Friday, September 14, 2012

Safe (1995)

UK/USA, 119 minutes
Director/writer: Todd Haynes
Photography: Alex Nepomniaschy
Music: Ed Tomney
Editor: James Lyons
Cast: Julianne Moore, Xander Berkeley, Ronnie Farer, Jessica Harper, James LeGros, Peter Friedman, Mary Carver, Kate McGregor-Stewart, Chauncey Leopardi, Steven Gilborn, John Apicella, Eleanor Graham

Safe is maddeningly good at being hard to pin down. It's one of the things I like most about it, but it's also the source of its greatest weakness, which is a tendency to look like it's making broad plays for ironic laughs, particularly in its second half, finding an all too easy target in the self-actualization preoccupations and clichés of its late-'80s Southern California setting. This is unfortunate because the movie is much more often, particularly in its first half, deadly serious about articulating what I might as well call a spiritual malaise. Here it is referred to as "environmental illness," the term of art in the period of the film for an evident immune-system condition that still hasn't been scientifically validated, but has traveled under many names: chemical sensitivity, 20th century syndrome, sick building syndrome, and, currently, multiple chemical sensitivity.

I know this disease and apparently so do director/writer Todd Haynes and Julianne Moore, who plays the victim here, Carol White, in an amazing turn. This disease is there in all the scenes of Los Angeles freeway traffic, at dusk, at night, in the day, crawling along in haze. It's there in the nightmares of parking garages. It's there in the power-line towers and handfuls of parallel lines draped and running ubiquitously overhead. It's there in the interiors of the fine San Fernando Valley homes, stuffed with treated fabrics, cleaning chemicals, molded plastics, body scents, and servants in uniform. And it's there in one of the picture's canniest elements, its sound design, which simply records the ambient noise that surrounds us constantly: the drone of planes overhead, the whine of vacuum cleaners, the washes of traffic's white noise, the radios and televisions playing in the background of so many interiors, including AM talk radio in one memorable scene inside a car.

Safe opens like a mystery, inside the front seat of a luxury car (we see the hood emblem) traveling down streets of a gated community at dusk. We don't see anyone, inside or outside the car, just driveways, palm trees, distant houses, parked cars, and the purplish street. Ed Tomney's music is all oppressively saturated keyboard chords. It feels ominous and strange immediately, as in the early auto interior sequences of Mulholland Dr. and in Vertigo. In fact, Safe could nearly as easily have been torqued into the shape of a horror picture, a variation on Cronenberg-style themes; in many way it is exactly that.

Practically the first time we see Carol it is from above, with her husband on top of her, making love. She is clearly removed from it, yet solicitous of her partner, affectionate and sensitive as he squirms for his orgasm, kissing him gently when he is finished, but disengaged. Moore's performance is dazzling, as someone tightly wound and folded deeply into herself, trying to cope, trying to understand. On the one hand she fits into the routine of the bored rich women on their cycles of self-help books, aerobics classes, lunch with girlfriends, and asshole husbands (Xander Berkeley as Carol's husband Greg is good, all sublimated rage and frustration on his second marriage). But Carol is different from them, more tentative and alienated, and strange. She doesn't seem entirely alive somehow. When she is under stress she drinks milk, a small detail but unsettling.

Haynes is working very close to the lines here, experimenting. Sometimes he goes over them. But other times he stays just this side of them, tempting impulses to excess, but reining them in. But getting very close to them. For example, in many ways the purest syntax of the self-actualization movements is found in the promotional videos with their cheesy New Age music, stock footage images of beaches and waterfalls, and soothing sonorous overtones of voiceovers. Haynes's versions of them are spot-on, just cheesy enough to make you want to groan, just soothing enough to help you identify with Carol's finding hope in them.

The first half is really a masterpiece in its own right. It builds tension inexorably, taking on elements of The Exorcist or The Brood in the many clinical settings, the awful tenor of developments and the sense that one is hurling inescapably into oblivion. Scenes such as her desperate attempt to get away from Los Angeles traffic fumes by driving into a parking garage, or the baby shower where she has an asthmatic attack, or even just one perfectly realized nosebleed, really ratchet the tension. It's hard to understand what is happening, but something is. Those scenes are never funny. When she has to be hospitalized after she steps into a dry-cleaning establishment where they are fumigating, it's quite clear that something is genuinely wrong.

But then comes the second half, with the Wrenwood retreat and the guru and other characters that populate it. Here, a close encounter with a semi-trailer truck on a highway during a nature walk and a Joan Baez-like folk singer really push hard on the credibility. It's funny to think that anyone would put a retreat for people suffering from environmental illness near a highway (the noise of passing traffic is a constant feature of the camp exteriors), but it's funny in a way that takes one out of the movie's primary spell too.

There are still good things, notably the performances of Peter Friedman as the unctuous camp guru, Kate McGregor-Stewart as his nun-like helpmeet, and especially Jessica Harper as one of the patients. Even James LeGros, as his usual amiable creepy idiot, gets a nice turn. And you know what? When Eleanor Graham steps up to sing after the camp group has closed an evening gathering with their benediction—"We are one with the power that created us. We are safe, and all is well in our world"—I'm not saying it doesn't entirely work.

The question remains: Is it real, or is it psychosomatic? This is where I think the attempts at humor are most unfortunate, because they stack the deck unfairly against the one thing that has been so carefully constructed here, which is the validity of Carol's problem, and how vividly Safe renders it, even guides us into connecting with it. The answer to the question is that the question misses the point. It is real but it is a spiritual disease. The conventional doctors here (as with the real-life scientists who have studied it) are baffled. It is Todd Haynes's great achievement that he makes us feel how real it is even in the face of all that. Anyone who has spent too much time in freeway traffic and parking garages will not have to go far to get this.

Top 20 of 1995
I tend to think of 1995 as a weak year for the movies, but looking at my list that's more apparent 11-20, because there are some remarkable movies in the top 10, many unconventional in varying ways but outstanding. I really love Living in Oblivion, which I suspect may be living up to its title. I can't recommend it enthusiastically enough. Well, I guess I could have made it #1. I thought about it. I didn't like Babe much at the time, but a recent viewing of it really grabbed me. Another one of the great last lines in movies: "That'll do, pig. That'll do." I need to see Kids, Smoke, and Zero Kelvin again, but they all made quite an impression. I think the first Scorsese might more properly be a TV show but I don't care. It's an amazing documentary and for me a bracingly deep dive into cinema. The rest will have to speak for itself. (No, I don't approve of Mel Gibson—and I admit I still haven't seen the Jesus torture-porn.)
1. Safe
2. Living in Oblivion
3. Babe
4. Kids
5. A Personal Journey Through American Cinema With Martin Scorsese
6. Smoke
7. Casino
8. Zero Kelvin
9. Shanghai Triad
10. Braveheart
11. Dead Man
12. Se7en
13. Welcome to the Dollhouse
14. To Die For
15. Toy Story
16. Forgotten Silver
17. The American President
18. Get Shorty
19. Before Sunrise
20. Clueless

Didn't like so much: Apollo 13, Heat, Leaving Las Vegas, Twelve Monkeys, The Usual Suspects

Gaps: The Addiction, The Celluloid Closet, City of Lost Children, Nixon, The White Balloon

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