Frank inhabits more anonymous spaces, semi-private and dark, like at the movie theater …
... the underground bar …
... and hotel rooms.
Yet by conflating homosexuality with racial difference and racial strife, the film subtly gives a public and political spin to Frank’s narrative. The pool scene has an important role in establishing this.
The Whitakers travel to Miami in an attempt to salvage their marriage.
Yet after the dance with Cathy, Frank exchanges a meaningful glance with a handsome young man. Note the black waiter in the background, resonant of the company party scene.
The next day at the pool, Frank looks around for a glimpse of the blond boy …
... but is interrupted by the appearance a small boy.
Cathy watches the unfolding drama. Her sunglasses are the same ones she wore when she broke off her friendship with Raymond. A subsequent close up of her with sunglasses is another mirroring shot, indicating that this in another moment in the film drawing a parallel between interracial romance and homosexuality.
And it is precisely at this moment when Frank catches sight of his object of desire. As he offers to fetch Cathy’s book in the hotel room …
... the camera swings to take the blond boy’s point-of-view. He watches Frank enter the hotel and follows Frank.
Again from the youth's point-of-view, the blond boy catches Frank’s eye in the bathroom mirror. Reflections and refractions abound in this film.
Frank turns, fear and desire written on his face. The relationship with the blond boy initiated in this scene will later lead to Frank’s “coming out.” Seeing racial segregation in action seems to have stirred Frank into coming to terms with his own identity.
For at least three-quarters of Far from Heaven, the central discourses of racial difference and homosexuality are presented as contrapuntal, linked by a seemingly loose kinship tie. That is, these discourses are contingent and touch upon each other in subtle ways, as for example in a scene that occurs in the Whitakers’ bedroom fairly early in the film. Cathy sits at the mirror brushing her hair while Frank watches television. Cathy asks Frank about his visits to Dr. Bowman, the psychiatrist Frank sees after his arrest for “lewd behavior.” That Frank’s sexuality requires his interpellation by both law enforcement and psychiatry establishes the official “deviance” attributed to his desires and, by extension, to his identity. What makes this scene significant is the television that remains on in the background. The broadcast is historically specific to 1957. It is a speech by President Eisenhower, addressing the nation over the recent and violent struggle to integrate Little Rock Central High School, an event that will, of course, later prove to be a central feature of the company party scene. This discourse of racial struggle in confrontation with state institutions mediates the Whitakers’ attempt at conversation centered on Frank’s encounters with the state apparatus. Frank, however, rebuffs Cathy’s attempts to draw him out, and what is not being directly discussed but only danced around—Frank’s sexuality, Cathy’s marital unhappiness—becomes the central concern for both characters and therefore for the audience.
Eisenhower’s speech quickly turns into incoherent background noise, passed over in favor of a focus on the dissolution of the Whitakers’ “proper” marriage. In fact, the documentary footage is shown for only a split second and can be easily missed by the audience. This points to ways in which the film links race and sexuality discourses in a nearly imperceptible manner through a carefully constructed mise-en-scène, yet this “flashing” method is nevertheless extremely effective. To make the connection between “racial others” and “sexual others” requires only the quickest and subtlest of cues, as the existence of this intersectional discourse is already firmly established within the U.S. collective consciousness.
This television scene also establishes Frank’s struggle as “private” and Cathy’s as “public” as well as the ways that the film’s central conflation also complicates this binary. After rebuffing Cathy, Frank attempts to explain himself:
The racial strife shown on television, however, represents public discourse. Similarly, Cathy and Raymond are almost always shown meeting in public and outdoor spaces: they meet outside their respective homes, at an art gallery, on Main Street. In contrast, Frank’s encounters with other men occur in dark, semi-anonymous, more private spaces: an underground bar, a dark cinema, his office at night, hotel rooms.
That Cathy and Raymond never consummate their attraction is perhaps due to the “publicity” surrounding their friendship, for the society (white and black) at large witnesses them together and does everything in its power to keep the two apart. Frank’s ultimate move away from his family to pursue a relationship with a man is due as much to his race and class status, as well as his ability to appear straight, as it is to the private and secretive ways he is able to carry on his affairs. As long as Frank can evade the police and public notice, he is able to slide under the radar, while Cathy and Raymond cannot hide their difference. This is another way of framing racial difference discourse as the “visible” face of deviance, which comments on the seemingly more elusive and hidden matter of Frank’s sexual identity. The condemnation Cathy and Raymond experience within their communities could be extended to Frank if his homosexuality was only visible to the public eye. Thus this equation quietly suggests a potentially public and political aspect to Frank’s narrative, hinted at in the juxtaposition of political/public TV images of racial conflict with the psychological/private matter of sexual identity.
Mirrored oppressions: the pool scene
The pool scene, which occurs towards the end of the film, is one of the most crucial scenes of the entire film because it is precisely at this point when representations of homosexuality and racial segregation become so obviously, so visually fused, and thus it serves as an excellent illustration of the dynamics of conflation that structure Far from Heaven as a whole. This scene is placed in a particular locale: Miami. It's a place whose gay subtext is not lost on those “in the know”; and as a city located in the southern United States, segregation was strictly enforced there in 1957.
At this point in the narrative Frank and Cathy are on holiday in Miami in an attempt to patch up their rocky marriage.Yet when the scene I will describe opens, the audience has already registered a covert look of interest pass between Frank and a handsome “blond boy”[open endnotes in new window] in the previous scene, although the two have not spoken. Cathy sits poolside, while:
The young boy’s father runs to him and loudly remonstrates him in front of all the white guests:
The boy is taken away crying, and although he only made it to the first step, within moments the pool empties. The tense atmosphere is further enhanced by a nearly hysterical white mother ordering her daughter out of the pool: "But why?" the daughter asks, and her mother responds, "Because I said so."
Implicitly, this scenario illustrates white Americans’ fear of black bodies, bodies that for whites symbolize “contamination”; and “contamination” in turn signifies the underlying fear of miscegenation. The camera moves between Cathy’s point-of-view looking out at the pool, and then the camera turns and focuses directly on Cathy so that she becomes the object of the gaze. Her eyes remain half-hidden behind sunglasses, which act as shield and mirror. As the unfolding action is miniaturized and reflected—indeed, doubled—on Cathy’s lenses, the message is that this drama turns back on Cathy, illustrating in a rather didactic manner the futility of her desire for Raymond, a black man. The emphasis on parenting here, with a black father and white mother “saving” and disciplining their respective children, further emphasizes the undercurrent of segregation as policing the boundaries of racial reproduction.
The scene then returns to a focus on Frank. In the midst of this moment of segregation in action, Frank spots the blond boy. When the turmoil produced by the act of racial “transgression” begins to calm down, the camera swings in an abrupt manner to take Frank’s point-of-view. We get a close-up of Frank’s gaze, which shifts from watching the body of the black child to that of the blond teenager, suggesting that Frank filters his desire through the fear and confusion of the situation at hand. At this point Frank offers to go back to the hotel room to fetch Cathy’s book, and while looking at himself in the bathroom mirror he feels a presence behind him. Frank sees “blond boy” reflected in the mirror and it is noteworthy that they are wearing the same outfit: bathing trunks and white robes. Frank’s look registers surprise, guilt, and desire all at once, and as the young man slowly moves his hand inside his robe and down to his crotch, Frank turns towards him as if hypnotized. The scene ends rather abruptly here but the audience is well trained and can imagine the rest.
Thus Frank takes his cue from the initial site of transgression, discomfort, and fear, which on a meta-level represents the Civil Rights struggle’s fuelling of other, primarily white liberationist struggles, such as the gay rights movement. I suggest that Haynes actually appropriates elements of black struggle in depicting Frank’s sexual liberation, for the relationship with the blond boy initiated in this scene will later lead to Frank’s “coming out.” This scene also directly parallels the bedroom scene, for in that one too segregation policy is invoked yet quickly displaced into a focus on the white characters’ struggles with non-normative desires. Also like the bedroom scene, it shows segregation as the public face (outside at the pool) of the private discourse of sexuality (inside the dim hotel room), again politicizing the theme of homosexuality through analogy.
I think Haynes’ ultimate point in this scene is to make the audience aware of the interconnections in the production of “otherness.” To accomplish this, Haynes draws primarily on racial difference discourse. That is, he emphasizes blackness and whiteness as opposites, thereby making cinematically visible the dynamics of racial difference as a mode of white supremacy. By pointing to whiteness as dependent upon blackness for definition and power, and by making so obvious the fear mechanism embedded within this structure, the film marks whiteness as strange. This is particularly significant because usually whiteness operates invisibly as “the norm” within U.S. cinema.
Through cross-cutting, the scene then maps homosexual desire into a racial difference framework, a move that becomes obvious when the camera, just having focused on the black boy’s body, turns to focus on Frank’s and the blond boy’s matching white robes, white bodies underneath, framed by the pale pink hotel interior. The screenplay even describes the blond boy’s “lithe, white body squeezed into pale orange swim trunks.” This rendering of whiteness as strange is thus realized visually by focusing on the sameness of Frank’s and the blond boy’s dress, race, and gender, and underscored by the play with mirrors in this scene, as the two men’s eyes do not meet directly but on the mirror’s surface. They are, in a sense, mirror images of one another, and this use of reflection as a visual device links back to the image of Cathy’s sunglasses. White audiences might have only paid attention to the sameness of gender, and not to Frank’s and the blond boy’s sameness of racial markers, if they hadn’t just witnessed, via Cathy’s point-of-view, the intense reaction to a violation of segregation policy, that is, to whiteness as juridical power. The deployment of refraction and reflection in this scene therefore renders cinema’s “white vision” momentarily perceptible. Haynes is making whiteness strange by calling attention to its construction, by making what normally operates as invisible visible.
This process of making strange by making visible the underlying racial vision embedded within cinema is initiated in the spectacle of racial difference and culminates in the spectacle of same-race, same-sex desire. This particular trajectory—the flashing of racial otherness as the first step in “queering” representation—is repeated again and again not just in Far from Heaven but in many U.S. films that depend on intersectionality as a method for making (sexual) oppression intelligible to mainstream audiences. The presentation of racial segregation as a construct of white power legitimizes the presentation of compulsive heterosexuality as a different form of oppression. They reflect one another in their constructedness, yet as I will discuss later in this essay, Haynes’ use of this dynamic nonetheless participates in the project of perpetuating “white vision” as central in the film. While Haynes does fleetingly expose this “way of seeing,” the film fails to overcome the power of this vision, for it does not offer an alternative.