Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: "[safe]" (1995)

*This post is part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blogathon at The Film Experience*

There is certainly no shortage of art about the fears of modernity. Especially since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution over 200 years ago, there have been countless novels, paintings, films, photographs, and other works that have addressed mankind's increasing reliance on technology and the compartmentalization of society as that technology further eliminates the need for social interaction. These works often take on one of two different approaches. The first is starry-eyed nostalgia for "the way things were," reminding audiences of how "simple" life used to be before the world became modern and unrecognizable. The other is a cautionary tale, delivering a dire warning to audiences about what could happen to them if they can't keep their humanity in a world that's increasingly mechanical. Both approaches rely heavily on making audiences uncomfortable with the modern world, though whether one is more effective than the other (if at all) varies considerably.

So leave it to American filmmaker Todd Haynes to take this idea and place it under his critical gaze with the help of his eventual muse, Julianne Moore. [safe], their first collaboration (and Moore's first leading role), tells the story of Carol (Moore), a San Fernando Valley housewife in the late 1980s. Carol's existence can be described as "affluent autopilot:" she has a set routine of gardening, visiting friends, doing aerobics, and attending social events with her well-to-do husband Greg (Xander Berkeley). One day, Carol begins feeling sick, with no unifying factor in her symptoms. Carol becomes convinced that her illness is caused by chemicals in the air, and travels to New Mexico to receive treatment from self-help guru Peter Dunning (Peter Friedman) at his Wrenwood retreat. The question, though, is: is Carol really sick, or is it all just in her head?

Haynes doesn't deliver any solid answers to this quandary. Instead, his camera studies Carol and her situation and allows the audience to assess where her malady lies. Some have interpreted the film as an allegory for the AIDS epidemic which, in 1995, had only just become a topic that was acceptable to acknowledge in popular culture. However, it is just as easy to read it as a quiet subversion of 20th-century fears of modernity, turned on their head in Haynes' treatment of his protagonist.

More after the jump.

The moment we are actually introduced to Carol, she is seen in bed with her husband. Though he is clearly having the time of his life, she is bored, simply going through the motions of an act that she's participating in out of necessity, not passion.

It's in this moment that Haynes sets the stage for how he presents Carol throughout the film. Even though she's having sex with her husband, there's no intimacy present. Carol is mentally removed from the act, present in body but not in mind. She's distant and, in a way, isolated, unable to forage the appropriate connection for this moment.

Haynes returns to this isolation again and again over the course of the film. In the next scene, when she is in the garden and her husband is leaving for work, the camera is placed in a static wide shot, dramatically reducing the size of both characters in comparison to their expansive abode. However, look closely and you'll notice that the tree near the center of the frame forms a dividing line between Carol and Greg:

They are separated in the frame, with Carol in her own side and him in his. This is the first instance of this framing technique, and it further indicates the divide that exists between Carol and her husband. It's notable, though, that in the early parts of the film, it's only at Carol's home that she is divided from the rest of the frame. When she visits friends or goes to her aerobics workout, Haynes places her in the same visual space as other characters:

Even though Carol is still distant in these interactions, she is at least visually occupying the same space as her friends and acquaintances. However, compare this to her conversation with her housekeeper:

The wall divides Carol and the housekeeper into separate parts of the frame. In the public sphere, Carol is capable of forming the necessary social interactions to maintain her lifestyle. She's distant, but at the very least she's not alone. However, in the domestic sphere, Carol is utterly alone, and there are considerable blockages preventing her from feeling truly at home. As we've already seen, there is possibly love, but certainly not passion, for her husband. Her son is actually her stepson, and she doesn't quite have that motherly devotion for him. Instead, she's isolated from her home, occupying her own space away from everyone else.

When she begins feeling ill, Carol is shown increasingly in isolation from everyone else, both publicly and privately. When she has her first major coughing fit, driving home behind a truck that's spewing exhaust, she pulls into a parking garage, but instead of parking around the other cars in the deck, she stops in an empty part of the lot:

Similarly, when Carol accompanies her husband to dinner with colleagues, Haynes keeps most of the guests in the frame laughing at their jokes, but keeps Carol segregated to a separate frame, as if she were sitting at a different table:

Framing Carol apart from anyone else on screen recurs throughout the film, and as Carol's condition worsens, she's increasingly alone, whether she's consulting with a doctor...

Or attending a party...

Or even at the retreat, where she is supposed to be receiving treatment that will cure her of her sickness...

She's by herself.

Of course, this direction is purposefully done; it should come as no surprise that Haynes studied semiotics before pursuing filmmaking. The intention is to invert the aforementioned fears of modernity: is it technology that's pushing us away from each other and making us ill, or are we simply doing it to ourselves? Carol was already distant before her mysterious malady began; her sickness is just as likely to be a symptom of her existential malaise as it is the cause of it. It could just as well be that she's become complacent in her life, and that her disease is a manifestation (literal or metaphorical) of that complacency. It is environmental, sure. But is the ailment "Twentieth-Century Disease," as Dunning calls it, or is it "affluenza?"

*Best Shot*

Which brings me to my choice for "Best Shot." It's been a long time since I've picked a reflection shot in this series (I have a real weakness for them), but this one perfectly encapsulates Haynes' motif of framing and Carol's state of mind. Though she is reflected in two different mirrors, all three Carols are occupying separate, distinct parts of the frame. The edge of the mirrors and counter partition her direct reflection off from Carol herself, and the metal frame of the wall mirror divides her from that reflection as well. This is Carol's true syndrome: she's isolated even from herself, having become so distant that she can't even connect with the woman staring back from the mirror. She's a woman completely unmoored, and the most likely culprit is right there in front of her.

And at the film's end, she is in a truly self-imposed isolation, occupying the bunker of a former member of the retreat. She's now finally sealed herself off from the outside world, with nothing but a small window serving as a reminder of the life she once had. 

It's here that Haynes would appear to have made his point. Carol's illness isn't the result of the modern world; it's her own doing, an exile from a world that she became all too comfortable in.



this is maybe my favorite best shot piece of yours. well done. lots of great points. and we totaly agree on Carol as culprint and her disconnect from Self.

JA said...

I probably would've picked the same shot you did if I'd managed to do the series this time around, and for a lot of the same reasons that you beautifully stated. What I also love about this shot is that bizarre lighting fixture, which feels like an extension of her head in the two left-ward Carols -- it's this pinkish blur (matching her coloring) extending from where her face should be, as if she's dissolving into a mist or refracting into abstract light; her edges are not her own. She's being swallowed by her environment.