Tuesday, September 27, 2011
Cast: Kate Winslet, Evan Rachel Wood, Guy Pearce, Morgan Turner, Brian F. O'Byrne, James LeGros
Director: Todd Haynes
Runtime: 5-part mini-series
Verdict: It’s ridiculously annoying and hateful, and that is its virtue.
One of the great indulgences of watching movies is to chance upon stray connections, often caused due to the presence of certain actors playing characters who seem to be psychologically or emotionally or thematically connected. One might derive a certain satisfaction from this exercise for having discovered what the cinematic universe validates as an evidence to understand the emotions in question. Ms. Winslet plays Mildred Pierce, and she played the Young Iris Murdoch in Iris. The older Iris, suffering from the early effects of Alzheimer’s was played by Ms. Judi Dench, and she of course played Barbara Covett in Notes on a Scandal, an old spinster hell bent upon making a woman completely dependent on her. Ms. Winslet’s Mildred seems to be Barbara when she might have been young and desirable. This cheeky sort of argument should of course not be extended to the presence of Ms. Evan Rachel Wood, who happened to play the young daughter of Ms. Cate Blanchett in The Missing, who in turn played Sheba, the victim of Barbara’s monstrous manipulations. Who says one cannot torture evidence, especially when the dots are in your mind.
Mildred Pierce, the mini-series currently airing on HBO from uber-academic filmmaker Todd Haynes (I’m not Here, Far from Heaven), doesn’t need you connect any dots though, and probably doesn’t even need you to read James M. Cain’s novel, or watch the Michael Curtiz adaptation. If ever there was a film where the term illustration could be used not as a criticism but as a virtue then this is it. Mr. Haynes’ mini-series doesn’t show as much as it tells, asking of you to read, and often even re-read every single dramatic aspect of a relation in every sequence. The compositions are so rigorously academic and the camera often so steadfastly static, one might even suppose cinema to be prose and Mr. Haynes’ Mildred Pierce a novel all by itself, more read than watched. Often, characters would be framed within a window, and separated by the panes into little blocks, or sometimes an umbrella would divide the space between them. Two characters sitting across a coffee table would be incapable of being in the same frame, despite the best of their efforts, and sometimes they are pulled together in one corner of it, making a little world for themselves. In one memorable moment, the camera virtually closes the door. The drama here, then, is not so much as felt as understood.
We open to Mildred, a housewife seemingly in her thirties, and since the text below reads “1931” we know that The Great Depression is just around the corner. Her husband, Bert Pierce (Mr. O'Byrne), a failed real-estate developer, is revealed to be unfaithful within a matter of shots, and he walks out on her, leaving Mildred to take care of their two young daughters, Veda (young Ms. Turner, old Ms. Wood) and Moire(Ms. Quinn McColgan). Increasingly feeling the pinch of strained finances, Mildred is forced to run door-to-door in search of a job, not only to survive but to keep her daughters happy.
The premise, if one hasn’t read the novel or watched the 1945 film, would seem a straightforward story of middle-class survival in a decidedly patriarchal world, especially in Part I, which basically serves as the set-up. Quite frequently, Mr. Haynes employs slow rhythmic tracking shots, slow pans, slow to the point of being deliberate, so slow they pull us right out of the heat of many a moment, and leaves us as observers. Not to feel as much as to see, and know, and probably learn. We observe them through windows, from behind cars, between pillars, across furniture, and by virtue of these “layered” compositions we gradually accumulate the sensations of a materialistic world, where elaborate deceptions worthy of a hard-boiled fiction are part of the bourgeoisie’s struggle not merely to survive but to prosper, and realize the great American dream.
"Mildred Pierce is set during the Depression," observes Haynes in an interview, "but not the Depression of dustbowls and breadlines. The crises it explores are those of middle-class privilege--issues of pride and status, the struggle first to regain one's standing and then to persevere through hard work and ingenuity. This feels very much like the particular struggles of our current economic crisis, coming out of a period of unbridled consumption." In our times where many bank managers and vice presidents have been forced to accept janitorial jobs or driving cabs in the face of ever-eroding savings, the crises at the heart of Mr. Haynes’ mini-series feels especially real. Not that the significance of this naturalism is lost on him, and to a viewer familiar with Mr. Haynes’ filmography the significant departure in tone from the other ‘50s melodrama centered around woman Far From Heaven would be pretty apparent.
“Mildred Pierce is different from traditional domestic dramas that usually explore women who are somewhat disempowered and who are more in a domestic space and don't usually trespass beyond that”, continues Haynes in the interview. Sure enough as we progress through the parts, darker truths are revealed from behind these materialistic layers, almost making a mockery of the menfolk and their banal flaws – greed, lust – through which they are manipulated to any lengths. It is a society that seems to be unknowingly undergoing an evolution, where the power seems to be changing hands ever so discreetly, and where the incumbent is only left with an empty belief that he is still in control. Mildred Pierce, at least until Part II, is about the womenfolk taking control, and just so that we do not miss this tipping point Mr. Haynes lends us a metaphorical image of her grabbing the wheels of her car. From then on things descend into a power struggle within them, within these “flawed” individuals, and the men are left to serve as mere pawns in those schemes.
Mr. Haynes plays this struggle from Mildred’s corner. That Mildred is unlikeable is merely a description of her "flawed" character, that Veda is pure evil a decidedly pejorative stance by the mini-series. There is little to no ambiguity here, no empathy intended, and Mr. Haynes trades the virtues of these humanist angles to gain on the narrative front, cleverly manipulating us to “understand” Mildred and use Veda’s pure villainy serve as a mirror to Mildred’s more manipulative traits, thereby asking us to rethink our readiness to rationalize the actions of our protagonist just because we are privy to her side of the story. "In a weird way, she's almost -- it's almost like she's an outsider to herself”, Mr. Haynes observes in an interview. Not one character apart from Mildred has a moment of their own, relegating them to people in Mildred’s story as she muscles through with little to no degree of self- awareness. Some she uses to advance in life, and Veda whom she desperately wants to be useful to. Her desire to find love and approval in Veda’s eyes is more of a need, a purpose in life. Otherwise, there’s little motivation for her to wake up in the morning and make the bed and clean the dishes.
Posted by Satish Naidu at 6:33 AM