The Surface of Things

illustration by Brianna Ashby

“In my room, the world is beyond my understanding; But when I walk I see that it consists of three or four hills and a cloud.”
— Wallace Stevens, “Of the Surface of Things” (1919)

During the lonely, small-town summers of my adolescence, I stayed up watching movies. I outfitted my room with an old television and an off-brand DVD player, set atop a short, wonky bookshelf with a cheap walnut stain, and laid on my stomach at the foot of the bed until dawn filtered in through the windows. I relished those disappearing hours when the rest of the house fell silent, after Mom turned off Leno in the living room and the creak of her footsteps gave way to the soft hum of traffic on a distant road. Finishing Mulholland Dr. or Lost in Translation at 3:30 a.m. in the depths of August, I felt like the only person in the world.

The Boston suburb where I spent the years in question seemed practically a caricature of the form. On Main Street, two coffee houses, a barber shop, a florist, and a bank bustled with activity, and after completing the afternoon’s errands the women in chic sunglasses and their little children piled into SUVs to return to faraway cul-de-sacs, carved from stands of high pine. Sprinklers opened like daisies at the same time each morning, ensuring each velvety lawn remained the same shade of green, and the paperboys and landscapers and bus drivers and mailmen puttered from place to place on their unchanging rounds. We played the same sports, joined the same clubs, spent weekends at the same beaches. We barbecued in June and lit sparklers in July. We mostly shared the same skin color and inhabited the same tax bracket. This is what we did: we fit in.

Though I tried, sometimes desperately, fitting in was not a skill I mastered. I aped the uniform of the pubescent suburban male, but my cowlicked comb-over and oversized Abercrombie tees proved a thin skein for the near-sighted introvert who feigned only the most rudimentary interest in organized athletics. I drank beer when it was offered and smoked joints as they circulated at one or another surreptitious gathering, but these were the decisions of a doubtful boy rather than a rebellious one. I “dated” a girl in seventh grade for about six seconds and dry-humped with another on the shore of a New York lake, failing to understand my lack of interest in the opposite sex as something other than a consequence of their lack of interest in me. I realize now that I waited out entire years of my life by lying. Most frequently, as it happens, to myself.

The cliché has it that movies “transport” us, yet my relationship with the medium was always more complicated than immersion in another world. Fantasies, science fictions, and comic-book superheroes largely failed to sustain my interest—in part, I think, because I was already hard at work cultivating what felt like “taste,” the self-imposed exile of being the only person in my admittedly tiny universe to see You Can Count on Me . In my family, whose cinematic predilections ranged from Charles Bronson’s Death Wish (Dad) to any romantic comedy that could reasonably be described as “cute” (Mom, little sister), this earned me a well-deserved reputation for snobbery. I wore out our Blockbuster card on stacks of five, six, seven obscure foreign titles and American independents at a time, nearly exhausting the local franchise’s slim selection. “Sometimes I think you pick weird movies just so no one else will want to watch with you,” Mom would say, and though I always denied this accusation, she clearly had me pegged. To invite another set of eyes into the space I’d squared in the screen’s blue light would have been to disrupt the sympathetic magic I hoped to marshal: I wholeheartedly believed that the movies I consumed would remake who I was, and thereby conjure up the person I wanted to be.

The cliché has it that movies “transport” us, yet my relationship with the medium was always more complicated than immersion in another world.

You may loathe the chain’s merciless dismantling of the independent video store, but Blockbuster was a connection to films the nearby multiplexes never deigned to run. In between entire walls filled with copies of the latest big-budget adventure (GUARANTEED IN STOCK!), the manager squeezed the low-fi, the challenging, and the simply odd, and as I made my methodical way around the store I plucked these discoveries by the handful. Loving, hating, underrating, and overestimating, I developed a nascent point of view, a sense of the directors, performers, genres, styles, and stories I preferred and even an inkling as to why. In truth, though, I had seen so little of this Goliath we call “the movies” that I was destined to be jostled awake.

In the life of every critic, I suspect, there is a work of art that cracks open one’s most basic sensibilities, and Far From Heaven, Todd Haynes’ near-perfect reinterpretation of the suburban melodrama, was just such a bolt from the blue. I scarcely possessed the vocabulary to describe what I witnessed—I doubt the names Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson, and Douglas Sirk had ever crossed my lips—but in this case no words were necessary. I understood only that this admonishment of color had provoked in me some profound and inexplicable longing, a stirring beneath the surface of things.

*

In the autumn of 1957, while the country convulses with the first foreshocks of what would come to be called “The Sixties,” Connecticut housewife Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) prepares to hold a party. Descending from auburn foliage to the quotidian details of Cathy’s life on the strains of Elmer Bernstein’s lustrous score, the camera captures a suburban idyll. Cathy’s son, David (Ryan Ward), dawdles; the maid, Sybil (Viola Davis), unloads groceries from the station wagon; daughter Janice (Lindsay Andretta) pleads for new ballet slippers; best friend Eleanor (Patricia Clarkson) arrives in her pink, high-finned sedan with aquamarine swatches for Cathy’s soiree. “Magnatech ’57, here we come!” Cathy blushes, a Mrs. Dalloway of midcentury America. “Half the time she did things not simply, not for themselves,” as Virginia Woolf’s iconic protagonist reflects, “but to make people think this or that.”

As Cathy and her husband, Frank (Dennis Quaid), deploy their respective quivers of falsehoods, half-truths, omissions, and silences, maintaining “this or that” illusion becomesFar from Heaven‘s primary dramatic motor. When Frank is picked up for “loitering” in the early stages, forcing them to miss an engagement at Eleanor’s, Cathy is quick to phone in the fabricated excuse; later, as the neighborhood ladies discuss their sex lives during a daiquiri-soaked luncheon, she just smiles wanly, waiting for the moment to pass.

The conformist gleam of the Whitakers’ “Mr. and Mrs. Magnatech” façade is the product of dissimulation, an unsettling instinct for regression to the mean. This is the terrible truth about the art of deception: practiced enough, lying begins to feel like honesty, until the person you end up convincing is yourself.

Despite the grave consequences of straying out of bounds—from cruel peals of laughter and whispered gossip to violence and social death—the lure of living without pretense proves difficult to resist. Frank, closeted and alcoholic, nervously trails a pair of men to a back-alley gay bar; Cathy, lonely and bereft, befriends her African American gardener, Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert), exciting a clamor on both sides of the racial divide. Haynes and director of photography Edward Lachman cast forbidden spaces in surreal, electric green: the color of the “orgastic future” Jay Gatsby spies at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s East Egg dock, the color of Scottie’s spectral obsession in Vertigo, the hue of the otherworldly, the dreamlike, the perennially out of reach. Cathy, Frank, and Raymond transgress the strict limits of social propriety, but striving to live sincerely leaves them in a kind of Limbo. In Far from Heaven, the great, gnawing gulf between tradition and the individual will threatens to devour the protagonists whole.

Though Haynes succeeds masterfully in replicating Sirk’s aesthetic—vigorous shades of lavender, cherry, and cornflower bloom thick and fast from every corner—pastiche is not his gambit. Subtext becomes text, and the workings of race, class, gender, and sexuality come to seem resolutely modern despite the period detail. A world that compels one to hide in plain sight is not, even fifty years on, entirely strange; it is a certain kind of stasis, rather than progress, that Far from Heaven takes as its subject, and watching the film through modern eyes is an object lesson in the snail’s pace of historical change. I find myself wondering about the Franks and Cathys and Raymonds of my suburban hometown at the millennium’s turn—of the petty arguments and unspoken regrets and magnificent obsessions that swam beneath the surface of things—if only because I know from whence I speak when I tell you that it is possible to bury the truth so deeply you forget what it was in the first place.

The first boy I loved—or at least imagined I loved—was a skinny, straight beauty with a goofy smile, comfortably all-American in the way of denim and baseball. Our acquaintanceship never in fact suggested much in the way of intimacy, certainly not of the physical variety, but when we spoke I experienced the strange electricity of impossible desire. I say “impossible” not to indicate that he evinced no interest (though he did not), nor to confirm that I kept the attraction to myself (though I did), but because the very premise of what I was then beginning to feel seemed to me inconceivable. Guys my age boasted of reaching second or third base with new girlfriends, not of laying in bed on Saturday mornings fantasizing about a stolen kiss with some golden boy from down the block; and, anyway, the adult men joked so effortlessly of nagging wives and “honey-do” lists that any other future I might have envisioned quickly vanished—otherworldly, dreamlike, perennially out of reach.

“I can’t let this thing destroy my life, my family’s life,” Frank Whitaker confides in his psychiatrist before embarking on a program of “complete heterosexual conversion.” “I know it’s a sickness, because it makes me feel despicable.”

For a long time, I, too, felt destroyed, sick, despicable. The years that passed between unearthing my sexuality and embracing it caused me such strain that I finally came out, as a sophomore in college, because I was tired of waking up in the morning and crying in the shower. The admixture of present and past that marks Far from Heaven is subtle, so I found a reflection of my own experience in the heightened affect of its Eisenhower-era New England. The period setting captures a particularly virulent form of the downward pressure on same-sex attraction that lingered into my lonely summers, but Haynes’ real genius is to depict the dull, starving pang of want, which the forebodingly sexless gay characters on Will & Grace managed to elide completely. (We didn’t have Showtime in my house growing up, so I missed the contemporaneous and far more frank Queer as Folk.) Quaid’s swooning posture during an office dalliance, his vulnerability in another man’s arms; the sparking glance and breathless pause of the brief encounter in Miami; the desperate, incantatory cry of “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t” with which he ends his marriage: together, these were the closest on-screen approximation of the knee-buckling, heart-stopping, heaving, relentless desire I felt for something that did not even seem to exist, and which left me so stricken for so long that my conscious mind simply erased it.

“When did you realize you were gay?” To this inevitable question I have never mustered a satisfactory response, because the experience itself—as Frank begins to understand, first to his horror and then to his relief—offered no clear points of demarcation. I stole a copy of Playgirl from a newsstand in sixth grade and exchanged lewd messages in an anonymous chat room a few years later. I craved a kiss from that all-American boy at fifteen and lost my virginity to a female classmate not long after. I enjoyed plenty of sex with my senior-year girlfriend but broke up with her before graduation because her presence was suddenly suffocating. The notion that I might be gay—hell, even the word “gay”—was so implausible that it never occurred to me, though I suppose it was there all along.

The correlative moment in Far from Heaven involves not Frank but Cathy and Raymond, lost in conversation before a painting by Joan Miró. As prim women with turned-up noses look on from across the room, Raymond lyrically explains his theory of modern art—suggesting, in the process, the soulful depths of Haynes’ bold vision. “Perhaps it’s just picking up where religious art left off,” he says of the red, black, and blue abstraction, from the artist’s “Constellations” series. “Somehow trying to show you divinity. The modern artist just pares it down to the basic elements of shape and color. But when you look at that Miró, you feel it just the same.”

Haynes pares the tension between illusion and reality down to the basic elements of shape and color—the flare of a dress or the curve of flowering witch hazel; red lips, golden leaves, indigo night—until he exposes the lie sewn into the fabric of the place: that desire can be planned, gridded, bottled up, closed off, made plausible. I learned the hard way that it’s possible to tamp it down, ignore it, even convince yourself that it doesn’t exist—but in the end, you feel it just the same.

*

At the heart of Far from Heaven, to use Eleanor’s term, is the “class-A, swanky function” of Magnatech ’57, poised at the edge of the irrevocable. Frank, cracking under the stress of reparative therapy, gets too soused to stand, and with his ill-considered joke at Cathy’s expense, he violates the rules of the game. He tells the truth. “It’s all smoke and mirrors, fellas,” he crows about her composed appearance. “That’s all it is.” After the guests depart, he tries and fails to make love to her in the darkened living room, scything through smoke and mirrors of his own. All will be topsy-turvy after this: “Suddenly everything’s changed,” Cathy tells Raymond the following day, as they embark on their journey together. “You changed your mind,” he replies.

Note the shift in emphasis as Cathy’s fatalism bumps up against Raymond’s focus on human agency, or the way Moore’s face eases into the dance-floor reverie a little later, as Cathy’s dutiful performance recedes. Where I once read Far from Heaven as a cold, even mechanistic appraisal of a hidebound society, I now recognize the film to be deeply invested in the belief that choices matter—even, or perhaps especially, when it means that the individual must confront ideology and risk losing. Haynes is never less than clear-eyed about the punishments levied against those who depart from the norm, and Frank, Cathy, and Raymond suffer grave consequences for their decisions. But what ultimately matters is the attempt to choose, even if their choices prove impossible.

“It isn’t plausible for me to be friends with you,” Cathy laments to Raymond after their day on the town sets Hartford in an uproar, under a cinema marquee promising The Bold and the Brave. “You’ve been so very kind to me, and I’ve been perfectly reckless and foolish in return, thinking —”

“Thinking what?” he responds. “That one person could reach out to another, take an interest in another, that maybe for one fleeting instant could manage to see beyond the surface, beyond the color of things?”

“Do you think we ever really do?” she asks. “See beyond those things? The surface of things?”

The conformist fiction of “Americana” has a way of making illusionists of us all, until the weight of desire outstrips the force of expectation and we light out for the territory, unbound.

During most of the years in my life I’m talking about here, I might have taken seriously the idea of the “American Dream,” of Gatsby’s green light and the orgastic future, but I’ve since come to consider it just another surface, a skein, a form of hiding in plain sight. The conformist fiction of “Americana” has a way of making illusionists of us all, until the weight of desire outstrips the force of expectation and we light out for the territory, unbound. Frank, Cathy, and Raymond must lose what they have to get what they want and wind up with less than they hoped for, but each manages for at least one fleeting instant to escape the tyranny of plausibility.

“I think that’s what’s been hardest of all,” Cathy admits to Eleanor. “The endless secrecy. Our entire lives just shut in the dark.”

By the time the film arrives at its ambivalent conclusion, the light cast on lives lived openly is sobering. Frank inhabits a small apartment with his lover, but finds himself estranged from his past; Cathy balances the checkbook and attends to her schedule’s quotidian details, but catches herself in tears unexpectedly; Raymond and his daughter search for a fresh start in Baltimore. Yet there is something faintly expectant in the end of secrecy, too. The silent goodbye that Raymond and Cathy exchange may be the nearest the film comes to its own definition of divinity—pared down, basic, deeply felt just the same—and as she drives away from the train station the camera pans up to a spray of white spring blossoms, signaling a second chance.

In some sense, Far from Heaven is less a story about living in the suburbs than a story about how we leave them. It is, finally, a tale of abandonment, exile, departure from the norm. Watching the film again, I see that its sympathetic magic stirred something beneath the surface of things, but my escape from that place was a decision all my own.

You changed your mind, Raymond says.

I can’t, I can’t, I can’t, Frank cries.

“No one would know us there,” Cathy pleads, trying to convince Raymond that they could begin again in Baltimore, together.

The world beyond my room consisted, I learned, of much more than three or four hills and a cloud, and it was not only the movies that transported me there. I chose, even when my choices appeared most implausible, and in the interim I found myself returning to Haynes’ bolt from the blue for periodic reminders of just how powerful the individual will turns out to be. More than a decade and many miles distant, I still consider Far from Heaven‘s admonishment of color an unexpected entry in my personal history, but I suppose that’s just another way of saying the past is not such a far country as we sometimes like to think.


Matt Brennan is the TV critic for IndieWire‘s Thompson on Hollywood! His writing has also appeared in LA Weekly, Deadspin, Slant Magazine, Flavorwire, andSlate,  among other publications. He lives in New Orleans and tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.