Monday, October 17, 2005

Safe


At the hair salon: Julianne Moore gets a perm, then a nosebleed

So, here's my pick for favorite American movie made in the last ten years: Safe (1995) by Todd Haynes. (David Lynch's Mulholland Drive runs a close second.)

Safe is about a Southern California wife and mother, Carol White (played by Julianne Moore), who begins to develop an allergy to her environment, in essence to life in the modern world. After her symptoms escalate — beginning with a benign sneeze and "bless you" in the opening scene, moving on to coughing, throwing up, nosebleeds and finally, severe seizure — she leaves the city, her husband and her step-son for a New Age retreat in the country, hoping to be cured. The illness remains a mystery, and the ending is as happy or sad as we want it to be. (No surprise: I lean towards the latter.) A few thoughts:

  • Safe is a sort of horror movie, but not your usual kind: In its most visceral scene, a single droplet of blood emerges from Julianne Moore’s nose.

  • An inventory of substances that casually flit across the screen during the movie, usually in the background: truck exhaust fumes, viscous perm gloop, hissing air freshener, roach bomb clouds, sticky cabinet paint, jets of hairspray, large dollops of supermarket ice cream.

  • “You know our couch? Our beautiful couch?.…Totally toxic.”

  • Haynes’ use of detachment and distance is truly inspired: stationary, unruffled camera; very few close-ups; lots of long shots; a quiet, eerie pace; and, like Hitchcock, a careful calm focus on the details of mundane activities that immediately precede a crisis event.

  • Horror movies need monsters, either inside or outside of us. It’s never clear exactly who or what the monster is here. Is it the environment? The chemical aquaria we live in? Our fears and anxieties? Our every thought of self-blame? I’ve seen this movie four times, and depending on my mood, I gravitate towards one or the other, or some mixture of these.

  • Is Safe a satire of New Age-ism? It didn't strike me that way at first, but it may well be. What makes this so un-obvious is Haynes' ambivalence for Wrenwood, the New Age retreat, which complicates our inference. On the DVD commentary track, he says that when the film first showed at Sundance, he was disappointed that the audience was confused (does this guy approve of New Age healing or is he satirizing it?) He wanted the audience to lean towards the latter, so he added one extra shot of a mansion on the hill that belongs to the retreat's CEO. Ironically, this shot barely changes the ambiguity with which we view the film.

  • Minutiae for fellow music obsessives: Carol's aerobics class works out to Madonna's "Lucky Star", and George Benson's "Turn Your Love Around" plays in her house. I've always liked both these pop tunes, but Haynes really meant them to signify generic 80s lite-FM. Funny tidbit: When his music supervisor picked an Aretha tune (off Who's Zoomin' Who, perhaps?), Haynes nixed it because he had too much respect for the song! Carol's insomnia is scored by Brian Eno's "Slow Water". (Haynes opened his next movie, Velvet Goldmine, with Eno's "Needles in the Camel's Eye".)

  • I found in my journal a sentence I scribbled years ago when I first heard Haynes on the DVD commentary track: "This is fascinating: he talks about the movie as if someone else had created it, as if it had a life completely of its own with no connection to him, as if he were trying to "read" the movie like anyone else."

  • Safe is part of a series of Haynes movies about women and their illnesses: Karen Carpenter’s anorexia in Superstar and Julianne Moore’s spiritual sickness in Far From Heaven.

  • This could easily be a movie about AIDS (another immunity-disorder sickness like environmental illness), not to mention an allegory about the personal identity challenges of being gay in a heterosexual environment. (Haynes is gay and was part of the New Queer Cinema of the 1980s.)

  • Safe is wonderfully — and disturbingly — undidactic. We almost want it to tell us: chemicals are bad; suburban living is unhealthy; New Age-ism is bananas; our society is built on a structure of falsehoods and systematic denial. Safe hints at these things but never explicitly connects Carol's illness to them. That is a connection Haynes will not make for us. It remains for us to make. Or not.

And now, back where we started: your personal pick for favorite American movie of the last ten years? And why? I'd love to know.

45 Comments:

Blogger Tuwa said...

And now the time has come for Girish to write a book.

October 17, 2005 8:24 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Heheh. Sorry I got a bit carried away, Tuwa.
I love this movie to death and I'm often surprised by how many of my friends have not seen it. So, I find myself recommending it often.
By the way, folks, if you're not in a favorite-picking mood, just chat about anything you darn well please.

October 17, 2005 8:32 AM  
Anonymous Chuck said...

I'll have to think about your question for a day or two before I give my final answer, but I think that Safe would probably be in my top 10.

I also like that it's not didactic, and the AIDS allegory also seems pretty important.

October 17, 2005 10:28 AM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Sorry, I didn't mean it like that. I meant that you write about films with passion and clarity and I'd like to see what you consider the best of your work collected in one place. Or maybe you'd write up some new things (or both?). But I think you could certainly write a book's worth of material, and a book worth reading.

October 17, 2005 10:42 AM  
Anonymous rakesh said...

I must confess that I haven't watched many American Indie movies. Coming from a small town in South India, it's difficult. You can't even find dvd's of such films in video libraries. The two American movies of the past 5 years that I really love are Darren Aronfsky's "Requiem for a Dream" and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarittu's "21 grams". I know my choices are pretty mainstream and it might even digust some of the art movie aficionados... Anyways, I would really love to know what you guys think abt the films I have mentioned above

October 17, 2005 10:44 AM  
Anonymous acquarello said...

Good one! Off the top of my head, I'd probably go with [Safe] also or Almereyda's Happy Here and Now; for experimental, Mekas' As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty. I remember seeing that aerobics class scene and thinking that Haynes really nails the pulse of the era (even as he subverts it).

October 17, 2005 11:03 AM  
Blogger Musing said...

I second the book writing idea.

October 17, 2005 12:38 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Tuwa, thanks for the kind words. Please don't apologize: I was joshin'.

Rakesh, I've never seen 21 Grams and only part of the Aronofsky on cable late one night.

Acquarello, I've not seen either the Almereyda (which I passed on at TIFF that year, assuming it would get distributed--it never did), or alas, the Mekas.

Almereyda's new documentary on photographer William Eggleston was at Toronto this year (they were both present), and the movie's already in release. I'm eager to see it. I've seen only Hamlet by him, and I really liked its use of New York.

October 17, 2005 12:46 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, Jeannette.
[Brown-skinned man gettin' all red-faced over here].

October 17, 2005 12:48 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Mmm... Safe. I've only seen it twice. Once years and years ago, and then I revisited it half a year ago. The first time I watched it, I felt ill. All that ambient hum and disease talk got to me. The second time through, I was struck by how morbidly comic certain scenes were. Haynes' work just keeps growing on me, getting richer and richer. He really is one of the best working today. Cannot wait for the Dylan "meditation."

October 17, 2005 1:29 PM  
Anonymous acquarello said...

One thing that really struck me about Happy Here and Now is how prescient Almereyda was with the idea of online intimacy, from creating avatars of ourselves (that usually make us look a heck of a lot better than we actually do) and also the ability to open up more freely about how we really feel because we know we're anonymous. There's a really telling scene early on when the missing woman practically begs to meet her online "penpal" (both of their avatars are of attractive people) and he goes on about how their relationship is perfect now and seeing each other in person will only shatter that illusion. I thought that one scene nailed a lot of what we're all feeling in this anonymous digital age in terms of wanting to reach out and be understood by someone but also the fear of getting rejected.

Anyway, I just remembered too that this is also one of the few movies that take place in Louisiana that doesn't play on the New Orleans stereotype.

October 17, 2005 1:55 PM  
Anonymous dvd said...

This is a nearly impossible question, since it was within the last ten years that I grew into cinematic maturity, as it were - Pulp Fiction should almost be the default answer for me, for as much as that may seem like a cliche now, it really rocked my thirteen year old head into a higher plane of filmic consiousness. And then there's the PTA stuff that has meant the world to me, Magnolia chief among them. And Buffalo 66, which I went back to the theaters to see again and again and again....

And I love Safe, too, of course (and can no longer drive behind trucks without hyperventilating).

For the time being, I'll select a more obscure choice that I love dearly: Hedwig And The Angry Inch. One of the most heartbreakingly beautiful odes to individuality I've ever seen, with some really terrific music to boot. Every time I see it, it's exactly the movie I need to see.

October 17, 2005 1:59 PM  
Anonymous dvd said...

I'll have to check out Happy Here And Now. I've always been a fan of Almareyda's stuff.

October 17, 2005 2:21 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Ben, I agree 100%. On his DVD commentary tracks, he's so damn funny and smart--and every bit of that morbid humor seems intended (he chuckles along with it on the Safe track).

Acquarello, Happy Here And Now sounds fascinating, the question is--how do we get to see it? (If anyone reading has it on VHS or DVD-R, please email.) :-)

Also: "he goes on about how their relationship is perfect now and seeing each other in person will only shatter that illusion"...thus the title of the film, I guess...

David--"Every time I see it, it's exactly the movie I need to see." Nicely put.
And I haven't seen Hedwig either. (I will, and soon.)

October 17, 2005 2:33 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

I love Safe but can think of a handful of American feature films released since that I definitely like even better (it probably helps that I've seen them more often). None are particularly "hidden" gems. Don't ask which might be #1:

Dead Man, Jim Jarmusch. Is there such a thing as an "unambitious epic" 'cause this feels like one.

Rushmore, Wes Anderson. Like a fine Swiss clock with all the parts working perfectly together.

the Thin Red Line, Terrence Malick. Perhaps the best and most formally radical big, "Oscar-worthy" Hollywood film ever?

Mulholland Dr., David Lynch. Which you already mentioned. Silencio.

the Company, Robert Altman. Altman's style seems perfectly matched with the fleeting motions of dancers.

October 17, 2005 4:14 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Nice picks, Brian.
I really liked The Company but can't seem to find too many others who will share my enthusiasm for it. And the ballet scenes are the closest Altman's come to experimental, abstract filmmaking. And I love that he crams in five different (and interesting) versions of the over-familiar "My Funny Valentine".

October 17, 2005 4:22 PM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

Favorite American film of the past ten years: Eyes Wide Shut, even if it was filmed in England and takes place in an America of Kubrick's imagination. It's held up for me after several viewings and actually gets better.

Safe was interesting, but I like Velvet Goldmine better because of the soundtrack and because I could never imagine a glam rock remake of Citizen Kane, but obviously Todd Haynes could.

October 17, 2005 6:00 PM  
Blogger Campaspe said...

Of American movies since 1995 ...

if I am just totally honest about which film I enjoyed the most, and still enjoy ...

Fargo.

October 17, 2005 6:53 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Sofia's The Virgin Suicides is at the top of my list. The filming is so seductive, but the tragic story stays open enough for multiple angles: quasi mythic/archetypical, coming of age, social statement, gender relations, romance, surburban angst, familial bond etc. But for a more personal reason, having it take place in MI, where I've lived my whole life, is a plus; able to capture that midwest station wagon life style very well.

October 17, 2005 9:10 PM  
Blogger girish said...

I barely remember Fargo (it's been a good 10 years), have never seen Virgin Suicides (I really want to), and swear by Eyes Wide Shut.

October 17, 2005 10:07 PM  
Blogger Campaspe said...

I also wanted to note that you picked out my favorite scene (the nosebleed) in Safe. The sequence is so simple but it's enough to make you swear off hair salons for the rest of your life.

October 17, 2005 10:26 PM  
Anonymous rakesh said...

I am also excited abt the next Todd Haynes project (I'm Not There: Suppositions on a Film Concerning Dylan). Cate Blanchett (one of my fav actresses) and Todd Haynes working together for the first time...Plus it's a film abtmy favourite songwriter of all time- Bob Dylan.

PS: Girish, which is your fav Dylan album? Mine is "Blonde On Blonde".

October 18, 2005 9:41 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Probably one of my choices for the last 30 years even. It's really a great achievement of cinema, aside from all easy conventions. A rare example of "total cinema", where image, sound and performances are on equal level, regardless for plot imperatives.
Mulholland Dr., Lost Highway, The Virgin Suicides, Being John Malkovich would make the top.

October 18, 2005 9:53 AM  
Blogger Zach Campbell said...

My pick is probably Abel Ferrara's New Rose Hotel. Runners-up include: Before Sunrise and especially Before Sunset; The Thin Red Line; Dead Man.

October 18, 2005 11:36 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Dylan: tough choice. There are so many periods and flavors. Bringing It All Back Home, his first electric record; Nashville Skyline, his most charming (to me anyway); Blood On the Tracks; and his last one, Love And Theft, which is fantastic.

Harry, so true about "total cinema". I wonder: have you read interviews with him or heard his commentaries? They're a pleasure. He's probably the most articulate of current American filmmakers.

October 18, 2005 11:45 AM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Girish, that's a great question about favorite American films of the last ten years. I'm just thinking off the top of my head here (and I'm sure I'm forgetting a lot films), but one film that I have a fondness for is Michael Mann's "The Insider." It's hardly a subtle piece of work, but I particularly love its narrative structure. The prologue in which Lowell Bergman (Pacino) and Mike Wallace (Plummer) are interviewing a Hezbollah leader establishes the objectivity of 60 Minutes; but as the narrative proceeds, you realize that 60 Minutes is anything but objective. I also like that the film is in two acts, the first about Wigand (Crowe), the second about CBS. And the film has something in common with other films, novels, and works of art I admire: at its core, it's partly about the unpredictable, unwanted trajectory an ordinary life can take.

I haven't seen Safe, but now that I've read your comments about it, it's on my list of films to see. I also like many of the choices others have made (particularly Altman).

October 18, 2005 2:26 PM  
Blogger Joseph said...

For me, Safe isn't only the best American film of the past ten years. In 2000 I declared it the best American film of the 90s (so I guess that would make it the best American film of the past 15 years).

October 18, 2005 3:37 PM  
Anonymous Pacze Moj said...

I had a hell of a time coming up with a favourites-from-the-last-decade list.

As Good As It Gets, A Simple Plan, Crimson Tide, Ghost World, Wonder Boys and Shattered Glass come to mind.

As for some less mainstream-ish stuff: George Washington, Smoke, Limbo, Pi, and Primer.

Wow -- that's actually more than I thought I could name.

I'll try to catch some Haynes soon. Haven't seen Velvet Goldmine or Safe, yet.

October 18, 2005 4:04 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

No I haven't Girish, and it's the only film of him I saw. Lots good stuff to catch up with. Do you have any links of his interviews handy?

October 18, 2005 5:57 PM  
Anonymous Darren said...

I'm glad to see that someone has already mentioned Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which isn't my favorite film of the decade -- in fact, I'm not even sure the thing holds together, finally -- but it's one of my most-played DVDs. I love parts of that film. Really. The fact that every time I watch it I develop a crush on John Cameron Mitchell is some kind of testament to his talent, I think.

Although I just saw it for the first time a couple weeks ago, I'm tempted to call Dead Man my favorite of the last ten years. Eyes Wide Shut and Waking Life would also be high on the list.

October 18, 2005 6:17 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Whoa, I get out of afternoon class and find that a little typhoon went through here. (I mean that in the nicest way.)

Michael, I'm so with you on The Insider. I only saw it this year on DVD and it took me completely by surprise. Mann has a dazzling eye and for once, weds his visual gifts to non-genre content that is morally unsettling and open-ended. I had just seen Collateral, and been a little disappointed by it, when my friend Doug (of Filmjourney) strongly recommended I see The Insider, and I'm so glad I did.

October 18, 2005 7:02 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Harry--There are a couple of dozen interviews with Todd Haynes collected here at toddhaynes.net.

Oh, and this is an especially great interview with him from Artforum.

October 18, 2005 7:14 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

That's a great point about how Mann marries his visuals with the content; it's one of those films in which both cohere beautifully. I've probably seen The Insider close to a dozen times now, if not more, and there are certain things about it that always move me, and some of them have to do with the way the visuals express and augment the moral and emotional situations of the characters. Easily Mann's best work.

October 18, 2005 8:03 PM  
Anonymous cinetrix said...

If you need your memory joggled, as indeed I do, the editors at IMDb have their picks for the past 15 years up here as part of the site's 15th anniversary celebration. That said, right now I'm leaning toward Before Sunrise/Sunset....

October 18, 2005 10:16 PM  
Blogger Nick Davis said...

Safe would be my choice, too. (I wandered over from GreenCine, by the way... nice entry!) The only American film that comes close from the same time period is The Thin Red Line, and the only other English-language film that rivals those in my affection is Lynne Ramsay's Morvern Callar. What did you think of that one, Girish?

October 18, 2005 10:27 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Ah thanks 'Trix, didn't know about that one...

October 18, 2005 10:27 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Nick, I'm crazy about Morvern Callar. It seems to have sunk into oblivion after that flurry of good notices when it first came out. Which is a shame...

October 18, 2005 10:33 PM  
Anonymous dvd said...

Darren, I know that sneaky John-Cameron-Mitchell-crush of which you speak all too well. I wish I'd had the chance to see him in the role on stage.

I guess I should have mentioned that Eyes Wide Shut is my all time favorite film, making it all too easy of a choice.

October 19, 2005 10:14 AM  
Blogger Joseph said...

DVD: Eyes Wide Shut your favorite? I like it too, and I always get into arguments with people who otherwise love Kubrick who think this film is terrible, that its sexual politics are anachronistic or out-of-date, that Kubrick miscalculated by not setting the film in the late 19th century (which is where the source novel was situated).

October 19, 2005 4:18 PM  
Anonymous dvd said...

Indeed it is, for both personal and critical reasons. I've read pretty much everything I can get my hands on about it, from Schnitzler's novella to the BFI monograph to Frederick Raphael's much-despised account of the screenwriting process, to getting Jan Harlan's personal take on the film at the Kubrick exhibition in Berlin.

Not to mention Darren's marvelous piece comparing it to Joyce's The Dead....

October 19, 2005 6:00 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Off-topic but the blog The Of Mirror Eye is giving away Faye Wong cantopop mp3 goodies.

October 19, 2005 6:05 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Thanks for the helpful links Girish. I'll read through them.

October 20, 2005 9:14 PM  
Anonymous rakesh said...

Girish, BLOOD ON THe TRACKS is my second fav Dylan album. It just tears me apart everytime I listen to the album.

October 21, 2005 10:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My list would include Welcome to the Dollhouse, City of Hope, Magnolias, Boyz in the Hood, Monsoon Wedding, Shortcuts and anything by Atom Egoyan


Neale.

October 27, 2005 8:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Los Angeles Plays Itself
An Injury to One
Velvet Goldmine
All The Real Girls
From the Journals of Jean Seberg
Spectres of the Spectrum
Treasure Island
American Astronaut
Jackpot
Trans
Judy Berlin
FUBAR (Canadian)
Bodysong (British)
D-I-A-L History (German)

November 01, 2005 9:13 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home