A Conversation About Wonderstruck (2017, Todd Haynes)

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Ryan Swen: Between 1927 and 1977, the two temporal settings of Todd Haynes’ newest film Wonderstruck, there lies an innumerable amount of histories of change. Fifty years is long by any measurement, but the rapid progress of the twentieth century, for good and ill, makes the two cultures and societies nigh unrecognizable to each other. This is as evident in the medium of film as any other area: in the former, the glory years of the silent cinema were coming to an end, in the latter, the heyday of New Hollywood was still going strong. 4:3 becomes 1.85:1, black-and-white is replaced by vivid color, organists are swapped for the hippest soundtracks: there’s even a moment, in a possible homage to the seminal New York film of 1977, Annie Hall, there are two shots of a theater marquee: the first is of a silent weepie in 1927, the second is of a porn film fifty years later. Wonderstruck is so deeply suffused and inspired by an abiding love of so many things, including museums, stories, outsiders, and the City That Never Sleeps, but the dream factory, in its capacity to bring both joy and despair, seems like as good a place to start as any.

Sean Gilman: I think you’ve cut right to the heart of what makes this film, an adaptation of an illustrated novel by Hugo author Brian Selznick, a “Todd Haynes” film. On its surface, this story about children running away to the city, and its Natural History Museum, doesn’t seem to have much in common with films like Far From Heaven, Safe, Carol, or I’m Not There, but Haynes, for better and worse, has always been a director more interested in recreating the textures and feelings of particular spaces in time, and in particular unifying the past with the present by exploring modern-day concerns in historical settings, than one obsessively exploring a few themes through similar stories and genres. As such, the two parallel timelines of Wonderstruck, mirror images unified into a single story are perhaps Haynes’s most complete depiction yet of this kind of fluidity and interconnection across space and time. And as in earlier Haynes films, there’s a third timeline: that of the audience itself. In Far From Heaven and Carol, for example, we’re invited to view the events on-screen through the lens of the present (“There were gay people in the 50s!” “Would this story happen this way now? What has changed between their world and ours?”), so too with Wonderstruck. Setting the film’s present tense in 1977 is not merely dramatically expedient (much of the drama could have been resolved with Google, a little girl of the silent film era would be in her late 90s in 2017), but another layer of the film’s obsession with collecting the objects and memories of the past: the film’s present is itself a historical memory to be preserved in the weird mix of museum and memory that is the movies. In this respect, it’s interesting that you cite Annie Hall as a reference for the New York of 1977. I thought of Chantal Akerman’s News From Home. The point is that our references for this city, in this period as in the 1927 scenes, are movies, not the documents and images of journalism or “history”. All this, of course, in a terrifically entertaining children’s adventure story, one that is very similar to The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and yet wholly different from Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of that work, which reflects his own auteurial concerns (cinephilia and guilt, more or less).

RS: I’d definitely agree that a personalized relationship with history is paramount here. Museums, especially the kind that are found here, recur throughout Wonderstruck: much of the film takes place in the American Museum of Natural History, the last scenes are set in the Queens Museum amid the panorama of the five boroughs, and the signature image is of an antique cabinet of curiosities. But just as key are the little items: a collection of knick-knacks in a room, an old book, a scrap of newspaper. Each of these has its own significance and resonance, providing much of the connective tissue between the two parts and acting as catalysts for these stories of exploration and discovery. We probably should mention here the rough logline: two children, a deaf-from-birth girl in 1927 and a boy in 1977 who loses his hearing in an accident, run away to New York City in an effort to find some sort of parental figure. This does little to encapsulate what captivates and moves about this remarkable movie, but it emphasizes the longing for love and companionship, whether between family or friends, that defines and drives each and every one of the main characters here. And, to return to your point about what defines this as a Todd Haynes film, we should highlight two absolutely essential recurring collaborators: cinematographer Ed Lachman – shooting, as always, on 35mm – and composer Carter Burwell.

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SG: There’s something vaguely sinister about this, I think, the way Haynes mediates every emotion through objects, a kind of reification of memory, where people can only connect and communicate through things. The grandmother only knows her grandson’s name because she received a piece of paper, a drawing he drew and signed, and kept it for years. Her life’s work is the reconstruction of the City as three-dimensional art object. Even the boy’s memories of his mother, his most precious “possession” are so reducible to objects (a David Bowie record, a cigarette, a robe) that his cousin’s appropriation of them precipitates and emotional breakdown. Suddenly struck deaf, and thus not yet learning to sign or lip-read) the boy can literally only understand other people through writing on paper. And yet, the movie is moving, we do seem feel the intangible through these objects. I don’t know if that’s because objects really do have that kind of power, or simply because we’ve been so brainwashed and alienated by capitalism that the only way he have left to feel is through the mediation of things.

Burwell and Lachman are of course terrific. I particularly liked the way Burwell’s score mimics but updates silent film music conventions, or at least those of the scores that get written nowadays to accompany silent film releases. I thought the supporting cast was quite strong as well. Tom Noonan puttering around a used bookstore is #lifegoals.

RS: I certainly didn’t read the objects in such a pessimistic way! Perhaps I have a stronger attraction to the notion of objects as a representation of their creators or owners (shades of “I like the hat” here…) but there doesn’t seem to be any cynicism, any trickery on display. This is perhaps the strongest reservation I could see many having towards Wonderstruck: its magic is of an utterly transparent, open-hearted quality. It may be married to an especially astute use of echoes in terms of events and objects across time, in a manner similar to, say, Cloud Atlas or a great many multi-part Hong Sang-soo films, but there is no disguising the clear emotional heft that Haynes and Selznick are trying to convey; the climax is in particular a slow, extended unfurling of a half-century’s worth of emotions and personal history, which I was enraptured by even as I saw that many would take issue with it.

I like your point about Burwell’s score, especially because its faithfulness seems to exist in counterpoint to Lachman’s cinematography. Both 1927 and 1977 are shot in 2.35:1, in a stark departure from the former period’s exclusive use of 4:3 and the common use in the latter era of 1.85:1, and it has an especially kinetic feeling in terms of camera movement that distinguishes it from films from either time period. This was the strongest source of doubt I had while watching the movie, but I wonder now if it was meant to link the film to a modern state of mind, whatever that was designed to accomplish.

SG: The lack of fidelity to the standards of movie-making in 1927 and 1977 didn’t bother me so much, not like in, say, The Artist. I think that’s just what Todd Haynes does. Far From Heaven doesn’t look or act like a Douglas Sirk film, but rather it’s a memory of a Sirk film translated modern sensibility. It’s that extra step of mediation, I think that accounts for the common complaint that Haynes’s films are “cold”. They aren’t, obviously there are deep wells of emotion in them (especially in Carol) but they’re always filtered through ideas and objects rather than nakedly cathartic displays of emotion. The emotional high points of his films are so often underplayed; the moment Noonan and [Julianne] Moore recognize their grandson, for example. Note that instead of swelling music accompanying a rush of explanation, as you would get in a true classical melodrama, Haynes has Moore take the boy on a long trip and then explains everything, slowly, through a hand-written note, an object. It’s a film about people who feel things through object by a filmmaker who feels things through objects. What disturbs me about it is that worry that this is the only way we have left to feel anything at all. It’s not cynical: I believe Haynes feels very deeply about all this stuff.

RS: I get what you’re saying up to a point, and indeed the objects are key, but I sense that Haynes feels that those most human of characteristics, the face and the voice, are just as important. As someone who has only recently become deaf, Ben (Oakes Fegley), the boy from 1977, frequently says what he’s thinking out loud without thinking to write it down first. The climax does use the note as the jumping off point, and the contents of the note are accompanied by an astonishing device that I won’t reveal here, but so much is contained in Ben’s slow recitation and revelation, speaking for all the other characters over this extended timespan.

I do fear that we’re discussing the ending a little bit too much, especially in relation to the centerpiece sections set inside the American Museum of Natural History. As mentioned before, Wonderstruck is so much about motion, which finds its zenith in a largely silent chase through the exhibits between Ben and his new friend that corresponds to a scene of Rose (Millicent Simmonds) wandering the halls. The end of the movie simply wouldn’t work without this emotional foundation established beforehand, and the shared, common yet differing spaces only strengthen those bonds.

To close, I’d like to return to the issue of memory, whether experienced directly in flashback or mediated through stories, casual dialogue, or other forms. Perhaps Wonderstruck‘s greatest achievement is its evocation of this feeling on the fly through its time-hopping approach. Unlike in other examples I named before, there is the sense here – as, presumably, in Selznick’s 2011 book – that everything that has already happened. It is less nostalgia than discovery, trying to grab hold of something before it is whisked into the ether, and Haynes captures and dwells on those moments with all the gravity and dignity they deserve.

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