"There is no there there"
Stein's famous quote - often appropriated and always misquoted - is from her 1937 book, "Everybody's Autobiography" (a sequel of sorts to "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas"). It was written in reference to her return to her birthplace, Oakland, California after a sojourn in Paris.
She couldn't find her childhood home, or the school she attended, or the park where she played. Hence, she wrote, "There is no there there."
But that sentence has been interpreted/misinterpreted to describe a certain emptiness, much to the chagrin of the people of Oakland. It's become engrained because this reading of Stein's words easily sums up something that's vapid and soulless. And it handily encapsulates my unexpected reaction to the lovely new Todd Haynes film, "Carol."
"Carol" is an apt example of Stein's misrepresented sentiment - there is simply no there there. The movie seemingly has all the right pieces for a great work, but something is missing - something so subtle it's omission has been overlooked by its passionate advocates (and there are many).
Set in the 1950s and based on "The Price of Salt," an autobiographical novel which the estimable Patricia Highsmith wrote using a pseudonym, Haynes' film details the casual meeting of two women whose attraction to each other escalates into a forbidden love affair that ends sadly.
This plot isn't as groundbreaking as it was when Highsmith wrote her book back in 1952, but it is a haunting reminder of exactly how much we were repressed and not that very long ago. Haynes handles this material with great delicacy and attention to detail. "Carol" fairly drips with a tony ambience. It is a visually gorgeous, visually meticulous film - thanks to Judy Becker's production design, Jesse Rosenthal's art direction, Heather Loeffler's set decoration, Sandy Powell's costumes and, of course, the pristine porcelain beauty of stars Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.
And all of this loveliness has been captured by Edward Lachman's flawless cinematography. Lachman's camera not only serves up frame after frame of painterly shots but also serves as a character in the film, as it moves cautiously around the two women and the people that their love impacts.
Perfect, right? So what's the problem? It's the lack of chemistry between Blanchett and Mara, who individually turn in delicate performances, but who never really connect. "Carol" is ostensibly a love story but it never really conveys what each woman sees in the other, or why they are attracted to each other, or the depth of their love. It's all a blank.
Sitting through "Carol" is akin to taking in a beautiful scenic landscape. It ultimately becomes boring. You move on to another bit of gorgeous scenery. Until that also becomes boring. In the case of "Carol," one visually stunning sequence follows another. But my response was always the same. Is this all there is? There's no there there. Which took me by surprise, given that "Carol" was one movie that I eagerly anticipated.
It became as pointless as its rhapsodic reviews. It's not the first time that I've been out of step with other critics, and it certainly won't be the last.
Ah, yes, the reviews...
"Carol" is one of those entitled films that comes along every year, a movie that critics respond to with an immediate knee-jerk positive reaction, almost a blind loyalty - as if it was decided beforehand, sight unseen.
In 2013, it was "Inside Llewyn Davis." The movie year 2014 had two such candidates that received critical fawning - "The Grand Budapest Hotel" and "Birdman." Like "Carol," these are fine movies but each one is far from perfect, although reviewers gave all three the benefit of doubt not accorded to other titles. The lavish praise heaped upon them was unmediated. They are masterworks, see? Without question. Period.
And "Carol" has opened to the same kind of entitled reception.
It's a beautifully mounted nothing, but it is indeed beautiful. Period.