From the opening scenes of Poison, which depicts a pair of hands working their way around an apartment, tactility has always held a particularly transgressive import in Todd Haynes’ body of work. Time and again, the experience of touch, and the interface of the skin, have provided him with a way to rethink social situations and interpersonal relations that seem taken for granted in a world driven by the eyes and the ears, just as sight and sound have been radically reconfigured through the tactile world that his films envisage as well. In Wonderstruck, Haynes uses that as the basis for his first children’s film, albeit one of the most esoteric, eccentric and melancholy children’s film to be released this century, in what often feels like a throwback to the auteur-driven children’s cinema that flourished in the 90s, and which has been more or less supplanted by the rise of Pixar and digital animation.
Appropriately, Haynes’ collaborator here is Brian Selznick, who wrote The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which became the basis for Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, and whose novel Wonderstruck is the inspiration for this film. While he may nominally work in the realm of literature, Selznick’s career has been marked by his creation of books that defy any real generic classification, often moving between features of the novel, graphic novel and art object within a single “text.” In his own words, The Invention of Hugo Cabret was “not exactly a novel, not quite a picture book, not really a graphic novel, or a flip book or a movie, but a combination of all these things.” What connects all those disparate styles and influences is Selznick’s renewed interest in the book as object, and as a tactile experience that defies being seen, read or heard in any single or systematic way. Effectively displacing the very idea of the book from the ways in which it is both visually and aurally standardised, Selznick thus creates works that seem to belong to an older era, in which childhood was lived amongst and defined through objects, rather than the object-less world of contemporary digital childhood – or, rather, this world in which the digital object is the only object, and in which digital experience streamlines the apprehension and experience of all other objects.
For that reason, Selznick’s works have often reached back to the era of silent cinema as a way of muting the visual and aural components of his world enough for this more tactile, embodied dimension to come through. In The Invention of Hugo Cabret, that involved a subplot that actually involved reviving George Melies, and the legacy of silent cinema, after the transition to sound cinema in the early part of the twentieth century. While Wonderstruck may not be quite that direct, the legacies of silent cinema are nevertheless just as woven into its form, even if the role of silence here is considerably more elliptical and evocative than in Scorsese’s adaptation. While summarising the narrative of the film is quite hard, it perhaps suffices to say that it takes place across two distinct strands. The first is set in 1977, and follows Ben (Oakes Fegley), a young boy who has recently become deaf, as he makes his way from Minnesota to New York in search of his father, shortly after his mother Elaine (Michelle Williams) is killed in a motor accident. The second is set in 1927, and follows Rose (Millicent Simmons), who was born deaf, as she journeys into New York to seek out her mother Lilian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), a silent actress modelled upon Lilian Gish.
Between those two characters, vast segments of Wonderstruck pass by without much in the way of dialogue, in what often amounts to a silent film made for children. In both cases, too, New York becomes a repository of tactile experience, whether in the form of Rose’s miniature models of the city, which she forms from the torn-out pages of her oppressive guide to deaf etiquette, or in the form of Ben’s long walks through the streets, in which the ambience of the cityscape becomes synonymous with his recently acquired deafness. The fact that Wonderstruck also contains segments of silent film, and scenes in which the characters watch silent film, only increases this sense of quietness, while also restoring the impact of silent cinema in quite a beautiful way, as all the figures, poses and postures in Haynes’ mise-en-scenes start to subliminally gravitate towards a silent lexicon. Whereas Scorsese used 3D cinema to capture Selznick’s peculiarly embodied and tactile sense of experience, Haynes thus forms part of a different trend in contemporary cinema, aligning himself with films like Hush, A Quiet Place and The Shape of Water that focus on the deaf and hard-of-hearing as a way of coming to terms with the shifting relations between sound and image that have accompanied so much digital culture and cognition of the last decade.
As with those other films, then, deafness is never really figured as a disability here, but instead framed as a heightened perceptual state that the non-deaf can only now access with the augmentations of digital culture, and its typical disregard for the “correct” alignment of sound and image. To that end, Haynes creates a film that is considerably more disorienting than a silent film, since there aren’t even intertitles to anchor the script, which exists only as a series of voiceless pronouncements that need to be lip-read to properly contextualise the narrative. Time and again, Haynes uses that absence of an audible script to emphasise the tactile haze around individual objects, pairing it with compositions and mise-en-scenes that never quite arrange or disclose themselves spatiallty. As a result, there’s always a tactile edge to his tableaux that isn’t quite contained by script or subsumed into action, opening up a diffuse space between the two stories that ensures that the dimness and granularity of the 70s footage textures the image in a similar way to the black-and-white approach of the 20s footage, gradually converging them into a single, fuzzy, tactile apprehension of the here and now. In both cases, you can see why Haynes has also been such a master of films about music, as he captures the sensory overload and dispersal of a world in which sound can’t naturalise or normalise visual experience, making the sound itself all the more disorienting.
For part of what makes Wonderstruck so powerful is that it isn’t entirely silent. Instead, Haynes reintroduces sound periodically and gradually only to revert to silence once again, positioning the film right at the threshold of audibility. Never entirely subsuming us in silence, but never quite anchoring us in the world of sound either, this strange space quickly comes to feel like a form of passing for white, especially in the 70s narrative, where the cusp between silence and sound tends to be most dramatic, and most emphatic, around black characters and black music – most notably Jamie (Jaden Michael), the young boy who Ben meets during his time in New York. Figuring blackness as inaudible even more than it is invisible, these sequences often recall the gauzier sections of Carol in the way in which they undercut the apparent visibility of marginal groups by relegating them to the very fringes of what can be heard, as if to suggest that discrimination always involves a disconnect between what can be seen and what can be heard from minority voices and experiences.
That approach culminates with the Museum of Natural History, and especially the legendary dioramas at the Museum of Natural History, which become the aesthetic endpoint of this tactile, embodied and lovingly curated version of New York. All the stories and timeframes converge on these dioramas, even as they are decelerated and distracted by them as well, leading to a beautiful series of sequences in which the tactile persistence of objects across history – tactile communion – is what links the two children, culminating with them running their hands over the meteorite at the Museum in the 20s and the 70s. Another kind of film might have included, or at least hinted at, a more supernatural connection, but that shared tactile universe is all Haynes needs, meaning that the transitions between the two stories are shot through with a beautiful porosity as well. In fact, the Museum gradually becomes the connective tissue of the film – or at least that’s where the film becomes all connective tissue, as Haynes collapses periods, characters and experiences into a single shimmering flux that crystallises round the cabinet of curiosities at the core of the Museum’s vast collection.
It’s this cabinet that becomes the driving image of the film – not just as a cipher for childhood, or for New York, but for the material existence of Selznick’s book itself, which is designed both to be a cabinet of curiosities in its own right, but to also be a precious object that might be housed in such a cabinet. The original name for cabinets of curiosity was Wunderkammer, or cabinets of wonder, and it’s that wonder that the film both elegises and celebrates, culminating with an abbreviated third act in which the action shifts from the Museum of Natural History to the Queens Museum. There, Millicent, now in her 60s, and also played by Moore, takes Ben across the panorama of New York created for the 1964 World’s Fair, as she connects past and present, and reveals his paternity, by way of the panorama, dioramas and cabinets of curiosity we have just witnessed. On the one hand, this sequence feels more historically remote than what has gone before, as the World’s Fair is relegated to an even more distant memory than the 1920s. At the same time, however, it feels more mystically present as well, partly because of the way Moore appears as both mother and daughter, encouraging a maternal proximity and tactile connection to objects that makes every object perused feel strangely and mystically alive in her radiant presence.
In an extraordinary final gesture, then, Haynes and Selznick make a number of recommendations to children of the future. First, they suggest that childhood wonder is intimately linked to modernist spectacle, for all the seriousness and adulthood that modernism might arrogate to itself. Second, they encourage children to be curators, and to approach life with the tactile taste for objects present in the best curators. Third, and perhaps most provocatively, they do away with any patrilinear conclusion or reproductive futurity, instead suggesting that it is the child’s proximity to their mother, and the prospect of maternal warmth, that is truly world-building, especially when transferred to other part-objects as it is here. It’s at this point that both Haynes and Selznick’s queerness really comes into focus, not exactly as a point of disruption or resistance, but as an injunction to futurity – an injunction to part-objects – that is far more profound than the bland futures glimpsed at the end of most children’s films, with their more or less conventional expectations of paternal continuity. Just as the dioramas mediate between sound, sight and touch, so the final tableau of Rose, Ben and Elaine on the roof of the Queens Museum mediates between these two versions of futurity more poignantly and deftly than any recent film I’ve watched, and certainly more than any children’s film I can remember seeing in the last twenty years.
After the final twist that the panorama of New York is literally a cabinet of wonders – it contains hidden mementos from Ben’s father – the scene inside the Queens Museum is fragmented by an electrical storm that splinters the visual field into the language of silent film, and then dryplate photography, as a series of still images and frozen moments seems to be embedding the film stock back into the emulsifying liquid of the photographic studio. Yet that rupture leaves the characters suspended in the connective and mediating tissue of the film as a whole, hanging between the sky and the street, where they look up to a shooting star only to hear a slight shift in the score to a minor key, and the distant howl of wolves, before a funk refrain takes over for the closing credits. In the disparities in age, race, gender and timelines, and the porosity of their communion with the suddenly audible blackness of the city as a whole, it’s a beautiful vision of queer futurity. Here, the exigencies of the present moment – exigencies that nearly work against queerness – are momentarily displaced in favour of the future that this present moment – nearly always defined heteronormatively – precludes, resulting in one of the most perfectly pitched moments of Haynes’ career, and a worthy companion piece to his more auteurist and experimental features.