Before Todd Haynes' Carol, See Dottie Gets Spanked

So, while you guys are all enjoying Carol and giving it awards and everything, I'm sitting here a little apprehensive. I haven't seen it yet, and I will, so I'm not genuinely criticizing it, but I can't help feeling like it's going to be Far From Heaven 2.0, with Cate Blanchette instead of Julianne Moore and a secret lesbian affair that 50s society can't handle instead of a secret interracial affair that 50s society can't handle. Plus, with these films and Mildred Pierce, is Todd Haynes just returning to the Douglas Sirk well over and over? Don't get me wrong, I'll eventually see it and I'm sure it will actually be great and I'll think how silly I was for putting it off. But for now I'm looking back to an underrated early masterpiece of Haynes': Dottie Gets Spanked.
I'm aware I was just bemoaning Haynes stagnating in a highly produced 1950s safe zone, only to celebrate another of his films set in the 50s. But I'm not saying he can't make great movies set in the 1950s, just the opposite. It's clearly a look he's mastered. And in this instance, it feels less like a romanticized quasi-fantasy world and more like an authentic confessional set in this period. I mean, "confessional" might be a bit heavy-handed or overly loaded, but Haynes himself says this is the film that draws the most from autobiographical material of any film he's done. In other words, it feels more real rather than like it's escaping from reality to tell more of a parable. Plus, technically, I think this might actually be meant to be the early 60s.
It's a simple story, as its a short film originally produced for public television, but it's very rich. Steven is a six year-old boy obsessed with Dottie of the Dottie Frank Show, a fictitious stand-in for I Love Lucy or the Here's Lucy show. Steven becomes fixated on the image of Dottie getting spanked on her show (just like Lucille Ball did on her show), and wins a contest so he go visit the taping of the actual show. It gets pretty inventive, taking us into his dreamworld; but it's the simplest, down-to-earth moments that are the most relatable, and therefore the most effective.
Dottie is from 1994, which means it isn't an early short that pre-dates all of his features. He'd already releases Poison by this point, and it's clear from the production values this is far beyond a student film. Again produced by Christine Vachon, Dottie features several recognizable character actors, and Adam Arkin even turns up in a small part. This is a professional and fully effective film. I saw The Suicide, Haynes' first short film that was recently included on Criterion's blu-ray of Safe as an extra; and that was more of a curiosity piece, mostly just fun to see what a famous, accomplished filmmaker made as a young man. This isn't that. This is a film absolutely worth seeking out on its own merits.
Also on this disc, since you kind of want to flesh out a DVD made for a short film, is He Was Once. This is a 1989 short by a filmmaker named Mary Hestand, but it's co-produced by Haynes and Vachon, and Todd even has a secondary role in the film. This is a fun subversion of the old claymation show Davey & Goliath, where live actors mimic the look and style of the stop motion characters and subvert the bland, wholesome messages of the original show. It's not something you'd pick up watching the film on its own, but together, its really interesting to connect how both films center around almost identical spanking imagery, plus have dark, black and white, surrealistic dream sequences. But I can't help thinking I'd have gotten a bigger kick out of this if I'd grown up with Davey & Goliath, leaving me with that feeling of trying to appreciate a parody of something I've never seen.
Dottie Gets Spanked on top; He Was Once below.
Zeitgeist's 2004 TV looks alright if you go in with low expectations for a low budget television production. But Dottie was originally shot on 16mm (I'm not sure about He Was Once), so it would be great to see Criterion or another label produce a new, HD transfer. Sure 16mm wouldn't reveal a whole ton more detail, but it could look a lot more natural and attractive, I'm sure, then this transfer which appears to be taken from a videotape source. The DVD is also interlaced, so fixing that alone would be a nice boost.

For an indie company like Zeitgeist and a pair of short, obscure films, it's nice to see they included optional English subtitles as well.
A big plus of Zeitgeist's DVD is the audio commentary by Todd Haynes. It's only for Dottie (another for He Was Once would've been terrific, too), but it's excellent. Haynes is prepared with notes, including the original proposal he wrote to ITVS, and he has a lot of specific memories, both of producing the film and the original events that inspired it. He goes it alone, but he never runs out of steam or feels wanting of a moderator. Also included is a photo gallery and a fold-out insert with credits and notes by Bill Horrigan.
So if you're on your way to or from seeing Carol in theaters, I highly recommend tracking this one down, too. Dottie's a great film, and He Was Once is at least an entertaining brief watch, too. Haynes fans will absolutely appreciate his commentary, too. I know a couple foreign DVDs of Poison included Dottie as an extra, but this disc is still worth getting for the whole package. And I wouldn't hold your breath on my blu-ray restoration coming through... although if anybody from the studio is reading this, it would fit in pretty well as an special edition extra feature on Carol next year, wouldn't it?

No comments:

Post a Comment