Us and Them


When ‘Brokeback Mountain’ came out in 2005, I loved it so much that I bought the soundtrack even though I never really liked country music. I thought that if I could at least play the score at home, I would be reminded of what such a beautiful movie made me think and feel when I first saw it. If it had been a love story between a man and a woman, I would not have bought the album but it’s doubtful I would have liked it less. But then, it would have simply been a film about two adulterers cheating on their spouses, and therefore would not have been as tragic and as touching.

Incidentally, tragedy is what makes ‘Brokeback’ an unforgettable, moving movie-going experience. This may be such a dramatic way of describing it but if you’ve actually seen it in a theater, you’d know that it definitely is an experience in as much as a movie with two men kissing induces hysterics, hoots and howls in the audience is an experience.

‘Brokeback Mountain’ is depressing but it’s the kind of gutting you want to relive. I want to do the same for ‘Carol’ which, although not half as tragic as ‘Brokeback’, is just as devastating.

The film, adapted from the Patricia Highsmith novel The Price of Salt, takes place in the 50s when it was tough for lesbians to be openly affectionate with someone they love (I don’t know this for sure but it seems like it). Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese (Rooney Mara) meet in the toy section of a department store where the latter works as staff. Amid the frenzy of the Christmas season, when eager-to-please mothers and overworked retail store attendants can’t help but cross paths, the two lock eyes and sparks instantly fly. They are lipstick lesbians in a conservative decade, so much of their dates have to be done in a manner befitting two criminals conspiring to unleash unspeakable crimes on their unsuspecting victims – Carol’s  semi-estranged husband and daughter, and Therese’ live-in boyfriend. There will be struggles ahead.

The pacing and acting are languid and understated. You wait for Carol and Therese to get it on but all you get, at least in the first hour, are furtive glances and cautious touching of hands. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara do not have big acting moments, except for one in which Carol snaps and cuts through the lawyers’ argument, and snatches her husband’s attention away from everyone to tell him to fuck all the lesbian accusatory shit as all she wants is visitation rights. The most touching scenes, though, are when Carol and Therese hold back on their emotions, so that when they find themselves alone in a motel, they hug and kiss as if someone might pop up and handcuff them, and hold them forever as captives in straight world prison.

Much like ‘Brokeback’, ‘Carol’ has gay characters fighting for their right to love. To say that someone is ‘fighting’ for the right to love is to risk sounding like song lyrics from a 90s boyband (specifically a 98 Degrees song). But Carol has actual battles: for the custody of her daughter and for the defense of her mental state, seeing as her lesbian ways were viewed as symptomatic of ill health.

It sounds a bit too much to say that Carol and Therese are ‘fighting’ for their right to love, but that is what is going on in films with and about gay people not being allowed freely to make out publicly, not even if they do it classily. Having bought but never read The Price of Salt, I feared it would end the way most of these types of films end: with someone getting raped, murdered or banished in a mental hospital. None of these potential endings are inconceivable; it’s a Patricia Highsmith novel after all. Fortunately, neither Therese nor Carol commits suicide.

I’ve always felt that lesbians have entirely different experiences in matters of forbidden romance. Even though I’ve known some lesbians, I never really felt like us and them have a shared struggle for the probably idiotic reason that girl-on-girl displays of affection raise way less eyebrows than boy-on-boy ones. But, to paraphrase a Lisbon sister, clearly I’ve never been a lesbian person. It might also have to do with the fact that I’ve never heard or read as many coming-out anecdotes from lesbian friends and acquaintances as I have from gays. Movies have been informing me about lesbians and ‘Carol’ has just told me that I’m wrong, and that in fact we have the same struggles and difficulties. What a beautiful reminder this is.


The Talented Mr. Ripley by the talented Ms. Highsmith

The brilliance of Patricia Highsmith’s story is that she so smoothly sets things up with the simplest and most innocent of actions, such that the borrowing of a college jacket equals a trip to Europe ultimately leading to murder, forgery and some more killings. I’ve only ever read one PH book (Strangers on a Train) and I think that Mr. Ripley in book form is probably twice as engaging as the Anthony Minghella adaptation but no matter, The Talented Mr. Ripley is as satisfying as any thriller I’ve seen.

And so it all starts with the borrowing of a jacket. Dickie Greenleaf’s dad sees a Princeton jacket on Tom Ripley and immediately assumes he went there too. Mr. Greenleaf requests Tom to fetch his son for him in an all expense paid trip to Italy and he goes. He prepares himself a little, studies a little jazz and some Italian so he can be chummy with the free-spirited Dickie and his all too American and similarly preppy wife, Marge. And he succeeds just as he should since he really is talented. He gets to be friends with the couple and more.

Tom Ripley is probably Patricia Highsmith’s most famous hero probably because of this movie and Matt Damon’s portrayal which ushered the story into people’s consciousness. His is one of the slickest performance of an actor I’ve seen doing a character doing impressions of characters. Staring at Matt Damon as Tom Ripley, you can sense the motivation bleed into determination from the way he practices contorting his face in the mirror as he tries to mimic his victims Dickie and Marge, to the way he steals glances at a bathing Dickie, and eventually as he becomes the new Dickie. And also anyone who can sneak in a clueing in of a character’s gayness in a disconcertingly diluted gay role is by itself worthy of a did-you-see-that? type of after-viewing fawning session.

Watching Tom Ripley force his way in and out of Dickie’s crazy life is both amazing and cringe-inducing. You’re both embarrassed of his dicking around for  Dickie’s affections but you’re also cheering him on to get what he wants, and on a grimmer level, cheering him on to silence those who are close to finding out about his nasty plans. It’s horrifying to see him prancing around in Dickie’s trousers and yet at the same time relieving when he offs Dickie and the very shrewd and matapobre friend, Freddie (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Freddie himself is sort of an interesting character. He reminds you of socialites who’ve been affluent all their lives and who represent all of those who turn their rich noses on social climbing nobodies like Tom, you and me. Incidentally I think of Tim Yap and I was extra cheerful when Tom smacks Freddie the Tim Yap character with a head sculpture.

Tom Ripley gets his comeuppance in the end, sort of. Just when his life was about to take a gorgeous turn as he earns the good graces of Dickie’s father who believes in his perverted version of events and consequently gets away with everything plus cash, with the pretty Peter Smith-Kingsley, an unassuming man clueless of Tom’s deeds about to get on board Ripley’s charades, in a totally shitty (for Tom) but quite well established coincidence, the talented Tom is spotted by Meredith, that annoying girl who just wouldn’t get a clue. This leaves him with no choice but to get attached with the woman since she somehow holds the key to his keeping up with his fake identity. In the end he gets stuck in a situation where one of his talents, slipping in and out of a scene like a practiced eel, is of no use since he’s trapped in a ship. And staying in the cabin for the rest of the trip wasn’t going to help either so naturally, he resorts to doing what he’s naturally good at and you know he’ll do just fine.

‘Well, whatever you do, however terrible, however hurtful, it all makes sense, doesn’t it, in your head? You never meet anybody who thinks that they’re a bad person.’ Oh, but you do. Admitting and concealing one’s meanness has become quite fashionable since I don’t know when but with Tom Ripley, it’s always been a way of life.

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

I usually remember a book that I liked, or just those that were okay enough, those that guarantee discussions with self in here or elsewhere, either because the book stayed true to its blurbs, which is often as plainly put as ‘unforgettable’ or ‘unputdownable’, or the ending is so dry and unresolved which I find nervy of the author, and I occasionally I find it amusing that some novelists would write 500-1000 pages of stuff that seem to stretch for eternity only to end in such low, unremarkable note. Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train is sort of like that for me. I have no recollection of its ending but I won’t soon forget its idea that you can meet a stranger on a train, have a polite conversation, plot someone’s murder and get away with it, or play the conscientious sucker who feels sorry for the murder you were sure you wanted anyway. Put your own twist of that particular idea and try applying that in more tangible, doable or realistic terms and you’ve got a psychological thriller that works.

Instead of being all bloggy-vague about my feelings about my first and definitely not last Patricia Highsmith experience, I decided to check how this book ended and found that it was even drier than I initially thought it had been. In the book, there’s a great build-up about the disposability of morals through some of the seemingly morally bankrupt characters that Patricia Highsmith, believed to be an actual horrible person herself, creates with ease and with such empathy, perfectly exemplified through the Charles Bruno character, that you might as well be convinced that what she’s getting at is that there really are some people who deserve to get away with murder and that conscientious cowards, the Guy Haines character, are punished, and then she drops a bomb of an ending wherein the guilt-wracked of the two, Guy, surrenders to authorities who are nowhere near as shrewd as the brilliant Bruno. The end. No explanations, just a period and a hint of a struggle, which is really how proper ‘dry’ stories should end.

Strangers on a Train is, in a way, scary. But it’s not scary the way most horror stories are. What makes it terrifying somehow is that it makes you realize that anyone is capable of committing truly horrible deeds, given the right circumstances. That it doesn’t even take that much motivation to commit the foulest of crimes, and that all it takes is the right amount of provocation, the location of the right button, and presto, you can murder. Which of course it’s not just murder, but out of all the crimes known to man, the willingness to kill might be the ultimate manifestation of a man’s capacity to be bad.

In fiction it’s acceptable to root for the villains because they are often more interesting. In here, the bad guy is annoying and not really all that compelling as an evildoer. He’s just a regular affluent man who got mad at daddy for reasons that certainly do not warrant killing. He’s simply a drama queen whose psychological make-up happens to be more adjusted towards the attainment of revenge via the committing of heinous crimes and who happens to be in possession of an almost admirable ability to justify such acts in a way that most humans with souls/conscience/heart mostly can’t. In spite of these, you’re still on Team Bruno. My guess is that in reading Patricia Highsmith,  you shouldn’t worry about your conscience too much because she seems to put a lot more thought to creating the complex mind of her primary villains, far more than she ever would for the victims.