Todd Haynes's Far From Heaven is as much about its simulacrum look-an imitation of an imitation, replicating the splendidly fake 1950s Universal Pictures ambience of Douglas Sirk movies-as it is about its retro Eisenhower-era story. It's impossible to look past the glossy, showy, marvelously overripe camerawork, which may be the reason that cinematographer Ed Lachman, 56, is finally being noticed, and deservedly applauded, after a workaholic twenty-five year career traversing between America and Europe, indies and Hollywood films, from, in Boston, Jan Egleson's Little Sister, to, out in LA, Erin Brockovich.
Just a few of Lachman's Director of Photography credits: La Soufriere (Werner Herzog), Desperately Seeking Susan (Susan Seidelman), Tokyo-Ga (Wim Wenders), True Stories (David Byrne), Mississippi Masala (Mira Nair), London Kills Me (Hanif Kureishi), Light Sleeper (Paul Schrader), The Limey (Steven Soderbergh), The Virgin Suicides (Sophia Coppola), Erin Brockovich (Soderbergh), Simone (Andrew Niccol).
Lachman won the Best Cinematography Award for Far From Heaven at the Venice Film Festival in August, and he'll be a candidate for similar prizes when American critics groups convene in December. And an Oscar nomination? I caught up with him (we've been friends since meeting at a Werner Herzog birthday party, which I crashed) at the Vienna International Film Festival in October, the site of an ll-film Tribute to Ed Lachman.
"The reason Todd was interested in me," Lachman said, "was because I wasn't locked into a signature. I could change radically, I was open to exploring visual grammar. We both came from visual arts backgrounds. I'd studied painting, he's studied semiotics at Brown."
Far From Heaven would be based on the narratives and aesthetics of Douglas Sirk, the "cult" German émigré who brought Brechtian ideas of distanciation to the sudsy melodramas which he directed in the Hollywood 1950s, these starring such icons-of-artifice as Lana Turner, Robert Stack, and Rock Hudson. "Todd talked about how melodrama could become a mirror of people's emotions, and he how Sirk could tell a story connecting gender, sexuality, and race. I really liked Sirk's Written on the Wind. I looked at it again, and also Imitation of Life and All That Heaven Allows.
"We did color print-outs of stills from Sirk, and saw that he used light in an isolating, foreboding way, and color as an expressionist, psychological tool. Doorways and mirrors trap his people in their environment. Beauty is also a trap. As Sirk, Todd in Safe and Far From Heaven focusses on the female protagonist and how she is unable to escape the 'greater good' and morality of the community, how her personal desires are sacrificed. In both, he used Julianne Moore, who radiates, who transcends the camera. You can't go wrong photographing her, and she's as beautiful in person, supportive, engaging, open."
A minority criticism of Far From Heaven is that it's an academic exercise and not a moving story. "Just the opposite!" Lachman said. "Some people start the film feeling superior to the stylization and the 1950s dilemmas of the characters. By the middle, they are emotionally involved. I've watched enough audiences get a tear, and not just women.
"When Todd and I first spoke, I talked to him of how Wong Kar Wai's In the Mood for Love worked on an audience, where there's no consummation of the central relationship. The pendelum is swinging back to emotional romance, about denial and not being able to obtain instant gratification."
Strange words for Lachman? He's also the co-director with Larry Clark of the new Ken Park, a narrative film having trouble with distribution because of its hardcore sex scenes involving California-based teenagers. "Though told in a confrontational way, Ken Park is about repression too," Lachman said. "The adults are turning their frustrations into sexually and emotionally abusing their children. I don't say anyone will see the connection, but repression was, and is, the very American way of dealing with things behind facades."
Lachman's newest project? Bad Santa, a black comedy which he was shooting for Ghost World's Terry Zwigoff, until he was fired by-who else?-- Miramax. "I got a call saying I was being relieved for creative differences with Terry, news to Terry and me. Sometimes Hollywood is more open to experimentation than so-called independent companies. For this story of an alcoholic degenerate who robs department stores with a midget, Miramax wanted a glossy, homogenized, mainstream look. Miramax-they are Hollywood!"