Carol – Todd Haynes (2015)

Todd Haynes is a master of the semiotics of repression, of portraying people who are caught within various forms of social control, and who work, however haltingly and unsuccessfully, to express the truth of their identity despite the pressure brought to bear by such controls. Identity is his great theme, in particular the mysterious realization it takes as it is formed, ad hoc, or emerges, inchoate, from within the half-sleep of consciousness. Thus, his greatest films are those that deal with this topic without the “contaminate” of love to complicate things – Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, I’m Not There, the little-remembered short Dottie Gets Spanked, and his still greatest Safe (one of the greatest films in contemporary cinema aside from being his personal best). Now, many would argue that identity cannot be formed outside of a relationship to another person – that it is indeed absurd to speak of such an idea. This is psychoanalytically true; our primary relationship from birth is with our mother, and it is through relating to her, and distinguishing her body and person from our own, that we form an original idea of self. If we take the search for love as the quest, in adulthood, for a reunification with that (perhaps illusory) maternal state of identity loss, acceptance, and re-formation, then the romantic relationship is perhaps the crucible of identity and change for us “grown-ups.” At the same time, though, the romantic relationship is very normative, and we often desire it for reasons that have little to do with an authentic search for identity – we desire it because we desire to conform to social expectations, and affirm our identity in another sphere. Haynes deals with both kinds of identification in his films, both the need to conform and the often oppositional need to express (irrational) desires. This is why he almost always sets his films in the past, as social expectations and the patterns of conformity they engender are easier to see in hindsight. Not only that, it is easier to read the social codes of a past era intelligibly, and, at the same time, to project our own age into the past as a way to search out our own repressions and blind spots, as if in relief. While this is admirable, and I do not blame him for it, it succeeds too well in some cases – those cases being the films that deal with romantic love. Far from Heaven, Carol, and, to a lesser extent, Mildred Pierce, all portray desire rather than embody it. Haynes’s failure is that, while we come away understanding how we are intended to feel about the relationships portrayed, we fall short of actually feeling the emotions he’d like us to – they are indicated, rather than expressed, and these films end up, like many relics of the past, inert, glazed in a kind of preserving amber that, while allowing us to see the detail of the period quite clearly, are also rather bloodless, the emotions on the other side of an impenetrable surface.

Carol, adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s early pseudonymous novel, concerns a love affair between well-to-do housewife Carol (Cate Blanchett) and the younger, semi-bohemian shop girl Therese (Rooney Mara). These women meet, happenstance, when Carol comes into Therese’s section of the department store she works at, looking for a doll for her daughter (and settling, per Therese’s advice, on a train instead). Both women are already attached to men; Carol in an unhappy marriage to husband Harge (an excellent Kyle Chandler), Therese in a rather one-sided romance with conventional and unimaginative Richard (Jake Lacy). Both women are instantly attracted to each other, and Carol, perhaps purposefully, forgets her gloves, giving Therese a reason to contact her again. They arrange a meeting, and soon Therese is spending Sunday afternoon with Carol at her large country home – much to Harge’s consternation. We soon understand that Harge and Carol’s marriage is on the rocks, and apparently has been for a long time, as they both have tried to accommodate her attraction to women. Harge, seemingly controlled by his mother, is taking daughter Rindy (Sadie and K.K. Heim) with him to Florida for Christmas, while Carol will stay at home, apparently set to spend time with best friend, and past lover, Abby (Sarah Paulson). Instead, Carol and Therese have some alone time, which winds up torpedoing what was left of Therese’s sham relationship with Richard. Carol, in need of solace after Harge threatens to take Rindy away from her, and, we assume, desperate to activate the physical side of her desire for Therese, decides to go on a road trip “out west,” and invites Therese to go along. Therese eagerly agrees, not only to spent time with Carol, but to feed her burgeoning interest in photography, a hobby that she hopes will become more, and which has been encouraged not only by Carol, but by understanding friend (and would-be suitor) Dannie (John Magaro), who works at the New York Times. On the road trip, Carol and Therese finally consummate their love (in a scene that, it must be said, is erotic, without being overly passionate); however, this peak is also a valley, as they are snooped on by private investigator Tommy (Cory Michael Smith), who is working for Harge, digging up dirt on his wife’s “amoral” relations with women to use against her in the impending custody battle. Carol flees the trip, flying back to New York to attend to legal matters, leaving Therese in the care of Abby, who drives her back east. Eventually, Carol and Harge come to terms, mostly because Carol chooses her identity over access to her child, and in the end Carol confesses her love for Therese. Is it too late, though? The ending of the film revolves around Therese’s desire for Carol, and her decision to take the relationship further, or not.

As previously mentioned, the attention to period detail in Carol is peerless, and not just in the surface trappings; the film is a corrective to our often patronizing view of the past as an uncomplicated land of steely repression and willed ignorance. Everyone in the film, from Richard to Harge to Tommy, understands, with varying degrees of sympathy, what is happening between Carol and Therese. It is not portrayed as foreign, exotic, or shocking, and the impossibility of the relationship, refreshingly, has more to do with previous romantic commitments (driven, of course, by convention and social expectation) rather than fear of being ostracized or cast out of society. (It also helps that the film is set in New York). And, ultimately, we do feel the emotional stakes involved, partly because of Carol’s sacrifice (her willingness to choose her own desire over access to her daughter), but mostly because of an exceptional performance by Rooney Mara as Therese. Her coming-to-awareness of her identity goes hand-in-hand with her growing courage and authenticity, which expands as her self-consciousness does. It is not so much in the results that the film fails us, but in the origins. We never understand, nor feel, the attraction between Therese and Carol. Yes, we understand that it is meant to be instant, a kind of love (or lust) at first sight, but the best Haynes can do to communicate this is having Carol coolly, and knowingly, sashay away while Therese stares at her a bit bug-eyed. And in the resulting long build-up to their trip, and sexual encounter, we never feel the heat. The relationship feels stilted, and distant, which may be a result of the characters’ differences in age, experience, and social status, but which gives the lie to the original, and supposedly overriding, primal desire. As with the relationship between Julianne Moore and Dennis Haysbert in Far from Heaven, we can understand intellectually what is happening, we just can’t understand it emotionally. Far from Heaven had the added interest of being based on an existing melodrama (two, actually), and so that built-in turmoil made it marginally more interesting, but in both cases, for stories that are supposed to be about the sturm und drang of forbidden love, the results are often quite boring. Why do the love relationships in Haynes’s films have this problem? I have thought long on possible reasons, and have come up with two possibilities. One is that he does not give his characters enough build-up; we do not see them in their natural habitats, being themselves, for long enough, nor are we familiar enough with their inner worlds (as expressed in the quietude of “uneventful” sequences) to have a fuller identification with them. The larger problem, though, are the period settings. While it makes it easier for us to identify and parse how the social codes communicate (and, as mentioned above, allows us to reflect on our own codes more fully), it also has the ironic consequence of repressing our desire for the characters. They seem distant because they are distant; their concerns, to some extent, are not our own, their worlds are alien to us. As a fan of Todd Haynes, I would love to see him take on similar issues in a contemporary setting, and it is interesting that his best film is also his only contemporary one. I begin to wonder if he takes on so many projects set in the past because they are, in a way, purer realms of signification, free of the contaminates of present-day politics. They are safe. Here’s to hoping he soon makes a film that is messier, and less aesthetic, than his work of the past decade.

Three stars out of five

Brooklyn – John Crowley (2015)

Brooklyn is one of those films that sails by under the radar, as watching the trailer, for instance, produces no particular impression other than mild disinterest as a series of quite generic and bland, if slightly humorous or heartwarming, sequences pass by. The heroine looks unremarkable, the dramatics subdued, the film pretty in a conventional way; it looks like a story we have seen or read a hundred times before, a safe, perhaps even conservative film, that will offer little to distinguish itself aside from a quiescence and universality that might result in mass appeal. Taken as a series of pieces, of sequences taken out of the context of the greater film, Brooklyn would not add up to much. Unlike many films which are produced these days (at least in the generally straightforward English speaking world of filmdom), Brooklyn’s impact and artfulness arises only through slow accumulation. It works subtly, deliberately, and with an attention to detail that is almost invisible. Thus, when the full film emerges (which happens only in the final shot, perhaps, but not in the sense of a more typical coup de théâtre, even of the slower Tarkovsky variety), the accumulated force is all the greater, washing over us as does a massive wave that we have barely detected, as we have studied it from underwater, unaware of its surface effects until the final moments.

The film, adapted by Nick Hornby from Colm Tóibín’s novel, tells the story of Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), a young woman who is languishing in her small Irish town during the 1950s. She seems congenitally dissatisfied, as if not even realizing her constraints, but her older sister, Rose (Fiona Glascott) takes an interest in her liberation, and secures her a job in Brooklyn through an acquaintance in the clergy, as well as passage on an ocean liner. We follow Eilis as she struggles to make her way, both on the boat, and later in the city, as an inexperienced, and generally shy country girl. Living in a boarding house with four other girls in similar circumstance, and under the shrewd and watchful, but compassionate, eye of Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters), Eilis works at a department store, but has a hard time adapting to the cheerful demands of the job. Taking note of her homesickness, the clergyman, Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) intervenes, and pays her first semester of tuition so that she might attend night school and become a bookkeeper. Perking up at this intellectual stimulation, Eilis begins to find her footing as she is taken into Mrs. Kehoe’s confidence, due to her compassion and sensibility, and eventually she meets a young suitor at a dance. This young man named Tony (Emory Cohen) is Italian, and thus we expect a clash of cultures, which never materializes, as Tony woos Eilis, eventually introducing her to his family, and finally proposing love and marriage. Her deepening connection to Tony coincides with sister Rose’s unexpected demise, which calls Eilis back to Ireland, both to console her now abandoned mother and to sate her guilt at having not said a final goodbye to Rose. Eilis and Tony marry before she leaves, but once arrived, she tells no one of her recent nuptials. Although she tries to demure, her childhood best friend sets her up with Jim (Domhnall Gleeson), the local most eligible bachelor and all around decent fellow, and thus a tension develops as Eilis’s mother actively implores her to stay in Ireland, and Jim passively offers her a future and a reason to. Meanwhile, Tony writes Eilis letters, trying to stay in the forefront of her mind, but perhaps disavowing the pain the separation is causing to both of them, she leaves them unread. Her bookkeeping skills put to good use, Eilis steps into Rose’s old job on a temporary basis. No longer the dissatisfied, sallow girl without a future, Eilis is now a sophisticated import with a worldly outlook and skills that are sought after; Ireland could indeed be a satisfying place to live, unlike before her journey. Or could it?

As you can tell, there is nothing particularly innovative about this narrative – it is classically shaped, and the conflicts it sets up are universal in nature. What is impressive about the film, particularly for a work adapted from a piece of literature, is that is eschews psychologizing its subjects in any definitive way. We don’t get precise explanations of certain events, nor do we get a narration or other device to guide us through the interiority that is literature’s métier. For instance, Rose’s death is a bit of a mystery. Her mother finds her dead shortly after a sequence that portrays her as unhappy. Father Flood tells Eilis that she must have died from a medical condition she kept hidden, and Rose does indeed have a fragility about her physicality (she has, for instance, an unexplained scar above her right eye). Did she die of natural causes, or did she commit suicide? The book provides a more definitive answer, but the film, by refusing to resolve the issue, provides a resonance to Eilis’s dilemma when she steps into Rose’s shoes later in the film. Is unhappiness caused by the limited nature of this place, or by the people in it? Does it, and other emotional opportunities, emerge from within, as part of our temperament, or from without, imposed by the existential conditions we find ourselves trapped within? By simply portraying such situations, and allowing them to suggest, rather than define, the film amplifies the emotions at stake as it moves along so that, like the wave that carries us to the shore, by the end we are borne along by feelings and desires, rather than intellectual recognitions. Ultimately the film is working with very basic, and well-worn, tropes, such as the nature of love, the ability to adapt, the desire for and impossibility of return, the journey from innocence to experience. But, like many of the greatest films of the classical era of Hollywood, these universal issues allow us all to step into Eilis’s experience imaginatively by way of our own, and fuse our own voyage with hers; like many of those films, there is something for “everyone” in this portrayal. That the film effectively carries off its aims is not despite, but indeed a feature of, its simplicity, and a credit to an adroit adaptation by Hornby, and incredibly faceted performances by everyone, but especially Ronan, whose transformation does not even register for us until the last quarter of the film, and also the two men in her life. Tony, and his close Italian family, could have been a caricature, slipping into an easy identification based not on human experience, but on past filmic representations; instead, he is brash in a respectful, shy way, and his family distinctive while feeling contemporary and fresh. Jim is also a study in unexpected humility, as instead of trying to woo Eilis and keep her in Ireland, he remains at a remove, always aware of the depth of experience she has acquired that he has not, and respectful of the fact that her life is now elsewhere, in a place that likely cannot but make what he has to offer pale in comparison. The film ends in a way that is unsurprising and, like the rest of the movie, emblematic rather than distinctive. But at least this viewer found it one of the most deeply moving experiences of the past year. A powerful, and beautiful, humanist vision.

Four and a half stars out of five

The Last Picture Show – Peter Bogdanovich (1971)

The death of small town America, and thus the death of our favorite national imaginary, is by now so done as a topic that I wonder if it even registers anymore. (The Internet has faked us into thinking that geography is irrelevant and that we can all participate in that big whatsit from wherever). Such death is ostensibly the topic of The Last Picture Show, Peter Bogdanovich’s well-known and respected first “real” feature from his trio of successes in the early 1970s. Although I’ve seen the other two (What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moon), and enjoyed them, The Last Picture Show remained elusive – which is to say, I never sought it out, so it is no surprise it did not seek me out either. It happened to be playing as a Sunday matinee at one of the many lovely restored theaters around here, in a small town that, while neither as forlorn nor as inward as Anarene, Texas, did resonate upon greeting me, leaving the film, with empty streets and a hard wind blowing.

If The Last Picture Show was simply about the death of small town America, as it has been often mourned, through the teary and false eye of a simple nostalgia, I can bet I wouldn’t have been terribly affected. Thankfully, the film is really about small towns and death, with America being a happenstance, the far-flung relation calling long distance; we see this America in the movies playing at the picture show, in Duane’s new/used automobile, and in the fissures that provide passage out of or toward it (Mexico, military service, the Korean war). Yes, the film is about the death of a kind of community, but the relationship that community bears to the American “community” is unclear, obscured by the vastness of the land and the pressure that lives lived elsewhere provide, slowly compressing this small pebble of a place from afar. What the film really deals with is community as such – how it is formed, almost ad hoc, and how it goes on, simply because it has to for those that remain. We are given entree to this place through the eyes of Sonny (Timothy Bottoms), a quiet, unsure, and ambivalent witness who is unable to tackle life in this small place in any way that produces a satisfying outcome. He is in his last year of high school, and so his fate – what will become of his life? – becomes, in many ways, the fate of the place. The film moves back and forth between a set of teenagers, trying to make their first life decisions (taking guidance from a well-worn and small playbook), and the adults who have to live with their own decisions (and who are also trying to reinvent themselves, although perhaps in small measures, along the way).

The usual cliches about small town existence are avoided. This town is painfully small, and yes, everybody knows everybody else’s business. Whereas in the stereotype of such a community this type of knowledge would lead to ostracism or at least judgmental rumor mongering, Anarene hews closer to the lived reality of such places, where although everyone might know everything that’s happening, judgement recedes and a kind of discretion reigns. Partly this is common sense, the old “don’t shit where you eat” line, but it is also partly compassion of the “we’ve all been there” kind and partly the reality of a forced tribalism, a “we’re all in this together,” even if they’d rather not be. The adults are refreshingly free of bitterness and closed-mindedness, instead trying to impart some wisdom of lived experience while at the same time not discounting their own demanding inner voice, their own desire to feel young or renewed. The teens likewise escape the broad brush, with Jeff Bridge’s semi-dim Duane and Cybill Shepherd’s Jacy being the closest to types we encounter. Jacy in particular could have fallen into the usual mold of the icy, controlling prom queen, but Shephard, particularly in the first half of the movie, portrays her as wistful, unsure, and naive while also craving validation in the usual ways a too-attractive girl might. (It is only after she sets her sights on Sonny that she becomes more craven and hence less sympathetic).

The engine of the drama, if dramatic these events be, is sex. Sex in this community, and this film, is not the hidden aspect of Janus-faced love, ready to tear all stability asunder with the primal forces of desire; rather, love is herein paired with familiarity, and sex provides one of the few forces of novelty in an environment rather devoid of possible permutations. Sex is the force that can and does cut across the static lines of this world (static not because conservative, but simply because this world is small): class, age, power, intellect and experience. What is wonderful about the film is that sex and love are not a simple dichotomy, and that the sex, rather than having unpleasant noir-style implications or “thrills,” instead serves as a way for the characters to generate new alliances, experiences, and (perhaps aborted or sham) voyages of self-discovery. It is a place to pose questions, such as, “How do we live here? What can be done?” and “What does life mean when it has to be small?” Answers are harder to come by. The most resonant of the relationships, and the one that endures in some way, is between Sonny and middle-aged Ruth (Cloris Leachman). Bogdanovich captures the above dynamic perfectly in his portrayal of Ruth’s “seduction” of Sonny. During their first afternoon tryst, the bed springs squeaking perfectly mimic the squalling springs on a screen door as it opens and closes (as they do often in this film, grabbed and flung by the unrelenting winds). Ruth sheds tears, but they are not of remorse, seemingly – perhaps ennui, perhaps confusion. This sound, of the new and the possible, figured as sexual desire and the young lover, and of the return of the old and familiar, figured as monogamous love and the return of the husband, match. There is no escaping the twinning, hence the tears, but neither is this recognition relentless or shattering; indeed, it is, in a way, comforting. Not the terror of being caught, but the reassurance of being caught – the comfort inherent in being held close and accepted, regardless. Her tears and confusion are not those of the trapped, but those of the seeking. As she looks into the middle distance during the proceedings, Ruth seems to be gazing into the human condition as horizon, that flat line also familiar, homely, comforting yet devoid of meaningful marker or measure.

The film ends, as you might guess from the title, with a shot of the movie house, now shuttered and empty. Set in the 1950s (as is George Lucas’s superficially similar but inversely worthy American Graffiti), the film’s main argument is about the death of a kind of community, represented by movie-going, rapidly being replaced by television and the atomization of life (now, in 2015, already in its baroque phase). This is a familiar (and nonetheless true) observation at this point in history, but Bogdanovich’s vision has not dated, as, for one, the film is set in the historic period of this change, and two, his film is an inquiry into a type of community, not an attempt to diagnose a larger (perhaps national) malady. If it is mourning, the film is mourning the death of the human animal; what better place to observe this animal than in its natural habitat which also happens to be, perforce, an enclosure? Movie-going becomes the metaphor for this animal community: it is a semi-random assortment of folk who meet in the dark to alleviate boredom, to canoodle, to forget themselves, and also to gaze on one another, in an attempt to make meanings that are individually elusive. Thus the death of the picture show is much darker than the film portrays, as it implies a coming reality where individuals are deemed sufficient to figure it out on their own, always already outside the nest. Yet Bogdanovich (and Larry McMurtry, who likely deserves equal credit) is not simply practicing an admittedly higher form of nostalgia here, as he also questions what the nature of this “human animal” really is. Near the end of the film, simple Billy (Sam Bottoms), at his Sisyphean task of sweeping out the road, is struck in the middle of the street and killed by a passing truck. The sheriff and his old cronies stand about, tut-tutting and confirming for themselves Billy’s stupidity, his uselessness. Perhaps this is simply a performance, salve to the man who hit him, or perhaps a way of denying their own sadness. But it is coldness and distance nonetheless, and leads to Sonny’s flight out of town, then back into town, and, eventually, to Ruth, both to make amends (we assume) and for comfort. This leads to the perfect, heartbreaking final scenes, where Ruth and Sonny try to speak, but cannot find words. Instead, the purely animal, the comfort and touch of another sympathetic body, presents the only bulwark, if not solution. At the same time, the ending is tragic, as it represents Sonny’s (and our) realization that perhaps this community of human animals was and is a sham, a self-satisfied delusion – that individual meanness and might-makes-right is the way of the human animal, in or outside of a community. Thus the figure of Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson) as singular. Not, as we first think, as the last of the old-timers, but as their exception: an animal of power, but also of kindness and help. The question that torments Sonny is, perhaps, does the exception prove the rule? And is he capable of inheriting such a mantle?

Four and a half stars out of five