By Damon R. Young for Bunker Bloggers
“It is not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, an image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation.”-Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project
One of my enduring memories of growing up in Australia in the 1980s is of an “AIDS awareness” TV campaign set in a bowling alley, in which a grim reaper knocks down groups of white people like bowling pins—now preserved in the modern-day arcade, the archive of cultural ephemera, that is YouTube. This advertisement aired throughout 1987, I was nine; it was the first time I heard the word “gay” on television. “At first only gays and IV drug users were being killed by AIDS,” the rattled voiceover begins, seeming to imply that things would have been fine had they stayed that way. But the gay contagion has infected the safe space of the family; we see a girl with pigtails crying; white-people-as-bowling-pins arrayed in a formation of heterosexual generationality; and it is this white reproductive futurism that is assailed by a black-clad (and black) grim reaper who — even as a nine-year-old this was clear — represents those same “gays” said to be its earliest victims. For queers of my generation, these were the conditions of our sexual self-awakening; prohibition and fear of contagion shaped the way we came into our sexuality. (This is, I think, what a film like Stranger by the Lake expresses — not homosexuality as death wish, as some reviewers have lamented, but rather the imbrication of lethality and desire that is the AIDS era’s fantasmatic legacy.)
The memory of this originary hailing into a desiring subjectivity defined by a double foreclosure flashed up as I hunkered down in quarantine to rewatch Todd Haynes’ Safe (1995), a masterpiece of the New Queer Cinema, though queer primarily in its manner of allegory. The film is set in 1987, the year of the grim reaper advertisement and, on this side of the Pacific, the year President Reagan finally spoke about the AIDS epidemic, after more than 16,000 people had died of AIDS-related causes in the US alone. It is the year the US closed its borders to HIV-positive travelers and immigrants (an earlier iteration of “build the wall” — the fantasy of national impermeability), and it is also the year ACT UP was formed.
Safe resonates today, in the context of another viral pandemic. Of course, there is no equation between HIV and coronavirus. (A friend’s post on Facebook: “Funny how at the height of the AIDS epidemic, about 200 people died of it every day in this country alone and nobody gave a shit.”) But watching Safe in the “safety” of my quarantine, a kind of “dialectical image” is formed, flashing up, as Benjamin wrote, at a moment of danger. Both pandemics occurred at times of political reaction in the US, under Republican administrations opposed to the very idea of a public health system, even as viruses literalize what Marx called our species-being: health, it turns out, is a public good and not a private property, whatever some might think. The dialectical image of pandemic is, perhaps for that reason, one that maps a certain phenomenology of paranoia and self-concern. Throwing violently into relief the biological basis of our species-being, the fact that we are not individuals, pandemics also confront us with the imagination of our own illness, our own death, the uneven distribution of our limited resources of care, just as they unleash murderous forms of Schadenfreude (“at first it was only gays and IV drug users…”; “the Chinese virus”…).
As I write this, my partner is wiping down grocery items with a toxic-smelling bleach. As in the AIDS crisis, the domestic has become a space to be safeguarded against outside contaminants (a reduction and hypostatization of the private property system in general?). What is comforting has become unsettling — the very meaning of Unheimlich. Groceries as the material stuff of nourishment and domesticity are suddenly transvalued as manifestations of an inexorable, and deadly, permeability — uncanny signifiers of our potential, and thus inevitable, dispossession from what we possess, including our lives.
Safe dramatizes what happens when what is comforting and hospitable in the quotidian and ordinary turns deadly. It does not do this with direct reference to the AIDS epidemic. Instead, it takes a hyperbolic figure of American normalcy — Julianne Moore, playing the aptly named Carol White (has anyone ever been whiter?), a wife and mother in the San Fernando Valley. From the beginning of the film, she is imprisoned within the interior spaces that shape the habitus of her social class — vast houses, restaurants, the gym. Moore is framed against these interiors as if caught in a still life, an incongruous, human element in what the French more aptly call nature morte, though here the status of “nature” is precisely in question. These mortifying spaces are maintained through racialized labor performed by housekeepers, delivery men, janitors, cooks, with the occasional twitch of a suppressed eye roll the only outward sign of dissent in this otherwise seamless class system.
It would be banal to say that Carol — rich, white, and married to a “successful” businessman— is trapped inside the American Dream, as are the lost souls in American Beauty (1999). Dreaming doesn’t seem to be much in question; Carol’s inner life remains inaccessible throughout the film. She is a subject-position, making all the “choices” that are the only ones she can make. In other words, in spite of its generic resonance with domestic melodrama, Safe is not a study in bourgeois psychology. It is, rather, at the material level that things start to go awry; the physical world becomes inhospitable. Carol’s immune system breaks down; she develops rashes, fatigue, nose bleeds, allergies, and as the film progresses, seizures, respiratory failure, lesions that resemble kaposi sarcoma.
In this highly allegorical film, Carol is symptomatic — of what? The film preserves its mysterious autonomy, does not provide us with a rubric. At the literal level, Carol is assailed by the environmental toxicity of post-industrial capitalism: exhaust fumes, dry cleaning, the chemicals used for her perm, the pesticides in the food that others prepare for her. But the distinction between the material and the metaphorical does not hold in this film. The film begins with a scene of joyless sex, filmed from above, a single shot showing Moore’s face as her husband pumps into her, groaning. (This recalls Sophie Lewis’s point that the safe space of the domestic interior might not be safe for everyone.) When, later in the film, Carol recoils from her husband’s cologne, the allergy is at once physiological and spiritual. On the other hand, maybe Carol is imagining it all—maybe, as some say about coronavirus, it is “just a flu.” Just as the film dissolves the distinction between literal and metaphorical toxicity, it also declines to arbitrate between “real” and “hysterical” illness. Reality is fantasy, as Freud said.
But nor is Carol the suffering heroine of this film. She orders the delivery men and her housekeeper around unthinkingly, condescendingly throwing in some Spanish: “Fulvia, could I have some milk? Some leche, por favor!” Milk here is the uncanny signifier for wholesomeness, for maternal comfort and being-at-home-in-the-world, but also an addiction, the means of her exploitation of domestic labor, and one of the toxins that is killing her. The film registers, without dwelling on, the fact that what is toxic for Carol White is doubly so for those non-white others whose labor frees her to pursue her melodrama of self-discovery: the hairdresser applying the perm; the manicurist coating her nails; the handymen painting the cabinets; the housekeeper fetching the milk.
With a paradoxically exquisite sense of aesthetics, the film surveys the spaces of capitalist mortification and, you could say, its autoimmune collapse, environmental and spiritual. The AIDS crisis, ambient, flickers into diegetic view as connotation and lapsus (“it wasn’t…?”; “no!”); silence in the film is also toxic. How could the procession of antiseptic panoramas, beige decor, beige husbands, suburban fences, aerobics classes, and lacquered friends “suing the contractor,” not incite a fantasy of escape? Encountering a group that raises the alarm about environmental toxins and chemical sensitivity, Carol seems to have found a discourse that allows her to pry herself away from her multiply toxic life. She begins to “empower herself,” to eradicate chemicals from her surroundings, expunge foods from her diet, educate herself on environmental poisoning (without, however, developing any class consciousness). But the symptoms worsen, and so eventually she abandons her life and moves to the group’s New Age retreat, far from the city, in order to get clear, to rest and recuperate. The group leader’s massive mansion sits on the hilltop overlooking the cabins.
It turns out “safe” is also a noun, a crypt (thanks to Mario Telò for pointing this out). At the Wrenwood Center, Carol becomes ever-more sensitive to environmental contaminants; in an uncanny resonance with our nightmarish present, she wears a mask and carries around an oxygen tank, in a futile attempt to insulate herself from pathogens in the air. Echoing her isolation, a man in a HazMat suit makes his way around the property, cut off from the world that threatens him. Eventually, still disturbed by fumes and noise from a nearby highway, Carol moves into an igloo-like dome structure, an individual cell or coffin, walled off from the world. The film ends with an austere shot of Carol performing affirmations in the mirror: “I love you. I really love you.” She is looking at us, but doesn’t see us; she is left alone, encrypted, finally safe from the world, enunciating a self-love whose reiterative repetition betrays its merely performative ground. Having shed her husband and child, left behind the houses and staff, refused a burgeoning flirtation with a fellow Wrenwood resident (one last spasm of the “normal?”), Carol is left in her safe space, the burning solace of ultimate solitude.
But, of course, the one real solace of the film, embedded in its title, is its irony. In her tautologous collapse of “I” and “you” (“I love you”), Carol seems to have finally avoided the contamination of the other, but is in fact repeating a formula given to her by Wrenwood’s manager, Claire; thus, the voice of self-love she has found turns out not to be “hers” at all. And of course, the final irony is that, while the owner of the retreat enriches himself, in this tomb-like safe space, Carol has only come closer to death.
In Safe, what appeared as the cure turns out to be just another expression of the symptom. Carol is not safe because she inhabits the same world we all share, a world in which a corporation owned by the richest man in the world solicits public donations to pay sick leave for workers who contract COVID-19. “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism,” wrote Fredric Jameson. Coronavirus confronts us with the apocalyptic figure or fantasy of both ends. It reawakens our fears of contagion, reminds us of their differential violence, and reactivates an historical trauma as well as the queer resources we forged to deal with it. And for that reason, the current calamity contains a utopian kernel — the possibility that we might realize that we are not alone, that there is no final safety, and that what we need is not to love ourselves so much as to rebuild, from the ground up, a commons that is truly common and a collectivity worth its name.