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3“It’s Just Not Turning Up” AIDS, Cinematic Vision, and Environmental Justice inTodd Haynes’s Safe To see is to draw a limit beyond which vision becomes barred. . . . For it is not the closing of one’s eyes that determines the invisible as its empirical result; it is rather the invisible (the repressed) that predetermines the closing of one’s eyes. . . . Paradoxically enough, however, it is precisely the imposition of a limit beyond which vision is prohibited which . . . makes possible the illusion of total mastery over meaning as a whole, as an unimpaired totality. —Shoshana Felman, Writing and Madness1 Released in 1995, writer-director Todd Haynes’s Safe quickly became associated with the 1990s boom in American independent film and, more specifically, with what B. Ruby Rich dubbed the “New Queer Cinema”: the “wave of queer films that gained critical acclaim on the festival circuit in the early 1990s” (Aaron 3). Safe falls squarely between two other works in Haynes’s oeuvre that feature the same basic premise: a suburban white woman suffocates under social and structural pressures. In fact, Safe, Superstar : The Karen Carpenter Story (1987), and Far from Heaven (2002) evoke 1940s and 1950s “women’s films” such as Mildred Pierce (1945) and All That Heaven Allows(1955)tosuchanextentthatHayneshasgainedareputationasaqueer restylist of melodrama.2 In keeping with that genre, Safe has a seemingly mundanestoryline:well-to-dohousewifeCarolWhite(JulianneMoore)lives with her husband, Greg (Xander Berkeley), and stepson, Rory (Chauncey Leopardi),inSouthernCalifornia’sSanFernandoValley.Thoughnotablylistless , Carol appears otherwise healthy at the film’s start. But she soon begins to experience nosebleeds, vomiting, and seizures, ostensibly because of her increasingsensitivitytoeverydaysubstancessuchasautomobileexhaustand Seymour_Strange.indd 71 2/4/13 10:28 AM cologne. While her husband is concerned about her illness, he is frustrated byitsenigmaticcharacter;thoughsheseekshelpfromhermaledoctoranda male psychiatrist, no definitive explanation for her maladies is ever reached. In response to Carol’s claim that she has a chemical imbalance, her doctor disdainfullysuggestsherproblemstobepsychosomatic,snapping,“It’sjust not turning up on the tests.” Seeking validation and alternative treatment for her illness, Carol retreats to Wrenwood, a healing center in New Mexico masterminded by a New Age guru named Peter Dunning (Peter Friedman). Although Wrenwood, where Safe closes, appears initially to be a more empathetic environment than the hospital or psychiatrist’s office, the film indicates that all of these spaces are governed by similar philosophies. As Haynes opines in the 1999 Columbia Tristar DVD liner notes to the film, “New age thought is so big among AIDS and cancer patients . . . because it creates a feeling of comprehension, a way tocontrolthesenseofmeaninglessnessthatgrips[their]lives.Butwithinthat control these doctrines of inner health assign to their sufferers . . . ultimate responsibility . . . [while] society gets off scott [sic] free. This is how new age thought ultimately works in favor of the system while claiming to transcend it.”Suchmachinations,inotherwords,indirectlyblamethevictim,andthwart collective action through their privatizing of envirohealth concerns. I juxtapose Carol’s doctor’s reaction with Haynes’s comment to draw our attention to Safe’s abiding interests in visual epistemology and perceptions of bodily risk. I claim that the film’s modeling of the interrelationship Figure 2. In Todd Haynes’s Safe, housewife Carol White enjoys a glass of milk while housepainters ingest a more toxic substance behind her. Columbia Tristar, 1999. 72 chapter 3 Seymour_Strange.indd 72 2/4/13 10:28 AM between the two offers a new way to think about the regimes of visibility— those that underpin both dominant social frameworks and classical film viewership, organizing Carol’s world and our world as viewers. Through these regimes, we take the manifest as preeminent, assume that ontology equals visibility, and read the center rather than the margins. But the film cites such behaviors, often quite critically, at multiple points. Taking this fact into account might make us skeptical of the widespread assumption that Carol’s story allegorizes the experience of AIDS3 —the assumption, that is, that someone who looks “safe” could never actually have AIDS. And, more generally, we might become skeptical of the idea that Safe is mainly concerned with the risks faced by Carol White or women like her. In other words, when we consider that visual epistemology is pointedly held up as a problem in, and by, the film, we might think beyond what’s displayed most centrally on the screen. The same holds true for Safe’s visual techniques, including the camera’s frequent distance from Carol’s body, and our concomitant distance from it as viewers; they evoke a sense of a female...


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