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Todd Haynes Discusses Manifesting Love in ‘Carol’ and the Performativity of His Films

Written by Kyle Turner on October 12, 2015 


Todd Haynes‘ filmography is often overwhelming in its intellectual acumen and emotional devastation. The two, for Haynes, seem to be inextricable, which is evident in projects whose loglines might seem heady — the Bob Dylan mythos presented as six actors, postmodern Sirkian melodrama, a study of femininity and fame, etc. — but whose actual presence is grounded in a singular emotional decadence.

This is true of Carol, which is at once a return to the deconstruction of femininity, social mores, and mild anarchy of privilege, as well as an honest and heartbreaking story about falling in love and the trepidation therein. We talked to Todd Haynes about how he approaches the construction of identity in his films, the persona inhabited and navigated through in Carol, and what it was like to articulate the danger of falling in love on screen.

The Film Stage: How many have you had to do today so far?

Todd Haynes: Oh, not so bad today. Just sort of easing in.

Oh, that’s good!

Getting on the time zone.

Are you coming from the West Coast?


And you live in Portland, right?

I live in Portland.

You also lived in New York, right?

Before Portland, I lived in New York for fifteen years.

Has living in Portland or New York at all informed your sensibility with your films?

Well, yeah. There’s no question that living in New York during those very transformative years for the city, particularly as a gay man in New York, from 1985 to 2000. And particularly as an independent filmmaker in those years as well, New York was a very important place for me. Portland has offered me a little bit of peace and sense of domestic life: having a home, a house, which I never even fantasized having when I was in New York City. Although it has only continued to bubble up as a city unto itself with a great deal of energy, always the people in Portland… its unique kind of take on things appeals to me, and I think that was one of the reasons why I was first drawn to it. But now it really continues to prosper and develop almost too quickly for my taste. It’s a really interesting place with a lot of young people.


Location seems to be really embedded in the text of your films, whether it’s London in Velvet Goldmine, this somewhat anonymous suburbia in Safe, or New York in Carol. I was wondering if you could talk about that.

Yeah, I do think that’s true for all of those films. Environment and location in Safe, certainly environment takes on all of these extra subterranean meanings since it’s this ideal of upper middle class, wealthy suburban life, and it’s very [much about] surfaces and textures and surroundings become poisonous to the subject of the film. Certainly, London and then the kind of infatuation between London and New York, or the UK and the US in the early ‘70s in the glam-rock era is a kind of personified by the central characters, Brian and Kurt. A lot has to do with the differences and the influences that each of these places bring to those characters, to their physical, and, otherwise, issues of identity and persona.

What was really interesting about Carol was the fact that this particular New York — at the very beginning of the ‘50s, prior to Eisenhower taking office — was just an incredibly different moment in the post-war era than the ‘50s that I had explored previously in Far From Heaven. And even though that film was filmed through the whole idea of studio filmmaking from the period, it was remarkable to me how many people who lived through those later years of the ‘50s, the real Eisenhower era, said, “Oh that’s exactly what it was like!” Although we were trying very hard to make things as much like the movies of the time and less like the real life of the time as we could. It’s just funny how the movies of the time, at various times, influence our memories and experiences.

You were just talking about identity and persona, and your films seemed to be interested in the idea of identity as a social construct. I’m wondering if you could talk about that.

Yeah, if there’s a kind of common denominator — or something that links a lot of very different stories and subjects — it’s that very idea. It’s the idea that identity is not necessarily a natural or pre-existing kind of location that we are here to find and settle comfortably into, but, actually, we create a great deal of anxiety and neuroses around trying to accommodate based on messages from our society and our world. In the cases of these two music-driven films of mine, the glam one inspired by the glitter-rock period in Velvet Goldmine — and the other one, Bob Dylan’s life in I’m Not There — I found a very different kind of pushing-back against the notion of natural self or consistent coordinated senses of self and stability in identity to be one of the driving themes for these artists. And they’re very different artists — very different manifestations of the musical instinct — but I think that thing is common to both Bob Dylan in the early 1960s and to a lot of the imagination of the bisexual androgyny of the glitter era.

And performance, in that way, seems to be important in your filmography, performativity of identity.

Well, yes, particularly when people are acting out against social expectations and the status quo through their music and feel that confidence, that brazen kind of revel spirit, which is true of these musical subjects. If anything, I think that performativity… I mean, it’s built into the act of being a musician and understanding the necessity to perform one’s work — and to live to a large degree in public, and on stages, and in spotlights — but there’s that added element of shock or almost contempt for the expectations that you will always do it the same way. I’m speaking generally because I’m trying to include both films in what you’re asking me, I guess, but I think it’s true for both films and both periods, that there’s an element of an extra violence in that performativity to strip down expectations and the burden of expectations on the artist.

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