Todd Haynes' Alien Nation
The poster for Todd Haynes' latest film, Safe, features a haunting image of inarticulate longing. A thin, sexless figure, swathed from head to toe in white, knit cloth strides across a barren field. Awkwardly facing sideways, the figure seems uncomfortable in its own skin. The alienation it depicts is so raw, it takes one's breath away. "It's an extreme image of vulnerability and fear," explains Haynes. Tall and thin, he wears a modified denim suit and bright red leather boots. His red hair is cut in a Ziggy Stardust shag, spiky on top and feathering down over his ears. Amid the drab browns of the hotel suite, he stands out like a highly mobile nightlight. Haynes is an enthusiastic talker, attacking questions with energy and conviction, hands and features in constant motion. People who have seen the poster, he says, have the misconception that the figure is Safe star Julianne Moore (Vanya on 42nd Street), "that somehow she gets to that stage in the film. And I kind of love that," he admits, smiling mischievously. "Because it is her. It's a projected image of her at the most extreme isolation from the world." The last statement could serve as a preecis of Haynes' brief but astonishing body of work. Haynes is the poet laureate of the diseased and the despised. After attending a brief summer session at Bard College's MFA filmmaking program, the Brown University grad exploded onto the independent film scene with Superstar (1988). A bio-pic about America's Sweetheart, Karen Carpenter, the short features mutilated Barbie dolls and miniature sets. Despite a cease-and-desist order (Haynes neglected to secure the rights to the Carpenters' songs used in the film), Superstar, circulating in bootleg videos, has been a perennial underground favorite. After a three-year stint at New York's Apparatus Productions (a nonprofit, public- funding clearinghouse for experimental filmmakers which Haynes cocaptained with producer Christine Vachon and filmmaker Barry Ellsworth), Haynes wrote and directed Poison in 1991. A trilogy of shorts riffing on Jean Genet, low-budget '50s sci-fi moralizing, and "dysfunction of the week" flicks, Poison won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance. Haynes' next project, Dottie Gets Spanked, a short about adolescent desire, aired on ITVS' TV Families series. Now comes Safe, a powerful exploration of one woman's surrender to environmental illness. Carol White (Julianne Moore) is a wealthy, San Fernando Valley housewife with everything she needs except self-awareness. When she inhales exhaust fumes while driving, her carefully structured, air-conditioned nightmare of a life begins to unravel. Ironically, as she sickens, her self-consciousness grows, until she finally seeks refuge at Wrenwood, a New Age sanitarium run by a self-help guru named Peter (Peter Friedman). At Wrenwood, surrounded by the similarly afflicted, Carol struggles to confront her illness. Safe ends with the haunting image of Carol, alone in the tiled, geodesic dome she calls home, staring into a mirror and tentatively whispering "I love you" to her own reflection. It is the terminus of Carol's odyssey through America's intolerance for its own weakness. "People ask me if [environmental illness] is meant to be a metaphor for AIDS," says Haynes, leaning forward. "Not really. They coexist in the world that we are living in, in which there are new immune-system disorders coming into being every day. And some of them are still met with very great resistance or suspicion on the part of traditional medicine." He pauses thoughtfully. "I was immediately taken in when I heard about environmental illness, [seeing it] as a sort of exploitable metaphor or subject. It was called '20th Century Disease' when I first heard about it on TV and I was like, 'What? Amazing.' They were talking about it basically targeting housewives, and so I started to think about the history of women and diseases, from hysteria onward, and cultural resistance to believing when a woman says she's ill or sick or uncomfortable." Carol's sojourn at Wrenwood forms the second half of the film, as she's exposed to Peter's preaching, a troubling amalgam of New Age ideologies, from saccharine platitudes ("The light in me sees the light in you") to a rigid, isolationist abandonment of the outside world. While fictionalized, Haynes argues that the activities at Wrenwood are just an extension of New Age therapies directed at AIDS and HIV sufferers during the '80s "who seemed to flock to certain gurus of New Age recovery treatments. They found some kind of solace there that I didn't quite understand," he says. "And I wanted to try and understand it. For their sakes, not because I cared about the architects of this ideology." Haynes' research led him into the universe of alternative therapies and motivational speakers. "[I] saw Marianne Williamson," he says. "Read the Louise Hay book on AIDS. Read Gloria Steinem's book Revolution from Within. That was interesting because she's so smart." Haynes pokes at the air with a finger. "That's where I really saw...this sad movement in leftism [away] from active political organization -- taking your complaints and looking at society critically and mobilizing around those ideas -- towards this movement inward. The language of the self [is] taking over political discourse." And Carol? What becomes of this timid suburban housewife, who Haynes characterizes as "fairly clueless?" Does she achieve redemption of some sort? Haynes frowns. He doesn't like the word "redemption." "I think she achieves socialization," he corrects. "Resocialization. She's accepted into this society, this group, according to its terms. And in a way we all do that. I'm no different from that. I identify with the world around me and try to mirror it to various degrees. I think I have more critical faculties [than Carol] that I use to look at the process, but I think we all need to feel like we belong to a culture." Indeed, Haynes' greatest accomplishment is his depiction of the subtle ways in which the individual participates in his or her own punishment or banishment. Through what Haynes has called the "fascism over the body," Carol is both victim and jailer -- she locks herself in and she alone holds the key. Haynes is fascinated by the archetypal American search for truth and beauty, for a paradise on earth, and the grim punishments we exact on ourselves when we fail to achieve that purity. "I think it has a lot to do with the Puritan ethic we've always had [here], maybe less so in Europe. This idea that there is access to purity, access to wholeness, truth, unblemished existence, that we all have -- and if we don't reach it, then we've failed at some level -- it's taken a very ready-made spin in the 20th Century." He pauses thoughtfully. "The isolation that [Carol] discovers when she becomes sick, you see, is the thing that most groups, most societies, can't accept. And most people can't accept. That we're fundamentally alone and alienated from each other as people."An acute psychologist of alienation, Haynes always presses his critique one step further, analyzing the role the media plays in determining our self-perceptions. This gives his work a unique force, for he demonstrates repeatedly that the very forms by which we communicate and become socialized (music, film, television) are the keys to our ailments. Haynes shot Safe as a "complete reaction" to Hollywood's blustering generic style. Working in wide shots, with actress Moore often positioned on the very edge of the frame and threatening to fall off into oblivion, Haynes has developed an absence of style, a negative mise en scene. It is part of a strategy to rouse the audience from their lethargy and make them work at solutions. Haynes welcomes this participation. "I learned from Superstar that people want to identify, want to fill themselves into the stories that they're given -- at any cost, really. They'll turn a polyurethane doll into a subject worthy of their sentiment if that's what they're given. So with Safe, I wanted to continue that exploration or investigation into identification."I n the final analysis, Safe proposes no solutions, no paths to truth. "For someone like Carol, there aren't a lot of options. So she gets swept up. Society sort of makes this beeline for her. She's a blank slate that they want to fill in. And it's unlike Forrest Gump, where the vulnerability of this character is affirmed and a nice little lie is concocted that, if you're naive and innocent and weak, everything comes your way. That's not really what happens in the world. This British friend of mine says that Safe is the real Forrest Gump. The true Forrest Gump." Haynes is continuing his exploration of America's bruised psyche with his next project, tentatively titled Velvet Goldmine, about the early-'70s glitter-rock era and the concept of "identity or sexuality [as] performance." "That ['70s] bisexual ethic and androgyny period," Haynes explains, "so challenges today's identity politics, that we're defined by the groups we're in. We're either absolutely gay or ab solutely straight, or absolutely black or white or whatever. Then, maybe was this romantic naivete following the '60s, but it was really like we all have the potential to be almost anything. Everyone is implicated in what was a spectrum of sexuality, as opposed to poles." In Superstar, Poison and now Safe, Haynes has explored the limits of popular acceptability, throwing up as many obstacles to popcorn-fed, mass-market expectations as he possibly can. Whether they're labeled "gay" or "political" or "critical," his films are difficult, far more so than most independents. They are meditations on the individual in his or her conflict with an often indifferent society, and the toll that conflict takes on the tender, vulnerable body.