Monday, 17 June 2013

Un[Contained]? On Todd Haynes's [SAFE]

 WHITE [MATER]IAL by Amber Jacobs and Catherine Grant

According to [W.R. Bion] the infant projects its raw, unprocessed anxiety [...] into the mother, who, through her containing [...], returns the projections to the child in a more digestible (bound) form... [Amber Jacobs, On Matricide: Myth, Psychoanalysis and the Law of the Mother (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), fn. 28, p. 188]
Just as some caretakers are more successful than others in enabling children to develop basic trust (Erikson, 1950), ontological security (Laing, 1960), or a cohesive self (Kohut, 1971; 1977), so some societies are better able than others to provide their members with a coherent world-view, a sense of confidence and belonging, and an integrated system of meaning and value as the foundation of both personal identity and social order. Under conditions of rapid social change and resulting widespread sociocultural dislocation and anomie, a society's capacity to integrate, socialize and provide its members with a meaningful identity (that is, its capacity to fulfill a selfobject function) is impaired; in such a situation numbers of individuals are forced to endure a condition of identity diffusion (Erikson, 1959) characterized by a sense of isolation, meaninglessness, fragmentation, diffuse anxiety and emptiness depression. [Donald Carveth, 'The Borderline Dilemma in Paris, Texas: Psychoanalytic Approaches to Sam Shepard', PsyArt: An Online Journal for the Psychological Study of the Art, 1997. Online at:

Some years ago I was researching what film scholarship had pronounced on the nature of the illness of the protagonist of Todd Haynes's remarkable film [SAFE] (1995).

In an online search, which threw up lots of interesting references (many of which can be accessed here), I came across a fascinating text posted by a contributor to a scholarly cinema club group discussion of the film:
I wondered what people thought of the associations to mothers' and milk in [SAFE]. In the discussion I think someone briefly mentioned the milk motif and then we didn't take it further.

Several times in the film we see Carol [Julianne Moore] drinking large glasses of milk with a gusto and appetite that we don't see her displaying in any other situation she is in. She drinks with an urgency, need and desire and refers to herself as a bit of a 'milkaholic'. It is her only addiction, her only manifested desire.

There is that scene where she is in her house and there are lots of staff busy in her kitchen and she calls for Fulvia her 'maid'. She calls Fulvia several times with increasing desperation (again one of the rare moments where she displays affect) and Fulvia ignores her for a significant amount of time while she deals with the other staff that she is clearly in charge of. Carol is calling her because she wants Fulvia to get her a glass of milk. I found the moments that Carol's calls are left unanswered significant. Firstly, one thinks, just get the milk yourself! But her refusal to and her clear need for the milk to be given to her by Fulvia signifies for me the idea of the baby calling for its mother's breast not being solely to do with nutrition but a whole set of other intrapsychic emotional needs. Carol doesn't get the milk herself because her need is precisely for Fulvia to give it to her.

There are other times in the film when she enters her house and automatically calls Fulvia's name that reminds me of a child calling her mother with a kind of urgency or need for a particular kind of recognition. She treats Fulvia like a mother -needing her to bring her milk and give her instant attention. Fulvia's resistance to this role is evident in her making her mistress/daughter wait is interesting. There is also peculiar moment where the camera stays still [framing Fulvia's figure] (blank expression) while Carol is 'reacting' to her sofa being the wrong colour. We are forced to ponder Fulvia for those moments.

In addition to the Carol-Fulvia-Milk episodes there is also the fact of Carol being a step mother - not a biological mother. What is the significance of this I wonder? The only time you see her take what could be construed as a maternal role (never with her step son) is with a friend's daughter at the baby shower in that extraordinary scene where the girl sits on her lap and Carol then descends into one of her most extreme fits of nearly suffocating and terrifies the girl. In this scene the Carol/mother figure transmits to the daughter figure something totally overwhelming and disturbing and impossible for the daughter to understand. It just seems that in the Carol-Fulvia and the Carol-friend's daughter scenes something intense with regard to need, desire and affect gets transmitted.
I am not sure where these thoughts are leading but thought it worth thinking about. Milk and mothers (wanting Fulvia) (wanting the girl to sit on her lap) seem to inspire affect in Carol... that which is totally void in her for almost all of the film......Is there significance that it is the mother-daughter structure which is the only 'relation' in the film that conjures up something that seems like affect?

I copied and pasted these words into my burgeoning notes on the film, and mentally tucked them away. But I wasn't able to write anything about [SAFE] at that point.

Then, a few years ago, I was very fortunate to meet the author of this text, Amber Jacobs, and I read some of her academic work on affect, psychoanalysis and 'the law of the mother'. Amber went on to record her reading of these words for me, and the resulting 'audio commentary' very much inspired the form and content of the above video essay on [SAFE]. 

Indeed, the way I would describe it now is that the creative constraints provided by Amber's words met with those of the film footage in the space provided by my video editing programme. By working on them there I was able to forge a container for an audiovisual experience which touches on one of the film's most significant and compelling patterns, in my view: the way that the contrary affects of contentment and anxiety in [SAFE] seem deeply connected to the materiality (and metaphoricity) of mothering.

Also see:

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