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The Dazzling Intensity of Loneliness: Carol's decadence and urban solitude

When watching the film Carol (2015), directed by Todd Haynes, it would not be uncommon to experience sensations akin to deja vu. No, you have not been to Frankenberg’s, which is the eerily lit fictional department store where Carol first meets her lover Therese. And no, you probably never sat in that oyster-hued 1949 Packard Super Deluxe 8 with rare “Egyptian” hood ornaments, which is one of Carol’s last vestiges of independence. Far more likely is that you’re drawing from the annals of art history, right around the time of Edward Hopper. Drenched in saturated color, urban solitude and decadence, Carol provokes excitement and disquietude by turns. In an attempt to source the antidote to loneliness, a highly stylized light is shone on it with dazzling intensity.

Painting "Nighthawks" (1942) by Edward Hopper
"Nighthawks" (1942) by Edward Hopper

Artists across all mediums have endeavored to convey, through empathy and artistry, that in our fundamental aloneness, we are not alone. And it is this very notion that serves as the crux of Carol. Located within America’s phobia-addled 1950’s landscape, the film depicts a time when existentially isolated individuals cropped up with extraordinary rapidity. As those in power resorted to fear mongering in order to keep the masses in a state of perpetual anxiety concerning communism, homosexuality, and the like, artists attempted to portray its sinister effects.

One of these artists is Walker Percy, whose seminal 1961 debut novel,The Moviegoer, chronicles the life of a man named Binx Bolling who makes moviegoing into an existential sport, and philandering a Greek tragedy. Perpetually present, he is all too aware of the “danger of slipping clean out of space and time,” and so he makes sure to frame life in such a way so as not to forget it. He is bewitched by pedestrian acts, the random configurations of objects and the moving beams of light because together, they constitute the “singularities of time and place” and the ‘”mystery which surrounds.”

There is a certain beauty in genuflecting at the altar of minutiae, of framing things in such a way as to become acutely aware of those temporal singularities. Andre Bazin called it “visible poetry”; the Irish called it “aisling”; Anglo-American poets called it “imagism”. But whatever flouncy terms it comes dressed in, it remains so: an act of reverence for all aspects of life and art alike. And though Binx Bolling's reverence always seems to ricochet back to him, it is through his lens that Carol can be comprehended. He is the poster child for post-war existentialism and the perfect literary counterpart to Edward Hopper’s oeuvre.

Painting "Soir Bleu" (1914) by Edward Hopper
"Soir Bleu" (1914) by Edward Hopper

If there are certain shots in Carol that look strikingly similar in both their color palette and composition to Edward Hopper, it’s because they were orchestrated by production designer, Judy Becker, who also attributes the film’s inspiration to preeminent mid 20th century photographers Saul Leiter, Helen Levitt and Evelyn Hofer. Striving for polished accuracy, Becker transformed an otherwise ordinary dialogue between color, prop and composition into the visual lexicon for the fraught climate from which they sprang. They signify the peculiarities and implications of their time. And by locating such work within a broader artistic and historical context, it is lent an air of the universal.

Though cinema is still engaged in discourse with the other arts, its relationship with painting and photography has altered according to the evolving contours of the cultural and technological landscape. Professor of film studies and author of Cinema and Painting, Angela Dalle, believes that film possesses a dual perception of itself in which it is either “plagued by a cultural inferiority complex and therefore obsessively cites other art forms, or is self confident enough to move beyond this state of dependency and arrive at the point where it can teach something new to art historians.” But the nature of film is far too nuanced to be categorized by such extremes, and so Dalle ultimately concedes that its relationship with its pictorial peers is no longer one of “influence and borrowing, but of joint participation in culture."

Carol is one of the many films to have moved beyond that state of dependency and became an autonomous piece of art. Though it has certainly cited other forms, its emulation of a hyper-stylized reality is arguably what has helped it achieve poignancy. While many find the grainy, muted realism of Jarmusch or Linklater to be more impactful upon the senses, that doesn’t make Carol flimsy by comparison. Both are two-dimensional vehicles that have successfully transcended to a three-dimensional plane.

Style and substance aren’t always mutually exclusive. Sometimes, style is the very thing needed to distinguish one story from another of its ilk and help it avoid yet another stock retelling. Carol, for instance, has utilized certain cinematic techniques that have facilitated the foregrounding of the spirit of macabre that lurks behind the prototypical American diorama. One such tool is the sad-hued color palette harkening back to Hopper’s world of quiet isolation. Red varnish, red lipstick and red miscellany abound, coinciding with Christmas, passion, darkrooms, and loneliness. Green-dominated frames alternate with red-dominated ones creating a flickering, fiery montage of a life at odds with itself; of a woman no longer able to make concessions and exhausted by the charade she’s been playing for too many years. In other words, the carefully chosen palette renders the intangible, tangible.

Though Carol is teeming with complex and interesting characters, color is the one that helps the film break free from flatness. Whether swallowing people in its wake or shining a light on them, palettes are manipulated to accentuate certain moods and highlight actions. Carol, for instance, is very much in cahoots with color. When she is in an intimate red-tinted bar or hotel room with Therese, it is not difficult to intuit from her coyly upturned lip and eager gaze that she is at ease with herself and with the world. But when she is then flung into a sickly green and clinically-lit house with Archie (her husband), it is apparent that she is going completely against her grain. Archie, aware that Carol is no longer the woman he married, clutches at straws to keep her immured in this domestic asylum, and color confirms that.

Becker even admits to using shifts in color palette to reflect changes occurring in characters. One such character is Therese who, after her split with Carol, chooses to paint her pale white-brown walls blue-green, which is “a color symbolic and emblematic of moving forward in life and time.” But colors aren’t always designated specific emotions. Rather, they riff off of one another in order to create a visual orchestral explosion as titillating as it is foreboding.

Painting "Hotel Room" (1931) by Edward Hopper
"Hotel Room" (1931) by Edward Hopper

Another element color riffs off of is light, which seems to carry in its sheath an inherent mystical quality. With it, Carol is again able to conjure up Hopper’s legacy, but this time tipping its hat to pioneering photographer William Eggleston. Credited with increasing recognition for color photography as a legitimate art form, Eggleston deftly depicts a saturated and shiny America where an aura of post-apocalypse pervades and nobodies could momentarily be somebodies by virtue of nothing in particular: rolling a shopping cart, using a pay phone or taking a drag on a cigarette. Eggleston photographs could easily be mistaken for Carol film stills. And both, at the right angle with the right squint of an eye, could be mistaken for the painted world of Hopper. Loneliness, like so many other byproducts of modernism, is romanticized vis-à-vis the uncanny interplay between light and color. And light and color predominate over each pictorial vista, lodging man/woman into it and dislocating him/her from it simultaneously.

Such a paradoxical existence is also reflected in the film’s composition. Like Hopper paintings and Eggleston photographs, shots in Carol often convey an ominously charged environment. Spatial emptiness alludes to urban and existential solitude while shots taken behind pillars and partitions allude to voyeurism. It is as though one is spying on people behind the proscenium of everyday life. We tiptoe with the camera down a corridor, peering in on characters contending with the mirror’s likeness of them. We look through panes of windows and throngs of people to find our subdued heroines trying to reach across the void and find solace. We find them at the edge of the frame or behind big, hulking architecture leaving us with the impression that they may be overwhelmed by space. But it is also that very space that defines them and so a counterbalance is achieved.

Boundaries, virtual or real, beg dissent. Whether this means peering in on someone’s private affairs or fusing mediums and genres, they are there to be broken down or at the very least, questioned. And Carol, with all its pictorial boundaries, manages to reach and convey boundlessness. It is not only the very condition of our times, but something that predates language itself. Sometimes bogged down by words, humanity has always seemed to find its way back to the terrain of images. There, we could revel in the richness of universal colors and shapes and revert back to a time, or place, in which words were simply not sufficient and intellect was abandoned in favor of sentience.

Note* Images are either n the public domain or available for fair use.


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