Although what you are about to see is a work of fiction, it should nevertheless be played at maximum volume.
– Todd Haynes, Velvet Goldmine (1998)
To describe Todd Haynes as a filmmaker feels like not enough and all-encompassing at once. There are hardly any who have mastered the medium of filmmaking as well as Haynes, and fewer still who embody every aspect of creator and artist. The quote above refers to the audio levels of Velvet Goldmine, his Bowie-infused glam-rock film—but it also applies to Haynes’s work as a whole. While he primarily dances within the realms of fiction, it’s a fiction important enough to be blasted at full volume so everyone can hear.
In a world of TikToks, NFTs, and the regular co-opting of queerness, it feels a little like we’ve all given up, or, more accurately, given in. How far are we willing to lose ourselves to the world that we know we should reject; how much poison will we drink? Haynes shares this sentiment, and having come of artistic age during the AIDS crisis before queerness exploded into popular culture, his early work holds an almost desperate urgency that is lacking in much of the mainstream media today. It’s not an urgency that craves or needs heterosexual recognition, but demands it either way through pure cinematic force.
The loss of urgency comes partially from the progress that has been made. “It’s as though all we ever wanted was a seat at the table,” Haynes says. “But rebellion was never just about marriage rights. It was about the power that comes from standing outside social norms, opposing authority; not always with great seriousness, often with a sense of play, pleasure, and wit.” Defiance and rebellion, along with a sense of play, are engrained in every shot of Haynes’s earlier films, a “fuck you” to the outright oppression of the ‘90s. Queer people were dying in the thousands, and Haynes’s work is sharp with anger, an anger that kills while bearing a beautiful, dangerous smile.
What keeps Haynes’s work relevant always—but especially now, when it feels like we’re close to losing all semblance of a fighting spirit—is that for Haynes, queer liberation is not solely about gayness. Queer liberation is closely tied to fights for economic, racial, and gender equality. The lackluster but widespread diversity efforts of today’s media rarely challenge prejudiced, oppressive structures. Haynes explains that the market “accepts gay and lesbian lives because those people can spend money like anyone else” and that “it is issues of poverty and race than need attention now, because they can’t spend the money.”
Fiction media, TikTok, and internet culture have also kept the public conversations on identity shallow. Being gay is this or that; identity is reduced to objects or commodities, looks or habits. Haynes fights this rigidity and prescribed identity in his films by challenging identification on screen. He does this also through his boundary-pushing use of the medium (Barbie dolls in Superstar, cinematic collaging in his 2021 documentary The Velvet Underground) because for Haynes, even gay films are often “straight because of the structure.”
As academically studied and technically detailed as Haynes’s films are, they are undeniably felt first and foremost: the thundering pulse of Velvet Goldmine, the heart-wrenching swells in Far From Heaven, the physical horror of Superstar, the foreboding alienation of Safe, and the waves of complex emotions that crash with every glance between Carol and Therese in Carol. Through these emotions, Haynes evokes questions within us: who are we, who would we be without societal conventions, and who are we against the world?
The gateway to Todd Haynes’s films is one of his more recent and mainstream masterpieces. An adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith novel The Price of Salt, it features Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as Carol and Therese, two women who fall in love in the 1950s despite barriers of class, family, age, and gender. Although one of Haynes’s less experimental, it is one of his most powerful, in which all the elements of cinema come together perfectly in a beautiful, burning orchestration of love, desire, and determination.
Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story
There’s no ideal order in which to watch Haynes’s films, but his debut film is one that wholly captures who Haynes is as a filmmaker. Superstar marries his interest in music, celebrity, and women living under societal pressure, ultimately yielding a dark film shot through “with a great sense of play, pleasure, and wit.” The “playing” happens with Barbie dolls, who are the characters in the film. Through a documentary style—news clips, talking heads, etc.—Haynes portrays the horrific tribulations and death of Karen Carpenter (who died just four years prior of illness related to her anorexia) in a way that seems equally as shocking as her death. The film—and the Barbie dolls—induces a slow-burning horror that does justice to the real issue.
The implications of Safe feel particularly weighty in the midst of a public health crisis, identity crisis, and corporate promotion of “wellness.” Julianne Moore is Carol, a woman who lives a comfortable life in a sterile part of LA. Untouched by issues of race, class, and anything unconventional, she develops an unidentified illness which seems to be triggered by her purified life and blank identity. Carol remains pale, unrelatable, and empty. She’s alienated not only from the audience but from herself. Her illness defines her, and her identity itself is a crisis. Haynes’s films, in his own words, “have often looked at the whole dilemma of identity as a straitjacket for people, for societies, for cultures, for historical moments.” They “demonstrate different kinds of rebellions against those constraints,” through characters, filmmaking, and, in Safe, the metaphor of disease. Safe constantly eludes clear definition, but the swirling concepts and threats that surround the film—AIDS, isolation, pollution, the modern world, other people—are shockingly relevant. At the end of the film, when Carol joins a wellness institution and is standing in front of a mirror in a sterile igloo, she says, “I love you” to herself over and over, as if she will be cured through this self-love, or as if she has accepted her illness. It’s a noncure that neither she nor the audience can fully believe.
Far From Heaven
Haynes is a known lover of the melodrama, a classic, emotional genre through which he’s explored the more sinister elements of life hidden in the melodramas of old. Far From Heaven is a reference to Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, a technicolor melodrama that captures the angst of the relationship between a widow and her young gardener in which society and her children are obstacles to true love. Far From Heaven is also set in the 1950s, but where the emotions of Sirk’s film exist within a relatively safe world, the central relationship in Haynes’s film occurs in a world much more dangerous—whiter, nearly segregated, homophobic, and suffocating in its conventions. Housewife Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore again) strikes up a friendship and eventual romance with her Black gardener, Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert), while her own marriage is in crisis because her husband is gay. The film shows a middle-class white woman stumbling through the racism that she, simply through her identity, perpetuates. It’s a film that uses a twist on a typical narrative structure to leave deep impressions on the heart and mind.
The film that solidified Haynes as a rising star and a leader of New Queer Cinema, Poison is one of Haynes’s most experimental. It stitches together three narratives: Hero (in which a young boy kills his abusive father), Horror (a scientist turns into a murdering leper), and Homo (a prisoner is attracted to another prisoner). Ultimately, it’s a film with a strikingly militant purpose. When it won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival, it sparked a bit of a culture war, with right-wing and Christian groups denouncing the film. It was even screened for some senators in D.C. Although a quintessential arthouse film, it was a direct confrontation of the opposition whose policies and prejudices were killing gay people.
Baby Oscar Wilde, swaddled in cloth, is deposited by aliens at the doorstep of his birthplace in Dublin. As a child, he is the only one in his class who wants to be “a pop idol.” While the last few films deal more with women in crisis and societal pressures, Haynes also has a range of films that are unabashed, unfettered celebrations of identity. Velvet Goldmine is a queer fever dream, resplendent with glitter and feathers and musical performances that explode with the fervor of a real artist, not just a Bowie parody. It’s an experience that shakes you, enters your body from head to toe, and reverberates long after the credits. Haynes portrays and interacts with queer identity in a way that is rare: he doesn’t shy away from the shame and confusion of being a queer youth (portrayed by Christian Bale), the dark side of musical personas and sexual relationships, nor the media’s obsession with celebrity and sexuality. Even visually, Velvet Goldmine is a refreshing antidote to the painfully sterilized depictions of queerness that we see so frequently today. It’s an homage to a long tradition of loud, sincere, and dirty queerness that gets buried in narratives today, starting with the camp of Oscar Wilde and continuing with the blurred sexuality and vibrant performamce of glam rock.
Haynes doesn’t believe that his films—or any films—are revolutions. His films remain at times ambiguous in the best way and rarely present a singular problem and resolution. In doing so, they evoke an urgency that we’re losing by the day. The on-screen text that opens Todd Haynes’s Poison reads, “The whole world is dying of a panicky fright.” We just have to open our eyes to see it.
By Hannah Yang