9/1/12

IN CONVERSATION: "[Safe]" dir. Todd Haynes, 1995

After a short hiatus ECSTATIC is back online!  

Now coming to you from breathtaking Southern Illinois, I'm excited to kick off year two of this experiment with the fourth installment of IN CONVERSATION, which will be expanding to include new critical voices over the year to come.  For now, I return to writer, critic, and cinematic obscurist extraordinaire Nathaniel Drake Carlson as we continue to scrutinize the films that we can't quite shake, for one reason another, for better or for worse, in an ongoing attempt to create a dialectic approach to critically addressing films that we feel deserve another look.  With Todd Haynes' [Safe] we discover an opportunity to address how our critical response shifts over time, as well as how a director's commentary on his own work comes to influence our interpretations.



JH:  Nathaniel, lets start by saying that when we were first deciding to do a series of critical conversations around films that have persisted, for one reason or another, in our more casual conversations over the years, Todd Haynes' 1995 film [Safe] was, literally, at the top of your list of suggestions.  I think [Safe] has remained a point of reference for us for a number of reasons, particularly since it is somewhat precariously situated within the Indy film wave of the late 80's/early 90's (not unlike another film we talked about two installments ago, Mike Figgis' Leaving Las Vegas, released later that year), serving as a somewhat hopeful sign that the legacy of that era wasn't just going to amount to Tarantino knock-offs (ala 2 Days in the Valley and Things to Do In Denver When You're Dead).  Of course, the unfortunate trend of proving that what Tarantino had to offer wasn't as easy as it looked persisted through the late 90's with the macho posturing of the inexplicably cult-forming Boondock Saints, and then across the pond and into the 2000's through the gangster flicks of Guy Ritchie,  Meanwhile, Haynes progressively moved away from the Independent feel of his early shorts and features, reaching a wider audience through films that seem to mark a move away from the more subtle and experimental interplay of genres found in [Safe] and Poison (1991), and into a more overt obsession with pop surfaces in Velvet Goldmine (1998), Far From Heaven (2002), I'm Not There (2007), and his most recent foray into the mini-series for HBO, Mildred Pierce.

Haynes' work is certainly often lumped in with the "New Independents," but I evoke Tarantino's name particularly to make the point that it wasn't all working toward the same goals, or from a unified artistic sensibility.  Although there is an overwhelming theme of pastiche running through this era--from the Coen Brothers' obsession with early American Gangster films to the Hughes Brothers' obsession with later American Gangster films, from Hal Hartley's aping of Godard to Tarantino's aping of Godard and everything else--Haynes' work, in it's best moments, seems to transcend the stylish veneer of that era, partly through the immediacy of the social concerns at it's core, and partly through Haynes' expertise with weaving together somewhat disparate forms into dense, experimental wholes.  Just between Posion and [Safe], what Haynes achieves through the use of pastiche is pretty varied and effective.  Poison intertwines three drastically different genres into a poetic commentary on cultural fears centering around alienation, punishment, and homosexuality: the noir horror film in the tradition of Don Siegel and Herk Harvey, the 1980's TV Docu-expose of the Bizarre, and an unromantic Andre Gide prison tale designed in a lavish, theatrical, and very romantic style, reminiscent of a film you shared with me once, Rainer Werner Fassbinder's last, Querelle (1982).  In [Safe] there are possibly even more varied strands of influence at work, but this time woven into a single narrative, rather than crosscutting back and forth between them.  [Safe] subtly, almost imperceptibly, shifts the way in which it contextualizes your reading of it, gently morphing from Melodrama to Horror, from being as staid and functional as the Barbi dolls that stood in for the Carpentars in his grad school film, Superstar: The Karen Carpentar Story (1988), to being more reminiscent of Antonioni's alienating, chemical soaked Red Desert (1964).  It alternately toys with being a satirea Brechtian exploration of West Coast Affluenza, and even a bit of a Rom-Com, once James LeGros waltzes into the picture (as he is want to do).  [Safe] is a film that sets up new challenges for Haynes, exercising a new found constraint, picking up where the final Genet quote of Poison leaves us:  "A man must dream a long time in order to act with grandeur, and dreaming is nursed in darkness."  [Safe] is a Lifetime movie dreamt from a dark place.



Antonioni's Red Desert

More specifically than the Indy explosion, Haynes is one of the essential directors of what was coined in Sight and Sound in 1992 as "The New Queer Cinema."  In relation to this fertile period of Queer films there are a number of filmmakers I know are very significant to us, and as we take time to look at Haynes now, I wonder how you find he holds up in relation to his peers.  For me, Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho (1991) changed the way I watched movies, and my enthusiasm at the time for it was probably to the point of being cloying for some (likewise with another film perhaps relevant to this conversation, Cronenberg's adaptation of Naked Lunch).  But, for me the daring choices and recombinant spirit of that film are similarly and indelibly charged in the same way as Haynes' early work.  For you, I can imagine your legendary trek to find Everet Lewis' lost film An Ambush of Ghosts positions you with a unique set of experiences from which to draw on in addressing this era, but also your attentiveness to not only the works of Queer cinema past, like Fassbinder, but also the ways in which it has evolved and bled into the works of directors like Julian Hernandez and Apichatpong Weerasethakul.  But, this also opens up one more way I want to situate this conversation, which has to do with our own unique relationship to Queer cinema as a place where we have increasingly found honest and unconventional depictions of male relationships drawn in ways we hardly ever see in commercial films and TV.  For straight guys who lead lives not immersed in sports culture, where the mark of masculine behavior (for both men and women) so implacably resides, and, well...instead do things like write blog conversations about gay film makers, the work of Queer Cinema directors has been at times an important respite from what often feels like a media world ceaselessly involved in reconstituting suffocating and unimaginative norms of gender behavior (which now frequently comes with it's own curious layer of parody, as with the recent Dr. Pepper 10 commercials--"It's not for women!").  In other words, as we have enacted our particular engendered relationship as male friends over the years, I think we always found ourselves living just outside that script, perfectly fine with that, and mostly resentful of the superficial acknowledgment of male relationships found in the increasingly frequent "Bro-mance" films.  Meanwhile, many gay directors were able to reflect male relationships that seemed to exist similarly outside of the dominant, media-sculpted set of social rules.


My Own Private Idaho
An Ambush of Ghosts   
Likewise, the depiction of women in the work of gay directors offered up a fresh perspective on the enactment of hetero-normative roles, as is certainly the case with Julianne Moore's depiction of Carol White in [Safe], who is almost entirely defined by her exceptionally uninspired role-playing of a wife, mother, and consumer.  The opening scenes of the film place us in the midst of a car journey toward she and her husband Greg's home, set to the strains of a particularly eerie Brain Eno cut, ultimately delivering us through their own gates (a visual trope that will return once Carol learns of "Environmental Illness" in an informational video, and yet again when she enters a different set of gates at Wrenwood), and very quickly from their garage and into their bedroom.  Coupled with the immediate and uncomfortable view of Carol's dissatisfaction with her sex life, the way in which the first scenes of [Safe] depict Carol's utter lack of any sense of self, outside of her experiments in new diets and her arduous attempts to furnish her home properly, might be read as the journey of a woman coming to terms with her own sexual desires, with the impending threat of her "illness" pursuing her all the way to her ultimate "acceptance of herself" at the end of the film.  Haynes was creating Poison and [Safe] in a head space that is informed both by having entered college in the Reagan years within which the AIDS epidemic was neglected, ignored, and used politically as a way to further demonize gay sex and culture, as well as having been a serious student of Art and Semiotics at Brown University.  In this sense, Haynes is not only a prominent Queer Cinema figure, but something of a "New Academic" film maker, his films often likened to academic essays, and often equally derided and praised for this mode of presentation.  It's difficult to think of another director at the same level of exposure as Haynes that consistently uses theoretical and literary text as a component of his films as much as Haynes does.  This was particularly striking for me when I first saw Superstar (passed around on badly dubbed VHS as it was, back in the day), and although we don't really find this aspect as prominent in [Safe], we see this use of the "academic quotation" present at least up until Velvet Goldmine, and a distinctly academic voice within his own commentary on the films.  As Keith Ulich wrote on Senses of Cinema:

   From Haynes’ movies, in addition to his own writings and interviews given, one gets a sense of a well-educated man with an imposing vernacular. The academic nature of his conversation comes across doubly so in the structure of his movies, where characters, dialogue and cultural references, camera movement, etc, comment on the action as in an essay. One can nearly sense the indentations between paragraphs. It’s a very literary experience, a cinema where you feel (or read) through the ideas, as opposed to the more commonplace occurrence where viewer passivity is the order of the day. I must therefore state bluntly that Haynes’ movies are not for everyone. I recall New York movie critic Armond White dismissing Velvet Goldmine as “a desiccated thesis-film,” and I can’t help but think that the didactic nature of Haynes’ work, something I personally find tremendously engaging, will turn off those who believe cinema to be, at its purest level, a wholly visceral experience.

Velvet Goldmine
Ulich eventually gets around to labeling [Safe] as a masterpiece, on par with the cinematographic expertise of Kubrick, even going as far as comparing the final images of [Safe] to the final image of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, "albeit one whose aims are even more ambiguous and unsettling for being confined to a recognizable, earthly plain."  This reminds me of yet another genre possibly at play in[Safe], as I review my notes to find block-letter notations of the film's two "ALIEN" scenes, a label I somewhat unconsciously applied to the strange appearance of the inhabitant of Carol's future habitat, which perhaps manifest [Safe] as a journey that occasionally travels into the realm of Science-Fiction.



I know it has been a number of years since either of us has looked at this film (as has been the case with most of our IN CONVERSATION entries), though I think you and I have both continued to hold this one in high esteem, so I am curious if revisiting it in light of what Haynes has created since (much of which I think I tend to be more receptive to than you) has effected your view of this supposed "masterpiece" in any way.  Also, what effects has Haynes' own discussion of the film had upon your relationship to this work?  Hopefully, you can help me get a bit closer to where Haynes is coming from in this film, which is certainly layered in it's implications, and somewhat confounding, at least for me, particularly in the way it asks us to think about the variety of characters it presents, and its central themes of materialism, illness, and spirituality.  How does it strike you this time around?  



NDC:  For me much of any worthwhile assessment of [Safe] at this point demands a fuller acknowledgment and scrutiny of my own relationship to Haynes' body of work. It's been a very tempestuous one, more than is generally the case with a given filmmaker and made even more so as this particular work by its very nature cannot be casually assessed. So I do feel obligated to make a gesture toward a kind of history I've had with Haynes. [Safe] was my first exposure back at the time of its VHS release and I was immediately smitten by it, utterly overwhelmed even by Haynes' obvious mastery of technique. The fact that much of that mastery was mimicry made little difference to me at the time--now it complicates my response in not altogether satisfying ways. I have held [Safe] dear for years, going back to it and deriving rich rewards from the repeated exposure. I saw most of his earlier work prior to the release of Velvet Goldmine. That film impressed me as well at the time though I've felt far less compelled to return to it, something I attribute to my general lack of interest in the musical terrain he was mining (my history here was not his). But it's important to point out just how enamored we were with Haynes' intellectual approach to cinema. It seemed a salvation in light of the mental dead zone of most mainstream film and even much of art cinema's lax failings. I would actually associate [Safe] more with an obscure American indie like Philip Haas' 1993 Music of Chance than with the fashionable zeitgeist of the time as captured in Tarantino's omniscience. This too because both [Safe] and MoC were produced in part by American Playhouse. In the subdued smallness of these films there seemed a willing acceptance of a particular station, one inevitably and maybe even necessarily less heralded. It's not just some economic resignation though; it's a confidence in this form as right for these contents. You see that too with pictures as diverse as Keith Gordon's Mother Night, Jesse Peretz's First Love, Last Rites and Lance Young's Bliss.

Philip Haas' The Music of Chance
Far From Heaven
Far From Heaven was the deal breaker for me with Haynes, the experience that overturned all my previous  conceptions and caused a guarded reassessment of that earlier work (it still held up, though I found myself watching it less). Despite its critical plaudits, to me FFH was the worst kind of revelation and one of the very few times I have ever genuinely wanted to get up, eject the disc, and pitch it out my window. Such was the monumentality of my disgust. I can't even claim to have some sort of massive investment in the specific melodramatic forms Haynes was riffing on here, so I can't claim to be offended by him "getting them wrong" if indeed he did (I suspect that he was suffocatingly faithful). But I do have huge respect for melodrama as a form generally and what it is capable of, much of which is reliant on a singular lack of irony or at least an irony well integrated into the texture of the piece. This was the sacrifice he could not make; the movie drowns in his purported "irony". But it's a shallow pool that undermines whatever success FFH may have had as a document of real emotional experience. Haynes cannot bring himself to that, he simply cannot do it. But his "I know that you know that I know" technique is an utterly unwelcome imposition here. His success allowed for a move into more mainstream terrain (bigger budgets, stars, studio support), but he seemed unduly influenced by what was most celebrated about his earlier work, bringing with him only the most heavy handed self-reflexive devices; shallow though they may have been, profound means of insight they were assumed to most certainly be. Perhaps such a move into a more commercially driven realm was never to be a wise one for him, assured to arrest his development. I'm Not There I saw grudgingly, motivated in part by his continued critical success--to not be current with Haynes seemed an admission of a cultural failing. That film was far less oppressive and repellant than his previous one had been but I now regard it as more or less of the same genus as Velvet Goldmine, a cerebral fantasia that may be good for fans but is an otherwise overly self-impressed indulgence.  Haynes' work is what it is, I suppose, but it always seems to require a supplement. The abundance of necessary quotations used in this paragraph alone is indicative of that.

Far From Heaven
Velvet Goldmine
That very same intellectual aspect of Haynes' art which used to serve as the gateway inducement and most appealing feature is now what I find most problematic. To put it simply, his intelligence (and here I would specify it as his academically sculpted intelligence) is worn on his sleeve and is not absorbed into the work, does not inform it organically from within but rather dictates its effects from without. At the time of my first exposure to him that obvious intellect acting upon the surface features of the film as well as its underlying structure was so refreshing in its novelty as to be discouraging of any criticism. And I may have never thought to apply any if [Safe] had been his last film. But the way in which the mechanisms revealed themselves over the course of the following years make that impossible now. His intellectual efforts are commendable but insufficient, ill conceived and not nearly adequate enough. In many respects, they over complicate, over clutter and make an ever expanding, insurmountable task for themselves that is analogous to painting oneself into a corner.

You mention the multiple "strands of influence" detectable in [Safe] and I would just add that these in turn evidence the unique problem of the picture. The fact that they are so detectable, so identifiable, does not work to complicate the scenario, as surely Haynes must hope, but rather to dismantle it and distract from the dramatic impact he also clearly wants to attain. This may be unavoidable as it is, in the end, a symptom of Haynes' deconstructionist tendencies and the resultant meanings or lack thereof they lead him to. The application of these various strands (whether it be Kubrickian formalist framing, insinuating electronic horror scoring or some other recognizable aesthetic) calls attention to itself as part of a process of layering on and finally feels like an imposition--not any kind of natural expression but rather a programmatic strategy to emphasize every constitutive element. This doesn't even begin to address the counter-productive, often self-negating thematic disparity. So, what ends up happening is that you get an utterly non-unified whole of diverse tonal effects and a wildly uneven ratio of thematic success/failure. What becomes clear is that [Safe] can only be assessed by an excruciatingly close reading which takes into consideration every conceivable detail and its relationship to the rest. But this approach is wearisome and unwarranted as the imbalance is a very real thing and the picture finally cannot or will not manage either a productive/constructive blend of these details or an overcoming of them. On top of which, it doesn't benefit the picture because it's not a close reading of appreciation but one of unavoidable critique.


Some whole scenes work while others do not and that is a fairly common occurrence in films, but what is not so common is that here the rate of success is often best assessable on a moment by moment basis. It's a compilation of hit 'n miss. However, I will admit that this is more pronounced in the last half as I think the first half almost completely doesn't work. My favorite example is the one which initially sparked my unease with [Safe] many years back. Following on from the terrific (well shot and performed, succinct) scene at the Wrenwood community center in which Peter speaks to the gathered family members of the residents, we get a casually tossed off mention of his house up above on a hill overlooking the main grounds. Haynes gives us a brief glimpse of it but long enough to register the authority displayed in its ostentatious lavishness and the way it mirrors the homes in the affluent neighborhood Carol has escaped from. I remember distinctly how impressive I thought that moment was when I first saw the film (the first few times actually) and that its impact lay in its briefness. But somehow now that doesn't save it. Regardless of its duration I see it as all too representative of Haynes' heavy handedness and satisfaction with the obvious. The briefness of the image actually chafes now as it comes across with the additional pomposity of thinking itself subtle. Later, the healing circle scene is an amalgamation of ill conceived ideas and yet one topped off by the still undeniably chilling final cut to the desiccated figure of Lester staggering by in the background as Peter notes "how blessed" they all are (interestingly enough Lester still works as an ambiguous symbol of infectious fear but I suspect that's mostly due to the fact that he is not easily reducible to the sum of any one particular fear).


There is a source for the distinctive sense of discomfort in the film but Haynes can only concentrate on the effects, the outward expression, obsessing over the multitude of ways in which Wrenwood mirrors L.A. rather than evidencing much of any interest in why that should disturb us or what it is exactly about it that does, let alone what that might mean. It's a half thought through position but one that is, admittedly, presented with a consistency of expressive examples (e.g. Carol as one of Haynes' signature Barbie dolls, constantly propped up in one Dream House or another; the precariousness of her psychic stability reflected in those yellow roses she cultivates, prefect but fragile).  



Part of my own problem with Haynes in general is his insistence to speak at length about his work. Usually this is a welcome quality in a director or other artist but Haynes' style is to lay out his intents and their consequences in the parlance of academic-ese, which neutralizes the necessity for much of our own involvement. It's not clear to me that he knows this but certainly he would have to be conscious of the impact of such master readings and this, ironically, positions him as not unlike the controlling demagogue figure at Wrenwood to whom he is so achingly opposed. In other words, he does the work of "reading" the film for us rather than just making clear his perspective on it. There have been many times in which the extended statements from directors have acted to clarify intents in a way less rigid and more productive. Here I think my ultimate example would be Danny Boyle on the commentary track for his 2000 film, The Beach, in which he simply indicates another whole dimension of comprehending the action which I had never picked up on and which enriches the experience of the picture itself immeasurably. The question, of course, is if such clarity should ever come from the director whether the results improve the film or not, as surely his intents are either successfully conveyed and discernible in the work as it stands or they are not. Then there are negative instances like Polanski's interview around the time of his great masterpiece Bitter Moon in which he expresses an attitude toward the resolution of that film which could really serve to taint the impact and implications of it. But these contributions are still far less worked out and systematic than the sort of all encompassing exegesis on offer by Haynes, a program for definitive interpretation almost impossible to just ignore. Amongst the comments he makes about [Safe] in the liner notes accompanying the DVD we have this:
"The reason new age thought is so big among AIDS and cancer patients is because it creates a feeling of comprehension, a way to control the sense of meaninglessness that grips the lives of the terminally ill. But within that control these doctrines of inner health assign to their sufferers the ultimate responsibility both for becoming ill and for regaining their health. And since the potential for all illness and all wellness lies within the individual, society gets off scot free. This is how new age thought ultimately works in favor of the system while claiming to transcend it. Saddest of all is how safe it makes us feel.  As cancer patient Barbara Boggs Sigmund puts it, 'We humans would rather accept culpability than chaos.'  And in our surrender to that blame, something very vulnerable in us is freed, protected by the cage we are placed in. Our safety comes from feeling both defended from the world outside while at the same time freed from the burden of autonomy. Its safety is the safety of sleep. And it's here that Carol is promised the kind of insurable identity she's craved all along."
Haynes' explication of his work is as comprehensive as you would expect but is, as I earlier suggested, too much so. He may disdain the presiding authoritarianism of Wrenwood (a position which I think would be all too clear even without his comments) but he engages in his own dictatorial meaning making. And it's a fundamentally incoherent stance to take given that his whole aesthetic project pivots on emphasizing the ambiguous and indeterminable. He doesn't "accept chaos" but rather determines its ultimate essence and the extent of its reach. The inherent confusion of this contradictory approach impacts everything, down to the fundamentals themselves. Haynes speaks at length about environmental illness as a real thing but then also wants its presence here, in Carol, to be suspect, to be ultimately understandable as metaphor (not metaphor as well) without realizing that this leads not to complexity but to an incompatible, unsustainable thematic relationship. He doesn't see that these positions annihilate one another and any serious investment we could make. In the end, the dictates of his post-modernist commitment demand that we cannot even know whether Carol's E.I. is real, though vast swaths of his social critique demand our certainty that it is. But to manage a presentation in which Carol's condition was both real and metaphor, not one or the other, would require a compound balance of multiple dimensions that frankly eludes him. Haynes favors philosophy over poetry (here at least, though not in the superior Poison which favors the reverse) and the effects are unsubtle, counter-productive and even dogmatic.

Poison

The fatal flaw in [Safe] is that it is, finally, incoherent to a disabling degree. Haynes talks about Carol White as craving an "insurable identity" and yet what he somehow misses completely is that if Carol is such an empty non-entity than what is it that compels her to act out to begin with? What would prompt someone like her to act out against the social role (e.g. Stepford Wife) she is allocated? If her illness is what destabilizes her then that makes sense but not if the illness is itself not real. In his notes he identifies her "as a character whose entire sense of self is provided by the external world", someone whose "emotional remoteness and general cluelessness create a craving for the fulfillment of these deficiencies". She is somehow a void and yet an active agent, reacting against a metaphorical oppression. This particular incompatibility reaches far into the depths of the film to make a madness of any attempt at understanding. Haynes unconsciously acknowledges this himself when he says, "Immediately we are concerned with substances, the substances of Carol's life, the substances affecting her health, the substance of the film itself (its message)--all of which we begin to doubt."

Despite, or more accurately because of, his overriding post-modern skepticism, Haynes cannot make [Safe] nearly as ambiguous as he wants. And that's because he's already decided that Peter and Wrenwood are bad guys here, as much so as the stifling suburbs Carol left behind, all equally fit to be demonized. The hope Wrenwood offers is inherently suspect and they (particularly Peter) represent an unhealthy controlling authority which simply wants her to submit. Much of this is telegraphed exactingly through specific dialogue selections and nothing the great skill of actor Peter Friedman can do can alter this or make the character maintain an ambiguity which Haynes seeks to dismantle. Imagine if Haynes had allowed for the possibility that E.I. actually is "real", as he infers that he already believes. If he did believe that then the possibility of a cure is not inconceivable. And imagine how much more terrifying [Safe] would be if, instead of being satisfied with simply slamming authority figures and those who "interpret," the implication was that Carol's retreat into isolation was necessary to live at all. As it stands, he winds up making a half baked Alexander Payne film, unable to follow through with the extreme savagery and penetrating insight of Payne's social representations (because he thinks he wants to be ambiguous) or commit to the same level of complex empathy Payne manages in a film like About Schmidt. In that picture the positioning of a superior perspective acts as an acknowledgment of an unavoidable human reality, one that escapes Haynes' laser focused though ultimately more narrow vision and the rigors of his none too shaded, academic critique.

JH:  Wow, I didn't expect such a 180!  But, I think this makes the discussion all the more interesting, and brings up for me the question of how films are marked by their own temporality, and the audiences.  Also, (and, maybe as a result of my recent writing on William Greaves' Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One) I can't help but think of the Heisenberg principle, and the notion of how the act of looking at something changes the thing being observed.  This principle is, of course, an inherent part of doing critical work, whether through writing or film.  This applies to both our attempts at doing critical work as well as Haynes, since I do think his work is an attempt to critically reflect on the genres he's utilizing and the world he's experiencing.  For me, [Safe] doesn't come off as needlessly deconstructionist or postmodernist in the way in which it quotes genre film technique, but I am sure that I haven't looked at this film as often as you, which makes me wonder about the extent to which the frequency of our experience with a film effects our judgment of it.  A shot that may be a good example of what you find so distracting to the overall dramatic effect might be the "push in/zoom out" moment of Carol drinking milk early in the film.  It employs a shot that is commonly associated with the Horror or Thriller genre (most notably: Vertigo, Jaws), particularly in a moment of overwhelming realization or psychological shift.  For Carol, a friend has visited to confide news about the death of her brother, the "black couches of doom" have been delivered instead of the teal ones she (supposedly) ordered, and her kitchen is full of unknown Mexican workers.  The use of the "push-pull" zoom is subtle, and it does commence with the act of drinking the milk, a resonant element in its common association with health concerns, Carol's confessed identity as a "milk-aholic," and the way in which it echoes Carol's married name, White.  Though the scene doesn't point to anything specific as the cause of this Horror movie moment, it is clear that the realization has to do with the number of "foreign" elements occupying both Carol's home and body.  What I'm hearing you say is that a moment like this, as well as the "house on the hill" shot, now "chafe" where they once seemed subtle, even innovative.  I can't say I have a similar reaction, but I do find the film as a whole is affected by some of the exact problems you identify, specifically in terms of the way in which it presents its ambiguities.


But, before I get to that, I want to address more specifically what's behind your drastic shift in perception, and what that means for how we think about doing critical work.  To be blunt, I think your hang-ups about the film may have less to do with the film itself, and more to do with the director, his subsequent work, and his postmodernist tendencies.  Also, I think that everyone from the most elitist critic to the casual viewer can point to an instance where a film that thrilled them in the past fails to trip their trigger in the present (I even started out our conversation about Blue Velvet in a bit of a funk over it, although I think I came around by the end of our talk).  And, this is a good thing.  I think one of the most distressing aspects of the movies-as-business is the way in which it discourages thinking across films and the work of directors (a sentiment that holds particular weight today, as I'm writing this the day after the death of Andrew Sarris, and have a statement from David Edelstein's write-up on Sarris still echoing in my head:  "Accused in the last three decades of resting on his status and quoting himself instead of doing fresh thinking, he was actually forever adjusting his judgements, shifting directors in and out of favor as he re-watched and rethought their work...he viewed The American Cinema as a work in progress.").  In the movie business, the only cinema of the past that matters is that which can potentially generate more revenue, as we've seen with the recent spate of 3D re-releases, and the only cinema that matters in the present is the one making the loudest noise, as is the case with our current summer of record-breaking box office super-hero obsession.  Accompanying this current phenomenon is an emerging sentiment that mega-product like The Avengers should just be left alone by critics, as evidenced in a recent video conversation between NY Times film critic A.O. Scott and David Carr that made a small, internet-based swirl of controversy.  An interesting bit of performance art, Carr plays up his approximation of the mass response to film criticism, and in many ways gets it right, particularly in the respect that most think of critics as elitist prigs who have an inability to enjoy movies and a penchant for taking a shit on what everyone else seems to love.  Although I realize that this kind of conversation is really only paid attention to by other critics, I wanted to take some time to rebut Carr's sentiment here because I think it's useful in framing our overall conversation on [Safe] in a couple of ways: 1) to exhibit the extent to which our conversation about these films and filmmakers, even the ones we dislike, is born out of of a deep respect for their abilities and an abiding love of the cinema arts, and 2) to acknowledge the extent to which we understand critical rhetoric as essential to the quality of cinema, all cinema, which is irrevocably intertwined with the state of the culture.

[Safe] is a film we landed on because, regardless of to what extent it succeeds, it is a unique window into a particular place, time, and social echelon. Also, viewed from the vantage point of his earlier work, particularly the two shorts Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story and Dottie Gets Spanked, and his feature debut Poison, rather than the vantage point of the films that have come since, I think it's hard to claim that [Safe] isn't evidence of a director working toward some ambitious and subtle directions. I, too, am more fond of the poetry of Poison; given the choice to return to one or the other, Poison would most likely win out for me.  But, I don't see [Safe] as pure philosophy, and I worry that the idea of "film as philosophy" is cast in a negative light in your critique (though I'm guessing it's the particular ideological position of Haynes that alarms you, more specifically).  I think [Safe]'s strength lies in both its attempt at philosophical questioning, and its artistic achievement.  I find the film captivating in its distinctive framing, particularly in the first half, which you surprisingly want to dismiss as a failure here(!).  Furthermore, it seems to me that the two halves of the film rely on each other, and Haynes carefully balances each "Act" against the other in terms of the mis-en-scene, as we follow Carol in her journey from a presumed "safe" place to the "safe" refuge of Wrenwood.



Of course, Carol is the centerpiece of the film.  And, Moore beautifully performs this "centerpiece" artificiality, at times freezing into Haynes' Barbi-doll poses, as when she pauses holding a cup of coffee in the kitchen doorway, after her son has read her his "gory" report on the gangs of L.A.  Moore's performance is key here, as she navigates a script that could be pushed over the edge with a mere glance.  Carol is played with unwavering sincerity, and I would say the same for most of the performers, particularly Xander Berkley as her husband Greg, who I do not read as a simplistic "bad guy" but someone just as let down by his own environment as Carol (as he stands arguing and shirtless, reflected in his full length bedroom mirror-wall).  Haynes uses both the interior and exterior of the White home in a way that becomes an indictment of the materialist class of the Reagan era, and a symbolic representation of Carol (and Greg's) own hollow shell, perfectly adorned on the outside, but utterly empty within.  I love the way in which [Safe] begins as a pure character film, denying the audience any narrative hooks, which so beautifully amplifies the drama over the black couches (and downplays the actual tragedy of the aforementioned friend's brother, which I infer is an "overt" reference to HIV/AIDS).  In the opening passages of [Safe] Haynes asks us to truly examine this character through his mis-en-scene, through the controlled direction of his performers, as well as the clash of soundtrack elements (aren't Brian Eno and Billy Ocean perhaps the perfect polarities of 80's music?).  He creates a dynamic that is not dissimilar to the one Lynch establishes in Blue Velvet, between the glistening exteriors and the deranged elements that threaten to seep into that safe existence.  And, yes, he mixes in camera moves and design elements that evoke horror, melodrama, and sci-fi...but might I suggest that the extent to which you have looked at this film might result in a slightly off-kilter assessment of it as unsubtle?

Perhaps it's not just frequent viewings that come into play here, but also the idea that the films that came after, (particularly Far From Heaven, since it most directly relates as an experiment in Melodrama) calls out the technique in a way that might not have been apparent when [Safe] existed as Haynes most recent.  I can't say I had anything close to a "throw the film out the window" reaction to Far From Heaven (and I'd be curious to hear from anyone else who has!), but rather saw it as a genuine homage, through which Haynes could make the themes of sexuality more overt in a modern context.  As such, I find it a film that shows another expansion of his technical abilities, operating not unlike Van Sant's largely misunderstood remake of Psycho (1998).  I read Van Sant's Psycho as a study in Hitchcock, though I understand why most audiences just read it as lousy idea for a remake;  movies aren't "studied" in the commercial cinema as much as they are "cashed in on."  I read Far From Heaven similarly in relation to the melodramas of Douglas Sirk, both examining Sirk as an auteur, and contrasting the cinema language of the past to the present.  I see this as a useful, even subversive, technique enacted from a positive postmodernist worldview, open to embracing the failures that are bound to happen in such an attempt, even though it's certainly those failures that keep Far From Heaven from being as enduring a film as either Poison or [Safe].  I agree that Far From Heaven (like Psycho) is not a perfect film, but I can't deny that it's more interesting to watch a skillful filmmaker trace the patterns of past cinema giants than it is to see directors with no artistic signature whatsoever (Ron Howard, Robert Redford, Kevin Smith-who I'll get to in a minute) try to muddle through some heavy handed polemic or weak attempt at history, adaptation, comedy, whatever).

Far From Heaven
Gus Van Sant's Psycho
Furthermore, regardless of the way in which Haynes might couch his own conversation about his films in academic language, which I also find less satisfying than what the film has to offer on its own, I find it difficult to fully move toward deriding a filmmaker for attempting to address their work at that level of discourse, whether they come off as pretentious or not.  Remember, this period of Haynes also gave us the rise of Kevin Smith (Clerks in '94, Mallrats in '95), and a new voice in filmmaking that bolstered the hopes all of those film students who desperately wanted to be famous, but would rather read comic books than take the time to study films.  Even if Haynes postmodernist technique might obscure the emotional core of the work, which I'm not sure it does entirely, it is certainly preferable to an attitude, epitomized by Smith, that has little respect or interest in anything that came before Jim Jarmusch.  I'm reminded of Sarris again, who commented so lovingly on the "lure of pastness" in the cinema, stating:  "Only the most naive radicalism insists that we forsake the past in order to claim the future."  For that generation, a movie like [Safe] meant next to nothing because it wasn't really locked into the cinema trends of the time...not to mention that it features a weak, female protagonist who is both difficult to deal with empathetically and intellectually.  For that generation, films aren't to be talked about at all, but rather purchased on DVD and placed on a shelf for display.  Of course, not all directors benefit their films by talking about them.  And, some are smart enough to realize that the films should speak for themselves, as with Lynch's insistence on not doing DVD commentaries (or, to take it one step further, the Coen Brothers brilliant meta-commentary on the DVD re-release of Blood Simple).  But, give me an over-determined "master reading" (a concept I outright refuse anyway) any day over a director who has nothing specific to say, but won't shut up.

With that said, I agree that [Safe] is "incoherent to a disabling degree."  I maybe appreciate more Haynes willingness to generate useful questions, but the film also leaves me in place that feels a bit confounded and helpless, to be blunt.  Is that the idea?  If so, yes, it has been done better, by Lynch, and, yes, by Alexander Payne (and, I really appreciate you bringing up About Schmidt, which I also think is highly underappreciated, and terribly revealing in contrast here).  But, I question your characterization of Wrenwood, Greg White, and Carol's doctors as "the bad guys" in particular, since I wasn't led toward that definitive of a reading of them at all (though perhaps my perceptions are off here, since my partner Jen had a similar read of those characters).  I think Haynes wants us to notice the gender dynamics and hetero-normative behaviors in the film, but I don't think it draws a simplistic worldview where the white, male figures of authority are the villains, and Carol, in all her layered whiteness, is the Lifetime ideal of the heroine/victim.  I question the extent to which that cutaway to the house late in the film suggests a didactic view of power relationships in terms of both gender and class, and suggest that it leaves a rather open question for the audience about those same constructs.  And, even in that moment (and even though I don't really like Greg at all), as he and Carol and their son stroll the perimeter of Wrenwood, I found myself still empathizing with Greg's role in all this.  Isn't Greg doing all that might be expected of him?  Sure, he's boring, his sex is boring, and he's frustrated with the ambiguous nature of Carol's illness, but is he really meant to be read in the harsh light of unwavering authoritarianism?  And, to what extent should we read Haynes in the same way, particularly since he is coming from a marginalized position that obviously wants to intelligently subvert and critique the social norms at play in [Safe]?  I want [Safe] to go that extra step in putting more at stake with Carol's retreat from society as well, and perhaps for there to be a "foothold" or two more rooted in the reality of the situation, But, as for what Haynes gives us, I enjoy the level of ambiguity involved in the journey of the film, though have similar reservations as you with the level of ambiguity that we're left with.


Are there some more specific examples we can examine in order to get a bit closer to the success or failure of Haynes' tactics--whether it be in the body of [Safe], his larger body of work, or his own commentary?
   
NDC: Haynes is, was and probably always will be a fluid property. I am coming to terms with that now. And I say that in light of having just recently seen his Mildred Pierce. For my money it's by far the best thing he's done since Poison and reflective of the kind of maturity in application of technique which I had hoped to see in the years following that film but which was, in my view, in consistently short supply. It's superbly realized as surface drama while also managing the integration of elements I mentioned earlier. His brilliance is not intrusive here; it finds expression in ways complementary to and in support of the basic material. Primarily it's the length of the piece itself, the pace of it, which allows not just for an accrual of minute detail but also a re-invigoration of form. By taking the time to slowly trace this story out and methodically emphasize not just personal psychological details but also the intricate nuts and bolts socio-political/economic ones of its time and place, Haynes does his own deconstructionist tendencies one better. In Far From Heaven he employed suffocating and obnoxiously intrusive devices to make a point no one needed as to how melodrama is built; here he allows all to exist on the same subdued level with the mechanics subsumed into the aesthetic whole. The potency of melodramatic conventions and developments are gradually and thoroughly understood as grounded in and built up from an accumulation of "real" details  (even Veda's hateful personality is handled in an equivocal fashion, seen as justifiable from her perspective--here's where Haynes' post-modernism is worth something). Everything is an organic outgrowth then, everything is justified. In a world which may like but largely does not respect melodramatic expression, Haynes provides us with a means to understand why we should and a demonstration of how such expression can exist on a multitude of planes. Furthermore, Mildred Pierce occupies a place of prime significance in Haynes' representation of women that began in Superstar and has been rhythmically paced through [Safe] and Far From Heaven. Certainly his treatment of this subject is far denser, more serious and genuinely provocative than that of, say, Lars von Trier. Still, I won't kid myself that Haynes will stick with what served him well here. He's simply far too restless and experimental for that. So I fully expect the course of his career will be wildly divergent in terms of what I find worthwhile or even ultimately successful at all.

As to [Safe], the examples of Haynes' successes or failures are as plentiful as there are scenes and, often, details within scenes. I would certainly identify the famous early baby shower scene as one such example replete with its own plethora of contrasting details. In a broad, general sense it's a successful sequence if one doesn't examine it too close or respond to all those nuanced details; but I would argue that this kind of close scrutiny is unavoidable as Haynes' work invites it, demands it even. In that broad sense what works is the ably managed building tension, clearly abetted by Haynes' familiarity with and mastery of horror movie conventions--in this case the direct reference being Stepford Wives chill glazed with Kubrick's oppressive rigor. And there's even some effective humor, though it's all cheap shots in essence (e.g. this whole exchange: "Did you wrap that yourself?" "Oh! Are you kidding? I wish I were that creative!" "I've seen you wrap things."). But the scene is ultimately undone by its excessive pastiche making; it over emphasizes every one of its technical moves and by the time Ed Tomney's horror themed score kicks in the effect is unproductively alienating, trivializing an already reductive idea through parodic schtick. Beyond that, its satisfactions are limited to its self contained boundaries. It's a set piece scene, more appropriate as a short or within the kind of total pastiche which Poison was. Here it calls attention to itself as self-conscious showpiece, going too far tonally and crucially overstating its point; it is not of-a-piece with the scenes surrounding it despite the fact that Haynes attempts to connect it to similarly pitched moments like the one in which Carol's nose starts to bleed at the hair salon. Meanwhile, during the Wrenwood scenes, Haynes generally operates with admirable restraint but I think eventually he can't prevent himself from tipping his hand with a few too many of the oppressively framed Kubrick shots all too clearly paralleling Wrenwood with L.A. Once again, this does him a disservice and undermines much of what he accomplishes elsewhere, reducing the overall impact and implication, though it does definitley demonstrate just how precarious his technique is.  



One thing I will give to Haynes however is the fact that the alternation between melodrama inflected close-ups and alienating long distance images, often one right after another, does serve to create a superbly successful and utterly appropriate dissonance. It keeps us forever on edge and contributes to our unease, partially by undercutting the implicative authority of either predominant aesthetic choice. There is no authoritative reading of any given scene and in that Haynes approaches his goal. Beyond that, the technique also emphasizes the film's own emphasis on touch and tactility: Carol is constantly being reached out for by someone and yet in this world intriguingly enough the proximity of that intimacy does not bring comfort. We may also be encouraged to reflect on the very inwardness or obsessive interiority of L.A. and Wrenwood vs. a larger, often ironically unacknowledged context or "environment."

I do want to address your point about overstating the extent to which Greg and the gang at Wrenwood have been cast as "bad guys". Actually, I don't think Greg is a bad guy at all; I find him rather profoundly sympathetic (due largely to Berkley's performance) but he is presented as obtuse and as helpless in his utter cluelessness as Carol is presumed to be in hers. So in that sense they share a commonality that bonds them. Greg is admirably patient with Carol and I do think we're meant to see that and appreciate him for it.  His threat is largely a passive, implicit one: it's in the way he has fully absorbed the social mores of his surrounding community with no seeming resistance and no apparent sense of their possibly pernicious effects; he is perfect representative of banality masking threat or even banality as threat. Peter is far more aggressive and much more clearly an antagonist. I will grant you that Haynes does try to mix it up a bit at Wrenwood by having some of the characters (notably the female ones) come across as sincere or genuinely concerned and helpful but their sympathetic nature is impeded by either blissful naivete or their complicity with the potentially destructive actions of the community. Still, the complications to these characters contribute to the scenes at Wrenwood that work and are large reason for their success. I still say the individual seminar scenes at the community center are the best ones in the entire film, models of balanced portraiture in how they are framed, sustained and generally handled.  


But, as conceived by Haynes, Wrenwood leader Peter is a hugely problematic figure. And you can see that in the otherwise commendable performance by Peter Friedman. He is so at ease with that character and convincing in an unforced sort of way that when the moments come where Haynes wants to make his point clear the strain is palpable and you feel bad for Friedman. Specifically I'm talking about the moments in which, while trying to console or counsel Carol, he ends up showing an all too clearly authoritative side to his persona (often using abrupt, aggressive interjections like "Right?", "Okay", "Does that make sense?" or "Does anybody have a problem with that?"). He is often also positioned in the frame in a way to imply his centrality or dominance within an assumed hierarchy. Once again, if the film didn't over emphasize those details it would be far more disturbing as the horror would be more insinuating and difficult to place; now it all just easily falls into a mold and can be swept away as such regardless of the disturbance conveyed by the fatalistic ending. Haynes seems content, over-satisfied even, with identifying power relationships, as though their existence alone was inherent evidence of the falsity of any claims they may produce rather than complicating those claims through the introduction of irony (a more nuanced and appropriate post-modern position). Calling conclusions and directives into question is one thing but seeking to utterly disavow their legitimacy because they are the product of power is quite another and one beset by the kind of self-implicating questions I don't think that Haynes wants. 


In the introduction to his Three Screenplays collection, Haynes lays out a number of procedural guidelines for his work which come complete with the attendant difficulties that dog them. Here, for instance, he talks about the notion of identification as:
      "that compulsive narrative drive to inhabit what we see (which always seems to function best when we're not noticing). Identification has many official definitions, most of them deriving from the psychoanalytic model where the ability to identify--to see ourselves outside ourselves--is what first determines the notion of 'self'. What would happen if this procedure were interrupted, if the narrative gears subsumed by our identification were quietly revealed? Would blowing their cover necessarily destroy our emotional connection? Or is our need to identify strong enough to bend, strong enough even to allow a glimpse of how we're feeling what we're feeling--even while we're feeling it?"
Profound questions indeed, but Haynes introduces problems for himself throughout these comments. For one thing, and this is a very big thing, he does not often quietly reveal narrative gears. In fact, for the most part, he flagrantly reveals them and seems to take great pleasure in doing so. There's nothing inherently wrong with that so long as we're not meant to be delusional about what that is or be expected to automatically accept its implicit profundity. It is somewhat surprising to me that I like his most blatant stuff least as I often tend to like Big and Bold. But the reason I don't with Haynes is because his big gestures are mostly loud and hollow regardless of their presumed sophistication; these pictures get away from him no matter how much rigor there is to his ideas or his aesthetic application. The bold reveals of Far From Heaven are actually pretty obvious ones and they don't demand enough from Haynes; they don't demand a submission to their intended effects and without that they're sterile gestures.

But the other big issue that Haynes seems to miss in his above comments is the question of "why"? Why would we want to or need to do what he is proposing? His position as stated is one purely of identification: identifying the devices and their means of application. But to what purpose? Should there not be one? If not, why not? If so, what is the larger point? To show us how we're manipulated by aesthtic tools? But audiences already understand that implicitly. There is no great accomplishment in making a belabored case of it. The only truly powerful parts of Far From Heaven are the brief moments in which one gets a sense, whether intended or not, that this entire suffocating aesthetic overlay, the simulacra for its own sake, is indeed just that: a prison of ultra-fastidious detail comparable in its claustrophobic effects to that of the period-specific political pressures upon the characters. Haynes misses or slights the more resonant point that if our need to identify is strong enought to bend then perhaps what may be worth examining is why that should be so. For whatever reason (at least up until Mildred Pierce), he leaves this unconsidered.


Far From Heaven
Similarly he overlooks another pertinent point in this passage: "What is fascinating about the 'disease movie' is how narrative resolution--so often the queasily redemptive variety--is contingent on the central character's coming to accept her illness, 'finding herself' in the meaning it provides. Illness therefore equals enlightenment: It bears a message." Haynes is on to something here in isolating certain of the instigating elements for meaning making. But it's the application of this idea that's off. What he does once he isolates and identifies is for me where he goes awry. He goes on to say that "[A]ll this anxiety around meaning just goes to show how much our narrative relaxation is rested in a sense of moral certainty." There's little reason to doubt his analysis here but there remains something suspect about his own ease of pronouncement on the matter. This isn't necessarily because he sounds unduly superior or improperly condescending but rather because his own isolation of this symptom and even his accurate diagnosis of it still misses too much. It misses the way in which isolated meanings interact with larger contextualizing currents while disregarding completely their possible legitimacy (whether circumscribed by provisional parameters or not). Haynes' method is all too glibly insufficient ultimately and his vision is too narrow while thinking itself expansive and enveloping.

This talk about "meaning" does lead inevitably back to Haynes' philosophic motives and the legitimacy of his attempting to craft a philosophical cinema. While I would be the last to dissuade anyone from such an attempt an acknowledgment does, I think, have to be made that this is a very delicate business, a supremely difficult sort of approach to take and make work. You are right to say that I probably do take issue primarily with Haynes' ideological position or commitments but it's because of the way in which those commitments inform his work, filter through it and direct it. Clearly to establish an entire aesthetic upon such a starting point is not a benign move. There are directors who can pull this off, of course, Godard being the obvious one. But Godard's philosophic cinema, by and large, is not interested in also appealing to popular tastes. It is quite rigidly ascetic and fidelity to that approach has kept his own audience strictly limited. In the world of contemporary poetry, meanwhile, Simon Jarvis has been a controversial figure for attempting to forge out a poetry of philosophy, one very much built upon and explicating the ideas of the philosophers. Once again, though, his expected audience is limited. Haynes, however, does want to go beyond that sort of purely academic niche and connect with larger, general audiences while at the same time challenging and not catering to their tastes. I commend him for that but don't believe, for the reasons outlined above, that overall his particular experiment has been a success.


Godard in Notre Musique

I can't help but think of the moment in [Safe] when Carol dutifully informs Peter that she is still "learning the words", i.e. the proper means to communicate. The moment is a derisive one as it's meant to indicate how Carol continues to capitulate to authority. I have a hard time seeing how an artist who evidences as much skepticism and debilitating doubt as Haynes does toward the notion of a consistent language for comprehension can invest in any philosophic approach that isn't simply deconstructive. The results, in [Safe] at least, are that all his efforts are for naught as the net effect collapses into a simplistic didacticisim of its own authoritative variety peppered with an array of sophomoric, though admittedly sometimes pretty funny, cheap shots. Whether Haynes has ever registered the chasm between his intents and their result remains an open question.

JH:  Well, I can't claim that we're standing at the edge of the same "chasm," as you call it, or that it appears to be a chasm at all, from my perspective.  As for Haynes, it seems a bit extreme to imagine that he has not rigorously assessed his own work in terms of his intent.  This seems to me obvious in his choices, the patience of his output, and the way in which each film informs his entire body of work.  Also, consider the way in which Haynes has not fallen into the category of the film maker who lazily rests on the same old themes and aesthetic designs of their past work.  The risks/technical leaps/aesthetic challenges that Haynes makes from film to film--Poison to [Safe], Far From Heaven to Velvet Goldmine--regardless of what you think about the individual success of any particular film, is quite astounding.  Looking across Haynes' work now, it would be difficult to imagine predicting that a film like Velvet Goldmine could emerge from the same directorial sensibility.  Velvet Goldmine and I'm Not There are certainly married in terms of their fascination with Pop iconography, but even the leaps of experimentation that Haynes takes between those two seemingly similar films is one of an artist testing the limits (particularly, in this instance, the limits of the bio-pic, an exercise I welcome in a time of cookie-cutter bio-pics that should have dared to experiment way more, i.e. Milos Foreman's Man on the Moon and James Mangold's Walk the Line).  What confuses me most (I guess we'll just have to "agree to disagree," I think the saying goes!) is your insistence that Haynes is over-emphasizing his technique in [Safe], creating an unsubtle pastiche that, if I'm reading you correctly, is tonally over-the-edge, and therefore not worth our time as it is unable to offer us any serious perspective on any of the themes in play, be it the nature of Disease, Power, Gender, or Class.  For me, [Safe] is one of his most subtle and carefully balanced films, not a series of disconnected scenes that only work as individual islands or set-pieces.  


Moore and Christian Bale in I'm Not There


I agree with you that, ultimately, the ambiguities of [Safe] are "unproductively alienating," even though the film projects as one that has every piece neatly in place, never hinting at being out of balance in any way.  In fact, it isn't an imbalance at all that plagues [Safe], but perhaps an all too perfect balance.  The line that Haynes walks in this film is one that gets us questioning our perceptions, our empathy, and, yes, our identifications, which may be evidenced by your calling him out for taking "cheap shots."  If the shots are truly cheap, I'm not entirely sure.  There is an absurdity to the particularly American, Californian, late-80's truth that Haynes is able to capture, and I think he's very aware of that, but ultimately interested in the question of our entrenched notions of his themes.  It may come off as cheap, at times, but it seems to me always counter-balanced by an unwavering sincerity, and a very real, physical horror.  Although Haynes may threaten to dissolve that sincerity at various points in the film, and knows it's equally easy to laugh off the hollow, San Bernadino mall walkers and the new-agey, sing-along Wrenwood residents, I read his tactics as existing far from the over-satisfied distance that you articulate.  Carol's breakdown in the strip-mall laundry is no laughing matter, and the upside-down gurney shots of her bleeding and unconscious are crucial and affecting images that make concrete the reality of her physical suffering, perhaps in the light of our skepticism.  I enjoy this game that Haynes plays, driving us right to the brink of ridicule, and then leaving us there to honestly deal with how we feel about Carol, Greg, Peter, as we are nudged in various ways by his use of familiar genre cues.

NDC: I have no doubt that Haynes has subjected his work to his own microscopic intensive scrutiny; that kind of attention to detail is clear. But it can also miss the bigger picture or, to put it more aptly, it can obscure the ultimate effects. He knows what he's doing, sure, and none of it is a mistake in that sense but it doesn't mean that it isn't misjudged. I certainly agree that his insistence upon challenging himself is an admirable and all too rare trait, but it's that very restlessness which makes his successes unreliable. I do think that Haynes is craftily unsubtle in [Safe] and his set pieces are awkwardly arranged; it may be that the way in which this is actualized is only revealed through a close reading but, as I said, he invites/demands that of us so he, by consequence, has to be up for the inspection. An aesthetic glaze of "rigor" may unify his scenes but it's a rigor that is itself revealed to be a shallow sheen.

Julianne Moore's performance, however, really is as great as it's acknowledged to be, though that's praise not without qualifications. Because I don't think ultimately that anyone could entirely succeed here given the controlled conditions Haynes establishes (we've seen something similar recently in Michael Fassbender's heroic struggle against the weight of Steve McQueen's technique in Shame). There are a few moments scattered throughout that do feel flat or unconvincing but overall she manages an incredible feat of keeping Carol recognizably human, all too vulnerable and vaguely sympathetic. This "vaguely" part is important as she must adhere in her portrait to Haynes' restrictions emphasizing a prominent ambiguity. But it's an ambiguity (again as with the McQueen picture) that risks being fatally debilitating. It never falls from that fine line though, at least as far as Moore's performance is concerned. I really have to wonder how she came up with what she needed to satisfy the kind of requirements Haynes puts in place.


Brooke Smith and Julianne Moore in Vanya on 42nd St.
Part of what I admire about Moore's accomplishment is the fact that it arrived at a point of vibrant creativity for her as an actress showcasing her range. You speak of Haynes' abilities as being measurable by the extent of his varied output and he is certainly matched in that by Moore. It's almost impossible for me to believe, for instance, that this film and this performance came almost immediately after her work as the paragon of beauty Yelena in Louis Malle's Vanya on 42nd Street. There has rarely been such a striking contrast between gloriously confident radiance (Vanya) and barely articulated pure presence ([Safe]). Yelena dominates the room with ease and understated grace; Carol White almost doesn't exist. It's also amusing to consider Moore as Carol's interactions with James LeGros as the equally anti-social Chris and then to see them acting against one another again only a couple years later in Bart Freundlich's cool and elegant The Myth of Fingerprintsin which their relationship is far less serene and far more fraught with antagonism. It's another tribute to Moore that it remains difficult to believe here too that this is the same actress. The range of expressive ability is so great and persuasive. Her later, incredibly impressive performance in Meirelles' Blindness registers as a kind of thematic bookend to her work in [Safe]; it's a return to a similarly situated societal role but one that in the case of the Meirelles offers up the possibility of less ambiguity inflected liberation and quite genuine restorative transformation.

JH:  Ultimately, I can't say I know what to do with Carol's final confrontation.  The severity of her situation has driven her to an igloo-like hut, once occupied by the most afflicted, alien resident of Wrenwood.  This is where we are left with Carol, now separated from both her family and the inhabitants of the healing colony as she confronts the mirror she finds there, simultaneously confronting us, the audience, uttering her newly adopted mantra:  "I love you.  I really love you."  This ending is a beginning, a ground zero, a point of rebuilding that resonates for anyone who has had to begin recovering from something they don't quite understand.  I do believe Haynes manages a radiant point of contemplation here, and (taken on its own) Carol's affliction does evoke epidemics of grave proportion, as well as the nature of more personal, mundane, and internal struggles.  [Safe] is a contemplation on the HIV/AIDS era, and also an indictment of the age of Affluenza, the Whites being the expressionist icons of illness born out of consumer utopia.  Haynes maintains all of this within a narrative that is uncompromising in its character representations, and also very cautious. 



The level of performance work that is achieved in the film seems unified by this cautious, balanced approach  As you mentioned, Peter Friedman is particularly noteworthy here, though I can't claim to have noted the ways in which his power relationship is over-emphasized by Haynes (though reviewing stills for this piece does reveal the ways in which he becomes a central presence in the film).  Still, I'm left with questions about Peter that aren't wholly satisfied.  In his attempts to guard his people from the world, and to resist the "Mean World" syndrome of the media, there is something both highly admirable and very, very wrong.  Also, I feel this is the kind of ambiguity I most often respond positively to, even admire, but I have to admit that [Safe] leaves me as frustrated and wanting as it does feeling satisfied with a fresh perspective of internal and external horizons.  All of the performances in the film seem to delicately offer up that same kind of difficult tensiveness, culminating in maybe the most powerful performative moment in the film, as well as one of the most uncompromising moments of the script, Carol's birthday speech.  In this moment, it seems we are most tightly bound to Carol in all of her tragic complexity, while simultaneously repelled by her utterly inarticulate attempt to express herself.  Moore isn't always able to pull off these supremely vulnerable moments, but most of the time she arrives, or at least comes very close, and never for the lack of willingness to take a risk.  As a marker of her career as an actress, [Safe] signifies an entirely new level of exhibition in terms of her skill. 



Kate Winslet in Mildred Pierce
As for Haynes, although we may differ in opinion about the quality of his output thus far, I think we might both agree that he's one of the most interesting directors to watch in terms of where he goes next.  Though I haven't seen his take on Mildred Pierce yet, I am thrilled to hear that you found it to be such an engaging work.  As we have been having these blogged Conversations, we never really hold each other to reviewing absolutely everything out there by a particular director, but rather rely on one another to fill each other in on something we might have missed.  For me, part of the delight of this exercise is knowing there's still great work out there, like Mildred Pierce, to catch up with.  So, once again, thanks for the recommendation, and, as always, the keen insight.  

NDC: I want to wrap things up by mentioning a few titles which may have been inspirations for [Safe], extending beyond the clear influence of Kubrick and Antonioni. Many have seen the parallels between this film and Chantal Akerman's 1975 masterpiece Jeanne Dielmannoting that both films detail the suffocating daily routines of their protagonists but in a way in which we as an audience are forced into a position of active spectatorship. Neither film is particularly forthcoming as to its "meaning", nor in any sense satsfying of a thirst for immediate gratification. The link is definitely there but the difference seems to me to be in Akerman's more directly stated explosive denouement. It's hard to miss the point of her film even if that point is not an inherently reductive one. [Safe], meanwhile, seems intentionally less clear, whether that be considered an ultimate benefit or a detriment. Meanwhile, on a less obvious note, I would point toward Steve de Jarnatt's superb 1988 film Miracle MileThat was an apocalyptic fantasia predicated on the notion of an impending nuclear assault on L.A. and is distinguished by a blown out 80's pop excess. It couldn't be less similar to Haynes' subject matter nor to his antiseptic tone and compositions.  But the link there for me is in the way familiar stylistic surfaces barely contain a throbbing pulse of dread, one more directed it seems toward sustaining appearances in the face of pressure than the pretext of any specific larger threat; [Safe], after all, is set in the 80's as well.  And it would be amiss to go without mentioning the justly famous 1892 short story The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, considered by many to be an early example of feminist literature. But it's the emphasis in the story on attitudes toward women's physical and mental health which places it as meaningful forerunner to [Safe]--that and the equally emphatic ambiguous point of view. We are never any more secure and certain of whether the heroine of that story is definitively sane or insane than we are with the similar unresolved questions within Haynes' film. It's not insignificant that "yellow wallpaper" is referred to casually at one point during a Wrenwood therapy session.


Chantal Ackerman's
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

The after effects of marketing and merchandising may also be worth a final mention as well. It's bizarre to think of a film like [Safe] spawning anything in the realm of merchandise (no souvenir commemorative cup from BK?) and yet there was at least one piece which did result which had as much impact upon me as the film itself. That was Ed Tomney's superb score. It is a pastiche of its own I suppose, echoing the synthesized ambient soundscapes of Brian Eno and complementing Haynes' tension filled atmosphere for full dramtic, and often horrific, effect. But I like it more than the film now and that's because it remains organically coherent, unified in a continuity of pure atmosphere. That kind of continuity is not inherently critical, of course. An experimental piece can function without it and within the flow of its own fluctuating currents. But here the comparison is instructive as it becomes the difference between an escalating cumulative effect and a dispersed, diffuse one. For me the totalizing experience of the score has a saturating impact the film simply can't, perhaps inevitably, as it is burdened with the weight of intellectual digressions which don't act as encumbrance upon the music (a correlative example perhaps of the contrast between the fleeting grace of poetry and the obtrusive mechanics of philosophical literature). I must also make reference to the film's eventual video poster, which I always found infinitely more appealing than the theatrical. The latter was a stock shot of Lester in the fields of Wrenwood--certainly a potent, succinct image but one that lacked the multi-dimensional finesse of the former. That poster, depicting a glamorous Moore equipped with incongruous oxygen tubes encroached upon on all sides by oppressive social representations, seems to much better fit with the film's own ambitions, though the poster image's very nature as singular and specific makes it more effective than the film's sporadic success.

JH:  Also, in regards to marketing, Sony's original preview for the film has always been a significant artifact for me in its somewhat desperate attempt to craft from the whole of [Safe] some kind of marketable horror film.  The trailer is capped with a rather cramped soundbite from Carol's Wrenwood monologue, leaving us with this completely decontextualized intonation:  "It's out there."  (Queue the "BUMbumBUUUUM!!!!).  It reminds me a bit of the current YouTube trend of re-genre-fying existing movie trailers (some of which are pretty wonderful exercises in style, as with the recent Mrs. Doubtfire-as-horror film trailer).




And, I'm glad you took time to mention both Chantal Ackerman's Jeanne Dielman and  Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper.  Haynes is definitely aware of the texts that he is threading together in his work, and these two are particularly essential to the fabric of [Safe], as well as two works essential to their respective cannons.  For those who might feel daunted by the duration of a film like Jeanne Dielman, all I can say is that it's the kind of film that gives back so much in comparison to the time it takes to view, which can, admittedly, feel like a test of ones patience.  But, somewhere along the way, the intimacy developed with Delphine Seyrig in that performance is one that will challenge your notions of what it means to become emotionally involved with a character in film, while also serving as a telling predecessor to what Haynes might have been trying to achieve with [Safe].

As we come to the close of this discussion, might I recommend that you chose the next film up for discussion for the "In Conversation" portion of ECSTATIC?  Meanwhile, I'll be working on expanding this section with some other film friends, the next piece focusing on a discussion of Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid with another West Coast friend of mine, Keith Nainby.  

NDC: As we emerge from Haynes' hermetic environments I'd like to suggest pursuing another American indie but one of a slightly different generation and a vastly different temperament. I'm speaking of notorious maverick Abel Ferrara and the film I would recommend we consider is his underrated, underseen 2005 picture Mary. I would point to that one specifically for a lot of reasons, just a few of which I will elaborate upon here. Ferrara is a hugely significant filmmaking voice and an inspiration to an assortment of artists but he's also very representative of the sort of defiant independent streak that was supposed to define American independent cinema to begin with (and did in the person of John Cassavetes). But, of course, the price of that is a lackluster, utterly unreliable distribution for his works that have kept many of them (like Mary) out of the hands of even the most dedicated fans. The result is that those films which should be recognized as American independent cinema at the height of its creative powers often go unrecognized as such for insufficient exposure. I'd like to do my part to help rectify that through an examination of this, one of his very finest works but also one of the least critcally evaluated. Beyond that, Mary is a brief film (only 85 minutes) which nonetheless manages to ably demonstrate and treat a number of the themes and ideas we have been pursuing with interest throughout these conversations: the veracity of cinematic realism and its implications, the importance of the technical contributions of individual artists, ideas of meta-representation, philosophical reflection, aesthetic innovation, etc. It's a dense picture but part of its awesome accomplishment is that it never seems overburdened or weighted down; in fact, I would argue it's an almost perfect crystalline arrangement of elements.

JH:  Excellent choice!  And, a film I feel similarly about in terms of its lack of critical attention and distribution (not to mention his rather enjoyable 2007 Cassavetes ode, Go Go Tales.)  Mary seems every bit as important to Ferrara's oeuvre as his more readily known and available early 90's films Bad Lieutenant and King of New York, though both great films in their own right.  Perhaps we can even uncover some of the story of how a picture like Mary fell through the cracks, so to speak.  As always, I look forward to another discussion. Until then, stay healthy out on the West coast, my friend.  




COMING SOON:  "In Conversation" - Abel Ferrara's Mary (2005), featuring Juliette Binoche

UP NEXT:  "In Conversation" with guest critic Keith Nainby - Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), featuring Kris Kristofferson and James Coburn.
 













2 comments:

Drew DeVine said...

In response to NDC:

I have to admit I find your reassesment of Safe puzzling. I agree with you about the over-reliance on irony and cerebrality in much of his work starting with Velvet Goldmine but I don't have a problem with it here any more than I do with Mildred Pierce (which I also love, thanks to your suggestion).

I think my first and probably most important departure with you is when you seem to suggest that his use of various influences--Kubrickian framing, cheapo-electronic horror scoring--is either a complicating or deconstructing game, and I'm not sure it's either. For me he puts these techniques to a sincere and straight-forward use to create a unique affective intensity unburdened by the loudness of the referentiality of its constituent parts. I find it an altogether seamless and resonant approach.

And this may be a cop-out, but I might suggest that the problem with your experience of the film may be that your approach to it is too intellectual, not that Haynes' is. I find that if I stay in the sheer perceptual and sensory flow of what the film presents me with--each moment that I am watching it-- every technical strategy is deployed at precisely the right moment to help me go through the same confusions, dislocations, and teeter-totterings between faith and skepticism that Carol is going through. I find my humility towards the film rewarded. It is better to experience it keeping only what's happening onscreen in mind, rather than with what Haynes has said or written about it, which I agree tends to cheapen it.

For me it doesn't matter if the DVD booklet shows Haynes utterly demonizes the New Age movement, because within the temporal flow of the film we alternate between wanting to trust and believe in Peter's teachings and seeing him as a charlatan (which is the key for me to the shortness of that shot of his mansion--it does not speak to knowing cleverness on the part of Haynes but of Carol's refusal to really consider or allow her own instinctual skepticism--also shown when she starts crying in her cabin after a speech by Peter--any teeth, while still briefly acknowledging that it is there).

It's really the way Haynes captures that sensation of in-betweenness and teeter-tottering which repeatedly keeps me coming back to the film, and which is more important than him having to explain the similarities between the Stepford Wives world and Wrenwood in any detailed way. What's more important is the intensity of the process undergone, the inability to ever feel like you are really seeing your environment or capable of helping yourself. For all of his purported skepticism and all the ridiculous and grandiose intellectual claims he is wont to make, for me this film's form speaks to an intimate experience with the feeling of being completely decentered, of needing to trust everything but being incapable of trusting anything, even and especially your own lived experience. Haynes' DVD booklet and commentary may imply his own authority, but I feel very little ultimate perspectival authority in the film itself. The only center is the wild impulse of an unwell person to by turns trust and distrust the various forces which promise to liberate it. I find that a very difficult feeling to capture and one which I haven't experienced in any other film with quite the same intensity.

One of the biggest thematic through-lines of the film, which doesn't seem to be addressed here, is the question of being "safe". If the film does have any implicit discursive through-line, it is that the solution to these problems of confusion is not to erect walls around ourselves, to run away from or ask help for our problems, but to run into the difficulty ourselves, and live with it.

My apologies if I've misread you at all here. I admit sometimes I wasn't quite sure what you were getting at.

nathaniel drake carlson said...

Hi, Drew. I want to thank you for taking the time to leave such a thoughtful, considered response.

You may very well be right in your assessment of Haynes' application of his technique (i.e. that it's meant to play in a straightforward, sincere sort of way leading us to reflect seriously on the ideas you mention). My continual problem is that I simply cannot disassociate the finished product from what Haynes says about it or from what his later work would seem to suggest motivates it. I really wish I could experience it again the same way I did 15 years ago, which seems to be very much the way you are experiencing it and comprehending it now. But I cannot and maybe that isn't and shouldn't be considered a bad thing. Our relationships and attitudes toward cultural products constantly change over time as they are filtered through other expereinces and encounters; the evidence of an enduring work of art is perhaps its resiliance to that, its accommodation of it (even when the response turns sour as it has here for me).

Most of the time, as we discussed above, we welcome the artist's comments as helpful indicator or supplement. Generally what we get is evidence of a thought process or some sense of what may have been meant. It's usually pretty loose and simply provides additional means of comprehending a given object. But Haynes' approach is far different from the norm and I think that doesn't allow for as much indifference to it. Regardless of how much he may wish to protest otherwise the commentary he makes does function as a thorough going rigorous critical overview. He does the job of the critic analyst and he does it in such a thorough way, framed always in academic-ese, that it seems virtually impossible to dismiss it or attempt to forget it once its been heard, even if the purposes don't always come off convincingly. Between that and the way in which his later films direct our attention to the specific machinations of his process, its design and intent, any return to a pure experience of [Safe] seems doomed to fail. At least for me. And that is too bad as I'd like nothing more than to re-expereince it in that way. And there are superb elements in it that function quite successfully on their own terms independent of the rest. I just wish it still held together for me as well as it seems to for both you and Jason. But Haynes brings this on himself. His intent determination to determine meaning or lack thereof is not without casualty.

One thing I will venture to say, however, that exceeds his critical calculus is that I don't really think Haynes is particularly sympathetic to Carol and that derisory condescension may be implict as, surperficially, he would claim otherwise. It is a fine balance of possibilities: dersion vs. sympathy. But ultimately I think it tips too far one way, the ratio is off, the balance upended and the results of his experiment in relentless ambiguity are tainted. That sort of thing is evidence of what a devastating blow one miscalculation can make. He sets himself a very high bar and I admire that but the requirement then becomes an almost obsessive attention to the implications and effects of every decision and detail. In a structure that precarious maybe all it takes is one thing to set the whole thing to tumbling (insert gif of jenga here).