Four years ago, writer-director Todd Haynes was the toast of the American indie scene, having earned the prestigious Grand Jury Prize at Sundance for his feature debut Poison--as well as the ire of Congressman Jesse Helms. Poison had received a very small portion of its budget from the National Endowment For the Arts, and was a primary catalyst--along with the photos of Robert Mapplethorpe and the live performances of Karen Finley--for the religious right's contemporary assault on public arts funding.
Compared to the deliberate shock tactics of Larry Clark's recent no-budget hit Kids, Poison was thoughtful and restrained about its eroticism, a film that combined three stories--simulated talking-head accounts of an abused little boy who flies out the window after murdering his father; a black-and-white parody of '50s thrillers about a scientist who drinks the distilled essence of the human sex drive and becomes a diseased outcast; and a sadistic prison romance based on Jean Genet's The Thief's Journal--into one heavily stylized exploration of the nature of outlaw desire.
His latest film, Safe, is even more infuriatingly subtle, a poker-faced look at the disintegration of one Los Angeles housewife named Carol White (Julianne Moore) as she succumbs to "multiple chemical sensitivity," a hotly disputed ailment that forces her into greater and greater isolation inside a vaguely sinister New Mexico treatment center.
By now Haynes expects wildly mixed reactions to the film. "Todd McCarthy wrote a review in Variety, when Safe opened at Sundance, and it was scathing," he told the Observer last week. "He called the film 'preachy,' which puzzles me since almost every other journalist who didn't like it had the opposite reaction. They said I didn't provide enough information for audiences to make up their mind."
The crux of this mini-controversy concerns the filmmaker's attitude toward Carol and the retreat in which she ultimately lavishes. There are many influences at work in Safe, but one of the most obvious is the new, secular spirituality that's taken hold in the last couple decades--12-step recovery programs, metaphysical studies like A Course in Miracles, and the general "industry of the self," as Haynes terms it, which pervades our current national mood.
"It's a fairly tricky film," Haynes says. "I wanted to undermine the expectations of the audiences. If you'll notice, the first black person you see [in the movie] is a woman introduced at Wrenwood [the treatment center]. And the most vocal member is HIV-positive, a man who may or may not be gay. With these characters I wanted to comfort liberal audiences, to make them think, 'Ah, here's the kind of people we're used to seeing,' and then defy their assumptions."
Haynes proudly identifies himself as one of the new wave of "queer filmmakers" that burst onto the American film scene in the early '90s, yet the content of his work has never really been part of the renaissance of indie gay filmmaking spearheaded by Gregg Araki, Tom Kalin, and Rose Troche. But unlike the fairly explicit material pioneered by those directors, he wishes to broaden the scope of the homo film genre. "I'm offended by the idea that a 'gay film' has to feature gay content. In my opinion, gays and lesbians have been among our most cunning readers, forced to translate the messages they receive into something that speaks to their lives."
Haynes talks freely about the political divisions among American moviegoers, but he sounds broadminded and benevolent about the subject of America's modern reaction toward mortality. "I wanted to explore why so many terminally ill people--these are not necessarily the folks who have multiple chemical sensitivity, mind you--seek answers in those kinds of therapies, the philosophies that blame AIDS and cancer on a weakness of the individual."
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In outlining his own peculiar obsessions as an artist, Haynes realizes his movies are "probably not going to make the kind of money and receive the kind of universal critical acceptance that other independent films [out of Sundance] have.
"My films are from a very American tradition, but not the kind that's popular now," he adds. "Primarily, I want to ask the audience a series of questions, based on the experience most moviegoers have with traditional movie storylines. Where does your sense of identity come from, and how do you fit in when everyone else seems 'normal?' What I've discovered is that people need meaning--they need to hear why someone has gotten sick or is dying. They want to feel they've got some control over the life sentence they've been handed at birth."
As a filmmaker, Todd Haynes has notched one certifiable box-office hit with Poison. Although Safe hasn't reached that level of financial success, Haynes feels he's earned a new level of respect inside the moviemaking industry. He's currently working on an original story about the glitter-rock scene of the early '70s, and plans to develop a script with Jennifer Jason Leigh in which British thespian David Thewlis (Naked, Prime Suspect) has also expressed interest.
"So far, I feel that Safe has generated a positive response within the Hollywood community," he concludes. "Directors whose work I've worshiped have called and told me they loved the movie. Then again, maybe all that's just stubborn opportunism.