If Todd Haynes is a shape-shifter of sorts, he’s a shape-shifter who nevertheless maintains his quiddity from project to project; like David Bowie, the chameleon musician Haynes took on with 1998’s Velvet Goldmine, his varied projects all come from a singular perspective. Whether he’s interrogating suburban malaise (Safe), suburban malaise as well as the cinematic representation thereof (Far From Heaven), larger-than-life pop icons (Goldmine, I’m Not There, Superstar), or societal issues (Poison), Haynes constantly weaves intertextual cultural reference points into his works, creating a semiotic web that enables him to provide meaning by way of referencing.
It’s for these reasons one starts off wary of Mildred Pierce, Haynes’s HBO miniseries, which concluded last night. It has the pop-culture touchpoints that a post-structuralist filmmaker like Haynes dreams about: a novel by famed pulp author James M. Cain; and a classic Hollywood adaptation for which Joan Crawford won her only Academy Award.
And yet, to watch the series—as well as hear Haynes and co-writer Jon Raymond in conversation with Greil Marcus at the New School on the evening of Thursday, April 7th—is to see that for once, Haynes has made a work that is, as J. Hoberman put it, devoid of quotation marks. There’s nothing ironic or self-deconstructing about Haynes’s straightforward take on the rise and fall of one terribly determined suburban woman, and her frightfully difficult daughter, set in the most-unironic 1930s.
“When I first read the book, it was as the financial markets were tumbling in ’08, and I felt like it was very timely,” Haynes explained. “We thought about modernizing it, but only briefly. In fact, we decided we wanted to show the depression in a way it hadn’t been shown before, as an era that felt lived-in. The previous film doesn’t really touch on the depression.” Indeed, while Haynes and Raymond seemed to hold reverence for the source novel, they mostly spoke of the original Michael Curtiz film to distance themselves from it. Raymond, in fact, hadn’t even seen the original film until the day before the panel. “Todd understandably wanted to give Mildred a more multifaceted characterization than what is portrayed in the original film,” Raymond explained.
Greil Marcus, conducting the discussion on behalf of the New School’s “Noir Now” series of lectures and talks on film noir, seemed intent on steering the contemporary Mildred Pierce toward a noir label, which Haynes resisted. Marcus commented that the scene in which Mildred takes an interview as a potential housekeeper is in effect not dissimilar from a cop going to interrogate a rich female suspect, which felt like something of a stretch. “Whether the film is noir or not, it’s wrapped up in the pathologies of the mother/daughter relationship,” Haynes said later on in the evening. “Mildred has given an enormous amount of power to her daughter, and through her desire for her daughter’s love, she has created Veda. She has allowed Veda to trap her in Veda’s web. It’s about the push/pull of maternal melodrama.” Certainly the epitome of the film’s “maternal melodrama” is found in a scene in Episode 5, when Mildred kisses her sleeping daughter on the mouth; this clip was one of four that was shown to the audience and discussed. “The kiss is kind of like the gateway into this reunion as the apotheosis of Mildred’s life,” Raymond noted. “I don’t think it’s sexual,” Haynes added. “I think it’s a communion with herself. Veda is an extension of herself. It’s not sexual, but it’s almost masturbatory.”
With regard to the deeply intricate relationships probed in the miniseries, one cannot go far without noting Jon Raymond’s certain enormous impact. Raymond, who has written or co-written the latest three Kelly Reichardt films—all excellent—makes his presence clearly felt here, with a simplicity of storytelling and characterization that, alongside the miniseries’ strong class consciousness, is almost enough to situate Mildred Pierce somewhere between a Todd Haynes film and a Kelly Reichardt film. The series’s ginger pacing and (mostly) subtle characterizations recalls Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff—three films for which Raymond evidently deserves much of the credit.
The eventually, inevitably rolled around to the question of just how different this picture was for Haynes. His answer belied a narrative game that perhaps he was playing all along, if only in his own head: “Naturalism is still constructed,” he said. “It’s still a narrative mode. I was conscious that the film was geared toward a different audience than what I’m used to.” Could it be that that was Haynes’s trick all along? One of our most postmodern filmmakers doing a “straight” story is itself is the irony? Perhaps, but if so, it’s a narrative game between Haynes and himself.