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The Films of Todd Haynes: Performance, Desire, and Identity

Written by Kyle Turner on November 24, 2015 


Returning to the big screen after nearly a decade, queer maestro Todd Haynes presents his film Carol, based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith, a rapturous love story between Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. In honor of the release, the Film Society at Lincoln Center has assembled a retrospective called “Todd Haynes: The Other Side of Dreams,” and, for our own appreciation, we’re taking a look back at his films.

Through glances, touches, performances, cleaning, singing, organizing, cooking, and sex, Todd Haynes has established himself as one of the most inventive filmmakers, and perhaps the most daringly unapologetic when it comes to broaching topics of identity, femininity, queerness, love, and desire. But his work is also imbued with passion and sensitivity, and he’s as invested in characters’ interior lives as he is playing intellectual games with the audience. Join us as we take a walk through his filmography.

Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1988)

Super Star

When asked by Nick Davis where one should begin with Todd Haynes’s filmography, the director settled on his first film, a biopic made with Barbie dolls. He said, “[I]n some crazy way it encompasses all those elements in my very first outing. It deals with questions about narrative, the subject, and identity, together with a take on pop culture in a particular historical framework.” True, Haynes’s first feature, which is technically banned from being exhibited in most venues (though MoMA has an original copy, it’s easily trackable on YouTube, and Lincoln Center just screened it) after a legal battle with the Carpenter family, is able to distill the most essential of Haynes’s pet preoccupations in a concise, yet daring manner. The story of the rise and fall of the eponymous pop star presents identity in the most manufactured way possible: as a doll to be played with, manipulated, and shaped the way society sees fit.

Poison (1991)


It wasn’t until 1991 that Haynes burst onto the scene with the equally audacious cinematic triptych Poison. Through three stories — “Hero,” “Horror,” and “Homo,” each with distinctive aesthetics and approaches — Haynes deconstructed queerness as social construct: documentary-interviewing not the person but the environment; horror film that studies the stigma of queer identity and AIDS; prison melodrama that examines the performative nature of relationships. With other directors (e.g. Gregg Araki and Derek Jarman), Haynes would be a part of an incendiary movement in film history: the New Queer Cinema, a term coined by critic and scholar B. Ruby Rich in a 1992 issue of Sight & Sound. Not only does the set of three shorts allow the director to play his semiotics game (he has a degree from Brown), but it also served as an opportunity for Haynes to play in genre.

[Safe] (1995)


Although the “Horror” segment of Poison is more easily identifiable as a conventional, well, horror film — especially for playing up the kitsch of low-budget B-movies from the 1950s — [Safe] might be his horror masterpiece. His tale of a 1980s housewife who becomes allergic to her suburban world is chilling in its articulation of anxiety and alienation, one that is at once universal and capitalizes on specificity. Though there are no out queer characters in the film, Haynes’s use of the housewife archetype, Carol (Julianne Moore), lets him mine gay culture to present a form of estrangement that feels especially potent for queer people. While its coldness and austerity lends an Antonioni-esque and Kubrickian feel, the brand of dread and isolation (identity as social construct) belongs only to Mr. Haynes.

Velvet Goldmine (1998)

Velvet Simpson

Location is very much embedded into the text of Haynes’s films. In Velvet Goldmine, the relationship between London and New York seems especially present in the way those cultures navigate their own forms of identity via music and media. Also crucial to Haynes’s glam rock-extravaganza is performance: though he had explored performative identity to some degree in all of his previous work, its explicitness as a form of constructed persona perhaps reaches a kind of apex here and in I’m Not There. Utilizing a Citizen Kane-like narrative structure, the films bobs in and about the transformation of music, art, and the self in lustrous and flamboyant fashion. It’s Haynes’s most joyously bonkers film, even rhapsodic in many ways. Velvet Goldmine, at its essence, is “Bohemian Rhapsody” as cinematic event.

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