Saturday, March 08, 2008

Un [Safe]

It's a rainy gray day here in Manhattan --the type of day where I find myself zoning out, lost in memories, cinematic or otherwise...

There's an interesting very personal essay over at The Bilerico Project from Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore on watching or, rather, rewatching Todd Haynes [Safe] . For those who haven't seen the 1995 movie, it's about a woman who becomes allergic to her environment. It's been called (accurately) a "horror movie of the soul" and it was a critical breakthrough in the careers of both writer / director Todd Haynes and actress Julianne Moore --it was the first time she was asked to carry a film.

I've watched the movie several times and each trip through has felt a little different. One scene or another will meekly ask a question I hadn't heard before like it's aping its protagonist Carol White (Julianne Moore) and phrasing everything like a question. Another mildly bothersome scene might scare me so much I want to turn the DVD off before I start hyperventilating like Carol in a parking garage. The scene that Matillda focuses on in the essay --the "where am I?" moment, I barely noticed the last time I watched the movie and now I want to watch it again right now. Probably not a good idea when my hypochondria has been in full bloom this week.

[Safe], or Safe if you prefer, is a mutating virus of a movie. Even or especially from the present tense of watching it to the past tense of looking back on it. Whether that be the next day or many years later. I still remember the first time I saw it in college. My friends and I didn't talk about it much after the movie was over (unusual for us). A week later one of my girlfriends says, out of the blue, 'that movie terrified me.' Suddenly you couldn't shut us up. We were ready to discuss.

If you haven't seen the movie, schedule the appointment. If you have, tell us about your first time through. Do you feel differently about it now?


Benji said...

It's been 3 years since I've seen it for the first and only time.
I don't remember much, but I do remember that it freaked me out. I had no expectations when I watched it, but it turned out to be beyond anything I would ever have expected from a movie.
So it definitely stuck with me....

Catherine said...

I only saw it for the first time about two months ago. It was odd, I was waiting for a bus home from town one freezing, rainy evening and I suddenly decided to nip over to the dvd rental place across the street because I had this overwhelming desire to see [safe]. It just popped into my head that I needed to watch it. When I entered the shop, the very first dvd I saw was it. Which was really weird, because I've been going to that dvd place for years and I'd never seen it before. I watched it in my room on my small little tv, and it had such a profoundly disturbing effect on me that it was all I could do to not turn it off. - but the film sucked me in so deeply that I had to keep watching. The ending, where she's staring out at herself in the mirror, made me feel so uncomfortable and terrified and sad, all at once. When I'm watching dvds in my room I usually have all the lights off, but in this case I turned on my desk lamp, just to give the room a little glow and make it a little less forboding.

Amy Jane said...

benji i love that you had no expectations. That's so hard to do now with movies ---too much advance info but I saw Safe too without many preconceptions about it. And I was as yet not a Julianne Moore maniac even.

catherine --i watch with lights out too. I totally don't believe in distractions during movies so I try not to answer the phone and I don't have the lights on

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Nathaniel, so lovely to hear your thoughts on Safe -- and on my post!

I actually went to Safe for the first time after seeing Poison, so I expected something that jumped all over the place, in and out of narrative and time and feeling, but Safe was so still, so claustrophobic, so relentless and heartbreaking.

Now, in my own experience of fibromyalgia/chronic pain/the overwhelm of the everyday, in my worst moments I often feel like Julianne Moore's character, I don't think I've had this kind of relationship with a cinematic character before, or since...

Glenn Dunks said...

Yes, that movie is very much in the vein of untraditional horror movies. Those opening credits with the car driving through the Los Angeles suburbs were surely going through David Lynch's head when making Mulholland Drive (they're eerily similar, even down to the music).

One of the things that I love most about it is that it has this visual aesthetic of some daytime "disease of the week" movie with that soft focus touch, lulling the viewer into a false sense of security before giving them this gut punch of social paranoia.

It's, for me, Haynes and Juli's very best films (together or otherwise). And I am in the field of calling it [safe]. Who knows why I'm so pedantic about that.

Anonymous said...

I have only seen [safe] once, and many years ago now. I admired it, but recall it was by no means comfortable viewing. I keep intending to go back and analyse that feeling, but have never got round to it. (Rewatch a movie I know I like, or rewatch a movie that made me uncomfortable? Hardly a dilemma.) This post has put it back on my radar though.


StinkyLulu said...

I have really vivid memories of the first two times I saw this film.

My first viewing offered one of my most distilled experiences of cinematic terror, with the beauty parlor scene at the apex of my anxiety.

In my second viewing, I was amazed at how noisy (distant traffic and airplane sounds) Haynes had made the environment of the retreat. Genius.

As I read your post, I'm newly struck by the character's name (Carol White) as a close cousin of the central character's name in another surprising horror film (Carrie White).

Excellent post...


i also love that Carol White has the same initials as Cathy Whitaker in the other great Haynes/Moore film... far from heaven. I think it t'were Nick who pointed that out to me.

a through line there since they're both so suffocated by their environment/times/limited frame of reference.

Anonymous said...

You know what's interesting about this film ? It's not only what it says about Carol White, but what it says about the viewers.

Have your read the comment on imdb ? People are so condescending ! They say Carol is not a human being because her life is uninteresting, and many criticize her for not working, for not being involved in the community.. they go as far as saying that she doesn't have a purpose in this life.

It seems to me that educated people from the 21st century take themselves too seriously in thinking that they "make" the world or make it a better place because they work, or because they're involved in community services..
of course that's a good thing, but the fact that Carol White doesn't have the same occupations doesn't make her any less of a human being. She's just a flawed one, and I think some people enjoy putting other people down because it makes them look more accomplished, probably because they are themselves unsure about their purpose in life.

I also think Carol is a repressed asexual, someone who just can't enjoy sex or appreciate for what it is, because anything that makes her remember that human beings are animals is digusting to her. She always keeps her distance with people, and she doesn't seem to enjoy herself at the gym with all these other women sweating, she is ill at ease in that environment. When the woman tells her she doesn't sweat, it means she's not a sexual creature like the other women.

Some people say that should she get better, she might hook up with the guy she meets at Wrenwood, Chris. Am I wrong in thinking he might be gay (his mannerisms led me to think that), and that Carol is friendly with him because he's not a man who would threaten her because he's not attracted to her, and because she sees him as an oucast just as she is ?

I find it also strange that a stepford-wife like her doesn't have kids. She's around 35. Yes she's got a stepson, but she still has to give birth. She might not be able to conceive a child and that's what ultimately maker her mentally-ill, in that sense the baby shower scene is very telling : all these women seem to be active mothers, and suddenly she realizes that being sterile makes her an outcast in this upper middle-class society she exists in and she starts panicking. It's a cry for help and attention because she'll never have her own baby shower, hence she'll never feel like she's truly complete.