Director Todd Haynes and actress Kate Winslet on the set of "Mildred… (Andrew Schwartz / HBO )
Since he came to notoriety with the 1988 cult hit "Superstar," an unauthorized account of Karen Carpenter's battle with anorexia starring a cast of Barbie dolls, Todd Haynes has developed into a singular voice in American movies: at once personal and political, steeped in academic theory yet sharply attentive to the nuances of popular culture.
"Superstar," which ran afoul of the Carpenter estate and was never properly released, encapsulated the two types of films that have defined Haynes's career as a director and writer: rock-music biopic-cum-essays (no other American filmmaker is as much of a closet rock critic) and the genre that Hollywood used to called women's pictures (a longtime fan of melodramas, he has spoken of the universal resonance of "stories about women in houses"). The two Haynes works new to DVD are representative of each category. "Velvet Goldmine," his 1998 glam-rock fantasia about a David Bowie-like singer, made its Blu-ray debut last month, and "Mildred Pierce," last year's five-part HBO miniseries based on the 1941 James M. Cain novel, has just been released as a two-disc set.
Broadly speaking, all of Haynes' films deal with the mysteries and traps of identity, and experiment with the process of viewer identification, calling attention to how we relate to characters and stories. "Poison" (1991), a foundational work of the New Queer Cinema movement, creates an echo chamber effect from three interwoven tales, all in some way concerning sexual difference and stigma. "I'm Not There" (2007) uses a revolving door of Bob Dylans (played by Cate Blanchett and Heath Ledger, among others) to trace the evolving persona and the shifting meaning of the folk icon, without once mentioning Dylan's name.
"Mildred Pierce," although more straightforward, employs a few sly storytelling devices of its own. The beloved Michael Curtiz film version from 1945, which starred an Oscar-winning Joan Crawford, is a noir classic, but also a sensationalized distortion of the source material. Haynes and his co-writer, Jon Raymond, return to the intricacies of Cain's simultaneously mundane and operatic novel, which depicts class aspirations, maternal desire and the effects of the Great Depression as they play out in the life of its driven heroine, who must contend with a series of unreliable men and a narcissistic daughter.
Cain's analytical approach is a natural fit not just for Haynes but also for Kate Winslet, a thoughtful actress whose performance as Mildred is a feat of subtlety and stamina (she appears in every scene). Foregoing the all-in-quotes artifice of "Far From Heaven" (2002), his stylized riff on Douglas Sirk's melodramas, Haynes opts here for a naturalistic, lived-in vibe that evokes the American movies of the '70s, which often regarded their conflicted characters from an ambiguous, observational distance.
Haynes, who studied semiotics at Brown University, has a reputation as a conceptual postmodernist, but it may be more meaningful to think of him as a social critic and historian, an artist interested in how the past illuminates the present. His previous films have engaged with Eisenhower-era social repression and the Reagan-era culture wars, and "Mildred Pierce" looks back at the Depression years without a hint of nostalgia: a hardscrabble decade that reflects our own uncertain world.
The common knock on Haynes — that he's overly cerebral — came up most often with "Velvet Goldmine," which remains his most underrated film. Some found its layered, referential game-playing antithetical to the Dionysian spirit of rock and roll, but in Haynes' best work — and in some of the most inspired glam rock (Roxy Music, for instance) — intellect and emotion go hand in hand.
After a brief prologue in 19th-century Dublin, which installs Oscar Wilde as glam's original high priest, "Velvet Goldmine" dives into the heart of the short-lived glitter-rock period, as the permissiveness of the '60s was ceding to the disillusionment of the '70s. It then flashes forward to the '80s, and the investigation of a fan turned journalist (Christian Bale) into the faked demise of a glam rock star named Brian Slade, modeled on Bowie and played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers.
Although Haynes is obviously steeped in glam lore, the film's parallel-universe mythology, with its mix of quoted and imagined histories, original and counterfeit songs, annoyed some purists. Since its release, though, as numerous fan sites suggest, it has found an obsessive following among younger audiences. And no wonder — in its delirious jumble of fact, extrapolation and wish fulfillment, "Velvet Goldmine" acknowledges and demonstrates the transformative promise of pop music. More than a mash note from a fan, it's a film that powerfully conveys the sensual and imaginative experience of fandom.