Monday, April 18, 2016

On "Carol," Representation, and Whiteness - Part 2

 This is Part 2 of 3 - Part 1, Part 3.

Thanks to AfterEllen and Autostraddle, “Carol” got on my radar when it was being publicized, but not yet released.  I was intrigued, and I love Cate Blanchett, and so I found “The Price of Salt” and read it.  When I finished I remember saying to my cielo (spoiler alert!), “Wow, that was beautiful, and I never expected it to have a happy ending! Who knew that was possible in 1952!”  Film stills starting appearing, and something felt so familiar…


 And then…this trailer was released, and I just…oh my god.  If all I ever had was this trailer, it would have been enough.

 “Dearest.”  Oh god, please catch me while I fall down.

I knew I had to see this.  The trailer made clear to me they were taking care with the material (at some point I had read the book again), taking care with the story, that the two women were clearly lovers as they were in the book (unlike “Fried Green Tomatoes” where that bit is erased), and my god, so beautiful, and my god, the gazes (she looks, and she looks back, can it be?), and my god, they get to kiss, and my god, Cate’s voice.  Belly. Fluttering.

I said to my awesome therapist (with whom it’s probably not coincidental in the universe’s timing of things I’ve been working on healing that 12-year-old girl), and my cielo, and anyone else who would listen:  I am seeing this movie, I think this is the movie my 12-year-old self needed.  I checked and checked our local theaters until finally, it got here (yeah, let’s keep talking about which films get lifted up, celebrated, distributed…).

The first time we saw it, I forgot to breathe. For the whole film. When Carol pulled open the belt of her robe I thought I would faint.  I could not believe what I was seeing.  We left the theater and I danced, like, for real danced down the street, so happy.  And like I said, I’ve seen it 6 more times (so far) since.  I am like unto obsessed, reading reviews (here’s a fave) and reading/watching interviews with the cast, director, screenwriter, and score composer (just search in YouTube, there are many), trying to understand how this exquisite piece of art came into being, and why it has impacted me so.

Obviously part of it is of course seeing two women falling in love, as lovers. That one of them is Cate Blanchett…well. 


But it’s not just that.  How do I begin to describe?

I mean, read Part 1 if you haven't and let’s just start here:

Phyllis Nagy, the screenwriter, said in an interview that when she imagined who would play the role of Carol as she was writing the screenplay, she said she thought of…

…wait for it…


Which is exactly what I said to my cielo after we saw it the first time: that somebody had been watching their Hitchcock, and it was surely “Rear Window” because of the costuming and framing choices for Carol in particular, and perhaps “Vertigo” because of all the longing looks from cars and distance, and no wonder I danced down the street.  The aesthetic was more than reminiscent of Hitchcock’s film.  They had taken care with the 1952-53 setting (they talk about this a lot in interviews) which would have been when “Rear Window” was filming (at least some, it was released in 1954), and it shows. (Also, hello, blond woman’s lover with a camera…).

So yes, my adolescent, Grace-Kelly-loving, queer self was/is over the moon.  I could look up at the screen, and put myself-as-myself into Therese’s role, and gaze at Carol (like I gazed at Grace Kelly) all the live-long day (just like Therese does), and watch Carol gaze back. Swoon.  That’s a kind of representation.

There’s this kind of representation too:  almost everything between Carol and Therese is so much subtext.  Because of the time so little could be spoken, said outright.  So much is expressed between Carol and Therese in glances, a hand on a shoulder, not words, because first of all Therese doesn’t even have the words, and second, to be direct is to risk disaster if you’re wrong (Carol decides to, anyway, at least a little, which is stunning, as in the Glove Lunch scene). 

Cate and Rooney play it SO well, the chemistry is SO right. Everything is in the eyes, watching for every clue, every hint, trying to decipher if she means what I think she means and will she know that I know and understand what I am meaning?

This is exactly right.  I’ve read a few reviews/comments where people want there to be more directness, they think Carol and Therese are cold because they aren’t flinging around grand romantic pronouncements.  But they couldn’t.  They couldn’t. 

I came out in 1992.  One of the first people I came out to told me to never come near her children again.  I wasn’t out at my work places for a long time. I could have lost my jobs (I did lose one, in a way).  So I have felt some of that risk.

And this:  When my cielo and I fell in love, in 1994, it was just like that, weeks and weeks of subtext and glances and hints and wondering (on my part, she had her own wondering), "How in the world do I say what I feel and let her know it's ok what she feels if that's actually what she feels without ruining the whole thing because what if I'm wrong because that could be an immense disaster?"  To get it wrong in the heterosexual world means some embarrassment; to get it wrong in 1952 (or 1994, or today) could mean -- well, look what the heteropatriarchy tries to get Carol to do just to be able to see her daughter.

So this honoring of that experience in “Carol” feels so true to me.  And it’s done so well.  The ache and the longing and the loneliness of all that just crack me open and feel so right to my experience.

That’s a kind of representation.

And also:  the care with which the story is told.

The interviews affirmed what I knew:  that so much care had gone into making this film.  In the cinematography, the costuming, the use of light, the use of reflection, the music, the details from the book that made it into little things like “Easy Living,” and “flung out of space,” and Carol constantly combing her hair back with her fingers.  Immense care was taken with this story, to honor the novel and to honor the lives and love of these two women.  I’m moved by that, deeply. 

Honestly, we don’t get that often with lesbian/queer cinema.  Not all of it, all at once. Not often. Maybe never like this.

This film, it’s like an essential oil of the book.  It’s like they took the material and distilled it down, and down again, into its essence. Much less dialogue, much communicated by expressions rather than words, much communicated through cinematography and music – and it is all there.  An example:  there are phone calls and long letters from Carol to Therese in the book after their separation, and in the film we have the one, exquisite letter, brief, leaving us wanting (leaving Therese wanting, I am certain) – and all those letters and calls are distilled into that one letter, and all the meaning is there.  It’s astounding to me.  Brilliant writing and acting and filming and music. 

That kind of care and honoring of this story, that’s a kind of representation.

And there’s this, too:  this movie didn’t become all about the men and their feelings. 

Thanks to AfterEllen for the awesome Oscar-protest memes.
Check out this research:  Men get so many words.  Even in women-centered movies, men very often get more dialogue, more actual words.  Patriarchy has a hard time letting a story center on something other than (cis, white) men.  “Carol” not only avoids this (72% women’s words, for the record), it makes clear that this story is not about the men at all.  They aren’t ogres, but they’re irrelevant to the women’s happiness, which befuddles them – but the story spends no time in their feelings.  This story is about the women, queer women at that, centering them in a way that is so rare in cinema, and which I am certain is the reason why it got shut out at the Oscars and absurdly didn’t even rate a best picture nomination (I’m not the only one who thinks this). 

So that centering is a kind of representation.

The last thing (there’s not really a last thing when it comes to me and this movie, but whatever) is about resolution.

The film teaches us how to read it, through the music, and through Carol’s letter.  The score is full of unresolved chords and aching suspensions, swirls and eddies of movement.  When the music “resolves” it is often into a minor chord, including at the end of the Waterloo love scene. Other times we get momentary resolution in major chords, when the oboe and clarinet swell together – but only moments, and we can feel the joy in those moments (the composer tells us that the clarinet and oboe are meant to evoke each of the women – the clarinet Therese, oboe Carol.) The meter is constantly shifting – are we in 4/4 time? ¾? What time are we in, anyway?  Double beats over and under triple beats…

(I think this is what makes the pop music so disconcerting, all those peppy straightforward major chords, and also perfect for the start of the road trip, that peppy, major-key joy – and sleighbells!  The jazzy wandering of Billie Holiday’s “Easy Living” is a little different, especially because we hear it spare at first, with the tension of Carol and Therese’s back-and-forth around the piano.  The solo clarinet echoes the solo clarinet, i.e. Therese, of the score).

…it’s all stunningly disorienting and aching and beautiful.  And of course, there’s the ending, with the rising pulse and rising volume and the close-up of Carol’s brilliant smile and the whole theater stops breathing and then -- SILENCE and black screen and there is NO resolution musically to that ending! What are we to make of that? (Here's a brilliant take on it, by the way.)

“You seek resolutions and explanations because you are young,” Carol writes to Therese.  The letter clarifies what the music has been telling us:  there is no easy resolution for the situation Carol and Therese find themselves in.  Carol is telling her: this, her life, is a mess.  Life is messy. This is what you come to realize as an adult.  There is no “happily ever after” exactly – no running off into the Iowa sunset and...then what?  What actually happens next?  

Especially if you’re queer, there is a lot of negotiating to be done.  Negotiating how to live with some freedom within systemic oppression. Negotiating all the varying shades of being out (or not). Add in another person, add in a child, and a divorce, and well, it’s messy.  For Carol, she’s negotiating how to be somewhat free, yet still with the pain of being separated from her daughter.  Therese has to decide, are you ready for that, or not?  She has to decide what she wants.

We see Therese’s transformation over the course of the film and so her return to Carol at the end feels true.  It feels joyous (a perpetual sunrise).  And it still feels unresolved, that swelling unresolved chord, because what happens now?  Nagy says the ending is hopeful because it is full of possibility.  It doesn’t offer “resolutions and explanations” because life is not like that.  Especially if you are queer.

And that, too, is a kind of representation.

* * * * * * *

All of these words and it still feels insufficient to describe what the film has meant to me.  It’s healed me, honestly, has unleashed some creativity that has been long dormant (as in this set of posts, and as in, here’s a fanfic I wrote about “what happens next” because I couldn’t stop imagining it. I’ve never written a fic…except in my head), and in doing so has helped me to feel more free with myself, my voice – I think because that 12-year-old me is finally happy.

This film is more than I ever expected.  I’m so thankful for it.

And…I think it’s important to recognize that this film is incredibly white.

Please read Part 3, it’s important.