Todd Haynesís Far from Heaven is as much about its simulacrum look ó an imitation of an imitation, replicating the splendidly fake 1950s Universal Pictures ambiance of Douglas Sirk movies ó as it is about its retro Eisenhower-era story. Itís impossible to look past the glossy, showy, marvelously overripe camerawork ó which may be why at age 54 cinematographer Ed Lachman is finally being noticed, and deservedly applauded, after a workaholic 25-year career traipsing between America and Europe, indies and Hollywood films, from, in Boston, Jan Eglesonís Little Sister (1984) to, out in LA, Erin Brockovich (2000).
Just a few of Lachmanís Director of Photography credits: La Soufrière (Werner Herzog; 1977), Desperately Seeking Susan (Susan Seidelman; 1985), Tokyo-Ga (Wim Wenders; 1985), True Stories (David Byrne; 1986), Mississippi Masala (Mira Nair; 1991), London Kills Me (Hanif Kureishi; 1991), Light Sleeper (Paul Schrader; 1992), The Limey (Steven Soderbergh; 1999), The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola; 1999), Simone (Andrew Niccol; 2002). He won the Best Cinematography Award for Far from Heaven at the Venice Film Festival in August, and heíll be a candidate for similar prizes when American critics groups convene in December.
And an Oscar nomination? I caught up with him (weíve 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 11-film "Tribute to Ed Lachman." "The reason Todd was interested in me," he said, "was because I wasnít locked into a signature. I could change radically, I was open to exploring visual grammar. We both came from visual-arts backgrounds. Iíd studied painting, heís studied semiotics at Brown."
Far from Heaven would be based on the narratives and æsthetics of Douglas Sirk, the "cult" German émigré who brought Brechtian ideas of alienation to the sudsy melodramas that he directed in the Hollywood 1950s, with such icons of artifice as Lana Turner, Robert Stack, and Rock Hudson. "Todd talked about how melodrama could become a mirror of peopleís emotions, and how Sirk could tell a story connecting gender, sexuality, and race. I really liked Sirkís Written on the Wind. I looked at it again, and also Imitation of Life and All That Heaven Allows. We did color printouts 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. Like Sirk, Todd in Safe and Far from Heaven focuses on the female protagonist and how she is unable to escape the Ďgreater goodí and morality of the community, how her personal desires are sacrificed. In both, he used Julianne Moore, who radiates, who transcends the camera. You canít go wrong photographing her, and sheís as beautiful in person, supportive, engaging, open."
A minority criticism of Far from Heaven is that itís 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. Iíve watched enough audiences get a tear, and not just women. When Todd and I first spoke, I talked to him of how Wong Kar-waiís In the Mood for Love worked on an audience, where thereís no consummation of the central relationship. The pendulum is swinging back to emotional romance, about denial and not being able to obtain instant gratification."
Strange words for Lachman? Heís also the director, with Larry Clark, of the new Ken Park, a narrative film thatís having trouble with distribution because of hardcore sex scenes involving California-based teenagers. "Although told in a confrontational way, Ken Park is about repression too. The adults are turning their frustrations into sexually and emotionally abusing their children. I donít say anyone will see the connection, but repression was, and is, the very American way of dealing with things behind façades."
Lachmanís newest project? Bad Santa, a black comedy that he was shooting for Ghost Worldís Terry Zwigoff until he got fired by ó who else? ó Miramax. "I got a call saying I was being relieved for creative differences with Terry ó 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 ó they are Hollywood!"
Gerald Peary can be reached at email@example.com