Todd Haynes, del cine indie a The Velvet Underground – 05/09/2021

It started with a short film in which there were no actors or actresses, but dolls. The first test of the cinematographic talent (and its artistic and political intentions) of Todd Haynes it was Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1988), approximately 40 minutes focused on the singer’s story Karen Carpenter, who with his brother Richard formed a musical duo, Carpenters, which was extremely successful in the 1970s.

With that short film, Haynes entered the film industry with great fanfare, even if few realized it at the time. To begin with, the short caused a dispute with Richard Carpenter, who brought Haynes to trial. He had failed to get the right to use Carpenters’ songs in the short film, and the duo’s survivor (Karen died in 1983 of complications from anorexia nervosa) won the trial. The film was withdrawn from all distribution.

Haynes already started as a “cursed” filmmaker, with a film that only a few could see. Furthermore, also as ahead of its time. Superstar anticipated, for several decades, debates and discussions such as body self-image, the questioning of beauty ideals represented by dolls (the Barbie brand did not like the controversy around Superstar) and eating disorders. A powerful combination of themes encapsulated in just over 40 minutes.

But it was not a solely political or pamphlet work. There was also an aesthetic and formal approach, due to the forced choice (Haynes did not have millions for a more or less traditional production) to dispense with a cast and to experiment with the assembly, the presentation of the dolls and other aspects. Haynes entered the cinema as someone strange, out of the normative and conventional. And although films similar to the most accepted would come later, Haynes’s cinema often had its own, slightly strange atmosphere.

He was born in Los Angeles in 1961 and his family was not linked to the film industry. However, his mother was studying acting and some of the family’s artistic and creative spirit must have stuck to the little boy.

“I grew up exposed to films, literature, plastic arts, culture in general, and at some point they told me ‘you can do that too if you want’. That is not something that frequent ”, would tell later.

In a talk Haynes had with actress Kate Winslet (Haynes directed Winslet in the television miniseries Mildred Pierce), the director recalled the effect of the first movie he saw: “I was 3 years old and I saw Mary Poppins. The impact it caused on me was seismic and I entered an obsessive period. I started to draw things related to the film and to act ”.

Winslet asked him, then, if Mary Poppins had generated so many expectations in him about what cinema could achieve that the films he saw later did not disappoint him: “No. Other movies that I saw later would impact me in a similar way: they caught me and made me obsess over it. After Mary Poppins, I remember that another movie that impressed me was Romeo and Juliet, by Franco Zeffirelli. I saw it when I was 7 years old and it blew my mind, I became obsessed with Shakespeare ”. Haynes’ path seemed defined: he would be a film director, even though he was not aware of it at the time.

The controversy would accompany him when Haynes premiered his first feature film: Poison (1991). Structured as a triptych and based on texts by French Jean Genet, Poison was used in the American political debate for a discussion that has also occurred here and will continue: Is it okay for the State to finance, even partially, works of art or communication that some consider offensive or “inappropriate”?

For Haynes, the answer is undoubtedly yes. In 1991, the fears and consequences created by the “HIV-AIDS” duo were still very present. Haynes was not going to remain silent in the face of criticism and lobbying that conservative social organizations carried out due to the fact that part of Poison had been financed by public money.

“The AIDS epidemic created a crisis that forced many artists and activists to take sides. It was about saving our lives and making that life important. (All that debate) ignited a cultural moment. This is not always the reason why art was born, but at that time it certainly was (…) That was an important debate and I would go to television programs to discuss with conservatives on issues such as the financing of the arts. I liked giving that debate, but they weren’t discussions about the movie itself. “

From these controversies Haynes jumped to a film that, prima facie, was somewhat more opaque in its subject matter and did not immediately lend itself to short-term political debates: Safe (nineteen ninety five). Focusing on the health incidents of the protagonist (a woman who “develops” an allergy towards a middle-class existence), the film starred Julianne Moore and highly praised by critics.

Moore would repeat the leading role in Far from Paradise (2002). For that title Haynes borrowed the style of Douglas Sirk (successful director during the 1950s) to tell a story about a man (homosexual and repressed, played by Dennis Quaid) married to a woman (Moore) who sexually lusts after one of his servants, an African-American gardener (Dennis Haysbert).

Between Safe and Far …, directed Velvet Goldmine (1998), which investigated the world of glamrock during 1970. The initial idea was to focus on the figure of David Bowie but, again, the issue of the right to use his music forced to change plans. The two “musical” movie experiences have likely given him a buck, and Haynes may have promised himself never to direct such a feature film again without first securing permission to be able to use, in some way, the songs he wanted.

Maybe that’s why it took until 2007 to return to a musical movie. He did it with I’m Not There, a very particular kind of biopic about Bob Dylan. To begin with, there is no single protagonist. Dylan is portrayed by a number of actors and actresses, from Richard Gere to Cate Blanchett, through Christian Bale, Heath Ledger and Charlotte Gainsbourg, among others. And the movie takes as many artistic liberties as Dylan himself did with his music.

afiche I'm Not There
afiche I’m Not There

Of course Haynes can also make films that conform to what most understand as a full-fledged production, without “weird” things like challenging montages or using multiple interpreters to portray an artist.

In 2015, he released his most successful title to date: Carol. Based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan, Carol tells the love story between two women (played by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara).

Haynes not only returned to accumulate accolades – six Oscar nominations and five Golden Globe nominations, for example – and accolades, but he was also in charge of a production that with a budget of US $ 10 million raised more than US $ 40 millions.

Currently, Haynes has more than one project in mind (he has said more than once that it takes him years to be able to realize his films, either because he prepares them thoroughly or because it takes him years to get financing) but in his new film he returns into the world of music with the documentary The Velvet Underground.

It is a look at the history of the band and the social and cultural context in which it was born. Again, Haynes sidesteps the conventions and clichés when it comes to documenting the path of a rock band. “Haynes embraces the language of split-screen avant-garde cinema and lots of footage, competing for space,” wrote a critic who was able to preview it.

And in tune with the times, the documentary will premiere on the Apple TV streaming service on October 15. Still, Haynes made sure by contract that the documentary is released in theaters, at least in his country. The experience of watching a movie in a theater is one that he does not want to be lost, even though the present seems to go towards the atomization of that same experience.

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Todd Haynes, del cine indie a The Velvet Underground – 05/09/2021