Many of the people who go to see Carol, the upcoming romance starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, will be entirely unaware that its director, Todd Haynes, ignited his career by making a film starring Barbie dolls.
They also may not know that Haynes was a key figure in the ‘New Queer Cinema’ movement which bubbled over from the late 1980s and into the early ‘90s, bringing to the fore filmmakers like Gregg Araki and classic films like Paris is Burning (1990).
The fact that Carol is a stately drama, at least by appearances, belies Haynes’ influence and importance as a filmmaker. Today, he is American cinema’s most prominent gay directorial voice, bringing to his work an intellectual, academic and aesthetic sensibility that is suffused with the unique perspective on the world that queerness provides.
While he made a couple of shorts beforehand – only one of which, The Suicide (1978), can be readily watched – Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987) was his first to garner major attention, later becoming a cult hit. The film, which uses Barbie dolls to reflect on Karen Carpenter’s battle with anorexia and the social pressures which caused it, is rough around the edges, but proves the innateness of Haynes’ greatest talent: taking people who cannot outwardly express their emotions or true feelings, and using the power of cinema to allow us into their heads.
While it’s now available to watch on YouTube, Superstar was banned from circulation after Richard Carpenter successfully had the film banned for using The Carpenters’ songs without having the music rights.
Haynes’ first feature film, Poison (1991), was inspired by the writing of Jean Genet. It took the form of a triptych of queer stories told in different genres: documentary, horror and prison drama. Haynes used these genres as lenses through which to examine how gay men were seen and positioned in the world in a distinctly transgressive fashion, to the extent where the original trailer quotes the venerable John Waters: “He has restored my faith in youth.”
Haynes’ next feature film was also one which would launch the star of Julianne Moore. Safe (1995) is woefully underseen even by fans of Moore, and it may still be her most impressive performance, most rivalled by another under Haynes’ direction. In the film, Carol White, a blank, cookie-cut Californian housewife becomes stricken with an unexplained illness, which seems to manifest itself as an allergy or a reaction to chemicals and, ultimately, the world around her. Her husband insists it’s psychological, while Carol retreats even further within herself, eventually moving to a desert compound to escape her sickness.
Safe is often posited as a metaphor for the AIDS crisis, in which people’s response to Carol’s illness is to disbelieve her and avert their eyes rather than take action against its cause. This is a running theme in Haynes’ films; his later collaboration with Moore, his 2002 masterpiece Far From Heaven places Moore’s 1950s housewife Cathy Whittaker in a refraction of a famed Douglas Sirk melodrama. Most prominently inspired by 1955’s All That Heaven Allows (which starred Rock Hudson, who died of AIDS-related illness), Cathy learns that her husband, played by Dennis Quaid, is gay, and in her turmoil begins to fall in love with her African-American gardener, played by Dennis Haysbert.
Haynes’ two other feature films, Velvet Goldmine (1998) and I’m Not There (2007), focus on musical subjects akin to Superstar. The former is a tribute to the glam rock days of the 1970s, while the latter is a free-wheeling, refractory pseudo-biopic of Bob Dylan. Haynes’ fascination with the way people can be selective of their identity is most prominent here, with glam rock idolised as a means of escape and identification for young queer people.
There are a couple of elements which most unite Haynes’ work. One is the way he is able to incorporate complex elements of film theory into his work in an accessible yet still challenging way; as someone who studied semiotics, Haynes’ ensures every image in his works bears meaning, something specific in the frame or the framing itself always adding to the characters or story.
The other is his love for, identification with, and idolisation of women, and women’s stories. While women’s pictures were derided in the time of a director like Sirk, who made weepy films suffused with dark, subversive social commentary like Imitation of Life (1959), Carol continues and updates this tradition, its combination of his queer interests and study of complex female characters combining into something glorious and beautiful, a feat he similarly achieved with the sumptuous 2011 HBO miniseries, Mildred Pierce.
In one of Carol’s best scenes, shopgirl Therese (Rooney Mara) finds herself in a car with Carol (Cate Blanchett), a glamorous housewife in the midst of divorce. In this moment, Haynes – and frequent collaborator and cinematographer Edward Lachman – create a swooning collage of images of Carol and Therese through windows reflecting light and flecked with raindrops.
It’s the first time they’ve been alone together in a space, sheltered from the influence of men and from the threat of someone they know coming around the corner. It so magically and concisely captures what your first time in a car with someone you’re falling for feels like, a sensation no doubt experienced by many queer people, with a road ahead of you, colour surrounding you, and the distant feeling that you might never stop. Haynes’ genius is creating this power with so little, and he has built his oeuvre over time in a similar manner to Therese and Carol’s romance; steadily, powerfully, and against the grain.