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America’s Cinematic Deadly Obsession

In Sickness and in Health: America’s Cinematic Deadly Obsession

In Sickness and in Health: America’s Cinematic Deadly Obsession
Tina Butler,
May 6, 2005

With growing frequency, American cinema is portraying illness and disease and their relation to and effect on society. As film is the premier medium of mass culture, this trend reveals a growing public obsession with the concept of the modern plague. This interest can be linked to the increased occurrence and range of infectious diseases as well as heightened awareness of environmental problems. Representations of these topics in film illuminate public conception and perception of these issues—attitudes often based on ignorance, fear and subsequent hostility. Two such films that address the advent and subject of contemporary illness and its relation to society are Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia and Todd Haynes’ Safe. The films address vastly different types of sickness, one being AIDS and the other, environmental illness; however there are similarities between the two texts that present a greater picture that can be related to society’s attitudes about this issue.

“Carol White (Julianne Moore) is a mousy housewife living the affluent life in the San Fernando Valley when, over the span of a few months, she begins to develop debilitating sensitivities to her environment. A permanent at the hair salon makes her nose bleed and her skin go bad, exhaust from a truck causes her to cough violently, she’s allergic to the new couch, goes into seizures at the dry cleaner’s. No one understands or credits her condition, least of all her husband or family physician. But the symptoms worsen, and Carol eventually discovers others who suffer from similar environmental illnesses. She checks into a desert spa that caters to those in her predicament, and the staff regales her with touchy-feely, infomercial-style affirmations. All of this could have been broad satire, but director Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine) opts for a filming style that captures the empty elegance of Carol’s passive lifestyle and looks on with clinical dispassion, so that you can hear the oppressive quiet surrounding her. It’s positively eerie, so you know you’re not watching just a worthy cause picture or movie of the week. Haynes has more ambition than that, even going so far as to insert a slight buzzing sound in the soundtrack to accentuate the unease. Fluorescent lights? Power lines? Who knows? Maybe it’s safe to call it the ominous rumblings beneath the surface of Carol’s life, from antiseptic affluence to septic isolation in the spa environment. A model of sustained tone, boasting one of the most remarkable performances by Julianne Moore, from a whole career of remarkable performances.” –Jim Gay

Both AIDS and environmental illness emerged on a large scale in the 80s and came into fuller prominence in the 90s, when both Philadelphia and Safe were made and released. As recent introductions into the public arena, there was a significant lack of knowledge about the illnesses. As relative unknowns, blatant and abundant stereotypes and misconceptions about people with such illnesses flourished. AIDS had several distorted views as the gay plague or modern leprosy among other things. The early 90s attitude towards AIDS is succinctly and unquestionably summed up in a single scene in Philadelphia. Andrew Beckett goes into Joe Miller’s (Denzel Washington’s character) office seeking legal counsel for his case against Wheeler et al. As he shakes hands with Miller, Washington’s character notes Beckett’s deteriorated appearance and inquires after him. Beckett explains in a direct and unceremonial manner, “I have AIDS.” In that moment, the audience registers a distinct change in Miller’s expression, from one of amiability and good will to one of shock and horror, and witnesses his sudden withdrawal out of the handshake. There is no greater repellent. This scene can be easily imagined in reality for the viewer of the early 90s.

To circumvent this, both Philadelphia and Safe attempt to reconcile, educate and overturn some of these stereotypes and real-life reactions by creating, portraying and presenting characters that are likable and that audience members can relate to. Tom Hanks’ character, Andrew Beckett, in Philadelphia is presented as a dedicated, hard-working and remarkably likable attorney. He has a loving, supportive family and healthy relationships with those close to him. The clincher and intensely interruptive element for the audience is that Andrew Beckett is gay and he has AIDS.

Environmental illness was, and still remains, fairly unfamiliar to the public majority. Yet given the cryptic nature of the sickness, there seemed to be a certain level of disregard for it. Julianne Moore’s Carol White in Safe is introduced as a somewhat vacuous yet largely innocuous and decent San Fernando Valley housewife. She appears almost frighteningly ordinary until she develops a baffling case of environmental illness. The stigma attached to her disease is not nearly as profound or virulent as Andrew Beckett’s, however the audience finds it difficult to identify or sympathize with her because so much of her sickness seems to be self-inflicted psychologically. Despite this ambiguity, the viewer is given no reason to dislike her. For both characters though, their diseases mark them in a way that makes them pariahs.

“Philadelphia wasn’t the first movie about AIDS (it followed such worthy independent films as Parting Glances and Longtime Companion), but it was the first Hollywood studio picture to take AIDS as its primary subject. In that sense, Philadelphia is a historically important film. As such, it’s worth remembering that director Jonathan Demme (Melvin and Howard, Something Wild, The Silence of the Lambs) wasn’t interested in preaching to the converted; he set out to make a film that would connect with a mainstream audience. And he succeeded. Philadelphia was not only a hit, it also won Oscars for Bruce Springsteen’s haunting “The Streets of Philadelphia,” and for Tom Hanks as the gay lawyer Andrew Beckett who is unjustly fired by his firm because he has AIDS. Denzel Washington is another lawyer (functioning as the mainstream-audience surrogate) who reluctantly takes Beckett’s case and learns to overcome his misconceptions about the disease, about those who contract it, and about gay people in general. The combined warmth and humanism of Hanks and Demme were absolutely essential to making this picture a success. The cast also features Jason Robards, Antonio Banderas (as Beckett’s lover), Joanne Woodward, and Robert Ridgely, and, of course, those Demme regulars Charles Napier, Tracey Walter, and Roger Corman.” –Jim Emerson

Both AIDS and environmental illness carry with them certain badges of identity, evidence of the sickness that manifests itself on afflicted individuals. AIDS becomes synonymous with lesions; they mark Beckett as an infected and infectious individual. They are literal scarlet letters. There are numerous scenes in Philadelphia where insiders and outsiders observe Beckett’s lesions alike, and people’s reactions reveal their position on the disease. One of the first people to notice Beckett’s lesions is a coworker who had previously worked with an individual suffering from AIDS. Beckett is able to pass his marker off as a bruise sustained in a racquetball game, but this first observation distinguishes him from the realm of ‘normal’ and healthy and sets him apart. Another key scene takes places in the hospital where Beckett is awaiting results from a series of tests. In this specific moment, there is a shot of him using a pay phone, speaking to some colleagues at the office. The audience watches him scratch at the back of his neck and as the camera move closer, a lesion is revealed at the place of his exploring fingers. Suddenly, the camera cuts to a woman watching Hank’s character perform this action. She sees what the viewer sees, recognizes him as an individual with AIDS, using a public phone that other people will use and touch and is disgusted. Her feelings are transparent on her face.

Additionally, the final crucial scene involving the physical evidence of AIDS takes place in the courtroom. An argument has just occurred about whether or not Beckett’s lesions were visible to his coworkers at the time of his termination. After some discussion, it is decided that he remove his shirt to show lesions on his chest that are similar to the ones he had on his face at the time he was fired. The gasps from the jury and rest of the courtroom are audible when the final button of his shirt is undone. For the first time, members of the courtroom and audience alike are allowed to see the full extent to which his body has been ravaged by the disease. For many, it is the first moment that AIDS becomes real to them. The sickness is no longer just a dirty four-letter word; it is an intensely heartbreaking and human thing that takes life and brings death. Dismissing AIDS is no longer a valid option. Proof of its existence is right there in front of them.

To a lesser but still present extent are the badges of environmental illness, the surgical mask and the oxygen tank. People in the public arena look at Carol White differently with these accessories of disease. As they become extensions of her body, they separate her from ‘normal’ people. Even Carol’s fruit diet partner begins to maintain a voluntary and distinct distance from her. With these accessories, Carol becomes something of a freak. They become literal burdens, the oxygen tank especially, as she must drag it with her wherever she goes. In the prison-sanctuary of Wrenwood, such items do not draw stares because they are commonplace. However, in the world outside, a world unfamiliar and relatively unaccepting of the phenomenon of environmental illness, these badges serve only isolate and alienate.

AIDS, due to the sexual nature of contraction, is far more highly politicized than environmental illness. Individuals afflicted with the latter sickness are looked at and largely dismissed as over-reacting, hypochondriac head-cases. In fact, Carol White is told more than once by various individuals that her illness is “all in her head.” While AIDS is a disease of the body, environmental illness, it seems, is a disease of the mind, however it manifests itself occasionally in a physical way. This is conveyed in Carol’s panic attacks, breathing difficulties and nosebleed, however the audience, due to the alienating nature of the film, wonders whether Carol brings these things upon herself at some level.

Regardless of differences in their typologies, both diseases premeditate a kind of social death for the afflicted individual. The characteristics of each force Beckett and Carol into isolation because the public no longer accepts them. Fortunately for Beckett, he finds a haven in the comfort and care of his family and close friends before his actual physical death. Carol has the surrogate cultish family of Wrenwood, however there she only continues to further remove herself from people and eventually, reality. Philadelphia and Safe do not solve any of the problems regarding representations of modern illness nor do they reverse public conception. These films are notable however, because they at least try.