Safe 1995 017

 Safe Poster

Todd Haynes’ 2005 movie Safe mainly deals with the notion of alienation which people today is quite familiar with.  However, Haynes’ approach and efforts to dissect and analyze the notion of contemporary notion of alienation was done through very particular narrative by observing the short segment of life (and the behaviors/activities) of an average house wife of “high society” in Southern California.  At the dawn of the Modern Age in Europe (late nineteenth to early-twentieth-century,) the earlier forms of alienation were analyzed in very mechanical fashion by various scholars (most notably of course, Karl Marx himself who invented the term.)  Back then, when every drastic social changed just took place and replaced old and conventional values, and lifestyles of many European societies, there seemed to be a clear link and direct triggers which drove and forced these people into the phenomenon which was labeled “alienation.”  In the first part of the movie, the audiences feel that the most of the activities that Carol is involved in the movie seems very “normal” in the social and cultural context of 1980’s of United States, but through drastic events and emotional instabilities that she experiences, and ultimately at the end part of the movie where she is voluntarily institutionalized in this suspicious “psychological healing” society, that something is very wrong and the society and her sense of self is already “alienated” from her “natural being.”

As mentioned briefly in the introduction paragraph, the movie “Safe” is well organized in somewhat a conventional method of “story telling” form in very strictly chronological sequences of various events.  There are certain “events” that seems very “normal” in the social and cultural context, but as the audience contemplate on particular things happening in each event, people easily find the fact that the events are mostly (if not completely,) assembled with “alien” and artificial element.  In many cases, the alienation of the one from self and the society eventually can agitate one’s own concrete sense of existence and rise up the feelings of anonymity.  By living in the relational society, where there is no concrete criteria or standards to hold on to, it is very hard to grasp the sense of self identity.  For instance, in the early part of the movie when the audience can watch Carol exercising in the gym with her aerobic suit on surrounded by bunch of similar women living similar suburban lives, there is very ambivalent, but at the same time very absolute sense of anonymity in these women’s very existence.  This loosely can be paired with the passive sexual role that Carol played in the very beginning of the movie that she is playing the role that is easily “replicable” and her anxiety of unimportant sense of self is expressed in very particular way that she has to occupy herself (both physically and mentally) constantly and “act busy” (with things that are quite unimportant; such as being obsessive with the color of the sofa, constantly thinking and changing the arrangements of the furniture in the house, suing the contractor, and etc.)  It can be seen as the self commodification in the parficular cultural setting of 20th century United States.

Secondly, the sense of emptiness that Carol repeatedly experience is because of the commodified (mostly economically, sometimes social) relationships that are very shallow and frequent in her daily lives.  Even though Carol seems to have number of friends in her society (the people that are situated in extremely similar position,) audience can easily identify that their relationship is very shallow and only to fulfill the mechanical sense of social role of themselves.  The conversations that they are having consist of same palette of vocabularies and expressions; the communication between these people is so limited to, and by their cultural boundaries, it is impossible for Carol to express her true self by undergoing these relationships.  Other examples of this commodified relationship are the relationships that Carol is having with her Hispanic maid and the Asian lady from dry-cleaning store.  When Carol walks into the dry-cleaning store in the movie, the owner (or maybe one of the employees) greets her with smile and friendly welcome.  The conversation between Carol and the lady continues and the lady applauds about Carol’s new purse.  When the time it takes to bring Carols’ washed (or dry cleaned) cloths is prolonged, the conversation cannot be continued because they do not have any personal relationship and interest to one another than the strictly business one.  And it is quite obvious that applauds the lady made about Carol’s new purse becomes banal flattery instead of pure form of self expression (it is simply to fulfill her own economic benefits.)  This kind of relationships that Carol is having redundantly in her social everyday life caused her to feel the common modern symptom of “emptiness” about her life, her relationship with others, and herself.

 The last thing that the director emphasized throughout the movie is more dramatized version of alienation from self expressed through biological or physiological abnormal symptoms that Carol is having throughout the movie.  For instance, in the scene when Carol visits her hair stylist, Haynes very efficiently used the combination of “unnatural” sound effect and (with the recorded sound accompanied by ambient synthesizer tones) to create artificial, apprehensive atmosphere.  The chemicals applied to Carol’s hair, to create permanent wave which is quite a modern invention (the thermal method invented by Marcel Grateau in 1872,) and the audience watching the scene feels the emotional uneasiness.  With the Permanent wave machine covering her head, people ambivalently experience the abstract self-interest of beauty and the social pressure and the anxiety created by these factors.  When the procedures of permanent wave is done, Carol finds herself bleeding and that is the moment when the director pushes the sense of self-foreignness to the very dramatic, almost surreal realm. Later in the movie when Carol gets institutionalized in the “psychological healing” society, audience finds the environments and the situation of the place extremely uncanny.  However, the strange (and interesting) contrast is made in between the “conventional” modern society that people experience every day (-passively and often without critical self-awareness) and the artificially created “psychological healing” society.  In the final analysis, audience finds both societies very strange and alien to the original human nature.  Through this contrast, Haynes successfully constructs his satiric narrative portraying daily lives, and sense of values of American society of 1980’s (and the notion is still valid in today’s society.)

 Throughout the movie, Haynes criticizes the modern society with serene attitude.  The particular strategy that the he uses creates marginal space for an audience to re-interpret the main themes in his or her own thought of understanding.  The strange dimension is then created to people that they discover some of the things in the movie that are very particularly about themselves (but as a passive spectator.)  This dimension is the ultimate and conclusive alienated realm that the director last presents to an audience that they can now experience and feel things through artificial screen, which can be in some way interpreted as a modern notion of mass produced voyeurism.

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