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.
In Carol, Carol seems to be cognizant of the identity she’s expected to perform and is somewhat trying to subvert or be anarchic towards it, whereas Therese seems to still be navigating her identity.
Yes, I think so. I mean, I think Carol has understood and procured a lot of the sort of codified ways in which women present themselves favorably to their best advantage in their various social worlds — and for her, particularly in a wealthier, privileged world in her life in New Jersey, and as Harge Aird’s wife. And I think she’s always done the right, “correct” things in presenting herself in that way, and knows that it connotes a certain value that society has condoned. But obviously there’s something else going on: feelings and needs and aspects of herself that are not fulfilled by simply following that path. And so both women are in a state of transition when we meet them.
Maybe Carol more pronouncedly than Therese, who is definitely more at the beginnings of her construction of herself and the way she kind of imagines how she’s going to navigate herself in the world and where she’s going to land and how she even sees herself. I think part of that resistance to seeing people in the frame of her camera that we hear about at the beginning, that she ultimately redresses, is ultimately about her inability to see herself in her life and where she’s ultimately going to reside in the world. But Carol’s already in a tangle when we find her, and we are almost being asked to figure out what that status of that tangle is, vis a vis her husband, her daughter, and this prior friendship of hers with Abby. And Therese sort of unwittingly stumbles in this tangle at a pivotal moment of its manifestation or of its struggle.
And I really adore how Carol seems to exist and live in these touching and gazes and glances. That really struck me.
The film, you mean, not the character?
Well, both, but certainly the film.
Yeah, I think… I think we’re being asked to observe the kind of codes of behavior and knowing that there’s feelings starting to merge and row on each side, but, like we all feel when we’re falling in love, not knowing really. Particularly in Carol, not knowing how she feels in return — that it’s easier to imagine Therese’s feelings for Carol than to know exactly what her feelings are for Therese. Because Carol seems to have much more to contend with, and more mobility and viability in the world, given the way she operates and how far she’s come, even if she has the complexity of marriage and custody and a child to contend with — and a troubled marriage, in particular. You’re really more thrust into the unknown spaces of the younger, more vulnerable character watching this love sort of fumble into being, and it means that silence and what isn’t said – how much, when you’re Therese, as I think we’ve all been, you’re in this state of constantly reading everything as a sign or some indication of where you stand and not knowing really what it means.
What was it like trying to articulate through the camera? Trying to articulate that falling in love, that stumbling.
I think it was something that I was thinking about all along, trying to bring [cinematographer] Ed Lachman into, that we were understanding that we weren’t necessarily going to be enacting that point of view and that tenuous subjectivity, but that we were going to be observing it. And so frames and camera positions and the tendency of the film to be looking at these characters through windows, through glass, through frames within frames. I felt sort of implicitly that it would be making you think back to the lens itself as the primary arbiter of looking and objectifying subject and object, and separating subject and object, and that there be a tension around that, watching behavior unfold through the rigid limits and the social constraints of the time, and trying to find these little places of freedom of expression or surprising moments of mobility where somebody could touch somebody else.
I mean, really the whole movie has this very quiet suspense about how will this love manifest itself, will it manifest itself, what are the acceptable ways that they could get closer physically and, ultimately, maybe even make love to each other. Getting on the road is that first moment of relief and freedom from the constraints of New York life that they both endure, but even then it’s a matter of how’s it going to happen and where’s it going to happen, and all these questions about place and social constraints and conventions. I love that, because the whole thing means that you’re kind of holding your breath. There’s all these places that you’re holding your breath and, really, the release of that breath, it doesn’t even happen until the movie ends and the very end of the film builds up to something that doesn’t resolve, and we kind of have to resolve it ourselves, like our lives when we leave the theater.
I think that ambiguity is very interesting. And I was very much intrigued by one of your song choices, “You Belong to Me,” which plays when they’re in the car and Therese is looking at Carol, and there are these segmented shots of Carol’s body. What went into choosing that song?
The song, the Jo Stafford version of the song, which was a really big hit, was already in the script in Phyllis’ first draft, the first draft of Phyllis’ script that I read, and it would have had a really big presence at that time on the airwaves. And we played with different versions of it. This one, by Helen Foster, is a much-lesser-known R&B version, where they [have an] almost strange Polynesian arrangement and a beautifully isolated voice. In all truth, it probably wouldn’t be the thing that would pop up on the radio station these white women would be listening to driving from New York City to New Jersey, but it’s such a subjective scene, anyways. That tunnel scene, it’s just kind of cast in a strange dream space and time that it felt better suited for the mood of the scene.
And so we went with it, and Carter Burwell composed a whole score element that was designed to play over this very unique arrangement of the song, so the whole thing was kind of conceived as a kind of hole. And Affonso Goncalves, my editor, tried those dissolves – I wasn’t really thinking of using a lot of dissolves in the movie and there are no other places in the film where we use dissolves – but this place felt absolutely appropriate. That time was slowing down, and, even in the book, there’s this beautiful description of them going through the tunnel for the first time, and – give me a second, I want to get it right – Therese says, “She wishes that the tunnel might cave in and kill them both, that their bodies might be dragged out together.” And, to me, that epitomizes falling in love.
Carol screened at the New York Film Festival and opens on November 20.