Notes on Carol

I viewed Todd Hayne’s Carol last night and was interested to read the many comments on A. O. Scott’s NYTimes review of the film. Gorgeously shot and acted, Carol presents an excruciating experience that verges on suffocating at times. Centered around the relationship between Therese (Mara Rooney) and Carol (Cate Blanchett), the film references identification, desire, object, and subject in a manner that never truly resolves, but maintains a persistent tension from start to finish.

As Therese, Mara Rooney’s large eyes and elfin face portray a young woman in constant surveillance of her surroundings. She is alert and attuned, yet fragile and vulnerable. Cate Blanchett’s performance as Carol recalls tones of Jasmine in Blue Jasmine as well as her nuanced stepmother in Cinderella. The smoothness of her face provides subterfuge for the inner turmoil we know she’s wrestling with.

Scenes of gazing and looking provide an interesting entry point into ideas of identification and desire. Which comes first? The two women’s faces phase in and out of searching for and sending out clues to one another in a world that prohibits language from carrying the weight of their longing. The film takes on a a strange pressure and sense of hazard early on and never lets up.


Futurist Fashion 1933


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Giacamo Balla, “Futurist Embroidered Waistcoat,” 1924-25. Biagiotti Cigna Foundation

Fashion exists as a system of signifiers.

Roland Barthes, The Fashion System

I am reading a fantastic book edited by Cristina Giorcelli and Paula Rabinowitz called Accessorizing the Body that charts the intimate connections between body and the shoe, the hat, the handbag, sunglasses, and other form of accessories throughout history. The cultural, political, and social expression of fashion continues to inspire my scholarship.

In Futurist Accessories, Franca Zoccoli delineates the importance of accessories such as ties, hats, and shoes in the aesthetics of the Italian Futurist movement. Here’s an excerpt from F. T. Marinetti’s Il Manifesto futuristo del cappello italiano (The futurist Manifesto of the Italian hat) from the Gazzetta del Popolo published on February 26, 1933.

1.We condemn the Nordic use of black and neutral colors, which bring a muddy stagnant melancholy to the rainy, snowy and foggy streets of the city making it look as if there are enormous logs, boulders, and turtles being swept along in a brown deluge.

2.We condemn the traditional, passatist headgear that is so out of touch with the aesthetics, the practicality, and the speed of our great mechanical civilization. For example, the pretentious top hat that prevents fast movement and attracts funerals. In August when the Italian streets are full of blinding light and torrid silence, the black or gray hat of the man in the street drifts above, dreary as dung. Color! Color is needed to compete with the sun of Italy.

3.We propose the Futurist functionality of the hat, which until today has been of little or no use to Man, but which from the day forth must illuminate him, mark him, take care of him, defend him, make him faster, and cheer him etc. We will create the following type of hat…:

1.The velocity hat (for everyday wear); 2.The night hat (for evening wear); 3. The luxury hat (for parades); 4.The aero-sport hat; 5.The sun hat; 6.The rain hat; 7.The mountain hat; 8.The sea hat; 9.The defense hat; 10.The poetic hat; 11.The advertising hat; 12.The simultaneous hat; 13.The plastic hat; 14.The tactile hat; 15.The light signal hat; 16.The sound hat; 17.The radio-telephone hat; 18.The therapeutic hat (resin, camphor, or menthol with a band moderating cosmic waves) 19.The automatic greeting hat (with a system of infared rays) 20.The intelligent making hat for idiots who criticize this manifesto. 

They will be made of felt, velvet, straw, cork, lightweight metals, glass, celluloid, compounds, hide, sponge, fiber, neon-tubing, etc. either separately or combines.

The colorful nature of these hats will being the flavor of huge dishes of fruit and the luxury of huge jewelry shops to the streets. The streets at night will be perfumed and illuminated by melodious currents which will destroy forever the tired-out sentimentality for moonlight.  

I love when he accuses the top hat of attracting funerals and of course how #20 is for the idiots who criticize his manifesto!

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Illustration by Giacomo Balla to accompany his 1914 manifesto Il vestito antineutrale




Best of Enemies


Another documentary to add to my list of obsessions, Best of Enemies chronicles the televised debates between William Buckley and Gore Vidal during the Republican and Democratic Conventions of 1968. Seeking higher ratings, ABC pits the intellectual rivals against each other, resulting in heated eruptions of political debate, social criticism, and cultural examination. A clash of the titans indeed.

Although Gore Vidal is a personal hero of mine, Buckley’s intelligence and passion match Vidal’s and the two men are a marvelous pair to behold. The idealogical wrestling and verbal sparring illustrate the breadth and depth of thought these two individuals invested in the role of government, notions of country and citizenship, and what freedom means. Both men were prep school graduates, military veterans, and had run for political office in the United States. They know of what they speak and say exactly what they mean, which is refreshing.

The debates come to a head when Vidal calls Buckley a “crypto-nazi”, which rattles Buckley deeply and propels him to lash out with his famous insult :

“Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.”

The camera squarely holds Vidal’s face as he takes the words in. Layers of intense pleasure and embarrassment ripple underneath the eyes and around the mouth. He wins by shaking Buckley to the core, but becomes visibly shaken by Buckley’s unhinged retort. Vidal appears as the cat the ate the canary, but he chokes on the incisive barbs of this particular canary’s feathers.

The men remain rivals for the rest of their lives.

The Substance of Style

Virginia Postrel’s “The Substance of Style” has radically shifted my views on the history and evolution of aesthetic pleasure. Lucidly written, Postrel keenly observes trends regarding the look and feel of the world we live in, traces historical precedents, and draws fantastic theoretical conclusions.

When she questions the manner in which Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” places aesthetic value in a position that can only be fulfilled once other needs have been met, Postrel references the vast history of of adornment and decoration present in a diverse range of global historical artifacts from multiple economic climates. She makes a solid claim that “aesthetics is not a luxury, but a universal human desire.”

Furthermore, she strategically breaks down the concept of visual “authenticity” that often places enormous value in some objects but not others, and leaves us with the following:

The demand for authenticity appeals to our desire not to be deceived by surfaces, but the pursuit of an objective definition goes too far. That quest conflates deception–forgery–with recombination, reappropriation, and change. It removes both the subject and the audience, the source and the recipient, from the play of aesthetic symbolism. “Authenticity” becomes little more than a rhetorical club to enforce the critic’s taste. (113)

Referencing a vast assortment of sources from Ann Hollander to Walter Benjamin, Virginia Postrel provides remarkable insight into the world of visual culture that informs our lives. She draws important links between what we choose to wear or where we choose to be (“I like that”) with our identity (“I’m like that”). She also makes important arguments that refute the often trivial and superficial assignment of visual culture, revealing the deep history of aesthetic pleasure that humanity has systematically cultivated.

The book ends with the following quote by designer Karim Rashid:

What really endures are artifacts, effigies, things that speak about a time, place or civilization. When people say to me that everything seems trivial or meaningless, I believe the opposite. Objects outlive us, and they are the symbols of our culture and history. (191)

Find Virginia Postrel’s website here: