Images always precede imagination in the work of Todd Haynes.
Pop culture fantasies and avant-garde poetics tend to combine in his often allusive but never hermetic cinema. For as pastiche-heavy and ideas-driven as they are, Haynes's films still try to strike an emotional chord – usually, the sense of pained longing that comes from living within and yet adjacent to a society that, for whatever reason, consigns you to its edges.
The most prominent voice to emerge from the New Queer Cinema boom of the early 90s, Haynes repeatedly spotlights sexual dissidence in this pursuit. From his 1991 film Poison, a tripartite exploration of gay male identity, to 2015’s captivating lesbian romance Carol, his work offers bold reminders of the masks that queer people have had to adopt – or, indeed, have been forced to adopt – in order to live and love.
At times Haynes has seemed more interested in the shape of his metaphors than in their function, revelling in the type of art-school devices most filmmakers shake around their second major feature. Thus the vibrancy of his aficionado pop music pieces – Velvet Goldmine’s ode to Bowie, I’m Not There’s deconstruction of Dylan – sometimes verge on the dizzying possibility that nothing lies behind the mask after all.
Haynes's seventh film Wonderstruck is based on a YA novel by Brian Selznick, who also wrote the book Scorsese adapted for Hugo. The story focuses on two deaf preteens who, though separated by 50 years, both set out on journeys to find themselves and their parents. Julianne Moore – a Haynes favourite since 1995’s incredible Safe – appears, as does Michelle Williams.
Ever since 2011’s HBO series Mildred Pierce, Haynes has quietly withdrawn from his experimental tendencies – as good as Carol is, it was also his most linear, intellectually accessible outing. Wonderstruck might well cap his transition from provocateur to mainstream artisan.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Far From Heaven, his 2002 homage to Douglas Sirk melodrama, was a tremendous early indicator of this more reserved aspect of Haynes art, and its commitment to outsiders and the neglected remains undimmed. Besides, to equate the formally generic with regression is more than a bit short-sighted.
That said, one hopes Haynes's ability to make us wonder at what cinema can do isn’t entirely extinguished. Notoriously, he filmed 1988’s Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story using Barbie dolls, and it’s this kind of daring yet intuitively brilliant move that makes his work so engaging.
Resuscitating such innovation will keep us imagining anew.