A pioneer of the New Queer Cinema, Todd Haynes (b. 1961) is a leading American independent filmmaker. Whether working with talking dolls in a homemade short (Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story ) or with Oscar®-winning performers in an HBO miniseries (Mildred Pierce ), Haynes has garnered numerous awards and nominations and an expanding fan base for his provocative and engaging work.
In all his films, Haynes works to portray the struggles of characters in conflict with the norms of society. Many of his movies focus on female characters, drawing inspiration from genres such as the woman’s film and the disease movie (Far From Heaven and Safe ); others explore male characters who transgress sexual and other social conventions (Poison and Velvet Goldmine ).
The writer director has drawn on figures such as Karen Carpenter, David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Bob Dylan in his meditations on American and British music, celebrity, and the meaning of identity. His 2007 movie I’m Not There won a number of awards and was notable for Haynes’s decision to cast six different actors (one of whom was a woman) to portray Dylan. Gathering interviews from 1989 through 2012, this collection presents a range of themes, films, and moments in the career of Todd Haynes.
Reprinted with permission from Todd Haynes: Interviews edited by Julia Leyda, copyright (c) 2014. Published by The University Press of Mississippi. Cover photography by Cameron Wittig for Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN. Still photography courtesy of HBO, all rights reserved. Support your local bookstore, or buy the book through our affiliate link at Amazon.com.
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Even as I sit in good fortune conversing with Todd Haynes in the Sundance Kabuki’s green room, anticipating the special San Francisco premiere of the first two episodes of his HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce (2011) co-presented with the San Francisco Film Society, I am aware that out there in the “real” world I have friends who have been out of work for two, sometimes three, years without being able to find another job, friends who are losing their homes due to predatorial loans and subsequent foreclosures, friends who are losing their health because they can’t afford health insurance, friends who have had to migrate out of San Francisco to continue living in the Bay Area, and—for those friends who have been able to find a job—that it’s involved setting aside specialized skills and talents to wait tables, tend bars or drive cabs. With few apparent options or remedies, I can’t help but wonder how we as besieged Americans can retain vision when nothing seems to be left in plain sight?
This national dilemma is not lost on Todd Haynes who has skillfully analogized James M. Cain’s classic 1941 novel Mildred Pierce to the current economic situation in which we now find ourselves. How he has accomplished this is his subversive genius. By staying true to its literary source, Haynes has revealed the relevance of this Depression narrative to our current lives through the long-form format of a cable mini-series, which has allowed the novel to unfold at its own pace. “Mildred Pierce is set during the Depression,” explains Haynes, “but not the Depression of dustbowls and breadlines. The crises it explores are those of middle-class privilege—issues of pride and status, the struggle first to regain one’s standing and then to persevere through hard work and ingenuity. This feels very much like the particular struggles of our current economic crisis, coming out of a period of unbridled consumption.” It reminds me of what my friend Mike Black once characterized as facing up to “the ignobility of work” and how so many of us toil our lives away at jobs that feel “beneath” us. The class struggle here seems to be between those who lead authentic, creative and productive lives and those who simply don’t, and suffer for it.
Negotiating around the famous Oscar®-winning performance by Joan Crawford in Michael Curtiz’s 1945 “noir” classic Mildred Pierce —no mean feat, I might add!—Haynes astutely relies on Cain’s novel to reveal the compelling narrative of the rise and fall of Mildred Pierce. Kate Winslet unflinchingly inhabits the role, making it all her own, by remaining faithful to the book’s characterization. If mythologist Joseph Campbell’s suggestion that an individual’s brilliance shines through in the performance of their everyday tasks, then Kate Winslet’s Mildred Pierce is radiant with a growth maneuvered task by task, step by step.
[This conversation is not for the spoiler-wary!]
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Q: I’m of that demographic, Todd, that came to your films by way of Far From Heaven (2002) and then went back to visit your earlier work and I have to say that your films have the unnerving quality of making me bawl in public. [Haynes laughs.] If it weren’t for the kind shoulder of the young woman sitting next to me at Far From Heaven , I don’t think I would have made it through that film.
A: [Laughing.] That’s sweet. Thank you.
Q: And, of course, your recent HBO film Mildred Pierce has its moments as well. The scene where Mildred (Kate Winslet) and Bert (Brían F. O’Byrne) agree to divorce is a heartbreaker.
A: I know! These powerful actors of mine.
Q: What is it in the specific catharsis you mine from the melodrama of these women’s narratives that assists you in your filmmaking vision?
A: It’s just the most fascinating form. In a way the term “melodrama” is so clumsy and imprecise unlike other genres that we might talk about—like westerns, film noir, gangster movies or whatever—because it also incorporates a kind of pejorative attitude about emotional or sentimental excess. But it’s almost because of that, that it makes me want to get in there and roll up my sleeves and figure out why? What is that? Why is it dealt with derogatorily? Why do we dismiss melodramas and domestic drama as something second-class in preference for genres that are, first, more escapist and more associated with male protagonists? Genres that express more freedom in exploring frontiers (as in westerns) or investigating crimes (as in gangster films)?
Melodramas are stories about families, and women in houses, and relationships that don’t always work out, and people making tough choices under the pressure of societal views and prejudices. Not only do melodramas have that brand because women are so central to them but it’s really about our own lives; it’s really about what we all experience in life. I like that about melodramas, although I’ve tried to do something quite different in the style of Mildred Pierce than what I did in Far From Heaven . In Far From Heaven —which was quoting from the most stylized period of the melodramas in the ’50s and trying hard to be true to those cinematic styles—it was almost more an experiment. It was almost riskier. When people had strong emotional reactions to the material, it proved to me that this genre has incredible legs and really endures because—even though we were working through an artificial visual language and pushing it further than normal—people did have a strong emotional reaction to that film, which says a lot about the form. It says a lot about melodrama.
With Mildred Pierce , however, I was exploring naturalism. It’s a more understated treatment of the material than what I did with Far From Heaven . The intensity, the drama, the extremes are all in the material and I didn’t need to add to that an extreme visual language or an intense musical score. I wanted to give the audience room to find their way into the material and not overdetermine their emotions.
Q: Some of the immediate feedback I’ve read on Mildred Pierce , and what I experienced watching the first two episodes, has been exactly this measure of restraint. And as you’ve described it elsewhere, the film exhibits a “relatable” naturalism, which speaks exactly to how a genre can be resuscitated in such a way as to find relevance with modern audiences. Yet still I wonder why a genre that was so blithely dismissed in the 1950s as “women’s weepers” has elevated into modern relevance? Would it have anything to do with the power politics in the film’s male-female relationships? Your films give the yin and yang of relationship a postmodern flip of the coin. The yin is expressed through your earnest, enterprising women and the yang by your indolent but attractive men. What do you seek out in such gendered tension?
A: Mildred Pierce is different from traditional domestic dramas that usually explore women who are somewhat disempowered and who are more in a domestic space and don’t usually trespass beyond that. A real line is drawn between the working world and the home world. Children are the ones who are ushered out to cross that boundary, such as in the more traditional classic mother-daughter stories like Stella Dallas (1937) where—and this is often true with these stories—the kid represents the tension. The mother doesn’t want to let go of the child but she also wants the child to move up the social ladder. That usually ends up with the mother having to sacrifice greatly and sometimes even hand the kid over to the wealthier part of the family and let somebody else bring her up better than she could. That’s how Stella Dallas ends, for instance, with her maternal sacrifice.
But what’s so interesting in Mildred Pierce is that it’s women who are running the show. The men are waylaid by the economic catastrophe of the 1930s that they’re all trying to figure out; but, it seems like women just had to—by necessity—take action and become active in the work place. In Mildred’s case, it starts with small steps as you’ve just seen in the first two episodes where she has to get a job and re-examine who she is in the world as a single mother and what her middle-class identity is really all about. So she has to take a job that she considers beneath her; but, through that experience, she learns a great deal, and discovers she has a lot of innate talents and skills that she keeps learning more about to see how far they can take her. Ultimately, they take her quite far indeed. But the men in Mildred Pierce are passive and I think that’s so interesting. It’s not the war years yet—it’s not the time when the men are gone and women are running the factories—it’s prior to that. In a way, all of the men in Mildred Pierce are passive failures, of various varieties in the story.
James M. Cain has said that one of his missions and what he set out to say by writing Mildred Pierce was to tell the story of a woman who uses men to get what she needs. What I think he probably meant is that she doesn’t see what she’s doing; she’s doesn’t do it knowingly; she does it instinctively. And then gets in trouble. And then discovers how it happened. Of course, what it really is all about is this mother and daughter relationship. Mildred finds men and puts them to the service of her ambitions that are all being fueled by the needs of the daughter. She is preoccupied with and over-invested in this one child. The men fall into service to that mission, with all sorts of various outcomes along the way.
Editor Julia Leyda teaches North American literature (20th– and 21st-century), culture, and cinema to British and American literature majors at Sophia University in Tokyo, Japan. She has published in Television and New Media, Bright Lights Film Journal, La Furia Umana, Contemporary Women’s Writing, Cinema Journal, and other journals. Along with the current volume of interviews with Todd Haynes, she is working on another edited collection with Theresa Geller tentatively entitled An Indelible Mark: Women in the Work of Todd Haynes.