Taking on an identity label, such as "queer filmmaker", can be a double-edge sword for artists.
When indie filmmaker Todd Haynes, known for work as varied as suburban melodrama Far From Heaven and the Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There, traveled from Portland, Oregon, for a public appearance at the Cinematheque on November 15, he talked about what his experience was like regarding this issue.
In conversation with the Cinematheque's executive and artistic director Jim Sinclair (at the start of the Haynes retrospective at the Cinematheque) Haynes chatted about numerous topics, including copyright controversies (due to his use of Carpenter songs in his breakthrough Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story), how the environmental allergy drama Safe confounded and enthralled critics, and even mixtapes.
Haynes spoke about the emergence of New Queer Cinema, which developed just as his own career took off with the 1991 film Poison.
"It sort of formed an identity for myself as a feature filmmaker because what was happening at the same time as this New Queer Cinema, that was branded by a journalist at the time, is that there was an emerging market for queer films," he said. "And it was identifying an aspect of an audience that always existed for art forms but was all of a sudden was being defined as gay. And that sort of ushered forth this moment that was called New Queer Cinema…."
What he liked about this movement was how filmmakers were creating alternatives to the traditional heterocentric film structures.
"It was an exciting time because, not just that there were films that were dealing with or engaging with issues around HIV and AIDS and gay identity but I was very proud to be in the company of films that were also finding different ways of employing narrative and telling their stories. There wasn't just the same old formal structures that we'd see with heterosexual-themed stories….It was really trying to find different ways of using the medium. I felt like I was part of a moment that was pushing the medium forward in the climate of a political urgency. It's a unique and exceptional event for artists."
But Haynes also found that there was a drawback to being recognized as a queer filmmaker.
He followed up the gay-themed Poison with Safe, an understated study of a housewife (Julianne Moore) succumbing to a mysterious environmental allergy. While he regards Safe as much of a queer film as Poison, audiences didn't see it the same way. Nonetheless, he saw this confusion in a positive light.
"When I made my next feature, Safe, a lot of the expectations that had been generated of the New Queer Cinema…were disturbed or called into question in a way that I thought was healthy for me as an artist and started to make also just very questions of what makes a gay filmmaker 'gay'…?"
When Sinclair asked Haynes if he could have made a movie about Bowie played by actors of various genders, as in I'm Not There, Haynes responded by saying that with Velvet Goldmine, he saw a "trans-generational tradition" that he felt started with Oscar Wilde.
"I was very interested in this whole camp tradition in English culture, and I saw it being played out generation after generation, and reaching a certain apotheosis in the '70s," he said. "It really was a celebration of artificial languages and the brilliant radical potential of artifice as a method, not just for creating art but also for evading fixed identities and for young people I think it was this amazing, tantalizing liberty to not have to decide who you are, to be in flux, to be liquid. And you could dress yourself up as one thing one day, and you could dress yourself up as something else the next, and that was okay."
However, he discovered that this fluidity of identity was not readily accepted by audiences.
"It was so funny to me that I was sort of rejected by the gay community that embraced me earlier on because it was about this indeterminate bisexual imagination. It sort of made straight and gay people uncomfortable because it was about the in-between. But I think young people understand that. Teenagers understand that because they're not fixed in their identities."
After Safe, Haynes went on to make other diverse works including the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce, a Depression-era American melodrama, and the Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There, which featured six actors, including Cate Blanchett, portraying Dylan. As testimony to his strengths, Haynes didn't let the label—or any issues related to it—stop him from being what he is with or without any other identifiers: a filmmaker.