At 21, I knew I had to get out of Milwaukee. Mind you, I didn’t exactly hate my hometown. During Marquette University’s Freshman Orientation, I was practically a cheerleader for it, extolling the city’s many parks and local cuisines to any other student newly arrived from outside the metro area willing to listen. Three years later, however, I deeply regretted that I hadn’t gone away for school. Although I received an above-average education at the college of my choice, it gradually dawned on me that I was missing out on something. Nothing wrong or inferior about pursuing higher education as a commuter student, but I did so mostly out of fear. I had held back when I could’ve easily set my ambitions much higher. I realized I’d personally never become legitimately independent if I continued to stay put.
For me, the easiest way out was to attend graduate school in another city. Having discovered a passion for my minor (Film Studies) far more fervent than anything I had for my major (Journalism), I looked into master’s programs for the former. In those embryonic internet days, I had to consult a thick reference catalog at the campus library to determine which schools I could apply to. UW-Madison was the obvious choice—at 90 minutes away, it was a baby step of a move but far enough for me to adequately feel like I was on my own. Besides, over the past few years I’d visited friends there often enough to the point where it already felt familiar.
I was superciliously certain I could get into Madison but just to be safe, I also applied to two other schools. The first was Boston University—my roommate’s girlfriend had recently talked up the city, deeming it the ultimate college town and more “European” than other US metropolises. The other was New York University, as they had a program at the Tisch School For The Arts and I thought, “Eh, why not? I’m going to Madison anyway.”
Alas, Madison might’ve accepted me had I submitted my application on time. In the rush of taking my GRE, drafting the required essays, procuring recommendation letters and getting all the forms out in the mail, I miscalculated that school’s relatively early cutoff date. I also never seriously expected to get into NYU (nor can I imagine green 22-year-old me flailing about New York City); fortunately, I received a welcome packet from BU in mid-March. I could stick around Milwaukee for another year, maybe reapply to Madison for the spring semester; instead, I chose to see this little exercise’s outcome as a sign. I was moving to Boston.
I’ve previously written about my first 48 hours in my new city. On the third day, having partially acclimated myself to my neighborhood of Allston and the BU campus, I showed up for orientation at the College of Communication building (hereafter shortened to COM), an unassuming, three story, mid-20th century structure that paled in the shadow of the gleaming, luxurious new School of Business Administration down the block. At the time, COM’s only distinguishing feature was a moderately short radio tower on its roof, which I soon learned no longer carried any broadcasting function whatsoever.
I met my fellow classmates in the Film Studies program (seven of us in all) and received syllabi and reading lists for my courses. They included one on horror films, another on the work of British director Mike Leigh (who’d won the Cannes Palme d’Or for his film Secrets & Lies the year before) and a self-explanatory through-the-decades survey called “American Masterworks”. As with most of my BU courses, these were all open to both graduates and undergraduates, allowing the latter’s non-arts majors to fulfill their fine arts requirement. In subsequent semesters, I’d even serve as a teaching assistant for a few of these hybrid courses which basically meant I got to grade the undergraduates’ writing assignments and work the VCR and Laserdisc player whenever we watched movies in class.
That first semester, I also took a fourth course—one limited to graduate students included my fellow Film Studies majors along with all the new students in the Film Production and Screenwriting programs. Called “Ways of Seeing” (a simple but perceptive summation), we learned not only how to watch and assess a film but also how some films beg us to watch them differently from others. The semester kicked off with an intensive examination of Psycho. After one complete run-through the entire film, we returned to various scenes, watching and dissecting them again and again. So thoroughly did we pick it apart frame by frame that I haven’t watched it since—while our professor dutifully showed us why Hitchcock’s film was an example of major Hollywood studio cinema at its best, he also singled out in painstaking detail what he saw to be its many, many flaws, to the point where I simply couldn’t watch it again because all I could see were those imperfections.
From there, we studied films suggesting various “Ways of Seeing” that diverged from Psycho. Jean Renoir’s La Règle du Jeu presented a cinematic canvas composed less of shot-reaction shot editing than figures constantly, freely moving in and out and around the frame, engaging in moral complexities far more advanced than Psycho’s Freudian constructs. John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under The Influence further blurred such distinctions, its characters (and director) making unexpected, irrational, just plain messy choices with a raw impulsivity that felt less written than captured by a documentary film crew. Caveh Zahedi’s A Little Stiff was low-budget and contained to the point of seeming handmade, its filmmaker starring as a fictionalized version of himself and anticipating by a decade a genre critics would dub “mumblecore”. Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, on the other hand, came off as immense and enigmatic, a personal sci-fi allegory that was the anti-Psycho for how it raised all sorts of questions and just left them there hanging and unanswered.
Late in the semester, we watched Todd Haynes’ Safe, a study of a woman suffering from environmental illness who seeks solace at a new age rehabilitation facility. I’d heard of the film when it came out two years before and recalled it briefly playing at Milwaukee’s Downer Theater. From what little I read regarding it, I imagined it to be a satire about suburban living, allergies caused by household products and the lengths people will go to find alternative solutions to combating such ailments. I pictured something not far off from, say, Alexander Payne’s screwball abortion rights fable Citizen Ruth (released the year after Safe.)
From the ominous, mournful, droning synths accompanying its opening credits, which appeared over a point-of-view shot of a car slowly driving at night through an upscale Los Angeles subdivision, I promptly understood that Safe would be absolutely nothing like Citizen Ruth. The next scene confirmed this: an uncomfortably drawn-out shot of the film’s heroine, Carol White (Julianne Moore), lying in bed, her face to the camera as she’s engaging in man-on-top sex with her husband. Her expression’s not completely indifferent but she doesn’t appear to be gleaning much pleasure from it.
Does anything give Carol pleasure or even joy? She’s a Sherman Oaks housewife living in a gigantic McMansion in 1987 (set eight years before the film’s release.) She spends her days running errands, attending aerobics class, gardening, and going out to lunch. With a maid at her disposal and no job or profession to speak of, she seems to have a charmed life; she also seems barely there, often physically engulfed by her environment, sometimes appearing as small as a speck within the symmetrical, immaculately arranged wide shots inside her home.
About fifteen minutes into the film, she drives on a congested expressway behind a truck belching out exhaust fumes and suffers a coughing fit that’s alarmingly more severe by the second. She pulls off the road and into an underground parking garage where she stops, gets out of the car and continues to violently hack away, worryingly short of breath; as with the interior home shots, she appears tiny in the garage’s expanse, its darkness nearly encompassing her.
Similar attacks occur at a friend’s baby shower, the dry cleaners and the hair salon when she’s getting a perm. During these moments, Haynes often utilizes horror film tropes like dramatic bursts of sinister music or sudden jump cuts or close-ups—when the other ladies at the shower attempt to comfort Carol, it’s a sideways nod to the shower scene in Rosemary’s Baby (however, not Psycho.) Meanwhile, her doctor casually dismisses Carol’s claims, concluding that, despite the incessant coughing, headaches and general fatigue, there’s nothing physically wrong with her. He recommends she consult a therapist.
Perhaps the problem is psychological: after she attends a seminar on environmental illnesses (the first shot of an audience member donning a surgical mask is enough to elicit a visceral reaction in 2021), her husband, stumbling upon a pamphlet she’s brought home from it asks her, “Who told you to go to this?” His exact words and accusatory tone say more about how he and the other people perceive Carol than anything she says herself. Haynes further corroborates this by deliberately withholding what another film would regard as key information about her, like the fact she has a ten-year-old child (revealed 25 minutes in) and that it’s actually her husband’s son from a previous marriage (38 minutes in.) And Moore completes the picture of Carol as a blank by nearly disappearing into the role—a perfectly nice individual with barely a trace of discernible personality.
She winds up in the hospital following her attack at the dry cleaners. From her bed, she sees a TV commercial for Wrenwood, a new age-y rehab clinic in New Mexico specializing in treatment of people like her. In the very next scene, she’s in a cab, sans husband or stepson, riding through the desert on her way there. However, something seems off about the place when Carol’s cab first pulls in and she’s accosted by Nell, an older masked woman furiously screaming at her to turn back (the car fumes upset her because her husband is immune compromised), then creepily taunting her from a distance, “I see you,” after she exits the vehicle.
Wrenwood would seem a target overripe for satire given its remote location and inclination towards spoken and sung affirmations (a woman sings a Judy Collins-esque anthem to the assembled patients with such pithy lyrics as, “Give yourself to love / if love is what you’re after.”) Then, there’s Peter (Peter Friedman), the facility’s middle-aged owner who presides over the organization with an aw-shucks folksiness crossed with the understated but palpable fervor of your average cult leader. He concludes his talks by leading the group in the following inspirational credo: “We are one with the power that created us, we are safe, and all is well in the world.”
Despite all that, Wrenwood doesn’t particularly seem like a heightened or ridiculous proposition, at least not on the surface. The group therapy sessions feel straightforward and potentially constructive, especially when Peter advises Nell, “The only person who can make you sick is you, right?” Conversely, he doesn’t acknowledge Nell’s husband’s then-recent death, which for all we know might’ve been suicidal. He also never mentions to the congregation his own status a person living with AIDS (one of the other patients reveals this to Carol.) In 1987 (and, to a lesser extent, 1995), this was almost a certain death sentence; its revelation amplifies the notion that Peter is attempting to heal himself and his patients with the power of positive thinking in lieu of a (nonexistent) medical cure or treatment.
Carol doesn’t seem to be getting any better at Wrenwood; the film’s tone does not brighten once it shifts to New Mexico. She soon requests to change cabins because of “the fumes” she perceives (perhaps by way of Nell?) coming from outside the compound. Mask and oxygen tank in tow, she makes her way around the facilities in stilted movements, increasingly resembling Lester, a fellow patient only shown from a distance. When she first spots him, Peter remarks to Carol, “Poor Lester… he’s just very, very afraid.” Rather than improving in health or even disposition, Carol further withdraws into herself.
She does take tentative steps towards making a new friend in Chris (James LeGros), a fellow resident with whom she signs up to cook something for a communal potluck. The event itself seems a joyous one, with the dinner followed by its participants dancing to Kenny Loggins’ “Whenever I Call You ‘Friend’”. Then, Chris and the group surprise her with a cake (her birthday’s the next day), a genuinely sweet and selfless gesture. They ask her to give a speech, and she does, confessing to the group, “It’s just that, I really hated myself before I came here,” rambling on about such things as “education” and “AIDS” before gradually trailing off. She’s smiling but is also seriously emaciated, her face and skin disconcertingly blotchy.
Chris walks Carol back to her cabin, which is now the “safe house”, a metal igloo-like structure once inhabited by Nell’s husband. Alone inside, Carol’s white, colorless clothing and skin blend into her stark, sterile, prison cell-like surroundings. She breathes from her oxygen tank and looks directly into a little mirror on the wall: the film’s final shot is of her staring into it, at us, her face partially in shadow. Blankly, she says to her reflection, “I love – I love you. I really love you. I love you.” Fade to black and credits roll.
I recall sitting in the classroom at that moment, figuratively chilled to the bone. Thoughts escaped me as how to process this deeply unnerving ending to an altogether unsettling film. Normally, a story about illness and rehabilitation would conclude triumphantly, the subject overcoming an affliction and having learned more about themselves in the process—perhaps even learning how to love themselves. Carol’s final words to us are as such, but they don’t at all reassure or convince. She struggles to get them out and indeed, they’re something a facility therapist instructed her earlier to say. As much as we’d (and, for that matter, she’d) like to believe they’re true, they come off as just words—a recitation.
It’s easy to view Safe through a cynical lens: most likely, Carol’s illness is psychosomatic, a physical manifestation of her psychological damage, self-punishment for the fact that she doesn’t love herself. A few critics at the time, most notably Jay Carr in The Boston Globe dismissed it as just that. However, I didn’t see it that way, not entirely. Safe’s austere conclusion genuinely shocked me—I was willing to believe something was physically wrong with her, that there must be an exterior reason for her symptoms, that she’d learn how to live with if not entirely combat them during her time at Wrenwood.
Then again, that’s only one of two parallel readings that Haynes thoroughly maps out in Carol’s trajectory; the other, where it is all in her head is just as present in the film’s overall design. For a character who appears in every single scene, she’s often deliberately spectral and insignificant, a non-entity. Moore’s subdued but internally complex performance only further serves this notion, that we’re looking both at and through the eyes of someone with so little self-esteem and sense of purpose that, instead of “getting better”, all she can do is further recoil into herself where she thinks she feels “safe” but in truth can’t feel anything at all.
Before Safe, I hadn’t seen a film attempt such a bait-and-switch (or at least wasn’t aware of one attempting it) and do it so seamlessly and effectively. And yet, I don’t believe what it does is a cheat or a clever way of saying, “Okay, here’s what this film’s really about.” Instead, Safe is about exterior and interior lives and how one’s physical and the psychological selves can be out of balance or even at opposition to each other. As for that title, it throws into relief its definition as an ability, an affirmation, a state of mind. Does the concept of safety ultimately imply a sense of feeling protected or does it come entirely from self-worth? Upending my life and moving to Boston at 22, I took a risk and deliberately tried to be unsafe, although one might argue that by opting for grad school instead of a job in the real world, I had deployed a safety net of sorts for myself. I’m willing to bet this conundrum lingered somewhere in my subconscious as I watched Safe, a film that asks its viewers to consider whether the desire to be “safe” is to simply crave comfort or inevitably give oneself over to fear.
Essay #6 of 24 Frames.
Go back to #5: All That Jazz.
Go ahead to #7: Meshes Of The Afternoon.