Saturday, March 19, 2016

Todd Haynes | Carol

flung into space: insider images of outsider sex
by Douglas Messerli

Phyllis Nagy (screenplay, based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith), Todd Haynes (director) Carol / 2015

Early in Todd Haynes mannered cinematic tale Carol, the exquisitely beautiful and well-dressed Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) observes that the young shop-girl she has suddenly been attracted to and, quite literally, “picks up,” is like an “angel flung into space”—hinting that the character Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) has some connection with the proud Miltonic angel, Lucifer, “Him the Almighty Power / Hurled headlong flaming from the’ ethereal sky, / With hideous ruin and combustion, down / To bottomless perdition, there to dwell.”

Obviously, the slightly mousy and certainly uncertain girl that Therese represents is nothing of the sort. She has not even yet had sex with her current “boyfriend,” Richard Semco (Jake Lacy), who is desperate to ship her off with him to France where he intends to marry and entrap her into everyday American life. Along with her noncommittal positions and almost all decisions regarding almost everything in her life, this can only result, it is made clear, in a disaster. 

     Carol, on the other hand, is a member of the gods, the wealthy ruling class, and has all the beauty of a true Venus bending down to seduce an everyday mortal. The clash of the Titans, ancient and modern—if you can describe Carol and her husband’s Harge’s (Kyle Chandler) domestic battles as representing “modern” Christianity—lies quite beyond the beautiful young girl’s control, although she willingly takes on all the guilt of their titanic clashes over control of both Carol and their daughter Rindy’s life. This Lucifer, even if completely willing, is also quite innocent, as even Carol and her former lesbian lover, Abby, tries to convince Therese.
      Yet the alpha gods, represented by Harge and his lawyers are not amused, and send out a smarmy “notion’s” salesmen Tommy Tucker (Cory Michael Smith) to get the “goods” on his wife’s lesbian dalliances, even though we realize they might exist only in tape-recording sessions of a few pleasurable moans and sighs. One might have imagined that the Sapphic lovers might have even spoken out a few phrases of their love, but in Todd Haynes’, Douglas Sirk-like melodrama, we cannot be assured that they allowed themselves even that sexual pleasure. Everything in this illicit romance strictly occurs behind the arras, even in the sickly motel-beds of Waterloo, Iowa (the city, incidentally, in which I was born). 
      This is a world of the gods rule, not the hoi-polloi, despite Therese’s shop-girl and, later, paparazzi credentials (she does, after all, become a photographer of famous faces). What becomes interesting about this film is how, through her encounter with Carol, Therese does discover her own identity and is able, at film’s end, to reclaim the love she has been offered by the gods and then denied—which probably does truly identify her with Lucifer. Certainly, the reverse view of the interchange between her and Carol, shown early in the film, makes it clear, by the end of Haynes’ cinema, that she is not ready to become subservient to the male-dominated world that attempts to reclaim her.
      The problem with Carol is that the film director Haynes, as always, is such an insider voyeur in his presentation of an outsider text, he cannot even comprehend that his highly aestheticized vision has nothing to do with the real lives, from the period of 1950s with which he is obsessed, he is attempting to depict. As I have written about his Far From Heaven, the sexual reality of his closeted world was not truly what he makes it out to be. There were plenty of gays and lesbians living quite openly during that period; not everyone needed to hide their identities as intensely as did his characters, and particularly in the elite cultural world to which he is attracted, lived quite openly (if out of radar) “outsider” sexual lives. 
       In Haynes’ absolute fidelity to representing every 1950s artifact and cultural reference in his films, he abolishes the reality of the situation. No period in American history refers entirely to its own “identity”—or what we later determine historically after the fact as the attitudes and artifacts of that period. The 1950s, I can assure you also contained furniture, objects, music, and other cultural artifacts from the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, just as our own time contains all sorts of images from all periods of American culture simultaneously. Looking across our living room, as I write this essay, I witness a dining table my companion Howard Fox inherited from his parents from the 1960s, sling chairs and a Scandinavian coffee table we purchased in the 1970s, and a large, a smoothly sleek green couch we purchased in early 2000 (now a bit worn for wear). What in our room might be described as representing the new century—except for a few digital photographs, framed in 1890-like mountings? Is this the mode of second decade of 2015? People live, and always have lived, in simultaneity with other decades and even centuries. Despite our large library at my right of DVD films, we also sport a stereo (no longer working) beneath which are shelved numerous long-playing records of another time and place.
      Yes, all the images of the 1950s are beautifully represented in Haynes’ films—the warmly lit bars, with their deep-leathered red booths, the slightly smoky New York streets, the nearly perfectly lit Christmas decorations of a wealthy New Jersey mansion, the sleazy Ohio and Midwest motel rooms, the patterned elegance of Chicago’s The Drake Hotel’s bedrooms (where I have also slept and dined in a delicious delectation of the past); yet they have little to do with the reality of the day, just as his long languishing stares, moans, and sighing of the impossibility of expressing real emotions of Haynes’ characters do not represent the reality of that period. Haynes’ is a cinematic reality that, unfortunately, has little to do with the real overlying perceptions of life.
       The gods, alas, will never approve of the reality that lies outside their purview, which is where the rest of us live and lived in even back then. The Parthenon, we must remember, was not where the everyday Greeks lived.

Los Angeles, November 26, 2015

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