'Safe,'' the new movie by Todd Haynes, has generated an unusual amount of debate among critics.
The main character is Carol White, a Los Angeles homemaker who develops health problems and concludes that chemicals in the environment are to blame. Told by her husband and friends that she's merely ''stressed out,'' she turns to a cultlike self-help organization that leads her to increasing isolation from the everyday world.
Is the movie promoting places like Wrenwood, the ''wellness center'' where Carol withdraws into a world of self-absorbed seclusion? Or is the film strongly critical of such ''new age'' silliness, seeing it as a trap no better than the mindless materialism she indulged before?
Perceptive moviegoers have no trouble detecting the picture's point of view on these questions - especially when the film reaches its chilling conclusion, carrying Carol's self-imposed exile to an extreme that Mr. Haynes obviously regards as profoundly regrettable.
Yet some reviewers have missed the movie's point, mistaking its subtlety and compassion for ambivalence, or even an endorsement of dubious contemporary fads. What confuses these critics is Haynes's bold refusal to hold his characters up for the easy ridicule that a more conventional film would shower upon them. Even the most misguided figures in his story are allowed a dignity and authenticity that make the movie's criticisms all the more persuasive.
Another stumbling block for some spectators is Haynes's insistence on avoiding the common cinematic cues that tell us how we're meant to think and feel. ''Safe'' doesn't coerce or manipulate its audience. Instead, it lets us discover its messages through our own thoughts, perceptions, and responses as we watch Carol's experiences.
In a recent interview, I asked Haynes how he arrived at his unusual approach to storytelling in ''Safe,'' which is only his second feature-length film.
''As always, when I set out to make a film,'' he told me, ''it was a challenge to myself. I wanted to overcome the obvious gaps between myself and a character like Carol, who's an easy target in obvious ways - her economic bracket, her lack of self-knowledge or identity - and people like the 'new age' characters. In both cases, I wanted to approach them by challenging my own innate criticisms or dismissals of aspects of their worlds.... I had no interest in condemning them or placing myself above them.''
At the same time, Haynes didn't want Carol and the others to become ''the attractive, larger-than-life, charming characters that most movies have a tendency to show.'' Instead he wanted Carol to evoke ''the vulnerable aspects in all of us, the vulnerable sides of our identities that films rarely address. With the 'new age' stuff, I tried not to let my criticisms blind me, but I also wanted to explore aspects that I find really problematic. The film is more an indictment of 'new age' things than of the California life.''
While he acknowledges that ''Safe'' breaks the Hollywood mold by avoiding emotional close-ups and other audience-controlling devices, Haynes notes that movie melodramas played a part in his planning.
''Melodrama inspired limits I decided to place on the film,'' he says. ''Carol was going to be somebody completely enclosed in certain systems, whether it's L.A. social life or another system that replaces this. She never has an ability to completely break out. Although the film doesn't indulge in melodramatic style ... it's a 'woman's film' and comes out of that tradition.''
Another key aspect of ''Safe'' is its interest in personal identity and how this is inflected by our social surroundings.
''Identity works when it's invisible,'' the filmmaker says. ''As soon as you start thinking about who you are, and how much you're taking cues from the world and people around you, it suddenly seems artificial, fake, contrived.... L.A. and Wrenwood both have isolation built into them, but both are always telling you that you're not alone because there are other people just like you all around, and if you do these things, you'll be affirmed as part of the group.''
''Carol is desperately alone, though, as are all the people around her.... Unlike most films, 'Safe' shows the cost that's entailed every time we join a group or give up the things in ourselves that can never really be harnessed.''
Asked how he first became fascinated with movies, Haynes says it started early. ''I began drawing obsessively at age 3,'' he recalls, ''usually in relationship to films that had made a big impact on me. 'Mary Poppins' was the first. I got hooked on films like a lot of kids, but I probably took it a little further - in reenactments and re-creations and big after-dinner productions that my sister would star in.''
After college, he left his native Los Angeles for New York and helped found Apparatus Productions, a nonprofit organization devoted to helping new filmmakers. He began developing his own movie ideas at the same time, based on his realization that ''narrative film is ultimately the best medium to discuss social structures.''
Although he doesn't paint a flattering portrait of family life in ''Safe,'' the filmmaker is quick to credit his own family for helping him achieve his goals. ''My parents were incredibly supportive,'' he says, ''and always encouraged and celebrated my work. That gave me a sense of security and confidence. I knew I wanted to make films that were narrative but probably wouldn't be commercially viable.''
It remains to be seen how commercially viable ''Safe'' will turn out to be, but it's already one of the year's most talked-about independent films, bearing out Haynes's theory about audiences.
''People are smarter than Hollywood gives them credit for,'' he says with enthusiasm. ''There are people all over the country who want to see something different - although they don't get a chance to very often.''