Holiday-themed movies have become as intrinsic a part of the season as getting drunk on eggnog and passing out under the mistletoe while relatives sneak awkwardly out the door.
But does a film necessarily have to include persecuted Santas and suicide-preventing angels to be a true "Christmas classic?" Before you slip in your well-worn copy of The Bells of St. Mary's or Scrooged, consider some titles from The Pink Smoke's alternative list of movies that touch on the most wonderful time of the year (to varying degrees.)
todd haynes, 2015
~ by marcus pinn ~
I got my first review of Carol out of my system quickly for my own site because I wanted to share my initial thoughts on a film that I consider to be in my top 3 of 2015 (along with Clouds Of Sils Maria & Mad Max: Fury Road) before it came out in theaters. But now that I had time to process the film a bit more and sit with my feelings on it for a couple of months, I'd like to get a few more thoughts out. It just so happens that Todd Haynes' latest film takes place during Christmas which makes it a perfect fit for this years' cine-mas series.
Carol might be the most "Christmas-y" movie in this years' cine-mas lineup. Besides the fact that part of the story has to do with one of the characters working at a department store during the holidays for extra money, the primary color palette of the film is made up of red (a lot of red), green & gold (the tree common colors associated with Christmas).*
But at the same time, Carol is quietly very "anti-Christmas". Any time we get a moment of Christmas merriment it's quickly ruined. At the start of the film we see Therese (Rooney Mara) observing Carol (Cate Blanchet) as she shops when the camera suddenly pans over to her uptight boss who angrily motions for Therese to put her Santa hat on for the customers to appear more "festive".
This immediately brings up the idea of forced holiday fun and the fakeness behind Christmas. Don't get me wrong - I do love the fact that the holidays are a time when family comes together (I don't know about you all but I enjoy being around not only my own family but my fiancée's large family as well). But after that there isn't much left that I like about Christmas anymore. I don't really look forward to getting gifts because there isn't really anything I want**, I don't like the holiday gift swapping at my job (with money being so tight for me from time to time I'd rather keep the $40 I spend on a gift in my checking account). Mine and my father's poor health (diabetes & kidney disease) has forced my mother to cook healthier - which is fine - but her signature sweet potato pie just isn't the same now that she uses stevia instead of real sugar, so I don't even look forward to holiday sweets anymore.*** And it goes without saying that holiday travel is the worst no matter what mode of transportation you take. Every Christmas I manage to travel between three different states (New York, Connecticut & Massachusetts) in three days on three different modes of transportation (the subway, the metro north and my parent's car that I borrow on a semi-regular basis) to visit various family and friends. Does any of that that sound fun?
See what I mean? We haven't even really gotten to the meat of this piece yet and I'm already professing my hatred for the holidays. But that's the kind of film Carol is. The Christmas we get in Carol is associated with repressed feelings, jealousy & depression (***SPOILER ALERT: there is a happy ending.***)
In a later scene Therese (Rooney Mara) is decorating Carol's Christmas tree when Carol's soon-to-be ex-husband barges in unexpectedly and kind of ruins the moment (even though it is his house). This scene reminded me of a moment in Volker Schlondorf's Coup De Grace (another anti-Christmas movie) where Matthias Habich unexpectedly slaps Maragethe Von Trotta's Sophie at a Christmas party after she finishes decorating a tree. This naturally kills the Christmas vibe and and we watch Sophie slowly go down a destructive path after this altercation (Schlondorf's war film takes place over the course of a year so the movie isn't 100% rooted in the holiday spirit like Carol, but there is a short section in the film that revolves around Christmas.)
In another scene, Carol is informed that she won't be spending Christmas with her daughter like she thought, which leads her to sink in to a momentary drunken depression (Carol eventually drunk dials Therese which makes things even more pathetic & sad).
On a more positive note however, Carol managed to connect EVERY one of Todd Haynes' films together in both direct & abstract ways. This is a dream for me given my fascination with finding similarities between movies (especially movies directed by the same person). With the exception of I'm Not There, every one of his films features a character struggling with his or her sexuality. In Poison we see prisoner John Broom try to fight off his attraction to fellow inmate Jack Bolton, while Stevie (Dottie Gets Spanked), Frank (Far From Heaven) & Aurthur (Velvet Goldmine) all struggle with their sexuality on some level (just like Therese) because they all exist in an era when homosexuality/ambiguous sexuality is frowned upon.
And to me, Carol & Mildred Pierce both exist in the same melodramatic universe. I can imagine a lot of the characters in Todd Haynes' films intermingling with one another at a party or some high society dinner function. I sometimes like to imagine Steven's story in Dottie Gets Spanked as the abstracted prequel to Dennis Quaid's Frank in Far From Heaven. At the end of Dottie, Steven essentially represses his homosexual urges which is a theme that's brought back up in Far From Heaven. It's like Steven grew up to be Frank due to societal pressures...
"You see, uh, Once, a long time ago, a long, long time ago, I had, um, problems. I just figured that was it. - Dennis Quaid (Far From Heaven)
Todd Haynes can certainly go over the top sometimes. Besides his perpetuance for tipping his hat to overacted melodramas, his 1998 film Velvet Goldmine is another example of his grandiose director persona. But his ability to convey certain things through implications is underrated.
Haynes' sophomore feature Safe is commonly associated with HIV & AIDS, yet those terms are only mentioned twice in passing in the film's two hour runtime. In one of my favorite scenes Julianne Moore's character (also named Carol) is asking questions about the details concerning her friend's brothers sudden death:
Carol: It... wasn't...?
Linda: That's what everyone keeps... Not at all. Because he wasn't married.
Although the dialogue is minimal, it wouldn't be out of line to assume that Carol (Moore) made the assumption that her friend's brother was gay which is why he passed away from complications due to AIDS (Safe takes place in the 80's which is an era when some folks were more ignorant to a lot of things concerning HIV & AIDS.)
But the strongest (yet most obvious) connection within Haynes' filmography is between the characters of Frank (Far From Heaven) & Carol.
In terms of seasons, Far From Heaven is most commonly associated with fall (the leaves, the colors, etc), but there is a short section in the film that takes place around Christmas time and, like in Carol, the merriment & joy is short-lived as the scene that immediately follows involves both infidelity & racism.
Towards the end of Carol we hear vague rumblings of the title character going through some kind of treatment to "cure" her homosexuality which is a callback to Frank in Far From Heaven (it's not said outright that Carol's homosexuality is being "cured", but that's what is heavily implied). Like Carol, Frank goes to see a psychiatrist who (unsuccessfully) tries to cure him of his homosexuality.
The difference between the two characters is that Frank is far more dislikable. With Carol, Blanchet made me care about a traditionally unlikable person. On paper, the character of Carol Aird is a little cold & snooty. However through the course of the film I find myself caring about her (Carol is also a dedicated mother and does have the ability to show love & sympathy.)
I'm almost embarrassed to admit this but Carol might be the first Cate Blanchet performance that made me realize how good she is (A similar thing also happened this year with Rachel Weisz courtesy of her performances in The Lobster & Youth).
Now... it's not that I ever disliked Cate Blanchett as an actress. I mean, how could I? She's great. It's just that she's one of those actresses I feel like I'm supposed to blindly love with no questions asked (courtesy of pressure from publications like IndieWire & Jezebel) which makes me want to automatically hold back anything positive I have to say about her just on general principle (I feel the same way about other actresses ranging from Meryl Streep to Glen Close). Cate Blanchet also happens to be in a lot of movies that I personally have no opinion on. No offense, and this certainly has nothing to do with her, but movies like Elizabeth, Notes On A Scandal and even The Lord Of The Rings do nothing for me. I don't know if it's because I find those kinds of stories boring or 100% unrelatable, but I seriously have nothing to say (negative or positive) about them. Sorry.
Personally, I think a lot of the blind Cate Blanchet gushing has to do with the fact that some critics and movie lovers are desperate for modern day silver screen icons so they overdo it with the positive commentary (and to be clear - Cate Blanchet will go down in history as one of the greatest actresses to ever live).
When critics write about her performances it's usually some form of ridiculous over-appraisal rather than any real (positive) criticism or meaningful commentary about her acting ability. You all know what I'm talking about; "Cate Blanchet is a revelation" or "Blanchet is magnetic" or "Blanchet's performances is a tour de force". Ok. What else? Talk about her mannerisms or the vulnerability in her voice when she embodies a particular character or, dare I say, comment on what she could have done better. I don't want to ruffle any feathers but there are a few performances of hers that I felt were overrated (Coffee & Cigarettes)****or could have been dialed back a little (Blue Jasmine). But that's just my opinion.
For years I struggled with the character of Frank Whitaker In Far From Heaven. I didn't know if we were supposed to feel some kind of sympathy for him due to the fact that he has to repress his true self, but at the same time is an asshole of a human being (gay or not he still cheats on his wife, is physically abusive and doesn't show much interest in his kids).
But the older I get the more I've come to accept the fact that some people are just more complex than others and don't always fall in to the category of "good" or "bad". My gradual acceptance of the character of Frank made it easier for me to appreciate the complexity of future characters like Carol & Therese. With all the (deserved) hype surround Cate Blanchett's performance it's understandable that Rooney Mara (who I often find a little flat & underwhelming) would get overlooked. Like Carol, Therese isn't a perfect person either. Hardly. She's prickly, a little awkward, and unnecessarily moody at times (her character is loosely based on The Price Of Salt author Patricia Highsmith who was hardly a likable human being). But right now those are the kinds of characters I find myself drawn to in movies. I remember not being to crazy about Mara's performance at first but she's grown on me in these last two months.
At the end of the day Carol isn't the miserable film I potentially just made it out to be for those whose haven't seen it. There are plenty of positive & triumphant moments sprinkled throughout that counter to some of the harsh drama and, I still stand by this, is Todd Haynes' best film since Safe.
Carol also has a personal subconscious connection with another "anti-Christmas"/Pink Smoke-related movie in the form of Fear X (like Rambo: First Blood, Fear X takes place around Christmas but if you don't pay attention you'll miss it). By chance I noticed Fear X star John Turturro hanging by himself before the screening of Carol that I attended so I went up to introduce myself and profess my love for the critically & commercially panned noir which just so happens to be one of my all-time favorite movies. To his surprise he responded with: "...Really?! Oh...uhh...well, I liked the first half of it. I'll have to go back and watch it again. No one ever said that to me before."
I haven't made a list of my year's personal highlights (I wasn't a fan of 2015 overall) but that moment would certainly be in my top 5.
~ DECEMBER 21, 2015 ~
* Interesting side note - one of David Sedaris' short stories from "The Santaland Diaries" is almost identical to Carol/The Price Of Salt (both gay-themed stories center around a struggling artist working at a department store during Christmas time to make some extra money, and in the process both characters develop a serious crush).
** I'm very appreciative of the holiday Christmas swap that my girlfriend's family includes me in every year.
*** My mother's sugar-free cookies however are Grade A.
**** She was nominated for an independent spirit award. Now... I love anything Jim Jarmusch-related just as much as the next guy, but really???