When it came out in 2005 — midway through my senior year of high school — Brokeback Mountain rocked American culture. For all its critical acclaim and star-studded cast, the media seemed to fixate on the most titillating feature of the “gay cowboy movie:” two men falling in love and having sex. From news coverage to late-night talk shows to viral videos, you couldn’t escape the sophomoric parodies any more than you could the predictable conservative outrage
A decade later, Carol drummed up a respectable amount of excitement of its own. Fans of lesbian pulp fiction were thrilled to see the adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt bucking the long history of unhappy endings in stories about lesbian, bisexual, and queer women. The fanfare, however, was mostly just that; what little controversy, or heterosexual hilarity, it generated was buried under its accolades and award nominations.
The advancement of American LGBT rights in the decade between these movies is certainly one explanation for the differences in their reception (though I can think of plenty more). Since Brokeback Mountain premiered, same-sex marriage has been legalized, and 17 states have adopted legislation prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity in employment, housing, or public accommodation; even non-binary genders are inching toward legal recognition. For depicting two working-class men falling in love against the backdrop of rural America, Brokeback Mountain was considered truly transgressive. Ten years later, Carol was merely a long-awaited boon for lesbian cinema.
Regardless, even in 2016, a mainstream movie about gay people isn’t exactly standard, and I was looking forward to The Handmaiden, Park Chan-wook’s lesbian-revenge fantasy par excellence. A fan of Park since my sister turned me on to the Vengeance Trilogy as a teenager, my lofty expectations for his newest erotic thriller, inspired by Sarah Waters’s Victorian-era novel Fingersmith, were tempered by my own reservations as a queer movie-goer in the midst of an upswing in mainstream stories about queer people. As movies like The Danish Girl have demonstrated, it’s become popular to render female LGBT experiences — particularly those of trans women — for trendy but toothless Oscar bait. Any follower of Park, however, knows that progressive brownie points are not among his priorities (if you’re thinking about the sexually predatory female prisoner in Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, you’ll know what I mean). In his hands, I wondered, would Fingersmith be worthwhile, or would the story just get bogged down in all that male gaze? For that matter, as a white American with a limited knowledge of Korean cinema and culture, would I even be able to tell the difference? As opening weekend approached, I vacillated between high hopes and dismal apprehension.
Naturally, Park delivered with predictable complexity: The Handmaiden managed to meet all of my expectations, both optimistic and otherwise. Intricate and visually stunning, with an airtight cast of expert actors who brought love, lust, and heartache to life with consummate skill and pitch-black humor, it was everything I could have hoped for from Park as a director and writer. Recalling the erotic texts hoarded by the villainous Kouzouki — a Sade-ean nobleman obsessed with Japanese culture, and our protagonists’ greatest enemy — The Handmaiden plays out as a reverse palimpsest. When laid across the first act, the second reveals and then resolves, in the same graceful motion, the story’s dark subtext; is that a heart beating beneath the tatami of subterfuge, or is something far more sinister trapped down there?
Everything in this movie about lesbians was perfect, with the exception of the lesbian sex itself. As the mysterious noblewoman Hideko and her would-be con-artist ladies maid Sookee (played by Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-Ri, respectively) came together for the first time, my girlfriend and I began to squirm in our seats, and not in a sexy way. The camera bouncing frenetically over their bodies, their first tentative kisses swiftly transform into hysterical scissoring, culminating in an impressive display of immediate sexual mastery, the likes of which are tough to swallow, even when taken into account alongside the film’s other larger-than-life elements. Park’s work in the bizarre has long bordered on the magical, but within this revenge fantasy (in which the second word carries as much weight as the first), it’s hard not to be reminded of a certain genre of “lesbian” porn made for straight men — defined by foreplay-less arousal that somehow morphs into screaming orgasms over the course of a few seconds — and even harder not to snicker at such transparent tourism. In The Handmaiden’s final scene, we watch Hideko and Sookee, again unaided by foreplay, or even a little lube, rapturously inserting fist-sized ben wa balls into themselves before beginning to scissor yet again, the chimes inside them sounding like some victorious invocation of #LoveWinning.
Though impressed by the movie in every other respect, my girlfriend and I walked out of the theater rolling our eyes. What is it with straight people, especially straight men, and scissoring? Among the many sexual acts that queer women perform with each other, this one seems, at least in our experience, to be the one that fascinates them the most. More than strap-ons, fisting, or cunnilingus, it holds a space in the straight imagination that manages not only to reduce us to what’s between our legs, but to even limit the sexual possibilities therein. It was certainly distracting enough to make it difficult for an alternative analysis, one entertaining Hideko and Sookee’s sex as a calculated artistic choice, rather than mere fetishization. Was this highly stylized porniness perhaps in conversation with, or a foil for, The Handmaiden’s themes of Japanese erotica, sexual deceit, or femme resistance to colonialism? Who could know for sure?
It’s a distraction I’ve been mulling over since my very first queer relationship. When I came out, I was living with two straight guys, who were nice enough, for bros. So when one of them began to tease me about scissoring — demonstrating, with the index and middle fingers on both his hands, how two lesbians go about having sex: by repeatedly mashing their crotches together — I took it in stride. He wiggled his substantial eyebrows to show me it was all in good fun, and though I felt uncomfortable, I always laughed it off.
That bro continued to make those jokes until I moved in with said girlfriend a very unadvisedly short time later, and we began seeing far less of each other. By then, my discomfort with his sense of humor had expanded, because as it turned out, my girlfriend and I didn’t actually engage in scissoring (or tribadism, as the act has been known historically). Though curious and confused, our newly queer sex was also exciting and experimental — and yet it never included the very act that the two of us had been reduced to by that man, and many others. I knew it was something that porn actors did, but I also understood that porn didn’t necessarily have anything to do with reality.
And that was just the thing: other than porn, there were few cultural resources that I could draw from to learn what this whole queer sex thing was really all about. Desperate for information, I spent my baby dyke years immersed in a variety of queer communities, both online and off. I also assigned myself cultural homework, burning through my college library’s DVD selection of Lesbian/Gay movies. This gave me welcome exposure to indispensible queer cinema like The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Happy Together, but I found little enough about the kind of sex that people like me were having.
This isn’t to say that, outside of porn, the practicalities of intercourse are being served up on a platter to young heterosexual people, even these days. But for straight people raised in straight households, almost all examples of intimacy, affection, partnership, romance, and even implicit sexuality are performed by heterosexual adults. In schools lucky enough to have it, sex ed is unrelentingly cisgender and heterosexual — and why shouldn’t it be? Beyond school, the mechanics and textures of acceptable sex that are hinted at, or performed, in the non-XXX discourses that make up our society’s art, religion, and culture, are nearly as straight.
Overcoming the suffocating sense that there is a right way to do sex is daunting for most. For queers, and for queer women and non-male people, it’s especially hard. Whether you’re looking for a model of what to be, or for something less didactic — representation, for example — there still isn’t much out there if you don’t have the benefit of a queer community, or access to queer art, queer literature, and the study and research by and of queer people, all of which is niche by definition. That presence is undeniably spreading in the mainstream, but it’s an uphill battle, and one taking place on a front that was demonstrably fiercer when I was newly queer (which wasn’t all that long ago). Back when the Internet was still relatively new, back before I had discovered the cornucopia of queer experiences to be found in on sites like Tumblr, like many queer people, I had only porn. Some of it was wonderful and eye-opening and educational; a lot of it reinforced oppressive power structures and behavior, which I internalized harmful ways. Either way, it was all I had.
So when, as a baby dyke, my ignorance butted up against the monolithic ignorance of heteronormativity, of the story being told about me and my sexuality through the myths and generalizations and creepy “jokes” of straight people, I was at a loss. Was that bro telling me something true about myself, or something false? Was he seeing me as I was, or was he not seeing me at all? In watching the love story of Hideko and Sookee, by turns tender and tempestuous, unfold over the course of The Handmaiden, I had that same feeling of confusion. Was this attributable to cultural differences, and the whiteness of my own gaze, or even to Art gone over my head? In feeling as if I wasn’t being seen, and therefore taking this story about lesbians all too personally, was I committing an erasure of my own?
Like all rhetoric, the concept of “visibility” tends to flatten the real issues affecting those living on the margins. The public debate surrounding the civil rights of trans people and the assimilation of national LGBT organizations (which despite their growing power seem loath to serve the interests of anyone other than white and cis gays) are just two of the many issues that counteract the often overwhelming mandate to be seen. In the 21st century, “We’re here, we’re queer!” feels less like a rallying cry, and more like an exhausting redundancy.
This isn’t to say that visibility, a humanization of us in the general culture, hasn’t benefitted certain queers (in many ways, myself among them). But for others, that being seen is not always a blessing, especially when it doesn’t come with other tangible benefits. When I think of the maelstrom of anger targeting trans teens who just want to use the bathroom, or of Chelsea Manning’s nightmarish struggle for humane treatment, let alone gender-affirming medical care, I’m reminded of Michel Foucault: “Visibility is a trap;” at the very least, it’s a mixed bag. Still, ask me to choose between a man threatening to rape the gay out of me and an immature college boy who can’t imagine how queer women might fuck without a dude present, and without hesitation, I’ll take the latter.
As I gradually came into my own as a queer person, absorbing the shibboleths and inside jokes of the various communities available to me, I noticed that for many queer women, scissoring was rarely a neutral issue. I can’t count the times I’ve heard a queer woman exclaim that female frottage is a myth, a fantasy catering to men, and one that betrays straight people’s limited understanding of what sex between two queer people is, or could be: If “normal” heterosexual intercourse means connecting “corresponding” genitalia between a cis man and a cis woman, surely homosexual intercourse between (implicitly cis) women is an attempt to approximate that. Needless to say, scissoring in practice is actually a lot more complex than the crotch-mashing in my bro friend’s “joke,” or even as it’s depicted in The Handmaiden. Having done it myself, I should know.
It’s probably unwise to rely on art for information, let alone representation. It’s probably equally unwise for those who haven’t yet seen this movie to trust my interpretation rather than see it for themselves. My personal distaste for their lovemaking doesn’t outweigh the gravity of Hideko and Sookee’s wrenching toward self-actualization, as Jia Tolentino describes it in her excellent review of the film, but neither, I think, does it negate the movie’s tribadism problem.
Park is known for his earth-shattering plot twists, and The Handmaiden has several. But its greatest maneuver is that it manages to completely to skirt and subvert cliché, and yet simultaneously fall into its trap completely. It turns out that othering, as a machine that makes myths of other people, is also a double-edged sword, an implement far more treacherous than a pair of scissors.
 Although I’d like to be clear that neither his harm nor this reinforcement is limited to pornography as an industry, not by any stretch of the imagination.
It turns out the novel is alive and well and living in, of all places, Hollywood. Who would have thought? As recently as 1998, all five finalists for the Oscar for Adapted Screenplay drew on novels for their source material, but by 2014 not a single Oscar nomination went to a screenplay adapted from a novel. Last year, Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice was the lone work of fiction in a field of sources dominated by biography, autobiography, and, weirdly, a short film.
This trend sent me into Mr. Gloomy mode last year when I wrote:
(T)he novel is now in retreat — and not only in Hollywood — as screenwriters and moviegoers turn their gaze to movies based on established franchises, comic books, graphic novels, musicals, non-fiction books and magazine articles, TV shows, memoirs, and biographies. There’s nothing inherently wrong, or particularly new, about such source material. Screenwriters have been adapting scripts from comic books at least since 1930, and filmmakers have always favored a “true” story (or, better yet, something “based on a true story”) over fictional stories. That’s because “true” stories are easier to write, make, and sell. I would argue that they’re also less likely to amaze than stories that come from a gifted novelist’s imagination.
What a difference a year makes. This year, for some unknowable reason, Hollywood screenwriters mined novels — from the shamelessly commercial to the highly literary — for four of the five adapted screenplays that garnered Oscar nominations. (The fifth nomination went to the team of Adam McKay and Charles Randolph for their adaptation of Michael Lewis’s non-fiction book, The Big Short.)
What happened? Did some pixie slip a vial of smart powder into the L.A drinking water? Did someone in Hollywood start a book club for screenwriters? Since there’s no way to parse the reading habits of Tinseltown, let’s cut straight to the nominees. Here, in chronological order of their release dates, are the four movies with scripts based on novels that are up for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar on Feb. 28:
It seems that the Irish writer Colm Tóibín (pronounced Col-um toe-BEAN) wrote this 2009 novel with sepia ink — and without a worry that his pacing and hushed tone might put some readers to sleep. But readers who stick with the novel will be rewarded by a story that accumulates a fierce power. It’s the story of Eilis (pronounced AY-lish) Lacey, a plain Irish girl who leaves her mother and sister in the provincial Irish town of Enniscorthy and emigrates to Brooklyn in the early 1950s, a world of shocking sights and sounds and customs, where she overcomes crippling homesickness and haltingly makes her way toward financial independence and even manages to find a decent man who loves her. But a return trip to Ireland after her sister’s sudden death will threaten to rip apart Eilis’s fragile chance at happiness. This is no potboiler, obviously. The drama takes place inside Eilis’s head and heart.
How to turn such interiority into a compelling movie? Mainly by hiring talented actors who can convey deep emotions through the slightest facial gesture or body movement. Saoirse Ronan (pronounced Sur-sha Row-nin) was an inspired choice to play Eilis, and her portrayal of a plain young woman’s blossoming has justly won a nomination for the Best Actress Oscar.
Equally important to the movie’s success was the choice of screenwriter. The mission of a writer who sets out to transport words from page to screen is both simple and devilishly difficult: be always faithful to the spirit of the novel without ever being slavish to it. For this reason, it’s usually better for a novelist to stay in the wings when the screenwriting assignment gets doled out. Most novelists are too close to their own material not to be enslaved by it.
Tóibín never considered adapting his own novel, instead suggesting to the producer, Finola Dwyer, that she hire Nick Hornby, who is both an accomplished novelist (High Fidelity, About a Boy) and screenwriter (An Education, Wild).
“And I soon realized that nobody wanted me around,” Tóibín told The New York Times. “Nick was doing it. He didn’t ask any questions, never even got in touch. And I thought that was perfectly reasonable. It was the only way it could work. He took the central spine of the novel — the romantic story and the immigration, the two things that really matter — and left other things off to the side. But he wasn’t trying to tell a new story. He was faithful to the book within the constraints of film.”
And that’s why the movie works every bit as well as the novel.
In adapting Patricia Highsmith’s second novel, The Price of Salt, screenwriter Phyllis Nagy remained faithful to the book within the constraints of film. The result is a spellbinding script for a movie that was renamed Carol — just one of numerous instances when the movie strays from the letter of the novel without betraying its spirit.
Like Hornby, Nagy left out some things and changed others but preserved the central spine of the novel — the story of forbidden love between a radiant but unfulfilled suburban housewife named Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) and a plain New York City shop girl named Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara). Nagy has changed Therese from an aspiring theatrical set designer into an aspiring photographer, and she has cleverly jumbled time sequences. But what she left intact, most crucially, is Highsmith’s unhurried unfolding of the romantic love between the two women, a story that plays out against a backdrop of impeccable 1950s period details, from cars and fashions to interiors and even the way women move.
Nagy’s writing has certainly benefited from the high quality of the production it serves. The movie is up for six Oscars, including Blanchett for Best Actress, Mara for Best Supporting Actress, and the cinematographer Edward Lachman, who gives an appropriately gauzy look to a story about infatuation amid fuzzy moral boundaries.
This movie is proof that most novelists should follow Tóibín’s lead and leave it to others to adapt their work for the screen. In adapting her own novel, Room, Emma Donoghue made the mistake of following the text almost to the letter — then leaving out the wrong parts, the very parts that would have given the movie heft and drama. Both novel and movie open with an enthralling setup — a woman has been imprisoned in an 11-foot-by-11-foot shed for seven years, where she gave birth five years ago to a boy named Jack. The revelation that this loving, seemingly happy pair are actually being held prisoners by a monster named Nick is handled, in novel and movie, with supreme assurance. It’s perfectly horrible.
The trouble begins when Ma (Brie Larson) helps Jack (Jacob Tremblay) escape, and suddenly they’re thrust into the outside world that’s utterly foreign to the boy — and far from welcoming to his traumatized mother. In the novel, they’re hounded by the ravenous news media and by medical professionals who are less than sympathetic to their ordeal and its lingering effects. This tension is gone from the movie, and instead we get Ma coming unglued and fighting with her own mother (Joan Allen), while her father (William H. Macy) puts in a pointless cameo. Jack, meanwhile, wanders through something that passes for healing. It’s all drift. I have a hunch that a screenwriter who wasn’t so close to the source material would not have made these missteps. Just a hunch.
4. The Martian
Andy Weir went to work as a computer programmer for a national laboratory at the age of 15 and has been working as a software engineer ever since. He’s also a self-proclaimed space nerd who’s into relativistic physics, astronomy, orbital mechanics, and the history of manned spaceflight. How do you spell geek? In this case, you spell it n-o-v-e-l-i-s-t.
Weir’s first novel, The Martian, became a bestseller and fodder for a big-budget Hollywood production with Matt Damon in the lead role of Mark Watney, a botanist on a Mars mission who gets abandoned by his crew when a freak storm blows up and they mistakenly believe he’s dead. And voilà, we have a high concept: Robinson Crusoe stranded on the Red Planet.
Actually, Weir’s book is less a novel than a blueprint for a movie. Just as no one will question Weir’s scientific bona fides — he wrote his own software to make the physics of space travel as accurate as possible — no one will accuse him of being a graceful writer. The novel is full of junior high prose like this: “They gathered. Everywhere on Earth they gathered. In Trafalgar Square and Tiananmen Square and Times Square, they watched on giant screens. In offices, they huddled around computer monitors. In bars, they stared silently at the TV in the corner. In homes, they sat breathlessly on their couches, their eyes glued to the story playing out.” But people don’t read books like this for the artful prose; they read them for the ingenious setup and the brisk storytelling.
Screenwriter Drew Goddard has connected the dots from Weir’s novel to create a script that’s seamless and irresistible. The movie winds up being superior to the novel because it’s comfortable being what it is — a thriller that manipulates the audience without shame, an entertainment that wants nothing more than to please its audience at all times. You can hear Goddard pulling the levers — or is that the sound of him painting by numbers? — but you’re having too much fun to care. This is partly due to the deft direction of Ridley Scott, who is most at home in outer space, and strong performances by Damon and a supporting cast that includes Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, and Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Weir’s book is a novel that wants to be a movie. The movie is content to be a big, fat, satisfying, popcorn thrill-fest. What’s wrong with being comfortable inside your own skin?
And the Oscar For Best Adapted Screenplay Goes to…
Phyllis Nagy for CAROL!!!
Now that justice has been served, for once, I’m hoping that when Nagy gets up onstage and finishes thanking her agent and her producer and her mom and Todd and Cate and Rooney and her Jack Russell terrier, she’ll have the decency to hoist her statue to the heavens and give a shout-out to the novelist who made this terrific movie possible — that princess of darkness, the diabolically great Patricia Highsmith.
Image Credit: Flickr/Dave_B_.
A young boy enters a large and exotic palace, pulsating with people, their faces alive with excitement, their eyes fixed on a bronze statue of a man and a writhing, devious woman. They are all elated and as one. The young boy is now a grown man, and he writes, not without regret and memories of lost glandular joy, “That is a hard ecstasy to abandon.”
The grown man is David Thomson, a respected and prolific film critic and historian, and this description, of his first viewing of Cecil B. deMille’s Samson and Delilah (with Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr) is a defense of the experience of seeing a movie — along with more than half the population of the world — once a week, in the dark, young and open, suspended from time and care, in full submission of whatever appeared once the heavy curtain rose and a shaft of light from behind threw the great images on a huge screen. Thomson’s latest book has been given a perfunctory, even pedantic, title: How to Watch a Movie, but don’t be fooled: Thomson, like that witchy, raven-haired Hedy Lamarr, is teasing us, peeling off insights as if they were gossamer underthings, and revealing not only what films have meant to him, but what the watching of them, and the ultimate harvesting of them in our memories, means to all of us.
It is true that Thomson misses the glory days of movie-going, the rushing off to places with names like Palace, Plaza, Regal, Odeon, Astoria, Lux, Electric, designed in Spanish or Moorish or Egyptian style, comically inaccurate but baroque, but he is not ready to give up the pleasures of films (which he quixotically terms movies), which are often seen now in the glow of an iPhone or in a lap on a plane on a tablet or while seated in front of a personal computer. We now see films in cinder boxes redolent of pine cleaner, and no theatre owner delays the raising of the lights after an emotional film, as they once did, to give us our privacy as we collect ourselves: We are now hustled out of the theatre without a chance to watch the closing credits, because people need their next aesthetic desire slaked. We are able and eager to turn to YouTube to call up specific scenes from films to get a quick, free hit of what seduced us years ago, or — and this Thomson might find tragic — to see for the first time someone like Marlon Brando or a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. We have all become divorced from our experiences by various distractions. In our homes we watch movies — or anything else — while cooking or talking or crocheting or masturbating or flipping through a magazine. The viewing of movies is simply one of the options available to us at any given time. We need always to be hooked up. This has been going on since the 1950s, when television came into our homes and the size of the movie audience plummeted. Special effects and sounds and gimmicks were invented to lure us back, and by the 1960s, film — or cinema, as many came to call it — became an elite, extracurricular activity. Some people believed that the free stuff coming into our homes was just as good as the movies we had once depended on like a fix, to which we had once been so devoted, but others disagreed. Movie audiences may have grown smaller, but they grew fervent. The studio system diminished, and bolder, brasher films were being made. A congress of critics grew out of this time, and they had rapt and large audiences, ready for their predictions and pronouncements. Collections of film reviews became best-sellers, and magazines bulged with long-form reviews. What happened? I was fortunate to become friends with the critics Andrew Sarris and his wife, Molly Haskell, and one evening, goaded by me, the conversation centered on that gilded age, when movie criticism became a highly competitive, vigorous sport, with critics fighting over how and why films were made; who made them best; why they mattered. Sarris thought that two things inflated the importance of film criticism at precisely the time when the quality and quantity of American films was declining: the number of Americans attending and graduating from college, where films were watched, discussed, studied; and a sense of nostalgia among those writing about film who, like Thomson, could see what had been lost in the film experience. We were now freer, on our own, lost, literally, to our own devices.
The means of watching movies may have changed, but film is there to be loved and studied; it is there to change us, improve us, allow us to look at the other aspects of our lives with a clearer vision. “Watching cannot rest with mere sight,” Thomson writes.
It waits to be converted into aesthetic judgment, moral discrimination, and a more intricate participation in society. That sounds ominous, I suppose, and part of a creeping unease at how the Internet can be a spectator sport that condones our lack of concentration and begins to deepen feelings of futility over dealing with the world. In that mood, there are film commentators who lament the loss of the large screen, the locomotive of the movie, and our amazed attention of it all. Things have been lost, but now I have to make the most challenging point — that cinema, movie (whatever) always had the seed of dislocation about it…The novice at the movies is often overwhelmed by the reality of it all…[and] “primitive peoples shown close-ups of the face are sometimes fearful that decapitation has occurred. When I saw [Laurence] Olivier’s Henry V at the age of four, I “saw” the faces of page boys in the English camp at Agincourt on fire. It was one of the occasions on which I had to be carried away in tears. Later on, I realized I was reacting to a dissolve — the faces and the fire had been laid together. Anyone poised on the edge of a miracle is “primitive.” (Italics mine.)
In that last sentence is, I think, Thomson’s primary argument, one shared with both Tennessee Williams and Marlon Brando, two men with whom I engaged in lengthy conversation, and men saved, created, and sustained by movies, and they thought of them as miracles: Miracles of art and technology and talent, yes, but also miracles of healing. Both Williams and Brando — and dare I add Thomson — had lives shattered or lacking in many things, but they went, mind and eyes open, to the experience of a movie, and they were altered, even if for only two hours. Whatever we face in our lives — movies, love, sensuality, enlightenment — should be approached from the perspective of a primitive. Leave your prejudices behind. Not for Thomson the oddly ascetic (and laughable) claim from Pauline Kael that she saw a film once and that was that; it was over. Would you only kiss or make love or enjoy champagne once? Then spend your life recalling, as best you could, how it felt? Thomson is that rare critic who wants you to have and to share your passions, and in How to Watch a Movie, he writes more of the experience of watching than in rating a film or excoriating the ambitions of anyone. The key is in watching, noting.
“Watching and seeing are both physical (optical) and emotional (irrational),” he writes. “In its first sixty or so years, movie had made us all more conscious of looking; it had invested appearance with a new excitement, glamour, and erotic force. That energy is still there, but is it wearing off? This is the dilemma of the Internet — of so much to see that attention wavers or loses faith in itself…Instead of rapt spectators of the lifelike, we have become like screenwriters or editors.”
We are, in short, not watching movies — or living our lives — with the full capacity that once seemed so natural to us. We are more and more unable to submit, and our films and our lives suffer for it. Every year there is boasting of the billions of dollars made by the movies, but where is the passion for current film? The Internet is full of sites devoted to movie stars of the past, to directors who changed the medium, but outside of gossip, what is being said about our current film stars? We no longer ask our films — or any art form — to do its thing to us: We ask films to disprove our preconceptions, but we do not ask films to amaze us.
What is our film culture now? The social media fury is reserved for occasions when an actress is called fat, or when we delight in the latest special-effects kapok drowning in debt. Movie reviews — a vanishing act — are more like disgruntled Yelp comments on cold food and diffident waiters, and most could have been written before the screening, as they bristle with deals and back stories and budgets and what was expected. Critics on websites and with Twitter accounts are now courted by film studios and publicists to shore up an increasingly bored and capricious audience, and they speculate on what’s working and what isn’t in the industry. But what did they think of the movie? That is often shoe-horned in as a desultory requirement. Even as I write this — in the throes of Oscar season — no one has any firm idea of who or what will win or why: It’s all a hunch, a guess, and more and more people are waiting to see the films or the performances only if they are awarded, at which time they will be something of a safe investment of time and interest. In my own erratic, interesting life, I have worked on various Oscar campaigns, escorting actors to interviews and industry screenings, mailing DVDs to various guild and academy members, and I am here to tell you that a great number of those voting for these awards are not watching these films — free of charge and with booze and snacks afterward — and they are underwhelmed a great deal of the time. Their complaint — to me, a freelance non-entity who stocks hand sanitizer for stars and directors — is that movies are not “big” enough; they don’t engage. Engagement, I want to tell them, is a two-way street, and highly unlikely to blossom as you watch portions of Carol or Spotlight or The Revenant on the dedicated iTunes account set up for guild voters. Our films, they seem to be saying, need to satisfy a desire they can’t even articulate, or to which they feel superior. They might be the people of whom Tennessee Williams once said “They know so much they have been rendered stupid and immobile.”
Brando, when I asked him why he became so disdainful of the Oscars, stated that “We give awards for effort and endurance, and this is soul-crushing and it demeans the art we claim to be honoring.” The bottom line for Brando? “We are more and more terrified of any value judgments — on anything — because we do not trust ourselves to have an authentic and original experience. We need someone to tell us what or whom to love, and how to move and sigh when we do it. Let’s just watch the fucking movies and get high on them.”
I think everyone is down with that. Let’s see some movies — past and present — and get high on them. But how? Where? Thomson reminds us that the power to be amazed by all things — with movies as our starting point — rests with us. Our vision is our own, as is our experience. Toward the end of this bewitching book, Thomson offers a confession (yet another of his submissions): “You came into this book under deceptive promises (mine) and false hopes (yours). You believed we might make decisive progress in the matter of how to watch a movie. So be it, but this was a ruse to make you look at life.”
“If you really want to watch a film,” Thomson concludes, “you must be ready to recognize your own life slipping away. That takes a good deal of education. But you have to be stupid, too.”
Wise men — Marlon Brando, Tennessee Williams, Richard Schickel, Andrew Sarris, and now, David Thomson — are asking or have asked us to forget what we think we know and to become reacquainted with what we feel, with what moves us. Share the stories and the sensations. Recall where you were emotionally when a film hit you. The movie you saw on a first date or with the mate you now love will become a part of your DNA, as will the film you saw right before the horrible phone call about the sick friend or parent. Leonardo DiCaprio and Cate Blanchett will be fine and will feed their families and their assistants. Studios will keep making movies that will delight and disappoint us. These are not our concerns. We need to submit to things, to life, and we need to feel. This book will help you with this. This book will help you hold on to parts of your life as it slips away.
1. “Oh god, how this story emerges from my bones!”
After her debut novel, Strangers on a Train, was made into a hit movie by Alfred Hitchcock in 1951, Patricia Highsmith was under pressure from her publisher and agent to go back to the well and write another “novel of suspense.” But Highsmith, who could be mulish, had different ideas. She had taken a job as a sales clerk in the toy department at Bloomingdale’s during the Christmas rush in 1948 — publication of Strangers was still months away and she was strapped for cash — and in that unlikely setting she received the spark for a new novel. As she would recall 40 years later:
One morning, into this chaos of noise and commerce, there walked a blondish woman in a fur coat. She drifted toward the doll counter with a look of uncertainty — should she buy a doll or something else? — and I think she was slapping a pair of gloves absently into one hand. Perhaps I noticed her because she was alone, or because a mink coat was a rarity, and because she was blondish and seemed to give off light…It was a routine transaction, the woman paid and departed. But I felt odd and swimmy in the head, near to fainting, yet at the same time uplifted, as if I had seen a vision.
The plain clerk had fallen in love with the radiant woman in the fur coat. Highsmith went home that night and, head still swimming, dashed off eight pages of ideas, plot, and story that would become her second novel, The Price of Salt.
The book astonishes on several levels. First, no one gets murdered, a rarity for a Highsmith novel. Second, it tells the story of a wealthy wife and mother named Carol Aird and a much younger clerk named Therese Belivet (pronounced the French way, Terez) who fall in love with each other and embark on a scandalous, sexually charged cross-country road trip that carries strong undertones of mother-daughter incest — in 1952, the year Dwight Eisenhower was elected president, the year the American Psychiatric Association proclaimed homosexuality a “sociopathic personality disturbance,” and three years before Vladimir Nabokov gave us his account of Humbert Humbert cavorting with his beloved nymphet on their own scandalous cross-country road trip. Third, Carol and Therese are shadowed by a private detective, who tape-records their pillow talk, damning evidence that causes Carol’s tattered marriage to fall apart and forces her to make a wrenching choice: Will she give up custody of her beloved daughter so she can pursue her taboo love for Therese? The answer is yes, which, in Highsmith Country, qualifies as a “happy” ending. All this, as Highsmith noted, in “the days when gay bars were a dark door somewhere in Manhattan, where people wanting to go to a certain bar got off the subway a station before or after the convenient one, lest they be suspected of being homosexual.”
Finally, and most astonishing of all, when the novel came out in paperback it sold hundreds of thousands of copies and generated an avalanche of letters from grateful readers thanking Highsmith for daring to write a book in which two gay lovers wind up happy. The mass-market paperback carried a sizzling kicker: “The novel of a love society forbids.” As Highsmith noted, “Prior to this book, homosexuals male and female in American novels had had to pay for their deviation by cutting their wrists, drowning themselves in a swimming pool, or by switching to heterosexuality (so it was stated), or by collapsing — alone and miserable and shunned — into a depression equal to hell.”
This is largely, though not entirely, accurate. In 1948, four years before The Price of Salt appeared, Gore Vidal published The City and the Pillar, a novel the homosexual characters of which also manage to avoid the fires of hell and achieve something like happiness. That quibble aside, there is no doubt that Highsmith, who preferred women as sexual partners, was both leery and proud of her controversial book. Fearing career suicide, she published it under the pseudonym Claire Morgan; and years later, after finally acknowledging authorship, she exulted, “Oh god, how this story emerges from my own bones!”
2. Something Appalling Yet Irresistible
Now, more than six decades after it was published, The Price of Salt joins the long list of Patricia Highsmith books to be made into a movie. This latest adaptation has been renamed Carol by its director, Todd Haynes, who tackled similar taboo material in Far From Heaven, his reimagining of Douglas Sirk’s 1955 movie, All That Heaven Allows. This new adaptation features Cate Blanchett in the title role and Rooney Mara as Therese, two inspired casting choices — the blondish woman in a fur coat who gives off light, and the dark plain pretty girl, perfect yin and yang. The screenwriter, Phyllis Nagy, has been faithful to the novel without being slavish (she has changed Therese from an aspiring theatrical set designer to an aspiring photographer, and she has cleverly jumbled the time sequence). Since this is a story of infatuation and fuzzy moral boundaries, the movie has an appropriately gauzy look and feel (shot by Edward Lachman). And the ending is perfect, the lovers’ reunion lifted straight from the novel: “Therese waited. Then as she was about to go to her, Carol saw her, seemed to stare at her incredulously a moment while Therese watched the slow smile growing.” Cate Blanchett’s slow smile gives off light, and it announces that, against all odds, these two women are going to stay together and they are going to be happy.
With Carol, Todd Haynes joins an illustrious roster of directors who have mined Highsmith’s fiction for source material, including Hitchcock, Wim Wenders, Claude Chabrol, René Clément, Anthony Minghella, and Hossein Amini, among others. I first came to Highsmith’s work through Minghella’s 1999 adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley, which I watched again recently and found just as shamelessly seductive as it was 16 years ago — all seaside sunshine and sex, with a relentless undertow of evil. Since talented Tom (played by Matt Damon at his very best) gets away with three murders and doesn’t appear to feel a shred of remorse or guilt, I assumed that the appeal of Patricia Highsmith’s fiction is that it operates in an amoral world, where evil deeds not only go unpunished, but are rewarded with a major lifestyle upgrade. This formula brazenly contravenes the Hollywood commandments that evil must be punished and everything must come up roses. Minghella, like Clément before him, bravely embraced it. But this dark formula, it turns out, is not universal in Highsmith Country.
Consider her 1964 novel The Two Faces of January, which was made into a 2014 movie of the same title. It returns us to similar terrain from the first of the five Ripley novels: Americans with lots of money on the loose in the Mediterranean. An alcoholic American con man named Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst) are touring the Greek ruins when they’re spotted as easy marks by a guide/hustler named Rydel (Oscar Isaac). When Chester kills a detective who has tracked him down, he manages to implicate Rydel as an accessory. Then Chester, in a fever of paranoia and jealousy, goes one better by killing Colette and framing Rydel for her murder. Eventually Chester is chased down and shot by the police, and as he dies he confesses to killing Colette, thus exonerating Rydel. It’s a far more conventional — and tepid — ending than The Talented Mr. Ripley.
Hossein Amini, the writer and director of The Two Faces of January, has said he was attracted to the jealous alcoholic con man at the center of the story. “What I love about Highsmith,” Amini wrote, “is the way that she puts us in the shoes of traditionally ‘unlikeable’ characters, often criminals, and then makes us not only understand their motivations but recognize something of ourselves in them.”
Highsmith attributed her enduring appeal to filmmakers to her obsession with duality, her tendency to let two mismatched characters have at each other — Guy and Bruno in Strangers on a Train, Tom and Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr. Ripley, Chester and Rydel in The Two Faces of January, and now Carol and Therese in Carol. As Highsmith told The New York Times in 1988, “It’s always interesting…when two people opposite in nature get tangled up. I’ve always done that; it’s like pitting good and evil, putting two strong boxers into the ring.”
What sets Highsmith’s characters apart is not only that they are willing, even eager, to commit transgressive acts, but that they are so adept at covering them up and blithely living a lie, or, better yet, seeing to it that someone else gets the blame. As Amini said, we recognize something of ourselves in such people, and we find them both appalling and irresistible. It’s worth noting that Highsmith’s most indelible character, Tom Ripley, is such a slippery chameleon that he has been played, with varying degrees of success, by some very dissimilar actors, including Damon, John Malkovich, Alain Delon, and Dennis Hopper. There’s something appalling yet irresistible in every one of their interpretations of the talented Mr. Ripley.
3. A Bad Bag of Applesauce
Patricia Highsmith was no one’s idea of a warm and fuzzy human being. She kept pet snails. She was a mean-spirited, alcoholic, racist anti-Semite who freely admitted that her mother drank turpentine when she was pregnant with her, in an attempt to abort the fetus. The editor and writer Otto Penzler is a great fan of Highsmith’s writing while acknowledging that she was “a horrible human being.” She was what Fatty Arbuckle would have called “a bad bag of applesauce.”
For all her documented flaws — there have been two scrupulous biographies — Highsmith was also a fanatical maker of fascinating lists. Here’s a beauty she tossed off on Nov. 16, 1973, while living in the French village of Moncourt:
Little Crimes for Little Tots.
Things around the house — which small children can do, such as:
1.) Tying string across top of stairs so adults will trip.
2.) Replacing roller skate on stairs, once mother has removed it.
3.) Setting careful fires, so that someone else will get the blame, if possible.
4.) Rearranging pills in medicine cabinets; sleeping pills into aspirin bottle. Pink laxative pills into antibiotic bottle which is kept in the fridge.
5.) Rat powder or flea powder into flour jar in kitchen.
6.) Saw through supports of attic trap door, so that anyone walking on closed trap will fall through to stairs.
7.) In summer, fix magnifying glass to focus on dry leaves, or preferably oily rags somewhere. Fire may be attributed to spontaneous combustion.
8.) Investigate anti-mildew products in gardening shed. Colorless poison added to gin bottle.
This list is at once hilarious and chilling and it contains, in distilled form, all the essential elements of Highsmith’s fiction: it’s highly practical, it’s written in unfussy prose, and in the end it’s all about murder. Item #3 is the most telling on the list, with its admonition to set “careful” fires so that “someone else will get the blame, if possible.” Here is the duplicity that lies at the heart of Highsmith’s enterprise — the urge to do evil and not only get away with it, but make sure that someone else gets the blame. In a Highsmith story, culpability for a single crime frequently passes onto two characters (think of Chester and Rydel). Or the victim becomes the victimizer, as in The Cry of the Owl from 1962, which has been adapted for the screen twice, the story of an “innocent” stalker who winds up getting stalked by his “victim.” Highsmith uses this duplicity to ratchet up her favorite states of mind, including anxiety, jealousy, paranoia, dread, self-delusion, and resentment. Small wonder that Highsmith considered herself a writer of psychological novels, not “novels of suspense,” or that one of her favorite writers was Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
It isn’t much of a stretch to suggest that inveterate list makers are trying to lasso unruly demons, bring some sort of order to inner chaos. My late father was such a person, and it got to the point where he admitted, only half jokingly, that he had started making lists of his lists. That was when I knew he was in trouble. But Patricia Highsmith put my father in the shade. As her list of “Little Crimes for Little Tots” attests, she wasn’t trying to lasso or tamp down her inner demons; she was nurturing those demons, trying to make them as monstrous as possible. She understood that her demons were the source of her dark genius. They are also what will keep drawing filmmakers to her books for years to come.