Friday, May 20, 2016

The Films of Todd Haynes: Dottie Gets Spanked (1993)

Dottie Gets Spanked (1993)
Directed by: Todd Haynes.
Written by: Todd Haynes.
Starring: J. Evan Bonifant (Steven Gale), Barbara Garrick (Lorraine Gale), Julie Halston (Dottie Frank), Robert Pall (Steven's Father), Harriet Sansom Harris (Sharon's Mother), Irving Metzman (TV Show Guide), Ashley Chapman (Sharon), Rhea Silver-Smith (Darcy), Gina Gallagher (Kim), Adam Arkin (Dick Gordon), Richard DeDomenico (Dream Messenger).
There are many superlatives that can be used to describe Todd Haynes, but funny usually isn’t one of them. Out of all of his work, it’s really only the 30 minute TV short Dottie Gets Spanked that could be described as a comedy – and even then, Dottie Gets Spanked is actually a pretty serious comedy – one that addresses issues of identity and exclusion that Haynes has focused on throughout his career. His feature debut, Poison, was all about social outcasts – and the violence and oppression they endure. Dottie Gets Spanked approaches similar subject matter – but in a much lighter way – and ends up being even better for it.
The film, like much of Haynes work, takes place in American suburbia (this time, in the 1960s). Young Steven is around 10 or 11 years old, and he is obsessed with Dottie – a Lucille Ball like comedienne, with a sitcom where cartoonish husband often spanks her when she does something wrong. The girl’s in Steven’s class are likewise obsessed with Dottie – but that’s okay, because they are girls. Steven keeps his fandom to himself – sensing that it isn’t something that he should really be broadcasting to the other kids. His mother is supportive, as all mothers in idyllic suburbia are, but the father worries about his son obsessing over the girl show.
It would be tempting to read Dottie Gets Spanked as another allegory for homosexuality – that Steven fears reprisals for exposing who he really is, and you can certainly make that argument. But the sexuality on display in Dottie Gets Spanked is far more innocent than that – Steven lusts after Dottie in the way that only a kid who has no understanding of sex can – he sometimes imagining he is spanking her, and sometimes the other way around (at one point, Dottie is dressed as a man doing that, which may only suggest a more fluid kind of sexuality).
The film works in many ways. It certainly does foreshadow Haynes’ recreation of 1950s suburbia in Far From Heaven (that film is, of course, far more detailed than this one), and also looks backwards toward Poison, with its story of someone fearing be forced out of society for their feelings. But Dottie Gets Spanked doesn’t beat you over the head with its message like Poison does – and nor is it the parade of misery that Poison can sometimes be. In my review of Poison, I referred to it more as a “blunt instrument” than most Haynes films – and that is true. Dottie Gets Spanked certainly has a softer view of society – Steven never gets punished the way the protagonists in Poison are – and more subtle. It also benefits from not having to cut back and forth between different stories like Poison did – so the film has a chance to build throughout its 30 minute runtime. While much of the film is quite amusing – the end certainly strikes a note of melancholy (the symbolism in the final shots may be a touch heavy, but not too much).
Dottie Gets Spanked, which aired on PBS in 1993, shows real growth for Haynes – taking his ideas in a more subtle direction, while still showcasing his skills. Obviously, a 30 minute short doesn’t have the breadth of one of his best features – but there’s plenty here to admire. As many with oddities in directors filmographies – non-feature work – this tends to get overlooked (for instance, I’ve been a fan of Haynes for well more than a decade, and didn’t see it until recently). That should change – as while Dottie Gets Spanked doesn’t rank among Haynes’ very best work – it’s still a key film in his progression.

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