Over the past few months I’ve been watching Carol. Sometimes for the story. Sometimes for the photography. Once without sound. And it is as extraordinary as I‘ve come to expect all of Todd Haynes’s features to be. This is a dangerously high standard ripe for creating disappointment, and yet Haynes, who is to my mind the most consistently powerful filmmaker working in America today, consistently meets and even exceeds it.
Carol fits into that stream of his films that tells women‘s stories in stylistic terms that recall specific historical antecedents. This stream includes Safe, Far From Heaven and Mildred Pierce. (The other stream that I see in his work tells stories about men, deploys a fractured, self-consciously mediated narration, and is preoccupied with the circulation and cultural use of popular art signifiers. It includes Poison, Velvet Goldmine, I‘m Not There, and the early short works.)
Haynes’s women’s films have each been one of the very best films of its moment and have been his most commercially successful films. Like the other stream, they are experimental—their stylization is intellectual, historically rich and signifies—but that stylization is also easy to bypass or to dismiss with terms like “beauty.” Their narration is also less fractured than those in his other stream of films, recounting coherent stories organized in relation to recognizable genres. So it is possible for casual viewers to watch these films “simply for the story” or to celebrate the actors’ performances or to class them as homage to a golden age of the silver screen.
(This is not possible to do for the films in the other stream of films. Despite focusing on and even celebrating popular entertainments, each offers choreographed but heavily distanciated assemblages of narrative fragments, usually drawn from several disparate stories. Shifts in media format, wide-ranging and extended allusions, and, perhaps most famously, breaks in conventions regarding actors and performance create real obstacles to casual viewing. Concentration and attention to the question, “What am I to make of all of this?” is required. That these films make that question and the cultural subjects‘ efforts to answer it part of their content—these films are very much meta-fictions—adds an additional layer of complexity to an already daunting experience. As a result, first viewings of these films can feel overwhelming.)
Carol is a perfect example of Haynes‘s approach to the woman‘s film. The photography, costuming and music are gorgeous; the story is subtle, nuanced and deeply moving; the performances create people and suggest entire lives; and the final cut, taken as a whole, evokes and breaths life into an earlier moment in American cinema. In other words, see above.
What I‘ve been thinking about though is the way that Carol reimagines and transfigures what a melodramatic drama might be. Genre is fundamentally a conservative practice. Even (especially?) when perceived as shared ritual, generic forms introduce difference or change in order to recuperate it as a new instance of the past or of an original. Ideologically, it is concerned with preserving a community. In his woman‘s films, Haynes seems to be exploring the extent to which generic conventions can be used otherwise.
The roots of that experiment can be found at least as early as Safe, a film that is organized according to the conventions of the melodramatic television genre Haynes has called “the disease of the week movie.” In Haynes film, the story of a woman‘s struggles with unexpected illness does not affirm the values of love and courage and family as it would in the ordinary televisual fare; it chronicles instead the way in which that illness makes palpable the woman‘s alienation from her social circles, and how that same illness offers a signifier that she may use to create a new social identity with other sick people. This film still feels to me like a first attempt to determine what‘s possible in melodramatic genres and how far they can be stretched.
Far From Heaven takes the experiment much further by grafting complicated and interlocking stories about racism, sexuality, and feminism together in a single film and by submerging them completely into a uniform and self-consciously anachronistic aesthetic. I love this film, and once I‘ve sunken into it, it’s moving and sincere. The fact that it is critical of the gay man’s assertions of masculine and racial privilege even as it offers sympathy for his struggles to come out in a homophobic world is incredibly powerful. But ultimately, although characters struggle to break free of their social cages, in the end, the community‘s norms prevail: the gay man disappears and the interracial affair ends in resolute tears. In this, the film feels more like a performance of a genre than its appropriation.
Mildred Pierce—the mini-series Carol builds directly upon—marks a departure from these earlier efforts. Mildred has history—it’s an adaptation of James Cain‘s novel and operates in relation to the classic Joan Crawford film of 1945—and yet it aims at something like a socially situated, melodramatic realism. Haynes claims in interviews that this realism is present in Caine‘s novel (which I haven‘t yet read); when I watched, it reminded me of Theodore Dreiser. (My initial response to the series captures how difficult I initially found this shift in tone.) This approach to melodrama is not alien to the history of the Hollywood woman‘s film–it‘s there in Stella Dallas and in the 1930‘s adaptation of Imitation of Life–but it is very different from the dominant form of the woman‘s film that reaches its peak in the opulence of Douglas‘s Sirk‘s work. So Hayne‘s recuperation of this strain feels like reinvention or transformation.
Carol picks up Mildred Pierce‘s experiment. In it, Haynes synthesizes the powerful melodramatic pleasures of Far From Heaven and the subtlety and historical specificity of Mildred Pierce in order to create a film that suggests an experience of the world. Navigating through the brutal details of this social reality, the film also discovers an authentic basis for it’s characters’ happiness and suggests the possibility of meaningful change. How is this achieved? Simple: the sound, the image, the montage, the production design and the script each contribute, all of them, in nearly all their details.
The result is a film that delivers both the emotional and ethical pleasures of socially conscious, realist drama and the aesthetic pleasures of philosophically (post-)modernist works. It suggests too that the viewing strategies appropriate for the meta-fictions may be necessary tools for viewing this movie.