The ecoterrorist protagonists of Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves don’t have much in common with the heroine of Todd Haynes’ Safe, an anxious housewife who decides her unexplained illness has been caused by the chemicals in her environment—that she is, in essence, allergic to the world. But Reichardt and Haynes go back over 20 years—she worked in the art department on 1991’s Poison, his three-part homage to Jean Genet; he executive-produced her last four features; and she uses his films in her classes at Bard College. So when The Dissolve asked Reichardt to pick a film she thinks everyone should watch, it was an easy choice. Safe, which is currently out of print, but has been confirmed as an upcoming, undated addition to the Criterion Collection, stunned viewers and confused some critics with its radical departure from Poison’s lush homoeroticism and formalist experimentation. Instead, Haynes opted for towering Kubrickian compositions and a foreboding sound design—one of Reichardt’s favorite aspects. Night Moves’ silences are no less ominous.
The Dissolve: Why should everyone see Safe?
Kelly Reichardt: I should have a disclaimer that Todd is a close friend, and he’s produced my movies. But that aside, it is one of my favorite contemporary films. I read the script, and I didn’t understand the script at all. I thought it was super-clinical. I remember seeing it for the first time in some screening room, and coming out of the theater and just thinking how little difference there was from the feeling on the screen and what was on the street somehow. Anyway, that was a long time ago, and I’ve seen parts of the films many times because I use it in a class. What I love most about that film is the sound design. There’s many things I love about it, but the sound design is really great. The score [by Ed Tomney], it’s a beautiful score. My students and I sit in a dark room sometimes—I do a sound class—and part of the semester, we’re just listening. That’s a really great film to just listen to.
His soundtracks are actually pretty complex. They’re not really silent. He uses music in a way where you don’t actually feel bombarded with someone’s music. It’s really in the mix, and it’s really in the scene, and it’s always working for its purpose. There’s visual space in that film, and there’s this space in the sound design, but when you just listen to it, you realize all the stuff that’s going on, like the sort of classic Vietnam helicopter over just a small conversation between friends.
I love the whole way of getting into the movie, where you have these crazy wide shots inside the house, where the lamps and decorative pieces are way bigger than Julianne Moore, who is sort of off to the side, and how unsympathetic her husband is, and just how much you feel for him at the end; it seems like an impossible journey. I’m jealous of that as a filmmaker, to be able to make that kind of arc with someone. You feel like you’re not going to be able to relate to any of them, and I do end up feeling for Julianne’s character, and for her husband, who seems unreachable to me in the beginning. Like all his films, it’s about identity. That ending, which I won’t give away, but… Wow. I mean, if you think about when that film came out, whatever year the L.A. earthquake was, I think that happened when they made that movie.
The Dissolve: You mention Safe not judging its characters—there were reports at the time that Haynes removed a shot of a character’s expensive house, because the audience laughed at it, and he felt it was inadvertently telling them how to feel.
Reichardt: All his films have this kind of humor to them that’s in the dialogue. For example, she’s in the locker room, and one woman asks the other woman after the aerobics class if they’ve read this certain book: “He’s very good on certain things,” which is such a Todd line. Or that amazing book report the kid’s writing: “How do you spell ‘Uzi,’ Dad?” and he’s writing about the ghetto at the dinner table. “Why does it have to be so violent?” “That’s how it really is.” [Laughs.] And then there’s the great scene with her friend, in her friend’s kitchen, and her brother’s just died, and you hear a bomber plane going over the house, but they never say anything. And then in the same conversation, after talking about her brother’s demise, she says, “Did you know I’m suing the architect?” and it just goes right into that conversation. It’s so funny, but he never makes fun of his characters. Ever. And so the humor is in this other space that isn’t [directed] at anybody, basically.
The Dissolve: About the couch being bigger than Julianne Moore in some shots—it turns out one of the potential villains in the film is her furniture: It may be the toxic chemicals in her couch that made her sick.
Reichardt: [Laughs.] Right, the wrong-colored couch. With the dry-cleaning, I feel I might have influenced that scene, because I lived over a dry-cleaner at the time, and I was obsessed with how much was okay to breathe. So I feel close to the scene when she gets a bloody nose when she gets a perm.
A lot of films I teach, after a while, I kind of ruin them, breaking them down so much. But Safe, and Far From Heaven also, I use those films a lot, and I just keep discovering stuff in them. They sort of keep giving.
The Dissolve: There are movies I love that I’ve had to stop watching, because after a while, I can’t see them anymore. I put them on and I’m already five layers deep, analyzing editing choices or anticipating a favorite line, and not experiencing the story.
Reichardt: Some films, I can teach, and I get to know them so well, and when they keep turning stuff up for me, it’s kind of amazing. But I know them in sections, that’s the problem.
The Dissolve: On the Sony DVD, which is out of print, Todd Haynes describes seeing Safe at the Philadelphia International Gay And Lesbian Film Festival, and he felt like the audience didn’t know what to make of it until Poison’s James Lyons showed up as a cab driver. He felt like there was a kind of laughter of recognition, like the audience finally knew where to position themselves.
Reichardt: Well at the time, the reviews were mixed, like people didn’t know what to make of it. I think people changed their reviews years later. At the time, it must have been River Of Grass that had come out, and I was doing some thing at a screening in Jersey that was hosted by some movie critic… I’m not going to get his name right. It was an old crowd that came out, which is probably people my age now. I remember two things about that night: One, that I was in the bathroom stall and two women came in—or maybe they were in the stalls, and I came in—they couldn’t see me, and one of them said to the other one, “I just invited you to the movie, I didn’t make the movie!” And then, whoever that host was, I got a ride home with him back to the city, and we were in a cab together, and he said, “Well, it wasn’t the worst film I saw today. I saw this other film today, I mean, you wouldn’t even believe it. It’s about a housewife that gets sick. That’s the movie!” [Laughs.] I was like “Okay, I feel better about the whole experience now. I’m just gonna walk home from here, pull over at this corner.”
The Dissolve: It definitely surprised people when Todd Haynes, who was considered one of the standard-bearers of the New Queer Cinema, decided to make his second movie about a straight, privileged housewife with a possibly psychosomatic illness. Did that surprise you?
Reichardt: No, it wasn’t that for me. I think it was more like, the tone in Poison, I understood on the page. And Safe is so much its own thing that I didn’t know what this tone was. I didn’t know how anyone would get inside it. There wasn’t a reference for it. With Poison, I worked on that movie, I was in the art department, so I read the script, and knew the sort of genres it was referencing. But this, I just… I didn’t know where to put it at the time. I was just too young, I guess, or I didn’t have a reference for it. All Todd’s films become more emotional after several screenings. The emotion of the film isn’t the first thing that hits you; that comes afterward. There’s just so much information. There’s just a lot to take in.