[SAFE] FROM WHAT?
Todd Haynes’ 1995 movie [Safe] can be read in many different ways. In this paper, I am going to explain its engagement with genre and representation. Like most of Todd Haynes’ films, [Safe] includes conventions of many different genres including Classical Hollywood melodrama, disease movie, body horror and even film noir. What is significant in Haynes’ films is that he plays with the conventions by using cinematography and also the content of the films. Through his version of popular genres especially melodramas, he made films open to different interpretations. One interpretation is that, [Safe] may be a good example in which one can see allegories to AIDS and post-AIDS society. I will try to resolve these allegories in the film and whether it is possible to make that kind of a reading from the film or not. The film also includes a lot of different representations like race, safety, woman, AIDS. I will also try to show how Haynes represents these categories in the film through cinematography and mise-en-scene and why he chooses to represent all those categories related to each other in a film.
First of all, I want to start with Classical Hollywood melodramas since Haynes has a tendency towards this especially melodramas. Although there are different types of melodramas, the dominant ones are always include effective music and drama. Mostly, this drama is about a woman and the music heightens the effect of her impasse on the spectator. The protagonist is constructed in a way that the viewer identifies him/herself with the protagonist. Most of them end with the resolution of the struggle which makes the viewer feel comfortable and happy, in a way. Classical Hollywood melodramas generally take their characters from white, upper class, suburban people which is very much stressed in Todd Haynes’ films. [Safe] starts like a classic melodrama takes place in San Fernando Valley which is known as secure, risk-free haven of whiteness, separated and protected from the imagined dangers of colored innercity Los Angeles (Potter 2004, p.128). Normally, the spectator expects the woman protagonist as being passionate for her children, loving for her husband, concerned with her house and easygoing with her friends. However, the starting of them movie do not draw such a nice picture. It starts at night taken by oblique angle and without any extra lighting signaling something wrong will happen like a horror movie. We encounter Carol and her husband making sex in the next scene in which Carol seems very numb. One thing weird in this scene is that normally a melodrama would not show such a scene so openly and even if it shows, Carol should be seen as getting more pleasure.
Cinematographically, melodramas mostly have balanced frames in the movie. By balanced frames, I mean there are no negative spaces in the frames and the protagonist or the important objects in the frame are placed in the middle and front of the frame. Haynes apparently plays this rule intentionally. Most of the scenes, we see Carol who supposed to be the main character near the edges. Potter in her article, says that: ‘… Safe nonetheless perverts the cinematic spatial arrangements typical of the heterosexual romance.’(Potter 2004, pp.126-127) The thing which is important and we should pay attention becomes the house and the environment instead of Carol. This is deliberately done, of course, since throughout the film what the spectator interested in is what makes Carol ill rather than Carol herself.
Another melodrama convention that is broken by Haynes in the film is the end of the film. Normally in a Classical melodrama, we expect a resolution in the end. For [Safe], the ordinary spectator would expect that Carol gets better and discharged from Wrenwood. However, in the end when Carol says herself ‘I love you’ in front of the mirror, the spectator feels even more distant from the character. She looks like as if she is dead. Mulvey argues that, in accordance with Classical Hollywood melodrama conventions, the spectator is always in a masculine position that sees the woman characters as the objects of desire. Like we cannot identify ourselves with Carol, thanks to the long takes and lack of close ups, we cannot desire her too. We even do not desire to see her getting better. We start to watch the film with traditional expectations but the film does not satisfy them. Moreover, at the end of the film, its being open-endedness does not bother us.
At this point, we should look at Carol’s position in the film. Since melodramas have certain type protagonists, we have to revise Carol in that sense. First thing remarkable in Carol is her quietness. She is so quiet and deadness that there is no way one can understand her feelings. She even cannot talk. It is impossible to identify with her which is spontaneously done in Classical melodramas. The illness Carol has is like an allergy to camera. The scene in which Carol searches her telephone book is a great example to this. She drinks a glass of milk and seems as if she cannot breathe while directly looking at the camera. Normally, in a Classical melodrama, the spectator feels sorry about her and even s/he gets worried for her, but in this scene, we do not feel anything about Carol. Actually, it is as if she does not feel anything either. She, unintentionally, blocks all the ways the spectator can use to make identification with her. The illness she seems like an allergy toward identification at all. All the camera movements also prevent identification between Carol and the spectator by throwing Carol aside. Through these restorations in the genre, Haynes seems to offer an alternative way to look at the concept of identity. The spectator cannot take Carol as a total character since she cannot even be rationalized. She cannot explain herself, which means she is lack of the knowledge of herself. She is like protecting herself, as a matter of safety, from the spectator who is used to be identified with the main character.
When it comes to safety, another important thing in the beginning of the film is the subtitle showing time and place. It says: San Fernando Valley (which I describe above) and 1987. This information is very important to understand and interpret the film. The place is important in accordance with the representation of race and its relation to safety in the film (I will discuss it in the second part of my paper) and the date is important since it is the date when the first AIDS patient emerges at that time. Film’s starting with a sex scene is not a coincidence in this sense since the film’s name is [Safe] and Carol is caught by an unidentified illness.
At this point, Paul Willemen points out that: ‘Cinephilia itself describes simultaneously a particular relationship to cinema and a particular historical period relating to cinema.’(Roger 2003, p. 93) The film is shot in 1995 which can be considered as post-AIDS period which is labeled with the obsession of the concept of ‘safety’. This can be both considered as safe sex, and being distant from the people who carry HIV. Of course, this does not mean that Carol’s illness is a direct reference to AIDS. Actually, apart from two scenes, there is no direct reference to AIDS at all. Moreover, I do not think that Carol is an AIDS patient. Still, there is a strong allegory between the film and AIDS and post- AIDS period. One important moment that threaten us this allegory is when Carol goes to her friend’s house and they are sitting at the over-hygienically kitchen, they talked about her brother’s having HIV positive but actually they do not say too much. For James Morrison, this is a reference to the ACT UP slogan: Silence=Death. (Morrison 2007, p.75)
Another thing which is related directly to the name of the film is about race. At that time, racism against black people was very dominant in USA. AS I mentioned above, San Fernando Valley like a safe place for white people who considers blackness as a matter of danger. This is a very intentional choice in order to complete the whole ‘safe’ picture in the movie.
The whole film can be read as the representation of the concept of ‘safety’ since all the other representations derives from this concept. Being white, being a white, upper-middle class white woman, living in a suburb, the representation of house, all of these representations are in the film for the sake of ‘safety’. But what kind of safety is this? At first, Carol seems to live a very safe life with having all those gatekeepers at the gate and garden gates. Even when she talks about herself she says she had a very healthy childhood. She is shown as doing sports and watching out what she ate and drank. Still, she is the one who becomes sick in the film. Samira Kawash asks that ‘…can the body ever be completely enclosed in such a way as to be impervious to its outside?’(Kawash 2000, p.207) This is a very important question which is asked to the spectator throughout the film. Choosing San Fernando Valley, in this sense, serves very much to make the spectator more confused about the question. As I mentioned above it a suburban in which white heterosexual inhabitants are common. Another thing should also be mentioned here: AIDS is seen as a homosexual disease, since it is mostly associated with anal sex. Of course this is a hetero-normative myth. Still, at that time it works and there was a great homophobia. So, thinking about all these conditions, the occurrence of AIDS or an illness like Carol has in a very safe and isolated place from the so-called dangers of blackness and homosexuality is unexpected.
The representation of woman in the film is also much related to the concept of safety. In all those hegemonic identities created in the film like whiteness, patriarchy and upper class belonging, Carol, the protagonist seems to be lost. She is white and belongs to upper class but still she is not identified with these concepts totally. She is actually lost in house for the sake of safety. Kawash says that: ‘…Carol becomes virtually invisible amidst the domestic landscape. Her conversations are likewise virtually inaudible, competing with the ambient noises of lighting fixtures or vacuum cleaners.’(Kawash 2000, p.209) It is like she imitating the roles she is given for the sake of identities which she did not choose at all. Through those imitations, she is getting more and more alienated from her identities and correspondingly her illness becomes more and more powerful. She is like a person who belongs nowhere. That is why, she continues to imitation even in the Wrenwood. She tries to be the subject of disidentification in order to survive but she tries to do it by imitation again which makes her even worse. At the end of the film, we see her alienation from her body and also herself strikingly although she says ‘I love you’ to herself. She is like both the minority and majority in the film. She is identified with the conventions of majority but actually she belongs to minority by being sick. That is why; she cannot be the subject of disidentification. Rather, she becomes the object by imitating the practices of both sides.
Finally I want to talk a little bit about the representation of Wrenwood. All the Wrenwood is constructed to serve this dichotomy I mentioned above in the film. The spectator sees the differences between Wrenwood and San Fernando Valley both cinematographically and through mise- en-scene. First of all, there are black people in Wrenwood to whom Carol gets in touch with, and also Peter who makes psychiatric sessions with all the patients is an AIDS patient. All the things which are seen as ‘dangerous’ in San Fernando Valley are in the Wrenwood to which Carol goes to get cured. This automatically gives the spectator the hope for the change in Carol’s point of view. One may think she is sick because of her overcautious life in San Fernando Valley. But, at the end, we realize that this is not the case. What Dorian Stuber says is the thing which summarizes the whole film:
‘In the end, it does not matter that the mise-en-scene comes to be dominated by earth tones rather than the earlier icy blues, greens and whites; that the lighting is now natural rather than artificial; or the cinematography now includes occasional tracks, pans and identificatory- inducing techniques such as shot-reverse shot compositions, rather than still compositions in which characters are framed in long shots. These changes prove to be a ruse, for Wrenwood mirrors, rather than replaces the San Fernando suburbs Carol has supposedly left behind.’(Suber 2005, p.83)
One last time, the spectator encounters with the unsatisfaction of her expectations about the end. Through the representation of Wrenwood opposite to San Fernando Valley, Haynes makes the spectator create an illusionary expectation on everything’s getting well, but then he crackles the conventions of genres by ending the film gloomy.
HALLAS, ROGER, CAMERA OBSCURA 52, AIDS AND GAY CINEPHILIA, p.93, VOL. 18, NO. 1, 2003
KAWASH, SAMIRA, CULTURAL CRITIQUE: SAFE HOUSE?: BODY, BUILDING AND THE QUESTION OF SECURITY, pp.207-209, NO: 45, SPRING 2000
MORRISON, JAMES, THE CINEMA OF TODD HAYNES, 1st edn, viewed 27 July 2011 http://books.google.com.tr/books?id=DgRpOlxC50gC&pg=PA71&lpg=PA71&dq=laura+mulvey+todd+haynes&source=bl&ots=_IG4dku5av&sig=yWlEO3AtTQf5oIB4kwoxlX7Viyo&hl=tr&ei=qFoxTvadDpKp8QOd2LChDg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CBwQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=laura%20mulvey%20todd%20haynes&f=false
POTTER, SUSAN, DANGEROUS PLACES: SAFE, pp.126-128, VOL.19, NO. 3, 2004
SUBER,DORIAN, PATIENT ZERO? ILLNESS AND VULNERABILITY IN TODD HAYNES’S [SAFE], PARALLAX, p.83, VOL.11, NO.2, 2005