar as it embodies the idea of an "imitation of life."

HAYNES: It obviously touches on a lot of themes that I've explored, not always with a conscious application of them—constructions of identity and the ways we play them out; the ways that we learn about what cultural norms look like, and how we try to adhere to them or resist them. These are learned through the ways we play—kids play with dolls and invest themselves in storytelling. What's interesting about playing with dolls is that you're really telling little stories, and usually domestic stories, and that's what melodrama is. We learn about melodrama, and we learn about domestic life, often through movies and through images of the perfect, happy home. There's a strong current of consumerism that's woven into that.

NOTEBOOK: Which is essentially why Mattel got mad at you—you were subverting that image. 

HAYNES: Mattel creates miniature products that you can buy for your doll and put in her house. Similarly, these women in the Sirkian melodramas are surrounded by examples of luxury and consumer life that also define a certain kind of ideal of American fantasy. We're inundated with the ways in which fantasy and consumerism and capitalism cross-pollinate and tell us how we're supposed to be happy, and how we're supposed to feel complete, you know? And we all know that that's a question destined for disappointment and despair, but it continues to be recycled in so many ways. It's easy to feel superior to the past—until you look twice at the present. 

NOTEBOOK: Sirk made several different kinds of films in the course of his career but he’s very strongly associated with a particular kind of sudden ending, where everything is neatly tied up in a way that actually reveals or even deepens the sense that the conflicts that have been presented are irresolvable. Far from Heaven doesn’t end this way, however—the love between Julianne Moore and Dennis Haysbert’s characters remains unrequited. What made you choose an ending that made explicit that irresolvability, as opposed to calling on a deus ex machina?

HAYNES: I can't remember if there were ever versions of the film in which I toyed with a false happy ending. There was a certain instinct—I remember feeling like I wanted people to cry, to feel a sort of despair, and that is a release, and that is a kind of direct acknowledgment of irreconcilable conflicts. But the deus ex machina that Sirk employs in many, not all, of his films is so complicated and so interesting. You know, I think I was nervous... I think what it does—and Fassbinder writes about this—is it leaves you feeling dissatisfied. You feel that all the conflicts that have been opened up are falsely resolved, and it makes you mistrust the narrative machine.

I was just thinking about Imitation of Life because I'll be introducing it [here in Locarno]. It’s a Sirk film that makes you cry—it's one of the few that really does—and it ends with a non-Sirkian, non-“false happy ending.” But what's very interesting about that non-“false happy ending,” meaning a sad ending, is that lurking within it is a very cruel happy ending, in which Annie is removed from the equation. All of a sudden, the signifier of Blackness that has been the problem for Sarah Jane is gone. They’re mourning her death, but there's this slight horrible suggestion that maybe they’re now able to live happily ever after. 

NOTEBOOK: Killing off the outsider is often the best solution cinema has to offer.

HAYNES: So again, there's a fascinating twist, even in that incredibly cathartic ending. 

Far from Heaven (2002).

NOTEBOOK: One of your most twisted endings is in Safe (1995), your first collaboration with Julianne Moore—which Jonathan Rosenbaum posited as a companion piece to Far from Heaven. Safe is kind of that film’s dark mirror—if not straight-up horror, it could be considered horror-adjacent. You experimented with horror-as-allegory in Poison (1991), but I wondered whether this was also part of the intention in Safe, and how you see its relationship to Far from Heaven.

HAYNES: You know, I wasn’t thinking overtly about horror films when I was making Safe. That was in my mind, but I was extrapolating more from ideas of the unremarkable female protagonist, overwhelmed and dwarfed by the belongings and possessions of her home and her culture. That clearly has its roots in Sirk and in melodrama, that sense of these characters being woefully ill-equipped to deal with the things that they're confronted with. That really, really interested me in both Carol White [in Safe] and then Cathy Whitaker [in Far from Heaven]—but certainly by the time I was thinking about Far from Heaven, it was really like, “Let's go to the roots of this generic tradition.” It really was a process of learning, and still, every time I see one of his films, I'm learning—most directors I speak to feel that way about Sirk. Because he's sort of a second generation or later-to-arrive auteur—now, of course, it's not in question—but because of that, it might be more surprising to feel like you're going to constantly be astonished. So it was a real homage and a real, like, genuflecting to Sirk as a craftsperson and the way that translated into very specific ideas about American life, and female subjects, and the limits of freedom within our ideal settings. 

But I remember Wes Craven calling Safe the scariest film of the year when it came out in ’95 and I was like, “That is really cool.” I was interested in the very degraded “TV disease movie of the week” thing, though—specifically, the ways that the subject is asked to kind of reify themselves through an identification with their illness and basically accept terms within the new language of being a person who is diseased. The recovery industry at the time in general was providing this example of a language that people were kind of bowing down to and confusing with a sense of agency, when in fact it was about submission to a series of terms about self. That really interested me. So the whole latter part of Safe reflected that formal requirement: the way you feel that the narrative has come to a satisfactory closure once the character is sufficiently repressed into her new identity.

NOTEBOOK: We've been talking about some of the very stylized films that you've made, but your most recent films have all been set in less heightened worlds—you’ve gone from working with dolls to documentary [with 2021’s The Velvet Underground]. That’s an overly simplistic narrative, but I'm even thinking about the 1950s of Carol versus the fifties of Far from Heaven: One was very much based on what movies looked like in the fifties, while the other was patterned after photojournalism of the day. You've spoken about finding truth in artificiality, but do you feel like you’re finding new modes of authenticity?

HAYNES: I would say no. I would say that I still have my girders up around “authenticity” as a goal or a method, and that I always like to think of it as a construct in itself; as a language—we create cues for what we think of as “authentic.” The most banal example of that is just the way that almost all films now, in our digital filmmaking practices—and it's always a welcome example when you see this not being the case—are shot handheld, with an absolutely free and an undisciplined or undecisive camera, and then put together in the editing room. The handheld is a language of authenticity, quote unquote, that is just so lost, you know? It signified something once, but then it became as ubiquitous to a Law & Order episode as it was to, to...

NOTEBOOK: Cassavetes?

HAYNES: Yeah. It comes out of a kind of mode of practice that is linked to the lightness and the mobility of the digital camera in the sense that you don't think about the camera as a body anymore. You don't think of it as occupying a space or a point of view even. 

NOTEBOOK: It's more cyborgian. 

HAYNES: Right, and so the power of point of view is so lost—and that's really what I was so interested in, in the love story as a genre, in Carol. The love stories that were the strongest and most impactful to me historically were ones in which point of view was everything—and this is not like Sirk—where the more vulnerable subject was where the point of view lay and the person who occupies the power in the relationship was the object of desire. In Carol, that changes over the course of the film: You're first rooted in Therese's point of view and Carol is the object of desire, and she maintains a sort of cooler stability and strength and power, and that changes. The idea that I lifted from Brief Encounter—of replaying the same scene twice, once at the beginning, once at the end—made a different kind of sense to me, because you could see it from one character's point of view, and then you can see it from another character's point of view, once those levels of stability have shifted.

NOTEBOOK: You mentioned that you keep finding new things in Sirk and that other filmmakers share this feeling. When I spoke to Bernard and Roberto about putting the program together, Roberto did note that, as much as Sirk has been neglected in past decades, he's always been a “director's director.”

HAYNES: I mean, there are many I could put in that category—but I guess, to me, the remarkable thing about directors like Hitchcock and Sirk is that they continually want to find this sense of vulnerability in the protagonist, and a sense of being implicated. In the case of Hitchcock, that’s in a sort of subversive relationship to events, and in Sirk, it’s in a sense of powerlessness and a sense of being contained and borne down upon by society. Both of them have these negative examples of suffering in various ways as their sort of “brand,” and a tremendous amount of consumer pleasure has been associated with both kinds of masochistic property—you know, Hitchcock creating the thriller, which makes you excited to watch somebody doomed walking into their fate. Similarly, the melodrama, which is more directed at female audiences, is not about heroic stories of women overcoming their limitations and their constraints or their oppression. It's about people buckling under those very constraints, and ending up smaller and more dignified but passive examples of who they were at the beginning of the movie.

Sirk was a massively successful director commercially, as was Hitchcock, and neither of them received the serious critical attention that they were due at the time, almost because of their commercial success—and I just find that to be such a remarkable thing. They both understood the necessity of movies making back their money, and that they were a commercial enterprise, and there was a contract with the public and with the studios that they had to fulfil. They knew how to do it, but they did it in the most unlikely ways that do not create the messaging that we expect, about how stable and strong and inviolable we are.

1. In Jon Halliday, Sirk on Sirk: Conversations with Jon Halliday (London: Faber & Faber, 1997), 140.

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