PRINT Summer 1995


TODD HAYNES’ SAFE BEGINS at night in a Mercedes floating past manicured shrubbery and self-important gates. The emblematic star on the hood is a rifle sight, scoping suburbia’s upscale terrain. There is no gun beneath the seat, no hand roaming restlessly under a skirt, just the noiresque suggestion of such a melodrama at the end of the road. Beautiful music like breathing backwards accompanies this allegorical drive which is soon interrupted by a sneeze. With this slip—the first in a series of escalating symptoms, disaffected housewife Carol White (Julianne Moore), reveals the true nature of the film. In Safe, where most of White’s neighbors are, she no longer is, and thus no longer is herself.

Safe is what American Gigolo has become; Safe is where American Gigolo has gone. The hustler glamour of Paul Schrader’s erotogenic Los Angeles is affected and then dismembered in Haynes’ title sequence which bathes in appropriated gloss. Post- and preoutbreak respectively, Safe drags the images and conceits of Schrader’s Gigolo into the current crisis, advancing its discussion of AIDS in metaphorical terms. Oddly and involuntarily, the two films bracket the AIDS crisis by implanting danger or susceptibility within the heterosexual orbit, without posing the “virus” as antagonist. Playing Haynes’ straight act off Schrader’s homosensual and phobic voyeurship might seem fanciful, but consider their parallel exploration of banishment and loss of identity. In polar L.A.’s, both housewife and whore (Richard Gere) are edged out of worlds they occupied only as surrogates. The sexless sex and sleek suits, the spiritual and physical toxicity of excess, and the subsequent exodus into mainstream monogamy, lead us 15 years later to the insular world of Safe, where illness rather than intrigue unravels complacency.

In Poison, Haynes serenaded the archetypal gay male dystopian utopia: the Genet prison. Now he inverts this strategy, casting the heterosexual utopian locale—the suburban home—as a wife-killing entity.

I talked with Haynes this May on the heels of Safe’s quiet triumph at the Sundance Film Festival as we looked toward the film’s early summer release.

Collier Schorr

COLLIER SCHORR: Why open Safe with such a shamelessly gorgeous and seductive sequence?

TODD HAYNES: I wanted the opening to be a glossy, slow entry into this world. The way it’s described in the script is that the viewer is driving up a hill and watching houses go from small to large to larger, all more and more simulated in their architecture. I was thinking of Encino, where my parents just happen to live and where the architecture is at once stunning, frightening, and fascinating—fake Tudor, fake country manor, at night bathed in the iridescent blue-green glow of street lamps and landscape lighting, with that buzz of electricity in the air. Everything the film is about can be seen in those houses from outside at night. The music adds to it, as well as the credits, which appear to pulsate and then evaporate into fumes.

CS: Did you look at any particular L.A. films before filming Safe?

TH: I looked at 2001. I looked at films that took the notion of L.A. as a futuristic spaceland where every trace of nature has been completely superseded by man really far. L.A. is like an airport: you never breathe real air; you’re never in any real place; you’re in a transitional, carpeted hum zone—which is what I wanted to convey in Safe.

CS: The prison scenes in Poison were so full of visual pleasure. What was it like filming in the home of Carol White?

TH: The two films represent absolutely opposite approaches. I align Superstar with Safe. Poison is closer to Dottie Gets Spanked and an earlier film I made about Rimbaud called Assassins. The latter three are gay themed, and they are messier films because I was taking something I felt really passionate about and trying to describe artists, their lives, and their acts of transgression—all the while knowing and mistrusting the tendency to think that film can portray transgression and give it to an audience intact. It can’t. You have to interrogate transgression or present it in pieces. With those projects I had to guard against my love of the material and how my own fantasies revolved around it. Safe is not my world, it’s the construction of another world. Superstar and Safe were very conceptual projects about people in whom I didn’t have an initial investment, but while I was constructing the films I found myself in them. I completely identified with Karen’s anorexia, although I’ve never been anorexic, and I completely understand Carol’s relationship to an identity she inherited and her need to be affirmed by a society that intellectually she knows sucks.

CS: Carol’s world seems less a construction and more a reconstruction of the heterosexual environment you grew up in. It says a lot about mythologized inheritances that you feel closer to the prison locale of Poison.

TH: The textures, colors, and smells of that world did not feel like mine. I always saw it from the point of view of somebody who didn’t really feel like a part of it.

CS: So is Carol you?

TH: Yeah, I think she is. In Safe, I’m putting this unborn version of myself deeply into that territory and then slowly scratching my way out.

CS: I thought about Natalie Wood in Splendor in the Grass when I watched Carol’s ladylike collapse. Both are models of restraint—with the exception of Natalie’s breakdown in the bathtub and Carol’s seizure at the dry cleaners. In Safe, does chemical illness replace hysteria, which seems ever stuck on the feminine?

TH: Yes, of course. One thing about Splendor in the Grass is that Wood’s character’s sexual hunger is continually being tamed—by society and its rules of what a woman is supposed to be. Unfortunately Carol White doesn’t have that hunger. The history of illness associated with women has been a continual interest in my films, from Superstar to Safe. I loved what seemed particularly inexplicable about environmental illness when I first read about it—how it was affecting housewives. It wasn’t until men in the workplace started to come down with similar kinds of sensitivities that environmental illness became something the medical establishment would even begin to investigate. The ability to dismiss illness as feminine and the way illness completely undermines identity are what Safe explores.

CS: Why has female illness been of continual interest to you?

TH: I think it’s illness first and foremost, but there’s a tradition of illness being projected onto the “female” that I identify with. I clue into that history. I feel that AIDS as it’s associated with homosexuality has a historical connection to illnesses attributed to women.

CS: If Carol White didn’t suffer from chemical illness, would she have been all right?

TH: No. I think the illness is the only thing that’s telling her the truth in the movie. Illness is the thing that makes her look at her life in a completely different way and forces her out of these patterns. Unfortunately the illness takes her to a place, Wrenwood, that is supposed to provide answers or explanations for physical conditions, but ultimately what Wrenwood provides is as destructive and confining as the L.A. home and life she fled. We leave Carol White almost where we found her in the beginning of the film—suffering in a repressive system that is supposed to have been the answer to everything.

CS: Superstar, Poison, and Safe all explore illness through a low-impact version of the horror movie. Can you talk about that genre’s capability to represent the other as protagonist?

TH: Carol is kept at bay from the viewer. In Safe, the distance usually felt toward the “monster” in horror movies, the feeling of removal, is furthered by the fact that there are very few close-ups of Carol. It’s quietly horrific. People who have chemical illnesses get really intense psychical reactions from chemicals. Some of the stuff I saw doing research was so extreme—cysts draining black discharge, for example—I couldn’t put it in the movie because the audience would think it was just outrageous. I think the audience does feel this weird distance from Carol, though it may not be immediately associated with the “monster” lurking within her. Carol White doesn’t know who she is, she’s at a distance from herself. The film reflects this distance, mirroring the way her illness literally distances us from her. Carol’s process of figuring out who she is gives us a sense of how to care about her.

CS: It seems as though being sick has become a metaphor for having AIDS. How is it helpful to make an AIDS movie that’s not specifically (vis-à-vis story line) about AIDS?

TH: I’d like to make a film about AIDS, but I do find that the specificity of AIDS right now in our day-to-day lives gives everybody the ability to set it aside from their lives out of a survival instinct. There are always ways of separating ourselves from a completely overwhelming experience when we don’t have the means to deal with it. When I set out to do Safe, especially after I did Poison (because Poison was completely informed by AIDS, and neither film could have existed without the epidemic), I did have this instinct to take the metaphor of AIDS as far as possible away from the war zone—Poison’s realm, where you’re in the trenches and everything’s pushed to an extreme, operatic level—and instead to try to discover illness in the most unlikely place on the planet: in the safest, most protected, most comfortable, most sealed-off kind of life.

CS: Illness doesn’t look as dangerous or life-threatening in a place like that.

TH: Initially. All of this is an elitist version of illness. One of the internal concepts of Safe is that while you’re watching it the film provides all these reasons why you should doubt Carol’s illness and find it unacceptable.

CS: For Carol, “unhappy” is a ridiculous concept. Who in her world would believe she could ever be unsatisfied? So she blearily says she’s under a lot of stress.

TH: Stress becomes a code word. I created a difficult situation for myself by providing the audience with all these ways not to care about Carol. But the ammunition the audience has just reiterates all the mean messages Carol is told: You are making yourself sick; it’s all in your head; go see a shrink; you don’t love yourself enough; you lead this empty life; you’re not really stressed out. I wanted to touch that little bit in everyone where you just aren’t convinced that who you think you are is really who you are—that moment when you feel like you’re a forgery.

CS: Getting away or fleeing—often from the oppression of normalcy—has been a constant in your work, from Karen Carpenter’s eating to disappear to a child’s flying away to leave home. Carol leaves her husband and stepson for a desert retreat; it’s a pretty powerful image of separation. Can you talk about stripping a family away from a female character, and whether or not one could read this exploration as a kind of reflexive heterophobia?

TH: Well, there’s no question, the film is completely—valiantly—heterophobic. But perhaps it’s more masculine-phobic, or patriarch-phobic. I feel there’s an unconditional sympathy for Carol, who is heterosexual. One goal in the movie was to create the least sentimental image of a kid—a kid Carol has no real relationship to. Rory [Chauncy Leopardi] is a child from her husband’s first marriage, but neither Carol nor Rory have their hearts in this sort of placating—of being mother and son, assuming roles. At the very beginning, before the illness, you see Carol not getting fulfillment from a sexual life with her husband or from a maternal life with this child. I didn’t want to create a perfect home that was undermined by illness. A problem already existed, and the illness was a circumstance that alerted her to it.

CS: After Poison, many viewers might expect something a little sexier than Safe.

TH: A lot of people are in for a slow, quiet shock. Safe is a film that resists telling you what to think. It does have a very clear point of view, but some may not know how to look for it. These days, movies have gotten didactic and instructive, heavy-handed in every way.

CS: While all conventional wisdom would suggest Carol engage in extramarital sex with the recognizably Hollywood-ish Chris (James LeGros), she remains unsatisfied. Is it satisfying, even thrilling, for you to withhold from gratifying the audience’s desire for desire?

TH: The film withholds the kinds of rewards that are usually assured. From the beginning, Carol is not fully accessible to us. We don’t really understand why all this is happening to her. What always is wanted in a film like this, especially in all the TV disease movies, is a transcendent ending when the protagonist either survives the illness or doesn’t. In terms of selling the film, it definitely would have been easier to include some romance. The focus of concern while trying to raise money for Safe was the film’s resistant ending, which has continued to be a question for critics. I was never tempted to make a romantic spark between the characters. I really wanted to frustrate narrative expectations to the point where you want Carol to become independent, and at the same time you learn enough about Wrenwood to know that Wrenwood’s answer for Carol is horribly cruel—she is blamed for her illness and basically locked in a sealed-up vault. That’s not the narrative resolution we look for in movies.

CS: The un-spa-like, unheimlich retreat that Carol moves to brings up issues of quarantine and segregation. While quarantines have generally been set up to protect those outside, one gets a sense of the comfort of being separate. Can you talk about the film’s elusive title and what quarantine means to you?

TH: The film investigates the safety of immunity—various kinds of immunity, like emotional immunity to the world (how we find Carol in the beginning). Carol’s illness forces her our of such numbness, but Wrenwood’s kinds of spiritual diagnosis of illness have a great deal to do with controlling the world and information—keeping newspaper ink, television, and transportation at bay—and re-creating a sense of quarantine, what immunity becomes in holistic language.

CS: Your depiction of a spiritual retreat, complete with a mansion-owning guru, is somewhat detached, which I think may make some viewers uncomfortable. You resist making the retreat an easy target of ridicule.

TH: I found the least interesting thing I could do with New Age stuff was to completely dismiss it. The cut we had at Sundance didn’t have the shot showing the mansion. That single shot has allowed people to have a slightly more solid reading of the film, which I have to say is disappointing on some level for me because I feel like the film is so full of strong indicators of what my critique is.

CS: Why cast Peter [Peter Friedman], the retreat guru, as someone with AIDS?

TH: A lot of it has to do with Louise Hay’s book The AIDS Book: Creating a Positive Approach. In the mid ’80s Hays developed a following among gay men with AIDS. What is it that makes people with AIDS read a book that says, If you loved yourself more you wouldn’t have gotten sick, and now that you are sick if you learn how to love yourself you will be cured? This puts the subjects in an impossible situation where they will never overcome their illness because they’ll never love themselves enough. I think I made Peter someone with AIDS not only because it’s another immune-system illness, like environmental illness—they’re often linked—but also because there was this history of New Age thinking and AIDS that I wanted to bring into the film.

CS: Safe breaks from television and Hollywood by withholding any resolution. Safe in her safe house, Carol whispers “I love you” to her reflection in the camera lens, following a counselor’s advice. Ordinarily this might function as some kind of happy-ever-after beginning, but in Carol’s case it is just another example of her malleability.

TH: I did want some kind of tension. Carol adopts the words of the new world she’s entered, and she is repeating the lingo that she didn’t know how to repeat earlier on, but that must be weighed against all the evidence that’s piled up against Wrenwood. Without all those critiques of Wrenwood, you could leave the theater feeling fully resolved and hopeful, but in Safe there’s no escape.