Director Todd Haynes on the set
Director Todd Haynes with Ed Lachman shooting on the streets of New York
USA (117 mi) 2017 ‘Scope d: Todd Haynes Official Site
We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.
Premiering in competition on the second day at Cannes, the film received little fanfare in a less than stunning field, yet once again it appears the critics missed the boat, as it’s literally an astonishing effort, one of the more highly accomplished and best directed films seen all year, arguably the best edited, featuring a truly remarkable production design from Mark Friedberg, coming on the heels of one of Haynes’ most acclaimed films, 2015 Top Ten List #6 Carol, we are witnessing a director at the peak of his creative powers. Shot by the irrepressible Ed Lachman, among the best in the business, with writer and illustrator Brian Selznick adapting his own children’s novel, the film bears some similarity to Martin Scorsese’s Hugo in 3D (2011), which was also an adaptation of a Selznick novel, though Scorsese directed his film so that 12-year olds could see the film, while this feels as if children are not the target audience, if only due to the gravity of the material, though there’s nothing in it that’s inappropriate for children. The fact that it’s a children’s story may have turned many adults off, thinking it’s not heavyweight material, but they’d be misguided, as this is one of the more dramatically compelling films seen all year, where it’s like an homage to curiosity, drawing implications from stored memories, especially preserving things over time, finding hidden meanings in the messages they convey, which inflames and literally enlarges a child’s imagination. What’s perhaps most surprising is the artistic sweep of the film, which can be breathtaking, where the technical precision is impeccable, combining two stories from different time periods into one, with abandoned lives forced to search for what’s missing, where the power of discovery can feel enthralling, particularly the vibrant energy captured on the streets of New York City, which have rarely been seen with this kind of expressivity. The other surprise is how cleverly Haynes uses deafness as a key element, allowing him to slip back into the black and white silent era, while seamlessly moving back into the modern era where moving pictures tell the story, using the conventions of the silent era, image and gesture, to convey meaning, with silence an interesting motif for missing parents in the intersecting lives of two kids across a broad extension of time, much of it visually intoxicating, with choice music by Carter Burwell along with a several recognizable period pieces. This may be the only film that advances the storyline using written notes to a deaf person that are read aloud, much like a storybook might be read to a child, creating a strange intersection between cinema and the literary world, actually honoring and celebrating the written word.
Ben (Oakes Fegley) is the 12-year old son of a single mother, Michelle Williams, in an isolated rural setting of Gunflint Lake in northern Minnesota in 1977, offering many clues in just the opening few minutes, including a nightmare involving wolves, a curious quotation attributed to no one in particular (though it’s Oscar Wilde), but also a late-night moment when he can’t sleep, wandering into his mother’s room, where she’s sitting alone having a cigarette, listening to a David Bowie record, David Bowie – Space Oddity [OFFICIAL VIDEO] - YouTube (5:05), with Ben wondering about his absent father, wishing she’d tell him something about him, while she calmly tells him now is not the time, though this sounds like a common refrain, as if he’s heard it many times before. This moment is significant on many levels, as it occurs again later but under different circumstances, with a few changed details, as now Ben’s mother is gone, feeling particularly abandoned and alone from her death, searching skyward for unanswered questions, when suddenly a freakish accident from a bolt of lightning causes instant, yet permanent, hearing loss. The address of a used book store written on a bookmark found in an old book from his mother’s bedroom, an exhibition catalogue called Cabinets of Wonder, leads Ben on a series of clues, along with a secret stash of money, sending him on his way to New York City on a bus in search of his missing father. In a parallel black and white silent film story set in 1927 in Hoboken, New Jersey, Rose (Millicent Simmonds, a first-time deaf actress) is a 12-year old deaf girl born to a wealthy but punitive father, James Urbaniak from Hal Hartley’s Henry Fool (1997), who makes paper models of skyscrapers in her room, but decides to run away to New York City carrying a newspaper clipping about a famous actress, Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore). Her arrival to the hustle and bustle of the crowded streets of New York is an experience similar to that of so many immigrants who don’t speak the language, who are instantly lost, pushed aside, and rudely ignored by everyone walking by, mad at anyone who slows them down. Despite the difficulties, including an afternoon visit to a movie melodrama, Daughter of the Storm, a Lillian Mayhew tearjerker with the theater advertising its transition to talking pictures, she finds her way to the theater for an afternoon rehearsal where the famous actress, looking exactly as she did onscreen in the movie matinee, angrily locks her up in her dressing room, forcing her to escape out a street-level window.
Both of these stories are beautifully interwoven, displaying the director’s master craftsmanship, especially the arrivals at the ferry landing and Port Authority Bus Terminal, which are spectacular recreations, with Haynes shooting what amounts to a love letter to his beloved city of New York, as it has rarely been shown with this degree of affection for the teeming humanity that lives there, interjecting color and energy to a story that is exquisitely told, unraveling like a storybook, showing astonishing range, continually delivering a series of unexpected events, creating what amounts to a treasure chest of memories and lingering hopes, all thrown into a mix of what amounts to a city-wide treasure hunt, with both characters searching for what’s missing in their lives, following what they hope are promising clues that feel more like stabs in the dark. What’s interesting is that both children are clearly moved by hidden secrets, a newspaper headline about an actress appearing in a play in New York inspires Rose in much the same way a dusty old book seizes Ben’s imagination, with both acting on their instincts. Both are drawn to similar locales, where the film brilliantly explores the American Natural History Museum and the Queens Museum through a child’s impressionable eyes, where each exhibit is like seeing it for the first time, literally coming to life in their minds, where movies project a kind of magical allure. At one entryway Rose walks inside the Cabinets of Wonder, which at the time was on full display, yet she brings a strange inquisitiveness inside, plagued by lingering doubts, continually targeted by over-anxious security guards that vehemently lecture her (but can’t be heard or understood), asking herself a perpetual question, “Where do I belong?” Ben, on the other hand, is unleashed into the city streets to the electronic music of Deodato, Deodato - Also Sprach Zarathustra HQ audio - YouTube (9:00), suggesting the experience is an awakening, with Haynes revealing layers underneath the layers, striking out at his first destination, as the bookstore is boarded up, instead finding a friend, Jamie (Jaden Michael) who takes him under his wing, as his father works at the museum, so he knows all the hidden passageways, including a secret room no one else knows about. This unorthodox friendship inside a museum is reminiscent of the interior observatory scenes with James Dean and Sal Mineo in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955), as Jamie, like Mineo, is desperate for a friend, any friend, literally clinging to Ben who’s on another mission, bolting to a new address provided, as the initial bookstore visited moved around the corner. What awaits inside is like unlocking the key to his own curious mystery, as a whole new world awaits. Becoming more emotionally driven by the end, reaching a remarkable crescendo, Julianne Moore makes an impressive appearance late in the film, where one of the astonishing secrets is a full-scale model of the City of New York, initially commissioned for the 1964 New York World’s Fair, which mirrors the paper models of skyscrapers that Rose kept in her bedroom. This film has more small delights than one could ever possibly expect, where the film is a cherished expression of the resilience of the human spirit and the undiscovered worlds we can encounter, concluding with a children’s chorus recorded in the mid 70’s which eerily bookends the film, The Langley Schools Music Project - Space Oddity (Official) - YouTube (5:27).