Watching the cult classic experimental documentary Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, it’s hard to believe that it came from the same mind who made the critically-acclaimed dramas Far From Heaven and Carol…or is it? In the thirty years since his stunning debut, New Queer Cinema visionary Todd Haynes has become a darling of the Academy, worked with top actors like Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger, and Michelle Williams, and enjoyed critical and commercial success. But time was, he was working with inanimate objects and fighting legal battles instead.
So, let’s take a second to connect the dots (and Dotties, for that matter) with a little trip through Haynes’s filmography — the early years!
We begin three decades before Haynes’s latest, Wonderstruck, was released in 2017. Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story is a documentary short that centers on the life and death of tragic and complicated pop star Karen Carpenter. Like many movies about musicians, it was created, in part, by weaving together archival and documentary footage. But unlike other movies — any of them — Haynes uses scale models and modified Barbie dolls as stand-ins for Carpenter, her family, and other characters. This choice, among others, like his decision to intercut these re-enactments with scenes from the Vietnam war or facts about anorexia, probably shouldn’t work as well as they do, but the movie became a festival hit. For his troubles (and for the unlicensed soundtrack), Haynes was slapped with a lawsuit, courtesy of Karen’s brother, Richard. Now, all official prints have been destroyed or locked away in perpetuity. Despite that fact, it remains on Time Out’s list of the top fifty music movies of all time.
How do you follow that kind of debut? In Haynes’s first feature, Poison, he decided to forgo posable plastic actors in favor of living, breathing humans (and he hasn’t really looked back). However, when it came to pushing the boundaries of genre, he was hardly finished. Poison has three parts, each done in a distinct, recognizable style that aims to mimic the aesthetic of a different genre of film. The first section, “Hero,” is a mockumentary based on made-for-TV reportage, the second, “Horror,” is a B-movie melodrama, and the third, “Homo,” is a romance, of sorts, set in a prison and largely based on the writings of Jean Genet — though, like all of his movies (save for his two most recent), Haynes wrote the film himself,. As it turns out, Haynes was also not finished stirring up controversy — upon Poison’s release, it both won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and drew protests from religious and political leaders over its receiving federal funding. One can’t help but wonder how those same conservative figures feel now, especially given Haynes’s subsequent mainstream success.
Between Poison and Safe (his 1995 feature starring Julianne Moore) Haynes created Dottie Gets Spanked, which, like his two previous movies, explores the effects of alienation. The short originally aired on PBS and follows a young boy named Steven as he tries to navigate pre-sexual revolution suburban conformity while nursing a fascination with fictional TV star Dottie Frank — a nod to Haynes’s own childhood obsession with I Love Lucy. Watching an innocent child hitting the walls of other people’s social propriety is a heartbreaking experience, and Haynes would later channel that authentic feeling of dissonance to great effect in Far From Heaven.
Speaking of suburban malaise, Haynes took that symbolism to a whole new level in Safe, in which the environment and class culture begin to literally make the protagonist (Moore) physically ill. Unlike young Steven in Dottie Gets Spanked, this SoCal housewife is not a fresh-faced, clear-eyed innocent, and it’s unclear if things get better for her, or just different and more strange. Somewhere between science fiction and social satire, Haynes crafted Safe as a stunning metaphor for the hazards of difference — and indeed, of queerness — in the world.
Haynes’s next movie would be the glittering and glam Velvet Goldmine, which (like I’m Not There and Bob Dylan) riffs on David Bowie as a musician, man, and myth, and stars Ewan McGregor, Toni Collette, Christian Bale, and everyone’s favorite “executive transvestite” comedian, Eddie Izzard. The rest, as they say, is history, as Haynes’s career was true, from a more mainstream perspective, at least, off to the races. But in Far From Heaven, I’m Not There, Mildred Pierce, Carol, and now Wonderstruck, it’s clear that he’s still tackling many of the same themes of societal repression, the toll of “keeping up appearances,” the lives of famous musicians, and the subversive potentiality of queer identity and queer love. He’s also still lovingly and pointedly appropriating the look and feel of films from a bygone era: Far From Heaven is nothing if not a love letter to Douglas Sirk, and I’m Not There is steeped in the trappings of the 1960s. Haynes deeply understands how movies and music provide respite and resonance for people who, for any number of reasons, simply don’t fit in.
Finally, it would be remiss to leave out one crucial component of Todd Haynes’s lesser-known work: His accomplishments as an executive producer. In this capacity, he has directly contributed to almost all of his friend and colleague (and fellow Oregonian) Kelly Reichardt’s movies: Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff, Night Moves, and Certain Women.
It takes a lot to get a film made, especially an independent one, and Haynes’s contributions to movie culture clearly extend beyond the scope of his own creativity. This quality, as well as his lovingly subversive mimicry of cinematic grammar, is what has made Todd Haynes a true filmmaker’s filmmaker since his auspicious beginnings.
Watch Now: It’s your last chance to catch Velvet Goldmine on Fandor before it expires on July 31— but Haynes’s films Poison and Dottie Gets Spanked are streaming 24/7 for your viewing pleasure! Haynes also appears in the documentaries At Sundance (in Pixelvision!) and Great Directors.