Monday, March 28, 2005

"Safe," Far From The Filth

Yesterday I watched the film, Safe, by Todd Haynes, the director of the brilliant Far From Heaven. Safe on the surface seems incredibly different from that film, but scratch the surface a bit and you can find a lot of similarities. The other work it reminded me a lot of is Grant Morrison's The Filth, which touches on a lot of the same issues as this film does.

Safe is basically a horror movie where the villain is modern society, the very air that we breathe. It begins with a really mundane life, as Carole goes around, running errands, going to exercise and supervising the installation of a new couch in her house. It's completely unremarkable stuff, and at that point, you're not really sure what's up with the movie.

Eventually, Carol has a coughing fit in a parking lot, and from then on, she gets gradually sicker. One of the things I really liked is the way Haynes revisits many of the mundane scenes from earlier in the film, but once you have an awareness of Carol's chemical illness, they take on additional meaning. At the beginning of the film, she's the best one in her exercise class, but later, she's struggling to keep up. The most obvious one is the dry cleaners, which becomes the site of her ultimate breakdown.

Even more than the constant pollution, the toughest thing for me about watching the beginning of the film is the fact that no one seems to really know Carol. As long as she stays in the role of wife/mother, and the talk remains on a surface level, she's fine, but once she gets in trouble, all her friends shy away from her, putting out that which is not normal. Their cheery enthusiasm from earlier turns to suspicion of that which is different. Even her husband seems uunable to relate to her once her symptoms start showing up.

The second half of the film is the more difficult to figure out. The 'safe' house that Carol goes to is a reallly odd world, and I'm not sure what the filmmaker's position on it is. I think what they're doing there is just indulging the psychosomatic symptoms that created the disease, and not helping bring people to a cure. I have the feeling that might be Todd Haynes' view as well, if you look at the scene where everyone is talking about what they think cured the disease, it all comes down to stress, rather than actual trauma.

The film is all about the world of 1987, and everything talked about in the film still applies to the present. Basically, these people have all given themselves a disease because of things in their life that they're dissatisfied with. Carol gets the disease from the excesses of materialism in her life. It's the new couch that does it. But, is it the society that is at fault, or is it her? As the film goes on, she moves increasingly further and further away from society, until the end where she seals herself in a small bubble that the world cannot come in to. So, she has found temporary repose there, but as Claire says earlier, Henry was fine until someone walked into his bubble, and Carol can't become better by retreating from the world. I found those final moments of the film horrifying, and I was left slightly disturbed at the end of the film because of the bleakness of that space. The cold grays and stark minimalism of it seemed so dead to me, she has gone from extremes of materialism at the beginning of the film to basically nothing at the end.

Safe, like Far From Heaven, stars one of the greatest actresses working today, Julianne Moore. This is her earliest work that I've seen and I don't think she's quite as good as in Boogie Nights, Magnolia or The Hours, or even Far From Heaven, but competing against herself is some of the toughest compettition. I mean, she's been in so many phenomenal films, and unfortunately the film most people know her from is The Forgotten. Anyway, she is still strikingly good here, she says more with her looks than with her words, and that's a sign of good character building.

This film has a lot in common with Far From Heaven, in that both films are about the effects of outside society on a housewife who seems to be living the American dream, but once she deviates from the norm, she finds out that she's really alone. Linda in this film is just like Eleanor in Far From Heaven, in that even though she seems to be a good friend, we realize that it's just a surface friendship, and once an outside element comes in, her whole circle abandons her. In the case of this film, Carol is exiled because of a problem within her, while in Far From Heaven, it's because of things she does. Ultimately, the point of both films is that society rejects that which is outside the norm, and people who attempt to challenge the norm cannot co-exist. The crushing mundanity of the everyday will destroy those who are different.

The Far From Heaven comparison is pretty easy, but the work this film reminded me the most of is Grant Morrison's The Filth. Both Safe and The Filth are about people struggling to navigate a corrosive modern world. The main characters in each work are exposed to the worst that modern society has to offer, but the route they take after this exposure is where the primary difference emerges.

The Filth was pitched as 'a healing inoculation of grime.' Grant Morrison's basic idea was that people are getting weak because they're afraid to engage with the dark forces in the world, only by confronting the darkness, the bad things in the world, can you stand against them and be stronger. Thus, rather than trying to get rid of an illness, you would work with the virus and turn it into a positive. Basically, the bad stuff is a part of life, and only by facing it can you become stronger.

In Safe, the Wrenwood rehibilitation center, and Peter Dunning, take the opposite tact. They completely insulate the center from any pollutants, and attempt to shut the outside world out. Dunning talks about changing his interior world to make the exterior world a better place, but in fact what he is doing is shutting out the outside world, as expressed when he says 'I stopped reading the papers,' because he didn't want to face the negativity. I think the thing he forgets is that running away from a problem isn't going to make it go away.

This idea is best expressed in what happens to Carol. She goes to Wrenwood to get better, and presumably be able to go back to society at some point. However, what happens is she becomes even more sensitive to the chemicals. One of the most striking scenes for me is when a car passes her and she nearly passes out. How does she hope to one day return to society if one car nearly destroys her. Over the course of the film, she gets worse, such that she thinks even fumes from the highway make it to her cabin and keep her sick. She tells her husband that she's going to be back home soon, but what she's doing is just retreating further and further from that which made her sick in the first place, culminating in her closing herself in the bubble at the end of the film.

The people in Wrenwood seem to know that the disease is brought on by stress, and therefore probably at least partially psychosomatic. Carol was looking for an explanation for her problems and found it from that organization, and the more she hears about it, the more she develops the symptoms of it. I think what it comes down to is she wants to find a reason for her unhappiness, considering she probably has the life she'd always wanted, and this disease provides as good an explanation for it as any. It takes the blame off of her and puts in on society, in such a vague way that she can always use it as a crutch for her problems, and that's what almost everyone in the center seems to do, use this disease as an explanation for other problems in their lives.

So, I think the treatment of moving away from the problem only makes things worse. In The Filth, the modern world may be shit, but at the end, Ned Slade realizes that he can use it to fertilize his garden. Bad things do happen, and you can either use them to grow or get defeated and retreat into a bubble, as Carol does. I don't see any cure in sight for Carol, she can't get any more isolated than the igloo-bubble, and eventually she wont' leave that bubble. Only by confronting modern society can she overcome her illness. She needs a healing inoculation of grime.

Does Todd Haynes think this? I'm not sure, I think it's pretty clear he doesn't agree with what's going on with Wrenwood, but I think he also has a more negative view of the world than I do. The film has this whole dirty 80s feel, with nasty clothes, fumes everywhere, and you do get the feeling that we're living in an apocalyptic place.

But, regardless of how Todd Haynes feels, it's a great film, and one that is so ambiguous and challenging, I'd love to see it again and analyze it deeper. One thing I didn't mention is the score, which sounded a bit like Blade Runner's, a huge compliment coming from me. It contributes to this nasty modern world feel, with its oddly artificial synthesizers. Ultimately, if I'm still thinking about a film a day after watching it, and I feel the need to write this much about it, and I've barely scratched the surface of what I could say, it's a total success.

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