Carol: Circular Narrative and Mirrored Characters

2015 has been a big year for the LGBT movement – not least of all in Ireland, with the world’s first passing of a bill legalising same-sex marriage by popular vote. In Hollywood, perhaps entirely by accident, we’ve been hit with two films that address homosexuality and transgenderism in a world not yet ready for such phenomena of social acceptance: Carol, and The Danish Girl.

carol poster

Since 2007, I’ve made it a habit of going to the cinema at least once per week; most recently, I sat down to watch Carol, not sure what to expect before heading in. I don’t read reviews before I watch a movie – my cinema has a membership card that allows me to see as many movies as I want for a monthly cost, so I don’t need to be overly picky – so I missed all the positivity that Carol had already generated, and instead went in with the mind-set that, given it’s December, we were looking at Oscar-bait. I’m of the opinion, now, that it deserves any and all nominations it receives. Be warned, while I’ve attempted to avoid specific details of the plot, there will be general spoilers in this article.

As the trailer suggests, Carol is a circular narrative. This is a fact clearly stated and barely understood until it has been seen; the film does not seek to explain itself, much in the same way that Cate Blanchett’s Carol Aird denies any explanation about herself to the people she meets throughout the events of the film. Set in the 1950s, she’s a closeted lesbian in a failed marriage, spending more time with her female friends than her husband. She’s figure of mystery and adversity, seemingly unconcerned with the consequences of her actions.

Therese Belivet, played by Rooney Mara, is her opposite. Unassuming, petite, and plainly dressed, she is everything Carol is not. Where Carol is presented as a wealthy socialite, Therese is a working girl living the daylight of New York, an aspiring photographer unwilling to accept the bonds of social pressure in the same way Carol did in her youth.

Cate Blanchett as Carol Aird

Their lives are mirrored throughout the movie, from their simple beginnings and through their transformations. For Therese, her appearances in the park echo the changes in her life; her working life and the photographs on the way in her kitchen tell different types of stories, challenging her dreams and managing her expectations. Carol’s transformation is reflected in her lawyer’s office, in her restaurants, and in the appearances of her best friend, Abby Gerhard (Sarah Paulson). There is a role reversal in the relationship between these women from opposing worlds.

In a pair of scenes, the women look for the other in their worlds – Therese looks for Carol in the night, and Carol for Therese in the day – from the point of view of a cab, bookending the ways in which the women and their relationship changed them as people. In the beginning, they fulfil a need in the other. Therese needed direction in life, Carol needed love. As they drive through New York looking for one another at different points in the movie, we’re given the impression that what they need in someone else has changed – and neither woman feels fitting for the role, anymore.

Rooney Mara as Therese Belivet

Alongside an incredibly powerful narrative, we’re given lingering shots of the women throughout their relationship. When they talk, when they drive, when they kiss, we are given an insight into the lives and their emotions, looking long enough at them as they listen to the other to more fully understand the weight of the words as they are spoken. The camera directs us to what is most important: how Carol and Therese make each other feel. It does not matter how one or the other looks as they speak. As their relationship is less conventional than we as an audience as used to, so too is the cinematography.

Powerful performances from Blanchett and Mara, with support from Paulson, Kyle Chandler and a host of others from Therese’s life guide us through a story that cinema needed, the normalisation of same-sex relationships on the big screen. This is a tale of love and transformation, and the effects of other people on our lives; while it seeks to challenge the romantic and sexual expectations of the women involved, such relationships are not uncommon in heterosexual circles. As Therese asks of her courter, Richard, “How many times have you been in love?”, we can be expected not to view Carol as a story of forbidden sexuality, but on the demands of love and romance on a life, and how it can bring out the best and worst in someone, regardless of gender or sexuality.

Carol has been nominated for several Golden Globes, including Best Motion Picture and Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion-Picture – Drama (both Blanchett and Mara). Have any thoughts on the film, or anything to contribute – comment away!

Chinatown: Love, Lies, and Conspiracies | Project 87

ChinatownposterChinatown hit the big screen in 1974, giving audiences a look at one of cinema’s greatest treasures in storytelling. We meet Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) at his office, a private investigator with a private collection of alcohol in his cupboards, and a distraught customer tearing at the blinds. He deals in break-ups, getting the dirt when the dirt in sought. This is the only thing we need to know about Gittes for a little while, before we enter a world beyond his control. (You should also note, there’ll be a few spoilers beyond this point. Consider yourself warned, if you care about that sort of thing.)

He deals in secrets and lies, and all the dangers they can cause. When Mrs Mulwray arrives at his office, we should be suspicious. She suspects her husband of cheating. When we meet Hollis Mulwray, questions begin to crop up. He’s a gentle looking man, thin and unassuming. He’s also the Chief Engineer of the LA Department of Water and Power, while the city’s gone into drought and he refuses to build a dam that might resolve the situation. There are so many triggers here that Gittes ignores, so many things that would make anyone else roll their eyes in disbelief that Hollis could be a cheater, and that anyone could even think he could manage it. He’s too public, and too decent, and still Gittes’s men find him with a woman that isn’t his wife.

Then, of course, the woman who hired Gittes to track Hollis wasn’t his wife, either. Her name is Ida Sessions, a woman whose significance remains in the dark for a large portion of the movie, beyond getting the photos from Gittes and into the paper. Enter Evelyn Mulwray, the real wife of our Chief Engineer – a man who subsequently proves incredibly difficult to get a hold of.

Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes
Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes

When we finally get to see his face again, we’re also introduced to Luo Escobar- Gittes former partner in Chinatown. It’s alluded that Chinatown was a bad time in the PI’s life, a time he’d like to forget. Escobar’s moved up in the force, just enough that when Gittes sneaks onto private property – a freshwater reservoir – to see the body of Mulwray dragged into view, he’s able to allow Gittes to stay.

With Mulwray dead, and Gittes still considering himself a client of Evelyn’s, the threads of the story finally tie themselves together: Gittes’s new life digging up dirt meets the water crisis of LA, and his old life in Chinatown tags along for the ride. Three stories, two happening concurrently. This is why we study Chinatown, why Syd Field writes about it in such detail in Screenplay, and presumably why it made Spike Lee’s list. A complicated set of tales wove into a single movie.

Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Mulwray
Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Mulwray

Under contract with Evelyn Mulwray – and faux-Mulwray – Gittes uncovers a lot about the water conspiracy of LA. From dried up relationships to dried up water reserves, his work keeps him tangled up in the biggest political issue the movie can muster: keep the desert off the streets. LA is focused on the water – where it is, and where it isn’t. Hollis uncovered the truth before his death – it led to his death, and subsequently to the reunion of Gittes and Escobar. It was an obsession for Hollis Mulwray – always looking for water. From the beach, Echo Park, and his own back yard, and let us not forget his position in the Department, water is Hollis Mulwray’s life, right from the beginnings of his fortune, when he and Noah Cross owned the city’s water.

Cross is important. He’s a vile man, with a wicked temper, a sense of greed greater than the devil’s, and a daughter in Evelyn Mulwray. He was critical in the construction of the Alto Vallejo, which later burst – an event that resulted in Hollis’s refusal to build another reservoir for LA. He knows what will happen – or at least suspects it – and when the water is dumped from the city’s supplies during the drought, Cross enters Gittes’s sights. Cross who owned the water, and whose fishing club is revealed to support a group of elderly men and women whose names come up on Gittes’s radar.

Remember Ida Sessions? Her involvement in the case, in getting Gittes involved, resulted in her murder. Gittes receives a last note from her, to look at the obituary column. He also runs into Escobar again. Old lives cross in new stories.

Between the obituaries and the public records for land purchases in LA, the puzzle begins to fall into place. The men and women Cross supports own the desert, where the land is cheap, and none of them even know it. With Cross intending for the land to receive LA’s new reserves of water – and with Mulwray out of the picture – the plot turns towards keeping Evelyn safe. Evelyn, and the woman we once suspected of being Hollis’s girlfriend.

John Huston as Noah Cross
John Huston as Noah Cross

Her name is Katherine Cross; she’s one more reason to hate Noah, and one more reason to keep Evelyn safe. Hollis’s death was no accident, his lung’s flooded with saltwater, and Noah Cross the number one suspect. With Noah on the lookout for her, after a dirty affair years before, and both Evelyn and Katherine sent to Chinatown for protection, the threads of individual stories that tied together at Hollis’s deathbed meet the point where they’ll become untangled.

In a flurry of activity that sees Evelyn dead and Katherine leaving with Cross, Gittes’s past has finally caught up with him.

This is what we’re dealing with as an audience of Chinatown, a mish-mash of stories that somehow manage to work. Looked at together, it takes some attention to put it all into a cohesive plot. Separately, we’ve got a PI who can’t get away from the trouble he left the police force over entangled with a woman whose past relationship with her father has led to the complete downfall of her life. The history of Chinatown, and the history of the Cross family, meet in a bloody end, with Gittes dragged back into one to mingle with the other.

Chinatown is as much the story of the water crisis of LA, and the supposedly failing marriage of an engineer, as it is the story of a PI who never conquered his demons, who instead took up showing others everything wrong with their lives.

Mulwray’s death is a message no one received, but for the audience, and for readers of the script, it marks a significant turning point in the story. It’s the point at which everything comes together almost entirely by accident, and sparks the events that won’t end until the death of the second Mulwray.

We study Chinatown for the way in which these stories are told, stories of life and death, love and abuse, and the politics of need and greed. We remember it for its closing line: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

Project 87: An Introduction

In 2013, Spike Lee released a list of 87 films that every film student entering the Tisch School of the Arts in New York should see. While this list is lacking in the works of a number of esteemed directors – and notably, lacking any female directors – it can be considered a good starting point on the road towards seeing the “essential” movies for every director and producer in the industry. He explains it all briefly in the video below.

When I first conceived of the idea of starting The Cinema Freak, it was this list that pointed me in the right direction. I’ve dubbed the undertaking of its viewing and analysis Project 87, a task that will take me through time, genre and language, and force me to address a lot of work that, until now, have been viewed on a for-pleasure basis only.

As well as the challenge of dealing with this massive list, I’ll be addressing other movies that I have always held in high esteem, movies that changed the way I thought about cinema and storytelling. The concern about dealing with movies in this way, ones I have developed feelings for in repeated viewings, is that any criticism of them might be tainted with the stench of bias – which is precisely why I’ll be avoiding “reviewing” a movie.

Of course, Project 87 is more than an excuse to watch movies and write about them. While I undertake the process – which I anticipate taking well over a year to complete – I’ll be attempting to develop fresh eyes for movie making, studying in what spare time I have the art and craft of production, and beginning my own independent productions.

I have always had a deep fascination with the production of film and television, from the writing all the way to the post-production and marketing. Simultaneous to my viewing experiences and criticism, I’ll be keeping a record of my own struggles and (hopefully) triumphs in the business.

Project 87, at its core, is a starting point. It’s not the be-all and end-all of The Cinema Freak, nor is Lee’s list the definitive version to follow for anyone looking to enter the industry as informed as possible. The question should be raised – both for my benefit, and for the benefit of anyone looking to search beyond Lee’s list: what movies would you add to the list? Which directors are missing?