Friday, May 2, 2008

white movie friday : safe

Todd Haynes' Safe, released in 1988, is an unusual “white movie.” Unlike most movies made about white central characters, this story of "Carol White," a mysteriously ill American woman, expresses a filmmaker's awareness of the racial status of his characters. Safe goes even further, by analyzing this whiteness. It does so by addressing a series of rather abstract questions about what it means to be classified as "white," and about where white people in general think they’re going, in their fundamental movement away from that which is not white.

In its portrayal of the sad, inward collapse of its central character, Carol (played by Haynes regular Julianne Moore), the film’s basic racial questions can be put this way:

Whiteness was established as an important social category in order to distinguish the people in it from other people, especially because those other people, namely "red" and "black" ones, were a threat. Since, in these terms, whiteness is fundamentally a movement away from something it fears, then where is the “safe” place that such a movement is ultimately aimed toward? And if any white people ever get there, what is life like for them, once they've achieved the White Dream?

Throughout his career, Todd Haynes has been this type of abstract and nettlesome filmmaker. His main subject seems to be not the American Dream per se, but rather a series of more specific American dreams. In his first film, the notorious Karen Carpenter Story (1987), Haynes burrows beneath the surface of a wholesome, ethereal, and very white American icon, hoping to discover what it was that led Karen Carpenter, at the age of 32, to starve herself to death. The film traces Carpenter’s anorexia to its roots in a stifling, success-driven, and superficially happy family life. The Karen Carpenter Story (available in all its mad, 43-minute glory at various Google-able locations) is a very powerful, moving film, thanks in no small part to its actors, an array of meticulously costumed Barbie Dolls.

Working just out of film school, Haynes clearly saved money with this casting choice. However, in an artistic film that signaled the complexity of his later work, the choice serves several purposes. Rob Gonsalves points out, for instance, that the dolls are “used brilliantly”:

Haynes is saying that Karen herself was reduced to a dress-up doll by her overbearing brother and mother, living in a plastic universe that enforces surface femininity on women without taking into account the psychological price they often pay. . . . Karen's visible sickness—culminating in her collapse onstage—is bad for the Carpenters' squeaky-clean image, another façade that Haynes suggests was as hollow as Barbie.

Screenings of the film are now forbidden, thanks to a successful lawsuit filed by Karen’s singing partner and brother, Richard, over Haynes’ unlicensed use of music by The Carpenters. But like I said, Google now brings you the world, and it can also bring you The Karen Carpenter Story.

In all of his work, Haynes refuses to follow the rules of cinematic propriety. His second film, Poison (1991), is a series of allegorical vignettes based on the deliberately upsetting writings of the homosexual son of a prostitute, Jean Genet. Taken together, Poison's vignettes form an eloquent elegy to the AIDS-stricken gay community (such as it was) in the 1980s. Poison won the Grand Jury Award at The Sundance Film Festival, despite having enough unsettling and graphic content to earn a denunciation as “homoerotic filth” by a prominent Christian watchdog group, the American Family Association.

Southern California, where both Todd Haynes and Karen Carpenter grew up, is also the setting for Haynes’ third film, Safe. The movie opens with a theme-setting long-shot, filmed from the seat of a car, winding through a gated community, then through a gated driveway, and into the safety of the White home, where Carol and Greg (played by Xander Berkeley) live with twelve-year old Rory, Greg’s son by a previous marriage.

Viewers are quickly subjected to a ceiling shot of Greg and Carol having sex. As Greg labors away at what has clearly become just another routine for the Whites, Carol gazes away absent-mindedly; she brings herself back to the moment just often enough to coax Greg toward the usual finish.

In subsequent scenes, the camera pans over the enormous houses of the Whites and their neighbors, nary a person in sight. As Greg goes off to his nameless day-job, Carol busies herself with commiserating halfheartedly with a friend who’s lost a brother, and then with having lunch with her again the next day, when her friend encourages her to try a bold new thing—"a fruit diet" that’s "supposed to cleanse the body naturally of all its toxins."

We then see Carol picking up some dry-cleaned clothes, drinking lots milk (at one point she admits, “I’m a total milkaholic”), and going through the aerobic motions at a health club, where a friend remarks with envious amazement, “You know, Carol, you do not sweat!”

By mainstream American standards, the Whites have arrived. They live a life that seems to ask of them no sweat whatsoever. Whatever Greg does for work, it doesn’t seem to stress him out much; it also pays for their enormous McMansion, and it allows Carol to spend her days however she likes. Unfortunately, as with her friends, this freedom means little more than endless bouts of self-pampering, and obsessive attention to the details of her cavernous house.

When a new set of furniture arrives and the color is wrong, Carol freaks. But of course, she does so in a polite, restrained manner.

“Oh my God,” she says, her mouth agape. “It’s black. This is not what we ordered.”

As she rushes to call the furniture store, Haynes lingers on an extended reaction shot of Carol’s uniformed Latina maid, the ironically named Fulvia.

As she watches Carol's anxious fussing over furniture that probably costs as much as her yearly salary, the expression on Fulvia’s face says, all too clearly, “Lady, you think this a problem? I should have such problems!”

When Carol goes to the furniture store to demand a teal-colored replacement, a clerk tells her that the original order was a request for black. “That’s impossible,” Carol insists. “It doesn’t go with anything else we have.”

As in actual settings of this sort, the racial whiteness of these characters goes unnamed, and unnoticed, by the white people themsevles. As I’ve been suggesting, though, this family’s surname and the rejected "black" furniture aren't the only indications that Haynes means to mark that whiteness, and to analyze it.

As the Whites sit down to dinner with their son Rory, he reads them an essay he’s working on for school:

There were more and more gangs in the Los Angeles basin, plus many more stabbings and shootings by AK-47s, Uzis, and Mac-10s, and killings of numerous innocent people. L.A. was the gang capital of America. Rapes, riots, shooting of innocent people, slashing of throats, arms and legs being dissected, were all common sights in the black ghettoes of LA. Today, black and Chicano gangs are coming into the valleys, in mostly white areas, more and more. That’s why gangs in L.A. are a big American issue.

“Why does it have to be so gory?” Carol asks.

“Gory? That’s how it really is. God.”

As with the symbolically colored furniture, Rory's essay gives voice to the racial fears that account for all those gates outside the White home.

The looming intrusion of contaminating elements, into what amounts to a very bleached, antiseptic, and safe domestic space, soon takes another form. Having fallen asleep before an infomercial on “deep ecology” and the threat of viruses, the apparently suggestible Carol begins a series of severe coughing, wretching, and wheezing spells, and then, while her husband is sympathetically hugging her in an unusual moment of genuine intimacy, vomiting.

Carol visits her doctor, who can find nothing wrong with her. When the symptoms persist, she repeats her visit, only to be told again that she’s physically fine. The symptoms are clearly taking an emotional and mental toll as well, bringing Carol before a psychiatrist, who also fails to find a source, and eventually, to a hospital.

Lying in bed with AIDS-like marks on her skin and lips, Carol channel-surfs until she lands on an informercial for a retreat called the Wrenwood Center. This is the place, she realizes, where people like her belong. As a soothing, generic TV voice says, “Safe bodies need safe environments in which to live.”

The Wrenwood Center is run by Peter Dunning, another suggestively named character. Dunning’s first line, delivered to his collected patients, is a blandly disarming effort to assure them, apparently falsely, that he’s not out to dun them for money: “Now, if you’ll all close your eyes, and pass your valuables to the front. Heh heh.”

Sequestered in a hill-top mansion of his own, Dunning calmly, creepily lectures his environmentally challenged disciples on the Center's core value, the need to take individual responsibility for one's problems.

Having detached herself from her family, physically and, it seems, emotionally, Carol finally retreats into her own sterilized, white, plastic igloo. Having arrived at no definitive answer for Carol’s problem, the movie’s final lines (which I won't give away here) suggest the end of her journey--a steady march into the emptiness of herself. As Rob Gonsalves puts it, "There's nowhere for Carol to escape except into herself, which would be fine if she had a self.”

Like many works of art, Safe supports multiple interpretations. Many viewers choose to overlook the film’s ambiguity and its intricate symbolism, viewing it as a straightforward, sympathetic portrait of extreme environmental sensitivity. Others consider Carol’s plight another of the openly gay director’s extended allegories on the AIDS crisis.

Given the parallels it suggests between Carol’s journey and that of the white race, the film can also be interpreted as an allegory about racial fear. Viewed this way, the neurotic obsession with a clean, secure environment depicted in Safe suggests the logical end of the road for the people who declared themselves white, a racial group that still fundamentally defines itself in fearful relation to other, darker races.

Here, then, is how such a parallel works: formerly non-white people who became white began down this road by moving away from what they were before, and also by defining themselves through a process of also defining more explicitly, and fearfully, those whom they were not. As many historians of whiteness have explained, America initially declared itself, loudly and openly, as a “White, Anglo-Saxon” nation.

In fact, in one of its own self-defining documents, the Declaration of Independence, the new nation specifically defined itself in this fearful, racially relational sense.

In their list of grievances against King George III, the newly white colonists wrote, “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

In 1790, the desire for safety from the threat of racial contamination was further codified, in the form of the “Naturalization Act.” This law defined, among those coming to the new country, who could become citizens, and who could not. Among the stipulations was that of being a “free, white person.” Non-white people could come and live in America, but all the way up until 1954, when this Act was finally put to rest, they could not become Americans.

What Haynes ultimately says in Safe about whiteness, in an allegorical, symbolic way, is that this initial fear of fantasized, caricatured racial threats remains a fundamental characteristic of white people. It still prods them into gated communities, exclusionary workplaces, segregated schools and so on, spaces that seem safe because they’re as free as possible of the contaminating threat of non-whiteness.

Again, Haynes’ film is an allegory—it uses the method of unrealistic but pointed exaggeration to comment on parallel social phenomena. In terms of race, the story of Carol White parallels a journey to the logical end-point of whiteness.

Given the fearful underpinnings of the collective white psyche, the end point of the white race’s flight from contamination is its own empty self.

(here's the trailer for Safe)


  1. I love Todd Haynes.

    I blogged about Far From Heaven not long ago. You may have seen it. But I've never seen Safe.

  2. Yes sarah, I remember commenting on that interesting entry at your blog.

    Yes, I've seen Far From Heaven, where the racial dynamics are almost as much about whiteness as they are in Safe. The Douglas Sirk film it's based on, which I think is entitled All that Heaven Allows, is interesting in its own right, especially knowing as we do now that Rock Hudson was gay.

  3. sounds like a scary movie. i can't wait to hunt it down!


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