As this is a Far From Heaven review, the first thing I'm supposed to do is mention that it's a recreation of the films of Douglas Sirk. Then, as this is an online review, I'm supposed to establish my non-geek cred by cheerfully admitting that I don't actually know who Douglas Sirk is. Except that I actually took a seminar in grad school about melodrama in which Sirk figured heavily. So much for non-geek cred.
Mimicking Sirk means that the film will be quite lush chromatically, musically and set-designally; more to the point, it means evoking the 1950s, or at least the 1950s of Better Homes and Gardens and suchlike. This made for an interesting frisson of recognition for me... I adored James Lileks's late lamented Interior Desecrators page both as a cultural document and as a source of nostalgia — nothing transports me back to my early childhood faster than that infamous combination of red-orange, brown, harvest gold and avocado green. I was born too late to be surrounded by salmon pink, electric aqua, lavender and pastel green, but the furniture and the architecture, the indoor phalanxes of colored brick... these last a while. Just as I had 1970s shag carpet in my mid-90s Berkeley apartment, I remember 1950s architecture and interior design: for those of us who were kids in the early 1980s they were emblematic of everyone's great-aunt's house.
But those are the trappings. The plots of these melodramas tended to actually be about things — race, class, sex — and so is this. There are two main threads to the plot: the protagonist's husband is gay, and this being the 50s, he (unsuccessfully) tries to go get himself "cured"; at the same time, she discovers that her new gardener, who is black — I mean, a Negro, this being the 1950s — is the catch of a lifetime: intelligent, accomplished, kind-hearted, handsome, wise, a devoted father. But this is the 1950s, so even though it is screamingly obvious that they are Meant For Each Other, a romance between them, or even a friendship, is "not plausible." Simply being seen together puts them in danger, both social and physical.
It's heartbreaking and rage-inspiring, seeing love thwarted by hate, feeling the pain inflicted on people by a vicious, racist society... particularly hurtful to me given that I'm the child of an interracial couple, am in an interracial relationship myself (and could hardly be otherwise, given how few people in the world must share my particular ethnic makeup), and pretty much am the sort of creature the bigots most wanted to prevent. Man, good thing the 50s are over, one is tempted to think... but then one remembers that Trent Lott and company devoutly wish to drag us back there. And it's not just racism: in 1957 Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? was ten years away, but the gay husband in Far From Heaven would have to wait a lot longer than ten years before being able to openly pursue love without being set upon by society's jackals. Same routine. Good thing the 50s are over — but then you've got Rick Santorum trying to turn back the clock.
There's more to it than just the observation that racism and homophobia are still with us today, though. The fact is, interracial romance and homosexuality are more accepted in most of America today than they were fifty years ago. Progress has been made. Progress. As in "progressive," as in the opposite number of "conservative," the most coveted label in American politics. Surely even most conservatives will acknowledge that the strides forward we've made in racial and sexual equality have been a good thing. (And not inevitable, as our even more rapid strides backward in class equality in the past fifty years attest.) That being the case, why fear more social progress? And there's this, too: in 1957 it was mainstream in the white community to be an integrationist, and even win admiration from liberals for being a "friend to Negroes"; a real movie from 1957 treating an interracial romance as something to root for would have been very daring but not inconceivable. A sympathetic treatment of the gay romance, by contrast, would have been unthinkable: in the 50s it was considered liberal to treat homosexuality as a disease rather than a sin. Nowadays sympathetic treatment of gay romance is still a bit daring... so what is the type of love considered deviant today that in fifty years we'll feel ashamed for condemning? What's the underground subculture that dare not speak its name too loudly in public?
Could it be one of the things Santorum is on the defensive for comparing homosexuality to? One of the things the gay rights advocates demanded not to be lumped in with?
Could it be polyamory?
I wonder. Anyway, good movie. Sad, but evoking the kind of sadness that makes you want to change things for the better.
(Postscript: shortly after I uploaded this I was reminded that I'd forgotten to include a quote that struck me as fairly germane. Vladimir Nabokov wrote in the afterword to Lolita that (in the mid-1950s, at least) there were three themes that publishers wouldn't touch. One was that of Lolita: the pedophile as something other than inhuman monster. "The two others," he continues, "are a Negro-White marriage which is a complete and glorious success resulting in lots of children and grandchildren; and the total atheist who lives a happy and useful life, and dies in his sleep at the age of 106.")