I don’t think anyone would protest my assertion that Todd Haynes is one of the most significant filmmakers of the past 40 years. Postmodern to the core, Haynes’ films have been instrumental in helping to flip social mores on their head and bring us into a more fluid future. Often, he blurs traditional gender roles and his creations are erotic, transgressive and unconventional, bringing a truly refreshing style to modern filmmaking. It’s no coincidence that he has earned legions of disciples in the process.
Born in Los Angeles in 1961, Haynes was raised in the neighbourhood of Encino. An academic, this highly educated background permeates every one of his cinematic creations. Haynes’ works are imbued with complex issues and an almost constant formalist outlook, giving them an inherent rewatchable feel, allowing new opportunities for discovery. During the 1993 interview Cinematic/Sexual: An Interview with Todd Haynes, Haynes was asked whether his academic background affected his practice. The auteur evoked a lesson his high school teacher told him, explaining: “Reality can’t be a criterion for judging the success or failure of a film, or its effect on you. It was a simple, but eye-opening, way of approaching film.”
Haynes undoes reality, and this is his true genius. Our perceptions are altered, and after watching any of his movies, you’re left with many questions about the society we live in.
Haynes first came to public attention after he released his strange and controversial short film, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, in 1987. It chronicled the life and death of The Carpenters frontwoman Karen Carpenter using Barbie dolls as actors. He used The Carpenters’ music without permission and portrayed Richard Carpenter in an unflattering way, a move that prompted a lawsuit from Carpenter. This culminated in the film’s distribution being banned. Due to its notoriety, it has since become a cult classic and is available on YouTube.
Haynes’ first full-length film, however, came in the shape of the 199 effort Poison. A three-part exploration of the queer community in the AIDS-era, it established Haynes as one of the most forward-thinking directors, and a master of transgression. It won the Grand Jury Prize at the eminent Sundance Film Festival and remains a must-watch in the genre of New Queer Cinema.
A triptych of narratives, each part used a different cinematic genre to convey its point. The first was the vox-pop documentary ‘Hero’, the second 1950s sci-fi ‘Horror’ and the final was gay prisoner drama ‘Homo’. Exploring the attitudes towards the community, and perceptions of homosexuality as ‘unnatural’ and ‘deviant’, Haynes’ academic background bled through the film. He presents a reworking of Genet’s concept of sadomasochistic gay relations as a means of subverting the heteronormative traditions.
Haynes would then go on to make the decade his own. He released Safe in 1995 to critical acclaim, a film that painted a portrait of a housewife who develops the vague and controversial health condition multiple chemical sensitivity. Then, in 1998, he released Velvet Goldmine, another cult classic. Starring Christian Bale, Ewan McGregor and Jonathan Rhys Meyers, the project told the story of fictional glam rock star Brian Slade and drew heavily on the life stories of Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and David Bowie. A nonlinear masterpiece, it wove vignettes together in a way that had never really been seen before.
Haynes then became more of a household name with the release of Far from Heaven in 2002. Inspired by the films of Douglas Sirk, the director who pulled back the curtain on the hypocrisies of 1950’s America, Far from Heaven exposed the traditional gender mores for what they were; ridiculous. The melodrama follows a housewife who discovers that her husband is gay, and then falls in love with her African-American gardener.
From there, his fifth feature-length, I’m Not There, really is quite something. Nonlinear again, but a biopic, it depicts various eras of Bob Dylan through six fictionalised characters. Played by five actors, Christian Bale, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger and one actress, Cate Blanchett, never before had the concept of a biopic been rewritten with such ingenuity. Audacious and surreal, it was an instant classic.
Later, in 2011, Haynes move on again to co-write and direct the acclaimed HBO mini-series Mildred Pierce, which was universally lauded. Adapted from James M. Cain’s 1941 novel of the same name, it indicated that there’s no era that Haynes’ is scared of tackling. Then in 2015, he produced his sixth film, Carol, based on Patricia Highsmith’s iconic 1952 novel, The Price of Salt. Much like the forbidden love examined in Far from Heaven, the film explored the concept through a love affair between two women from different classes in early ’50s New York.
Refusing to slow down and, instead, relentless pushing his work forward, Haynes released the period mystery Wonderstruck in 2017, and the legal thriller Dark Waters in 2019. This year, he returned with his first feature documentary, The Velvet Underground, an experimental and artistic exploration of everyone’s favourite proto-punks.
An iconic filmmaker with a transgressive edge, with each release Todd Haynes reminds us why he is one of the most significant auteurs of our time. He takes a torch to society’s hypocrisies and ills, and through his surreal, mind-blowing take on structure, manages to instil us with a sense of how we should move forward into a more understanding future.