As the Oscar-nominated producer of The Crying Game and Made In Dagenham, stories about gender and equality have always spoken to me, and none more so than Carol, which I am privileged to have co-produced with Elizabeth Karlsen and Christine Vachon.
During the 1980s, before I began my producing career, I owned and ran one of London’s hippest rep cinemas, The Scala in Kings Cross. From Battle Of Chile to Eraserhead and Pink Flamingos to Battle Of Algiers, The Scala was known for its groundbreaking anarchic programming, daring to mix cutting-edge young filmmakers from around the world with Sam Fuller, Fassbinder, Bresson and Buñuel. Amongst the work of those young filmmakers were Americans like Jim Jarmusch and the Coen brothers, and an oft-shown, banned short movie, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. We had a lousy print (God knows where it came from?!?!) but we sprinkled it through the program like “stardust in our hair” and it developed a cult following.
What was unique about this Barbie Doll biopic was that it was a serious attack on the dangers (and the public’s ignorance) of anorexia. It could nestle alongside The Rock and Roll Swindle or The Blank Generation, despite its MOR Carpenters soundtrack, because its director shared the same anger and sense of injustice that those punk-inspired movies demonstrated.
This was my introduction, — and, in turn, that of the lucky patrons of the Scala — to the intellect and film genius of Todd Haynes — someone who could cause a stir and a rumble not to the beat of the Sex Pistols or the Ramones but to the soundtrack of “Close To You.” (Interestingly all three of those films were banned from public screenings.) Again in ’91, at the Berlin Film Festival, I was privileged to witness the extraordinary Poison, Haynes’ first feature, the subtle anger still intact but this time channeling Jean Genet and the genre of ’50s American pulp sci-fi movies to make cogent and incisive comments on the AIDS epidemic.
I had met Todd’s mercurial producer Christine Vachon a year earlier and learned that Todd was a cinephile. Yet as a fan of Genet and Roger Corman, I couldn’t believe the visual panache and intelligent rigor (and humor!) Haynes brought to bear on such an emotional (and at that time confusing) health crisis. Another object lesson in cinematic illusion and subtle delicacy in attacking a huge issue.
Todd continued to make these staggering statements from a modern nightmare of chemical addiction provoking mental illness Safe (reminiscent of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers) and continuing through to Far From Heaven — racism explored via homage to the ’50s director of melodrama Douglas Sirk, without ever being purely nostalgic or trapped in a glossy time warp.
Todd Haynes’ films are still challenging contemporary mores and issues. Scratch the beautiful surface of his cinematography — or design, or costumes, or beautifully chosen music and inspired scores — and his films are contemporary, fresh and as relevant today as any documentary or news story ripped from the headlines. (Although incredibly Todd has never been nominated for a directing Oscar!?!)
And now comes Carol. Carol isn’t a timeless romance, or the best ever Patricia Highsmith movie adaptation, or a showcase for two colossal acting talents, or the most visual evocation of the Eisenhower post-WWII, Iron Curtain-obsessed conservative America yet made — it’s all those things. But overarching everything else and prompted by Phyllis Nagy’s incredible script (which inspired Karlsen to fly to Switzerland to persuade the Highsmith estate to sell us the rights to her novel), it’s as fresh and relevant today to modern women and men, and it strikes an occasionally uncomfortable chord in all of us.
Have things really changed that much?
America and the world are gripped with a new brand of fear and conservatism as modernity and liberalism take a back seat to a powerful surge in Republican populism that Carol so clearly mirrors. The struggle for the custody of her child and the intolerance that Carol faces from her family and friends, pushing her emotions and feelings underground, is what the modern world could return to, as effortlessly as the vote that led to the rejection of refugees — victims of an international conflict controlled by so called Superpowers and terrorist organizations beyond their control — refused entry into America because they are of the “wrong” religious faith. The nation that welcomed Irish, Italian, Jewish and so many waves of poverty-stricken immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries is now closing its borders, alongside the other nations across Europe and the world.
Are the clocks running backwards? Women’s rights are still being infringed upon and abused in a similar way in the home, the workplace and the schoolyard. Outside the liberal world of East and West coast cities, is it really that easy for today’s contemporaries of Therese and Carol to step out together in 2015 America, an America where the monumental Voting Rights Act was overturned? As the horrific events at the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic demonstrated, armed intolerance is a very real factor. We are a few steps away from institutional racism and socially acceptable religious bigotry. The world so brilliantly evoked by Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price Of Salt, of subterfuge and guilt, could be the world of the future, not the past.
Carol is a movie everyone of us should see and take note of (like all of Haynes’ important work) not because it reflects a distant past, but for reminding us firmly of the very present and imminent danger of the consequences we face if we don’t prevent the political tide changing looming now.
Make no mistake: Todd Haynes’ painstaking reconstruction of the dangerous world of Carol (as real as the inane but equally dangerous, frightening politics of Rubio, Cruz, Bush and Trump) has a contemporary relevance none of us can afford to ignore.