Last week I wrote about a film that was overlooked because of its format; this week I want to talk about a film that was probably overhyped because of its format.
Cinematographers seem to have a very complicated relationship with celluloid film these days. Some cinematographers like have completely adopted digital formats. Others are staunch film enthusiasts. For some it's just an issue of budget. In any event, no one can really come to a consensus on what's better or worse, but every now and then you see some film snobbery popping up. In the case of "Carol," they didn't just shoot on film, they went with 16mm instead of 35mm, which amplifies the noticeable grain that DP's often seek when shooting film. Part of that organic grain is that you lose resolution, which is a big no-no in these days of 4K televisions and 8K cameras. In short, shooting 16mm is a bold choice that kind of ironically worked in the movie’s favor.
"Carol" isn't the first film in recent years to shoot on 16mm. Some notable ones are "The Hurt Locker" (2009), "Black Swan" (2010)", and indie breakout "Fruitvale Station" (2013). Usually you see a scene here and there or insert cuts shot on 16mm like the flashbacks in "Philomena" (2013), some of the riot scenes in "Argo" (2012), and the opening of "Hidden Figures" (2016). That's because 16 has a very niche look that's often used to invoke an old-timey feel.
Lachman definitely capitalized on that aesthetic not only because the movie is set in the 40s, but also because it's a story that couldn't take place in a modern New York City. The extra film grain subconsciously plants the viewer in the past. That antiquated feeling is carried on throughout the whole movie.
Beyond the format, Lachman also made bold choices with his compositions. Often instead of balancing his frames in a conventional way, he would heavily favor one side. In this frame, he pulls out for a wide shot of a conversation between Carol and Abby and breaks down every rule of a wide shot. Instead of doing a typical 50-50 profile, it’s more of an over the shoulder. Not to mention both characters are crammed into the right side of the frame and you can’t even see Carol because she’s hidden by the booth. What’s great about this is that he always finds a way to balance the frame even if the principle characters are on the same side. The suited man in the background on the left serves that purpose here. The production design keeps the space (which makes up the majority of the frame) interesting with patterns on the walls and strong lines. These compositions do us the favor of showing off much more of the environment. There are only a few main characters in the movie, but through the framing we get a more whole sense of the time period by the strangers casually moving around the main action. Just a glance at the man on the left tells us a lot about their world that we would miss out on in a profile shot. However, I think the framing does more than just that. The two main characters live in a time and place where their sexuality isn’t accepted, so the camerawork emulates that. The framing is just as unconventional as Therese and Carol. It might be jarring and it might break the rules of composition, but we can still see the beauty in it.
Lachman also used subjective camera angles whenever possible. By that I mean where he puts the camera doesn't give us an honest, unbiased depiction of the events on screen. It shows us a unique perspective (usually Therese's) of what's happening. That's most exemplified by how he constantly shoots Therese and her POV through windows. As was firmly established in Hitchcock's "Rear Window" (1954), there's a special connection between photographers and voyeurism, which makes this lensing choice feel appropriate. Therese is passive throughout most of the events happening in her life. She's semi-committed to a man she doesn't like, she starts taking portraits because someone else tells her to, she's swept off her feet by Carol. It starts to feel like she's watching her own life pass by. You couldn't imagine Therese picking up the phone to call Carol rather than the other way around. Her passivity makes it so important to understand her internal thoughts over her external actions because there's a lot going on under the surface. When Richard keeps insisting they go on a trip to Europe she’s reluctant to tell him how she really feels, and when Carol comes into her life Therese never explicitly lets on about her more than platonic interest. Subjectivity from the camera helps us to understand these subtleties within her because it allows us to see the other characters through her eyes. We get a chance to observe them how she does.
These techniques are effective, but what gets me thinking is what makes them exceptional. Lachman was nominated for an Oscar, a BAFTA, an ASC award, and won a BSC award and the Golden Frog at Camerimage for his work here. As I said earlier, it's not the first movie to shoot on 16mm, but it's also not the first to get creative with composition. Movies like “Drive,” (2011), “Ex Machina” (2015) and “A Most Violent Year” (2015) all similarly flouted the rules of composition and had amazing cinematography throughout, but altogether the three of them only have one nomination from the 5 awards previously mentioned. It makes me think of a great quote from Gordon Willis about his influential work on “The Godfather” (1972). Today, he’s lauded as a pioneer in cinematography for the darkness and ominous toplight he used to sink the actors’ eyes into obscurity. He says, “Overhead lighting was not a new idea, but it was a new idea to extend it for an entire movie, on everyone and everything.” That point resonates with the success Lachman had with “Carol.” He made bold choices, not novel choices, but he used them so much that they began to define the look of the film. Those other films I mentioned are more sporadic with how they use composition, but in “Carol” you can feel the subjectivity and the strangely balanced frames enough that they become the images you take away from the film. The consistency gives it the impact.
For me, I wonder if it's more of a failing of the audience than a testament to the quality of the work that we need to be beaten over the head with something to really appreciate it. It's not just the 16mm, but also sometimes Lachman uses these shots so much that they lose their subtlety. Instead of accenting the scene, they start to shout at you because they’re happening so much. If he used the off-center framing more sparingly, his work would certainly be less noticed, but perhaps it would also be better.
“Carol” is an understated, slow-burn style character drama, so I understand wanting to spice things up with a rare format and unusual framing. At the end of the day, Lachman might have racked up some undeserved brownie points by being a little garish, but I can’t deny that he really touched at the soul of the characters with his cinematography.