Carol and Therese

Carol-rScreenshot from trailer for Carol, directed by Todd Hayne.

The new Todd Hayne movie Carol has arrived and I can state that it’s a photographer’s film.

The story is a love affair between two women in early 1950s New York, a time when gay and lesbian romance was seen as a moral lapse, or worse. The implications in this for danger and secrecy, and the teasing development of their attraction, finds its visual expression in the Oscar-nominated cinematography of Ed Lachman.

In preparing for the film’s visual style Hayne and Lachman studied early 1950s still photography, looking for the right colour palette and focal qualities. They looked at women photographers of the time including Esther Bubley, Vivian Maier, Helen Levitt and Ruth Orkin, but they found their principal reference in the work of Saul Leiter, an abstract painter and colleague of De Kooning, who had taken up photography and flourished.

Leiter’s beautiful Kodachromes captured the compression and layering of the Manhattan streetscape. He shot through shadows, blurs and reflections to capture the great cities ambiguity and mystery, and its poetry.

In the movie, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara (both also Oscar-nominated for the film) are seen through a variety of obstacles, glimpsed in longshot, shrouded in shadow, and overlayed by reflections. It creates a rich visual texture which helps carry the film forward, rather like a writer’s literary style  creates the right atmosphere for the events in a novel. 

Lachman’s compositions as expert as Leiter’s, despite his assertion that he’s a cine photographer and not a still photographer. The movie was shot on film, in Super 16, not 35mm, to create “a certain emotional quality — you’re viewing the character through the texture of the grain but also feeling their emotions through the grain.”

One further pleasure for readers of blogs like this is that the character of Therese is a budding photographer herself, and we see her with cameras of the time and even in a picture conference at the New York Times where she works. Her interest in photography is not a casual plot point, it’s the perfect analogy for her character, discrete and watchful, her beautiful big eyes like camera lenses.

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Carol and Todd and Saul

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Todd Haynes’ new movie Carol is based on a Patricia Highsmith novel about a love affair between two women in 1950s New York. It’s played by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara and is getting great reviews.

Haynes’ films always have a strong visual intelligence, think of the stylish look of I’m Not There or Far from Heaven. For Carol he said he was influenced by the still photography of Saul Leiter, the veteran New York photographer whose beautiful Kodachromes of the city in the 1950s have recently gained popularity.

Leiter wanted to be an abstract painter and this ambition gave his photography a distinctive style. He shot into mirrors and windows to catch reflections, used shadow, blur and negative space, or shot through obstacles, all to create a dense, layered vision of the city. His pictures are complex and ambiguous and have a lush painterly feel.

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Leiter

Leiter shot Kodachrome slide film but he wasn’t able to print it at the time. Transparency film was very expensive to print until the digital age so he mostly projected them to groups of artists – no way to gain wide recognition in the visual arts. Now that his early work is being digitally printed it is being seen widely and is gaining great admiration. There are numerous exhibitions and books in circulation and he is now seen as a significant photographer of mid-century Manhattan.

Director Todd Haynes and his cinematographer Ed Lachman researched the period setting of Highsmith’s novel and discovered that Leiter’s images were a perfect fit. Highsmith’s tense and ambiguous world found its analogue in Leiter’s shifting, dissolving vision of New York.

Haynes filmed scenes through
 car or shop windows to create a sense of dreaming
 and distortion. In one episode, Carol meets Therese
 for lunch for the first time. We watch Therese through
 the restaurant’s dirty window while Carol can be
 seen crossing the street in a reflection as pedestrians pass in front of her. (Harpers Bazaar)

In a BBC interview Hayne described how…

the whole act of looking is foregrounded. We’re shooting through windows and frames and doorways, and doors that close and windows that have obstructions or refractions or reflections, separating us from what we’re seeing on the other side. So the very act, the predicament, of looking, is foregrounded in ways that draw special attention to who’s onside of the looking glass, and who’s on the other.”  (BBC The Film Programme)

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And Ed Lachman spoke about the visualising of the film in these terms…

In “Carol,” my latest film, an adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith book that takes place in the early ‘ 50s, I used a muted palate of colors, more in magenta and greens. I tried to reference the way film stocks responded to colors in the ‘40s and ‘50s and their grain structure. We shot in super 16, not in 35mm film, because film stocks have become almost grainless.  (Ed Lachman in Museemagazine)

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The movie Carol is in current release, but for a preview, look at the beautiful trailer.

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