A week in California has been lovely, sunny, rejuvenating — all that one would expect from a shift westward. I’m not looking forward to the return back east, but I’ll face it with a stiff upper lip and clenched fists.
I’ve consciously and willfully put off school-related work (marking, assignments, reading), but my flight, so soon approaching, has arrived today with a blare that refuses not to be answered. Admittedly, I’m excited about this project — a seminar paper for A. Jones’s course on visual culture and identity politics. I want to write on Mildred Pierce and came up with some blurrily broad umbrella topic that will look at how female subjectivity is differently generated in Cain’s novel, Curtiz’s film, and Haynes’s television miniseries. I thought I could triangulate these three genres (which are actually as close as three such disparate genres might get — the novel and miniseries are both on the short side) and show how Haynes’s intervenes into, or complicates, a lot of what the postwar noirish melodrama might have obfuscated, ignored, or tried to smooth out in regard to how the original novel conceptualized 1940s femininity.
Since theories of the maternal melodrama, of which Mildred Pierce most definitely is, have been increasingly read through a queer lens in the past two decades… And since Eve Sedgwick has prompted me to think about queerness, and my habitation of that hazy position, more and more… it could be interesting to consider how Haynes, a queer director, consciously queers Cain’s novel (in interviews Haynes has emphasized that lesbian desire is pretty explicit in Cain’s text — and that Curtiz ignored this aspect more than he ought to have in the 1945 film). Narratively, visually, aesthetically — these are all ways in which Haynes makes his version of Mildred Pierce as an other, othering, genre via the fluid category of “melodrama.”
This leads to other questions regarding my belief that the queer condition might be coded as implicitly feminine, if not specifically maternal. That, as Mary Ann Doane writes, the psychical mechanisms frequently linked with the “feminine condition” — masochism, hysteria, neurosis, paranoia — are also a queering — a twisting — of what is, or was, straight. Mildred at least to some extent suffers from all of these female maladies, as seen from her continual sexual surrender to Monty (a dastardly cad!), to her maternal paranoia and severe attachment to daughter Veda. Even though Monty is “just another guy” that Mildred is accused of using in her climb to the top, he’s still used more interestingly in Haynes than he is in Curtiz. The masochism which is traditionally associated with the mother’s unrequited love from her daughter (which does exist) is diffused in Haynes to affect Mildred’s erotic relationship with Monty. Mildred’s desire is a desire to control her own body just as much as it is a wish to direct her daughter’s.
Haynes is clearly obsessed with the feminine condition, but he also makes interventions in the tropes of postwar melodramas. “The figures of the women’s films of the 1940s still have a certain currency,” writes Doane in her book on the forties’ woman’s film. Haynes clearly agrees, calling the economic (and by implication class and sexual) renegotiations made by wartime housewives as particularly apropos when he read the novel in 2008. Through his HBO adaptation, Haynes reimagines how Mildred reimagines her life after divorce.
Haynes lets Mildred see more than Curtiz ever allowed her to (oftentimes we see her shadow — but not her body — as she undresses, or her returned gaze as she reflects upon herself before a closet mirror). Haynes realizes how much Mildred desires and how powerful that yearning can be. To keep up with a television show, viewers of course must desire their subjects — Mildred and Veda (played by Kate Winslet and Rachel Evan Wood respectively) are stunning to look at, but Haynes doesn’t want us to ignore these women’s own intense desire (especially Veda’s) to be seen. In effect, Veda’s enormous desire for us.
In Haynes’s version, the camera doesn’t seem to be against its heroine. Curtiz makes us paranoid over the question of Mildred’s innocence (we want to solve her identity — to place her initially ambiguously gendered body as the guilty, jealous, herself paranoid, woman). Of course the rivalry between Mildred and Veda means that there must be some lapses of perception on either side, but for the most part the camera wants to, I believe, protect its leading lady. The camera, if anything, shows how information leaks out horizontally, seeping outward endlessly, through its visual pans that connect a fluid kind of “seeing” with a intertwined sort of “knowing.”
This was kind of helpful to at least begin to sort out my jumbled thoughts in order to narrow them down into an essay outline (has anyone figured out how to proceed, to stay “on track” without institutionalized ways of organizing one’s thoughts?). Anyway, a sort of in-between, noncommittal, continuously serial space to test out which ideas might run.