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Film Club: Safe

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I

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I love how the opening shot sets everything up.

We're looking out through the car windshield on a suburban community, and in the dim light it seems rather unsettling. On the shiny hood of the car, we see the inverted reflection of the same community. And it's so quiet. Just the low hum of the car. We're in an insulated world, where it's silent, looking at what seems like a normal neighborhood with the faint, Lynchian suggestion of things being turned upside down.

The car glides smoothly into the garage, and the couple gets out. They may as well be sleepwalking. We can hear them say something to each other, but right away there's a faint hint that this is a passionless relationship.

The opening title is styled like the title of a horror movie. Appropriately.

Then, we're jolted by the abrupt shift into a god's-eye view of a sex scene... and she's clearly just lying there getting through it. She doesn't look miserable, but it certainly doesn't look like passion or love. More like patience. She's there for him, and when he's finished, well, that's that.

Has she surrendered to doing things his way? Or is she just passionless and uninterested?

Interesting that even though it opens with a sex scene, we already know that she's profoundly lonely.

Also interesting how, where most sex scenes are styled with the "magic towel" effect that supernaturally obscures the actors' genitals, here it's her husband's face that remains hidden from us. His identity isn't important here.

Then, in a scene that looks like the precursor to scenes in Far From Heaven, she's wearing her designer jeans and working in the orderly garden. And even though he's off to work in his usual routine, we still don't get a good look at him.

We're already firmly rooted in Haynes' primary preoccupation: the stifling effect of order, the suffocating effect of wealth, the bondage of the cultural "peer pressure," and the need for passion and intimacy. His camerawork feels so dispassionate and clinical, like we're watching a science experiment instead of a drama.

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What a treat! I watched SAFE last night, was craving some conversation about it, and find this brand new thread! Glorious.

Good stuff about the opening, Jeffrey.

Watching the film was an intriguing experience. I kept expecting the big payoff, the revelation, the moment when everything turned really bad or began to resolve, when the film settled on its genre and showed us what it was on about. And it didn't. Which was for the first moments after the end quite baffling, even deflating. But very quickly I began to think, "I like that."

Having read an early film article by a friend of mine on TENDER MERCIES about that film's "merciful tendering of genre expectations," I've often celebrated how that film's power partly resides in its unwillingness to settle in and become a genre picture: the way it sets up the expectation of certain plot developments or payoffs and then simply doesn't go there. Or elides those events (which would be key developments in any other film), allows them to happen off-camera so our attention is shifted to other things.

SAFE does the same thing with several genres, it seems to me. Is it a horror film? Is it a film about a woman's breakdown, or the breakdown of a marriage? Is it a "disease of the week" special on environmental allergies? A "spiritually significant" film that uncovers a spiritual remedy for this woman's affliction that had seemed to be physiological? A cult expose?

Nope.

The film unsettled me by not settling into any of these familiar patterns. And left me to think that the film maker's intention was largely to unsettle us. Bravo.

I've not taken part in a film club discussion before, but it sounds like the protocol is to wait with further thoughts until others have had a chance to post their preliminary thoughts. I may mostly lurk, as things are about to get busy yet again, but I'll be checking in regularly to see what other things get uncovered.

A truly unique film, at least in my viewing experience. Great choice for this kind of discussion!

P.S. I'm going to mention Todd Haynes and Julianne Moore here, just so this film is easier to find with the search function.

Edited by Ron

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Just watched it. My main impression is the visual sense that pervades the film. It's as if Haynes had been studying the way DaVinci's Last Supper has all the lines converging on Christ. Even things like shot of a car askew in a driveway provides a line to direct our eye. An amazing use of space. Everything is so empty. The houses, of course, but I really noticed in when she was in the shrink's office. And again at the baby shower, we discover that this is a huge room with everyone gathered in one corner. A scene with a discussion between Carol and her husband and there is a wall between them.

I think this may be one a Rorscharch film. We are likely to project meaning to it. Is it about the environment? Snake oil gurus? The effects of living in a world based in fear? Or, among other things listed above, marriage breakdown? personal breakdown?

Has anybody listened to the commentary? Anything of value there?

Edited by Darrel Manson

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How about this:

Cache is not about who-dunit, even though you spend the movie waiting for the big revelation. And since the answer is never really and definitively given, the film ends up being about the way that people respond to violation, and the way that evil tends to make us wonder if it is judgment for things we've done.

Safe, in a similar way, refuses to give us a big revelation. And thus, the movie is about the many and varied ways we look outside of ourselves for the solution to an internal problem. But watching it again, the film is an entirely different experience, because now I'm not looking outward for a solution, but inward at the problem.

And even in the opening shots, there is a sense of absence; an absence of passion, of love, of life. It's as though decorum and formality and all of the trappings of civilization are nothing but a cloak concealing emptiness and acting as a distraction or a disguise for our imperfect human condition.

But it might also be that those formalities are what is preventing that void from being filled.

(Seen in relationship with Far from Heaven, in which love is prevented by all manner of social customs, I tend to lean toward that last view.)

Whatever the case, I don't feel that the filmmaker has an opinion about what the answer is. I think it's an expression of our fundamentally flawed state, and more, a despairing sort of cry. There is nowhere we can go that is safe.

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I do plan on putting porcelain on the walls of my bedroom, though.

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I think this may be one a Rorscharch film. We are likely to project meaning to it. Is it about the environment? Snake oil gurus? The effects of living in a world based in fear? Or, among other things listed above, marriage breakdown? personal breakdown?

AIDS?

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Alright, just saw this, and want to post some initial thoughts.

The intial thing that struck me was Haynes' reserved style. The shots tend to be wide, allowing the actors to act in front of us, rather than using editing to elicit reactions from the viewer. This forces we viewers to react to what is going on before us, to formulate an opinion, to have a perspective of our own on the events taking place. I was surprised at my own reaction, but more on that in a moment.

Second, I noticed the way Carol was isolated throughout much of the film. This begins almost immediately when we see her having sex with her husband. Technically there are two people there, but not seeing his face, in addition to seeing her absolute disconnect, makes it clear this is a lonely act for her. Haynes also isolates her in my favorite shot of the film, when her husband would like to have sex and she says she has a headache. While she sits in bed, he stands at the foot of the bed. After he gets frustrated with her, he goes to sit on the side of the bed, in the center of the shot, while Carol, still sitting in bed, is pushed to the extreme left, alone. She's also isolated in the locker room with her friends, at the baby shower, and at the psychiatrist's office.

Third, about midway through, I realized my reaction to Carol and her plight was more negative than I would hope for myself. I found it difficult to connect with her. She just seemed weak and weepy and it was frustrating me. But this is where I think the greatness of this film comes in. Because of its pulled back style, it allowed me to formulate that opinion for myself, and thus turn a mirror on myself that would not have happened had Haynes been pulling out all the little tricks to get me to empathize with his main character. I almost feel like Haynes is doing everything he can to isolate Carol from any experience that is familiar to the audience. Her husband doesn't know what's going on with her. Her doctors can't figure out what it is. Even the people at the ranch don't seem all that insightful into her problems. Yet still she struggles and suffers.

I almost feel like Haynes is asking us the question: How far can I go and you still empathize with this suffering character who never does anything to harm anyone else? In doing so, the film revealed to me that my own empathy has limits, which of course I know, but it's still a powerful moment of realization for me. The film, through showing the weakness of a person, in its own way, revealed my own weakness and limitation.

There's more to think about here, but I am interested in reading other responses.

Edited by John

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Great, great post, John.

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Terrific posts, y'all. Some really great thoughts here.

Let's keep the momentum going and open up the discussion. And, of course, anyone is still welcome to post initial comments.

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I love the comments so far on style, themes, and emphathy. I listened to the commentary last night and found parts of it useful. Apparently, the film was made for less than a million dollars, which is almost unheard of; one of the ways they saved money was by utilizing the homes of what seems like Haynes' entire family--his parents' drive, his uncle's home, his grandparents' kitchen, etc. And of course, this pristine suburban vacuity is therefore completely authentic. Speaking as an Angeleno resident, I think the film captures the San Fernando milieu with a clinical gaze that is profoundly unsettling. (And Haynes mentions that Kubrick and 2001 were a big influence on the look of the film.)

One thing Haynes also mentions in the commentary is how so many viewers place Carol's sickness alongside the mystical, New Agey--even potentially charlatan--elements of Wrenwood, which wasn't his intention. And indeed, auto immune diseases and food allergies continue to play a big (even growing?) role in our society today. I personally know several people who suffer from several chronic and undiagnosed sicknesses seemingly related to their diet and environment, and given the radical changes that have occured in farming and food production in the last 15 years, that probably shouldn't come as much of a surprise. Of course, the film isn't a "disease of the week" expos

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The novel that would serve as a perfect complement to Safe is Alan Lightman's The Diagnosis, which may have been inspired by the film actually.

... a nameless horror befalls Boston businessman Bill Chalmers in the hubbub of his morning commute. As he jostles his way aboard the train and makes cell-phone calls to check last-minute details on his morning meeting (for Bill is punctilious), a realization surfaces in his brain, "like a trapped bubble of air rising from the bottom of a deep pond." He has forgotten where he's going. All he can remember is his anxious urgency and his company's creed, "The maximum information in the minimum time." Acutely aware that he's got a 9:15 appointment, but recalling only the first six digits of his phone number, Bill helplessly gazes out the window. "Trees flew by like flailing arms.... Railroad tracks fluttered by like matchsticks. Trees, white and gray clapboard houses with paint peeling off, junkyards with stacks of flaccid tires." Lightman's Kafka pastiche is as pitch perfect as his verbal music: note the rhyming x sounds in stacks and flaccid (which is not pronounced "flassid").

Terrifyingly soon, Bill is mad, homeless, beaten, and experimented on by comically evil doctors. He recovers and reunites with his family, but inexorably, mysterious paralysis ensues. Doctors try to diagnose him. Coworkers offer empty condolences and plot to steal his fast-track job. His wife seeks consolation with a passionate virtual lover on the Internet, a professor she's never met in the flesh. His teenage son triumphantly hacks into AOL's Plato Online, and Bill's last days are counterpointed with the trial of Socrates and his troubled, rich inquisitor Anytus. Instead of the real story, we get a second shimmering Lightman fable. Anytus's strife with his rebel son, a Socrates supporter, parallels Bill's grief as his son is distanced from him by illness.

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A quick note about the use of sound: I love how Haynes inserts reminders of the outside, mechanized world

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So are folks still trying to see this or has everyone already chimed in?

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My DVD finally came in from Deep Discount DVD this week, so I'm planning on watching it this weekend.

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Wow, what a great film - kudos to whoever suggested it. And the comments so far have been rich and insightful, to boot. My wife and I just watched this tonight, but here are some initial thoughts, maybe nothing really new, but at least some riffs on earlier posts:

::Is it a horror film? Is it a film about a woman's breakdown, or the breakdown of a marriage? Is it a "disease of the week" special on environmental allergies? A "spiritually significant" film that uncovers a spiritual remedy for this woman's affliction that had seemed to be physiological? A cult expose?

I loved your comments, Ron. My response at the final fade to black was very similar: a big 'huh???' and initial displeasure, but then a pleasureable dawning realization that this was not your typical Hollywood genre film. Apparently, the film is a decent clinical depiction of 'multiple chemical sensitivity disorder,' but this is not a glamorous or sensational 'disease film.'

Along those lines, I valued the richness of the characters found here. Carol's hubby is an insensitive schmo, but we can also sympathize with his helplessness and concern over his wife's plight. Likewise, Peter (the center director) is in some ways (perhaps most ways) an awful therapist, aggressively steamrolling his dogma in the support group, yet he also seems troubled himself and struggling to make sense of his afflictions.

::I think this may be one a Rorscharch film.

I agree, Darrel. And more and more, I'm believing this is the mark of a great film, one that possesses the surety and confidence in its material, so that it doesn't need to preach, leaving interpretive wiggle room for its viewers.

On that note, my wife and I disagreed on whether this film ended on a note of hope or bleakness (my vote was with the latter option). On hearing a bit of the DVD commentary, it seems that I'm in agreement with Haynes, that when Carol affirms herself while looking in the mirror, she's merely learned to parrot unthinkingly her guru's patter, replacing her love of material things and suburbia with New Agey nonsense. On further consideration, the answer may be some of both: there may be some genuineness in her self-affirmation, yet the alleged cure has failed to halt her disease's progress, judging by her skeletal, rash-covered reflection at film's end.

::Whatever the case, I don't feel that the filmmaker has an opinion about what the answer is. I think it's an expression of our fundamentally flawed state, and more, a despairing sort of cry. There is nowhere we can go that is safe.

I agree, Jeffrey, and again, judging from the bits of commentary I heard, Haynes would concur, too.

::Speaking as an Angeleno resident, I think the film captures the San Fernando milieu with a clinical gaze that is profoundly unsettling.

The race element was interesting here, too -- how Julia the housemaid was so taken for granted by the Whites (some intentional irony in the name, perhaps?) that Rory can read his school paper in her presence, concluding with how violence in the valley has worsened thanks to the increased Hispanic population, and none of the Whites recognize their insensitivity.

::A quick note about the use of sound: I love how Haynes inserts reminders of the outside, mechanized world

Edited by Andrew

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And my ramblings continue...

- Remember the post-aerobics locker room conversation between 2 of Carol's friends, how one commented that she quit her 12-Step program, because she felt she was replacing one addiction with another? In retrospect, I suspect Haynes is foreshadowing Carol's later illness and treatment experiences, while commenting that Carol has replaced one form of pathology with another.

- And what about Lester, the fellow with the odd gait, whom we see wandering the periphery of the retreat center a couple of times? What does he signify? Having just finished A Canticle for Liebowitz, I was reminded of Lazarus living in the desert near the monastery, and I wondered if Lester, too, is a sort of prophet. Am I way off, or am I on to something here?

- A brief comment on the psychiatrist in this film, the guy behind the big glass desk, with the monkey tapestry behind him: next to the crazed killers and the docs who seduce their patients, he's got to be one of the worst shrinks on celluloid. A very funny scene to me, anyway...

OK, now I'll be quiet. :)

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Absolutely not, Andrew, I loved your comments and have been looking forward to your take on the psychological and therapeutic elements in the film in addition to everything else. Thanks for the link to Atkinson. One of the things I most like about the film is its articulation of health-sociology-psychology-spirituality as a complex whole in people's lives. It's a rare film that seems truly attentive to all these facets of our lives and their ambiguous inter-merging.

Carol's hubby is an insensitive schmo, but we can also sympathize with his helplessness and concern over his wife's plight.
Great point--at first I was tempted to read him as insensitive and self-absorbed, but by the end of the film, he's clearly showing concern and trying to help, even if he still doesn't remotely understand what's happening to Carol. But he reveals a subtle vulnerability throughout the film.

Likewise, Peter (the center director) is in some ways (perhaps most ways) an awful therapist, aggressively steamrolling his dogma in the support group, yet he also seems troubled himself and struggling to make sense of his afflictions.
I was surprisingly moved by his palpable anger after the death at Wrenwood. At first, I wondered if he was merely using the moment to "steamroll his agenda," but I think he is genuinely upset and concerned that a member of the community died and is reminded of the importance of the work they are doing (regardless of efficacy of his methods). He doesn't seem like a cynical manipulator.

On further consideration, the answer may be some of both: there may be some genuineness in her self-affirmation, yet the alleged cure has failed to halt her disease's progress, judging by her skeletal, rash-covered reflection at film's end.
I lean more toward a tragic denouement, too, but I can see how it is ambiguous and could precipitate the beginning of a new stage in Carol's life. At least her illness seems to have forced her to comes to terms with herself as an individual and removed her from her routine life. She actually raises her voice at the nurse, insisting that she not do any cleaning in her room; the old Carol White wouldn't have done that.

The race element was interesting here, too -- how Julia the housemaid was so taken for granted by the Whites (some intentional irony in the name, perhaps?) that Rory can read his school paper in her presence, concluding with how violence in the valley has worsened thanks to the increased Hispanic population, and none of the Whites recognize their insensitivity.
--wow, you know, I've never made that connection--that he's reading in her presence--but he definitely does. Doesn't Carol at point ask the maid for milk and then clarify "leche," as if she doesn't know what milk is? I thought that was sadly presumptive, too.

perhaps my favorite bit of dialogue, from the wedding shower: "Did you wrap that gift yourself?" "Oh no, I could never be that creative!" - very funny, very sad
Ha! Indeed.

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- And what about Lester, the fellow with the odd gait, whom we see wandering the periphery of the retreat center a couple of times? What does he signify? Having just finished A Canticle for Liebowitz, I was reminded of Lazarus living in the desert near the monastery, and I wondered if Lester, too, is a sort of prophet. Am I way off, or am I on to something here?

oooooh. nice. (Ready to take Canticle to the discussion on if SciFi can be spiritual?)

- A brief comment on the psychiatrist in this film, the guy behind the big glass desk, with the monkey tapestry behind him: next to the crazed killers and the docs who seduce their patients, he's got to be one of the worst shrinks on celluloid. A very funny scene to me, anyway...

I found him an amazing characterization. I wonder if that is how a patient might feel in their initial meeting -- so separate and alone. Tell me, would such otherness be part of a more traditional psychoanalysis -- the big empty room and desk replacing sitting out of the patient's sight?

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Along those lines, I valued the richness of the characters found here. Carol's hubby is an insensitive schmo, but we can also sympathize with his helplessness and concern over his wife's plight. Likewise, Peter (the center director) is in some ways (perhaps most ways) an awful therapist, aggressively steamrolling his dogma in the support group, yet he also seems troubled himself and struggling to make sense of his afflictions.

Andrew, I really like this point about characterization. The easy way to take the husband in particular is to dismiss him as insensitive, but as you note, I think that's too easy. The more I think about this film, the more impressed I am with the truth in his portrayal. He's not this guy who just thinks his wife is out to lunch. I think he struggles with wanting to dismiss her claims, and in that sense, I felt that same struggle throughout the film. For me, that conflict in him was my real connection into this world. I really appreciate that Haynes doesn't just let him off the hook, but that he stays and has to work through his feelings about what is going on with his wife.

Also, I appreciate your thoughts on Peter. There is a real sense in which Peter is inept, I think. He has a good heart, and wants to help people, but everything seems kind of thrown together and non-clinical. Like maybe this guy took a few classes and now is using the little he has to help.

On that note, my wife and I disagreed on whether this film ended on a note of hope or bleakness (my vote was with the latter option). On hearing a bit of the DVD commentary, it seems that I'm in agreement with Haynes, that when Carol affirms herself while looking in the mirror, she's merely learned to parrot unthinkingly her guru's patter, replacing her love of material things and suburbia with New Agey nonsense. On further consideration, the answer may be some of both: there may be some genuineness in her self-affirmation, yet the alleged cure has failed to halt her disease's progress, judging by her skeletal, rash-covered reflection at film's end.

I like your read on this final scene, which puts another thought into my mind. What about the use of mirrors and reflections thorughout the film. I know Jeffrey mentioned something above about the reflection off the car in the opening scene, then there is a scene in a bedroom, a bathroom, and the beauty salon that all have mirrors. And then in the final scene, she approaches the mirror to make her affirmation, but to do it, Haynes places the camera in place of the mirror, so Carol is looking right at us. I wonder if there's some kind of projection going on here, that Haynes is saying something about how we are all sick and all in need of compassion and empathy. Which is just so interesting, seeing as he takes every pain to make what Carol is going through very unlike an everyday experience. He removes her from our experience, only later to place us right in the center of it.

- A brief comment on the psychiatrist in this film, the guy behind the big glass desk, with the monkey tapestry behind him: next to the crazed killers and the docs who seduce their patients, he's got to be one of the worst shrinks on celluloid. A very funny scene to me, anyway...

I found him an amazing characterization. I wonder if that is how a patient might feel in their initial meeting -- so separate and alone. Tell me, would such otherness be part of a more traditional psychoanalysis -- the big empty room and desk replacing sitting out of the patient's sight?

Darrel, I like this point about using that initial scene with the psychiatrist to evoke a feeling a patient might have in their initial encounter. The space between them in that scene struck me as beyond ridiculous. Would any doctor really set up an atmosphere so intimidating to conversation? Maybe I don't know enough about that world, but that's how it struck me, and why I'd prefer to read that scene more about feeling than about reality.

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I saw this and found it a very unsettling exploration of the emptiness of the modern suburban lifestyle, the illusion of personaly safety, and how people try to muddle through the best they can. I didn't see any villians in the film. When people act in a way that seems cruel, they're instead simply clueless as how they affect other people. Even the psychiatrist behind that big glass desk, I don't think he intends to be cruel, but he can't bridge the divide between his clinicism and real human needs.

Julianne Moore's performance was excellent. She is a shell of a person who means well, but her sterile environment doesn't allow for her character or her intellect to develop. I think it isn't until she gets sick and goes to that retreat center that she begins to find some semblance of humanity, in interacting with the flawed but human people there.

One thing I found interesting was that the film takes place in 1987 even though the film itself was made in the 1990s, so that makes it a period piece of sorts. The film definitely had an oh-so-'80s feel to it. I wonder if the filmmaker was making a statement on the emptiness of that decade as well as of suburbia itself.

The film certainly had a striking, chilling, unsettling beauty. Looking at the immaculately decorated homes was like gazing at a supermodel; nice to look at, but offering nothing beyond that.

Edited by Crow

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::Darrel, I like this point about using that initial scene with the psychiatrist to evoke a feeling a patient might have in their initial encounter. The space between them in that scene struck me as beyond ridiculous. Would any doctor really set up an atmosphere so intimidating to conversation? Maybe I don't know enough about that world, but that's how it struck me, and why I'd prefer to read that scene more about feeling than about reality.

I think this is a reasonable way to read this scene. I've never seen a counselor's office that's set up anything like this, but I've known a few headshrinkers who could leave a patient feeling isolated and ashamed of their emotions and experiences.

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I know I'm a bit late to the party, but I just saw this and also really enjoyed it. It started off reminding me quite a bit of DeLillo's White Noise but starting from the scene where Carol watches the infomercial on Wrenwood, it reminded me of Jim Cunningham from Donnie Darko. I would listen to what the people at Wrenwood said and think, "This stuff doesn't even make sense." I mean, "You just have to love your disease." Yeah, that'll make everything better.

To piggyback on some of the other comments: awesome use of sound and framing to create a real disquiet. I noticed two really striking visual motifs: there were alot of shots where the screen was divided, one speaker would be separated from another by a wall or something; and then the distance shots.

I see that Lester has already been meantioned, but did anyone else notice that at the very end of the movie, Carol is shown to be walking just like Lester did earlier? I think that that *really* points to a pessemistic ending.

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Thanks for your impressions, everyone. This has been an exemplary thread so far. It's reinvigorated my love of the film so that I've rewritten my current project, a piece on horror films, to focus on this one instead of Apocalypse Now or Naked.

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