Tag Archives: Drama

Far From Heaven

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Far From Heaven (2002), Todd Haynes’ sterile, domestic melodrama à la Douglas Sirk, is an exercise in how to beautifully execute a facsimile. Starring Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid and Dennis Haysbert as walking mannequins, the film unravels a story right out of the pages of a 1950’s film criticism class, if that class were taught today. The drama, heavily lifted from Sirk’s film “All That Heaven Allows,” has updated the strife with the still semi-taboo subjects of homosexuality and interracial love and displays them as pretty and ultimately empty set pieces against a back drop of pristine, Connecticut, alleged perfection.

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Julianne Moore, who plays Cathy Whitaker- housewife supreme- is a master at portraying finely tuned characters who brew a simmering pot of unfulfilled desire. However, while she is directed deftly enough in the ‘on the surface’ portion of her performance, director Haynes has missed the mark when it comes to having her present even a glimmer of what’s underneath.

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For his part, Dennis Haysbert, who brings his usual charm and smooth voiced grace to his role of Raymond, simply walks through the film doing his best ‘magical Negro’ until the denouement, when he actually leaves the white, attractive, but baggage laden Cathy.

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It is only Dennis Quaid who delivers on the unsettled, perturbed messiness of a man on the edge who maneuvers his imperfections with a mix of shame and hubris.

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Haynes, at a technical peak, employs the same saturated tones and sweeping score (he got the ‘melo’ part right, at least) of Sirk’s masterful Hollywood period, only he forgets to include characters about whom anyone might care one iota, beyond their hair, costumes and lighting. Here, Haynes is a mettuer en scene in the truest sense.

With only an intimation of emotion emanating ever so slightly from every frame of film, the audience is left to wonder whether the characters are even aware of the world they are supposed to inhabit, or if they are simply moving from one deliberately designed set piece to the next. The diegetic detail is convincing enough, however during supposed climactic moments, neither the harm inflicted on a child, nor the discovery of a husband’s betrayal are enough to elicit emotional force more dramatic than head hanging resignation or gritted teeth.

While Haynes gets everything right about the look of the film, he seems to have paid only cursory attention to the text, and with only a hint of tension and character development, we are left filling in the blanks, with regard to the implied subversiveness of his intent. It’s filmmaking as paint-by-numbers. The replication appears accurate enough, but that is the only level the film ever reaches- that of a replica.

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The Human Stain

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Coleman Silk has problems. His wife has just died, he has resigned from his job of 35 years under accusations of racism, he is sleeping with an inconvenient woman half his age. And he’s black. Sort of.

 

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Coleman Silk, the lead character in the 2003 film The Human Stain, is an interesting study of a man caught between two worlds for his entire adult life. He is, on the surface, an older, Jewish professor leading a life of academic gentility whose only concern seems to be the truancy of two students in his Classics course. That academic world, however, is rocked when, in a moment of casual query, he asks if anyone in the room has seen the students, “…or are they spooks.” That word, “spooks,” becomes the fulcrum on which Coleman’s life tilts as he is instantly branded a racist and angrily resigns his post under a dark cloud of politically correct, asinine hogwash.

This would be enough to bring anyone to the brink, but the other side of Coleman’s particular fulcrum is that the entire affair is made more problematic for Coleman and the audience when it is revealed that he is a black man who has been passing for white for the last 50 years. Nevermind that Coleman could have ended his employment woes by asserting that he is, in fact, black- that point is driven home in the film’s final moments- it is his journey to reaching the literal point of no return that is more worthy of exploration.

It is easy enough to reconcile that the strongest thread of the film is secrets and the cost of living with them. But less easy to reconcile is is the notion of the “Stain” of the title. There are the stains of death and destruction, the stain of a life of lies, the stain of failure and the stain of the loss of family. All of these are important to the characters at one point or another, and in the cases of Coleman and his girlfriend Faunia, all at the same time.

Coleman’s stain begins in 1948 where we meet a teenaged Coleman ‘Silky’ Silk, already skilled at living a dual life as, on one hand, a boxer and on the other hand, a student seemingly on his way to Howard University. However the sudden death of his father marks a turning point for Coleman, as the only real impediment to life as a white man is removed. With the stroke of a pen, his life and the lives of his family are altered forever as be goes from being Coleman Silk ‘Negro’, to just Coleman.

 

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Coleman’s betrayal causes his mother to label him a “murderer,” and this is another thread, that of “murder,” that runs through the film, to great effect. The lives of all presented are touched by this in some way, whether literal or figurative, and these deaths tie together a difficult story with as neat a bow as possible. It is ironic that the one person in which Coleman has confided his dark secret, his fantastically troubled girlfriend, Faunia, is also the one murdered with him, thereby (almost) taking his secret to both their graves.

Brother to Brother

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Brother to Brother is an ambitious 2004 film from first time director Rodney Evans that weaves a tale of past and present through the eyes of artists from both eras. That the film is a debut feature from the filmmaker is notable, for while it tells a story of an era that is surprisingly not oft told, it almost falls victim to the first time director curse of trying to do too much.

The film introduces us to Perry a young, African-American student in New York, struggling with personal trials in the face of his family’s recent discovery of his homosexuality. He is not alone on his journey, however, as we meet the friends and classmates that populate his world and who seem to accept him as he is. Where the film comes alive, though, is in Perry’s ‘meet cute’ on the streets of the city with an older man who both vexes and fascinates him.

 

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The older man turns out to be Bruce Nugent, a prominent figure of the Harlem Renaissance who, like Perry, is gay. It is in their meeting and subsequent socializing that the film takes the audience out of the present and back to the vibrant and tumultuous world of Bruce’s past.

We meet Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Thurman, and others of the day, who create a Harlem of artistic truth and freedom the likes of which the young Nugent is eager to get in on. These Harlem Renaissance portions of the film, which are shot in black and white for effect, offer parallels for current day Perry that he has never previously considered.

 

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While much time has passed since the days of the Harlem Renaissance, Perry and the audience find that not much has been done in the way of widespread black, or African-American, lack of acceptance of homosexuality. Then, like now, creatives who happen to be black and gay are brushed under the collective societal rug in an effort to pretend that these people don’t exist and can’t sully the race with their unnatural doings. Within their own sphere, there is none of that exclusion, however. Instead, black and gay artists are often fetishized and exoticized by the usually wealthy white people, like Carl Van Vechten, who is portrayed here, who, when it was convenient, inhabited and profited from their world.

That idea, fetishization, is also something that current day Perry has to come to terms with, as he finds himself the object of exotic desire and ‘otherness’ of his down-low, white lover, Jim.

 

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The most heart wrenching scene in the film, for this viewer, was a scene that takes place between Perry and Jim. In it, Perry, after some positive association and time spent with older Nugent, comes to the realization that the only things he’s after are love and true acceptance, and that he is, indeed, worthy of that love and not the crumbs of sexual desire currently on offer. If that were the film’s only redeeming quality, which it is not, it would be enough. There are countless young, gay, black people who could use that particular lesson and perhaps, a viewing of this film.