A Media Comment: “Carol” and gay cinema in 2015

Carol 3

On November 8, 2015, the 24th annual St. Louis International Film Festival presented Carol, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. Set in 1950s New York, Carol is a poignant and significant love story between Carol (Blanchett), an older woman – and Therese (Mara), a younger department store clerk. It’s a beautiful film that builds upon a trend that sees gay characters survive, with added depth – a paradigm shift I identified last year after screening The Way He Looks (from Brazil).

As I sat in the Tivoli theater, I recalled the first time I’d been there – just a decade before to see Ang Lee’s masterpiece, Brokeback Mountain (2005). Only now, Brokeback Mountain‘s contribution to cinema had been made. Gay characters, their stories and romances have permeated pop culture and have become commonplace.

At the time, I was just nineteen, and for me – and the audience around me (based on the general reactions following the credits) – Brokeback Mountain was a profound experience – a truly special engagement. The tragic love story between Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) was both daring and haunting – a risk for any studio, filmmaker, actor or viewer then.

The atmosphere in Theater 1, the main auditorium at the Tivoli, was one of reserved liberation. It’s like we, the collective group, silently understood and appreciated the significance of this milestone. This was the art film that, along with shifting social attitudes, made the current visibility of gay characters and cinema/primetime television profitable and possible.

Brokeback Mountain (2005).
Brokeback Mountain (2005).

I had attended with a co-worker named Lisa and was a psychology major at the time, but Brokeback Mountain slowly shifted that focus. I wrote a paper for honors credit in Psychology of Gender exploring the significance of the film in relation to sexuality and gender in the 1960s. Little did I know, that first “film analysis” would lead me in a different direction. A few years later, I found myself in film school, drafting an undergraduate thesis about the evolution of gay characters in cinema.

Then, I was in graduate school expanding on those ideas and drafting a short screenplay for a gay noir (The Main Street Murders). In 2014, I produced “The Tale of Toff and Tot,” a love story featuring two gay flamingos. Toff and Tot was designed to celebrate gay characters at Christmastime, while anticipating the watershed moment when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of love and equality.

I was and still am inspired to be a contributing force to cinema – to be part of its dialogue and change in attitude, which is why I found my experience seeing Carol equally inspiring and disheartening.

CarolFor Carol, Theater 1 was significantly fuller than it had been for Brokeback Mountain (the night I attended). The audience was more diverse and the influence of mainstream visibility was evident. Unlike the group seeing Brokeback Mountain, there was no “reserved liberation.” Instead, there was the acceptance of these two women as a norm – as people. Their personhood mattered. Their feelings mattered. Their happiness mattered.

Despite this, the post-screening reactions were alarming. Do these characters in Carol “matter” now because we’ve progressed as a society? Or do they matter because a sensitive climate for political correctness dictates them to matter? Do “Carol” and “Therese” matter because of elitism? Has the progress of films like Brokeback Mountain been lost on a generation filled with spite, expectation and judgment?

A decade ago, Carol wouldn’t have been made. It’s a story about women – lesbian women, in particular. Hollywood is reputedly and historically a challenging place for women and their stories. Ten years ago, Cate Blanchett was an emerging talent, who’d just won an Oscar (for The Aviator) and Rooney Mara was guest-starring on Law & Order: SVU. Now, both are established, gifted actresses, in a changing cultural climate. Yet, despite being equally as significant as Brokeback Mountain, the experience felt different.

I attribute that to the crowd – an audience that at tender moments reacted humorously. It felt as if this achievement – this milestone – was being taken for granted. Carol is significant because it’s a moving story about two women, presented at a time when gender roles are being challenged in Hollywood.

Yet, when the credits ended – one could identify a clear division in a community this film represented. On a personal level, as I waited to discuss the film with an acquaintance, a gay couple looked at me, gave me a discomforting look (of disapproval?) – looked at one another and walked away. I didn’t know these people, nor do I care to, but their attitudes were frustrating.

What prompted the clear judgment in their eyes?

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Post-Brokeback Mountain, there was common, albeit unspoken, unity – as if the audience was rooting for those characters and for progress. Last night, from two men in their early twenties, in trendy clothes and eyeliner, there was judgment. It was evident to me that this was a different culture. It seemed as if that unspoken unity was gone and that the progress made by such unity had been taken for granted. Kindness had been seemingly replaced by elitism.

That’s a sad feeling to experience, especially after seeing such a bold, inspiring and triumphant piece of cinema. Perhaps it has something to do with the growing trend of detachment and the spiteful expectation of acceptance and tolerance – which suggests a larger societal issue. Ironically, the “expectations” used as a judgmental basis were made possible by the achievements of the past decade.

I plan to see Carol again, to hopefully capture the feeling I should – until then, I leave you with this:

“Dearest – there are no accidents, and no explanation I offer will satisfy you. You seek resolution because you’re young – but you will understand this one day…” – Carol (Cate Blanchett), Carol