Imagining a Better World Through Thinking Women
All That Heaven Allows (1955), Ali: Fear Eats The Soul (1974), and Far From Heaven (2002) form a fascinating lineage of films that insist on the possibility of a better world. These films critique society’s rigid confinement of women and attempt to instigate political action on the part of viewers through the use of the melodramatic form. This essay explores the queer and feminist potentialities embedded in Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, and traces the ways in which Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Todd Haynes pick up on and develop those strands in their own work to suit their contemporary moments and unique artistic and political ends. The first part of this essay identifies the fundamentally utopic vision and basic strategy of prompting viewers to question real life social structures in All That Heaven Allows. The second part of the essay discusses the role of thinking women characters in these three films in furthering the ultimate aims of raising social awareness and compelling audiences to change their realities.
Some Other Logic
If one thinks of the term “queer” as Michelle Aaron does in its broadest and most expansive meaning, the word “contests (hetero- and homo-) normality” (5). Queer “means to be untethered from ‘conventional’ codes of behavior” (5). It does not only refer to sexuality and gender, but also to a reimagining of other types of restrictions on identity. Jose Esteban Munoz takes this idea in an even more utopian direction: “Queerness is that thing that lets us feel that this world is not enough, that indeed something is missing… Queerness is essentially about the rejection of the here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world” (1). These broader definitions of queerness as a general questioning of the status quo and a desire for improved social conditions forms the core of my analysis of the three films in this essay.
At the heart of All That Heaven Allows is the belief that the world is heartbreakingly confining and flawed. The film constantly gestures toward (and its characters long for) a better world that is never fully realized within the narrative. The primary conflict of All That Heaven Allows is the protagonist’s struggle to be in a romantic relationship that her peers and family view as inappropriate and scandalous. Cary (Jane Wyman), a wealthy widow in a perfect New England town, is in love with Ron (Rock Hudson), her gardener and a younger man, but cannot fully commit to building a new life with him because of the pressures that her social circle and children place on her. Like all melodramas, the essential struggle is one of establishing individual identity within conditions that seem to determine characters’ destinies (Lang, 3).
This understanding of society as cruelly limiting is a fundamental recognition that Sirk, Fassbinder, and Haynes share. From this place, all three filmmakers have a common interest in compelling audiences to feel something while watching their movies in order to think and act in the real world. Sirk articulates certain social conflicts in All That Heaven Allows that Fassbinder and Haynes take in their own directions to address their specific moments, but the strategy is always the same: to offer viewers an emotional experience that they can transform into social consciousness and action.
In an interview for the Criterion Collection’s 2003 release of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Todd Haynes pulls up a quote that he continually returns to from Fassbinder reflecting on his own movies: “‘People often criticize my films for being pessimistic. There are certainly many reasons for being pessimistic, but I don’t see my films that way. They’re founded on the belief that revolution doesn’t belong on the cinema screen, but outside, in the world. Never mind if a film ends pessimistically. If it exposes certain mechanisms clearly enough to show people how exactly they work, then the ultimate effect is not pessimistic. My goal is to reveal such mechanisms in a way that makes people realize the necessity of changing their own reality.’” One can interpret Fassbinder and Haynes’ take on Sirk—who is critical of dominant culture even as he acts squarely within it—as furthering the promise of possibility that melodrama implicitly always holds, which is “that there may be some other logic” (Lang, 30). Using the melodramatic form as a tool, these directors continue Sirk’s strategy of appealing to pathos in order to stir political awareness in viewers.
Sirk, Fassbinder, and Haynes create stories of suffering around thinking women to frustrate audiences and jolt them out of complacency. Haynes writes of the thinking women in melodramas: “What they end up learning, though, like most of us, is that life is mostly unfair” (xiv). These thinking women, who have wills and dreams, show us that their filmic universes are wrong, and by extension, that the world viewers inhabit is also wrong on many fronts. These characters’ aware engagement with the limiting world is key in the strategy for planting a yearning for change in viewers.
In 1971, Rainer Werner Fassbinder saw a series of six Douglas Sirk movies and wrote about them. His insights forever color the way one sees Sirk. As Brian Price notes, Fassbinder’s essays on Sirk’s films have a remarkable ability to “change the way one looks at them, if not the world itself” (Peucker, 159). All That Heaven Allows struck Fassbinder as a film that treated its female characters differently. He writes: “Women think in Sirk films. Something which has never struck me with other directors. None of them. Usually women are always reacting, doing what women are supposed to do, but in Sirk they think. It’s something that has to be seen. It’s great to see women think. It gives one hope. Honestly” (Fassbinder, 90).
Cary in All That Heaven Allows is an ambivalent character who is shown actively negotiating her social terrain. Cary desires, makes decisions, and reflects on the social conventions that she knows impede on her happiness. Unlike many other female characters in the genre of melodrama—also known as women’s films, weepies, and tearjerkers—Cary exists to confront her own limits and those imposed on her by society. Through her struggles, viewers awaken to the real constraints of their own lives.
The finest narrative and cinematic example of Cary “thinking” is when on Christmas morning her children announce their plans to move away from the family home and she realizes that she gave up Ron for no reason at all. Cary rubs her temples and furrows her brows in pain at this suffocating scene of holiday cheer as she sees the losing trade she has made. She says to her daughter, “the whole thing’s been so pointless.” Just then, her son and the salesman carry a brand new television set into the living room, “Merry Christmas, mother!” exclaims her goofy son, and the salesman says with enthusiasm: “All you have to do is turn that dial, and you’ll have all the company you want. Right there on the screen. Drama, comedy, life’s parade at your fingertips.” A zoom into the reflective television screen shows Cary looking at herself amidst the overabundance and complete emptiness of her home. This moment of contemplation is typical of the way Sirk’s female leads are painfully aware of and actively brood on their captivity.
Fassbinder destroys that wretched symbol of oppression in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul when Emmi’s son kicks in and shatters the television upon hearing about his mother’s marriage. That outburst encapsulates the spirit of Fassbinder’s interpretation of Sirk’s film. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul takes the basic story of an inappropriate match from All That Heaven Allows to a more extreme place with the inclusion of a much wider age gap, a racial conflict, and a xenophobic society. Fassbinder’s film is considerably grittier and contains much more violent overtones than All That Heaven Allows, which retroactively gives the seemingly benign violences in Sirk’s film a more sinister dimension. When Emmi’s son smashes the television, viewers recall the significance of the same baleful object in All That Heaven Allows, and the way it represents the menacing intent of a social network designed to suppress a thinking woman’s freedom. Fassbinder calls attention to this object and destroys it spectacularly, doing what Cary could never do as a female lead in a 1950s melodrama. As always, Fassbinder takes Sirk several steps further.
Fassbinder complicates the presentation of “thinking women” in his film by making Emmi (Brigitte Mira) a more contradictory figure than Cary, a woman who is torn between her desires and social status but who does not carry shocking inconsistencies or express political knowledge that refer to the world beyond the filmic realm. While Emmi is deeply goodhearted, she also represents the presence of Germany’s fascist past. Fassbinder imbues Emmi with some of Ron’s most positive attributes that Cary lacks. Emmi is fundamentally open and accepting, free of the prejudices of those around her, and she stays grounded in her values. Her genuine interest in a black “guest worker” and her straightforward manner with people in her life attest to this. As Todd Haynes notes in the Criterion Collection interview, Fassbinder passes on the steadfastness and moralism of Ron to his female lead. Emmi becomes the “tree trunk” that Ron was in Sirk’s work, while her husband becomes the more irresolute and corruptible figure (Fassbinder, 89).
But Fassbinder refuses a purely positive image of his thinking and nuanced female lead, which ultimately shows how society’s wrongness not only imposes itself from the outside but seeps into Emmi and becomes part of her internalized world. Even as Emmi embarks on a marriage with a younger black man that would seem to indicate a progressive worldview, she still recalls Hitler in conversation as if that period were something to be nostalgic about (she even takes her husband to Hitler’s favorite restaurant to celebrate their wedding), which points to the inconsistencies that lie in real people as products of their societies. Fassbinder’s preoccupation with the lingering presence of the Third Reich in postwar Germany and his identification of “the root prejudices of Nazi ideology as aspects of European culture that predated and outlasted Hitler’s Germany,” are present not only in the villainous characters in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, but in Emmi (Cottingham, 11).
Fassbinder’s layering of innate goodness with political disconnection makes Emmi a more bewildering and believable character, a real person. Fassbinder’s thinking woman not only shows the capacity to grapple with complicated psychological and emotional struggles like Sirk’s Cary, but is positioned as a member of the public who is in relationship with the big moments of history and with political movements of her lifetime. Fassbinder takes up Sirk’s interest in women, and creates a character that is more tactile and more firmly rooted in this world (not the hermetic cinematic world or the purely domestic sphere) to make strong claims about contemporary German society, especially its continued ties to National Socialist history. Emmi is provocative, and the story that unfolds around her serves the purpose of calling attention to substantial problems in society that viewers must confront outside of the cinema hall.
In Far From Heaven, Cathy, is a character strongly tied to the fantasy of an improved reality, both emotionally and politically. Her character tries hard at every opportunity to connect with people who are supposedly outside of her circle, and she repeatedly shows her ability to visualize a more ideal world. Unlike Cary, Cathy aligns herself with a political ideology (liberal), and unlike Emmi’s engagement with politics, Cathy’s is up-to-date. Haynes creates a character more in tune with her times than either Sirk or Fassbinder’s heroines. This befits a film that interrogates American values and social forces. Haynes wants viewers to see that the 1950s, “bear a more disturbing resemblance to today’s society than we generally want to admit,” and by making Cathy a politically aware individual, viewers are encouraged to think of their own position in the current political landscape (Morrison, 129-130).
In a scene where Cathy and Raymond, her black gardener and love interest, take a walk in the woods, “it is Cathy and not Raymond who is able to envision a world beyond binary notions of difference by suggesting that emotional intimacy not only blurs but collapses social boundaries and simple notions of insider and outsider,” when Raymond tells her, “Sometimes it’s the people outside our world we confide in best,” to which Cathy replies, “But once you do…confide, share with someone, they’re not really any longer outside, are they?” (Morrison, 128). She has an innate capacity to see beyond the surface of things, but her moves toward manifesting what she knows is true are prohibited. Cathy starts off as a character who (somewhat naively) perceives herself as progressive—supporting the NAACP and declaring awkwardly to Raymond that she’s not prejudiced—but Haynes develops her story so that she must confront the world as it is, and not just the way she dreams it could be. Once Cathy falls for someone with whom “it isn’t plausible” to be friends, she can no longer happily enact her progressive values from a distance but must recognize the tragic social systems that produce and attempt to channel desire in order to confirm its own power (Morrison, 139).
Fassbinder and Haynes draw on something innately positive in Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, which is the film’s treatment of female characters as a method of pushing viewers to contemplate and wish to change their own realities. The worlds that these thinking women inhabit are not good enough for them. As viewers recognize this through the emotional excesses and strains of the melodramatic form, they are moved to the conclusion that society can do better. Though they do no explicitly address queer themes (with the exception of Haynes’ film) or call for direct insurrection, these three movies question normality and society’s basic structures; therefore, they participate in a utopian conception of enacting queerness. Haynes writes, “To provide an audience with a solution—to give them the revolution—is to deprive them of the necessity of creating their own…I’ve always felt that viewers of film have extraordinary powers: They can make life out of reflections on the wall. Perhaps it’s in the spaces we allow them to reflect (upon) themselves that films encourage these powers of transformation to continue—even after the movie is over” (xii).
Seeing All That Heaven Allows through the visionary and perceptive eyes of Fassbinder and Haynes, audiences can retroactively detect strongly subversive positions within a film that operated in dominant, patriarchal heteronormative culture. Perhaps if contemporary viewers begin to see like Fassbinder and Haynes, searching for the gestures towards a better world in films that at first appear lightweight, they can enjoy a more activist engagement with current movies. The queer and feminist potential in All That Heaven Allows that Fassbinder and Haynes identify and then grow is a testament to how an orientation toward hope can be truly generative and productive.
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