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“Safe,” “Heroes and Saints,” and Class

October 23, 2009

Though in our class time we mentioned issues of class in regards to both Safe and “Heroes and Saints,” I felt it might be worth exploring in a bit more detail.

In Safe, especially early in the film, we see Carol’s luxurious (if empty) life juxtaposed with that of her staff.  I am reminded particularly of the scene with the milk—Carol wakes up late, saunters downstairs into her home, which is being both cleaned and renovated by immigrant labor.  We see the staff (mostly Hispanic) working very closely with the chemicals which cause Carol’s illness.  And yet, it is Carol who collapses in reaction to her toxic environment.

I found this story in the New York Times from 2006—the story of Caryl Schonbron, which closely resembles the Carol of Safe.  I was particularly struck by the following quote (and coda to the article), “It’s been said that people with this condition are the new homeless… we’re lucky enough to build a nontoxic home, but it’s still a never-ending struggle to live in a safe all-around environment.” The logic of her sentiment illuminates what I feel is one of the key points to Safe’s satire.  Though Carol doesn’t actually do anything—and is further removed from the toxins than almost everyone else in her life.  However, because of her “luck” (namely, the freedom of both time and finances) she has the ability to build (or buy) a non-toxic safe haven…one which she probably needs less that her cleaning crew.

Caryl Schonbron in her Safe House

Caryl Schonbron in her Safe House

“Heroes and Saints,” meanwhile, is truly seeking to educate; to shine a light on the realities that Carol’s world denies—the world of her servants.  Like Carol’s maids and repairmen, the characters of “Heroes and Saints” have chemicals on their hands and in their lungs all day.  Rather than coughs and panic attacks, the residents of McLaughlin are afflicted with cancer, miscarriages, birth defects; they die from slow, painful, irrevocable, and ugly deaths.  Unlike Carol, they have no choice to pack their luggage and head off to a safe haven, much less buy one.

What do we make of this?  Are environmental issues inextricably linked to economic ones?

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. kmckimps permalink
    October 24, 2009 5:16 pm

    I think to answer the question of economics we must also ask whether Carol’s decision to remove herself was effective, or even correct?

    I do see economic issues and intimately linked to the environment because we use the economy–like all good capitalists–as the gauge and symbol of our prosperity. Maybe Protagoras had it wrong, of all things the economy is the measure. Thus, I think we tend towards seeing pragmatic success, even in the environment, as a reference to economy. A conservation effort succeeds by preserving land (a material commodity) for alternate (recreational) consumption. A conservation effort fails because commercial profit is more important than preservation (emergency funds). Or, a conservation effort fails because short term gains are more important than long-term gains. These are just loose examples, but I don’t see how we can separate economic justification from any consideration of the natural world.

    Returning to Carol, the question of her funds is only one convience for argument, and I think it an over-simplification. Also, I’m not sure that she does benefit. Rather, her riches only allow her access into a different kind of trap than a person who wouldn’t have those funds. I realise this too is an over-simplification of the issue because a typical blue-collar worker has little ability to move away from toxic fumes if they arrive, if only because our system runs on money and therefore the worker needs the cash. But this is where unions, conservation, and health organizations come into play. Our system isn’t perfect, and the economy will always get in the way. But, I don’t think we can reduce any argument to wholely economic terms.

    • October 25, 2009 6:36 am

      I agree that is is worth asking whether Carol’s decision was effective or correct–I think the film quite clearly says, “No.” This, however, reinforces my point. Carol has both the time and money to spend on something that ultimately does nothing to help her. Until moving into her safe house at the end, she’s never truly in a “pure” environment and she continues to suffer anyway. In my opinion (at the risk of being blunt) Carol wouldn’t be suffering if she had anything else to do. Her boredom, which comes in large part from her financial freedom, has as much to do with her decline as any actual sensitivity she may have developed.

      Of course I agree with your sentiments that the economic logic of neoliberal globalization has shaded much of the arguments for conservation–as you say, the main argument for saving anything seems to require some sort of economic justification (I am reminded of a recent Sears commercial which I can’t find online). However, that is not quite the point I am trying to reach for, nor am I trying to say that she is better off for being rich. I agree that she has built herself into a new trap. I am not criticizing the system as a whole, nor am I trying to reduce the argument to wholly economic terms.

      Much of the environmental discourse I have encountered (especially in the mainstream circles of television, radio, and magazines) seems filtered through a sort of middle-to-upper class logic of protecting the status quo instead of a true concern about actual causes and damages. I am, in particular, thinking of some of the discourse surrounding organic foods and the like. The focus of concern is never for the Cerezitas, whose survival is perversely dependent on their constant contact with the very chemicals which ultimately kill them. Instead, the concern seems to be for the Carols, who might get cancer someday from consuming the trace amount of pesticides left on the apple after it’s been watched. This, I think, is the focus of Haynes’ satire, and the source of my question about the fraught link between economic freedom and environmental discourse.

  2. jiyoungyoon permalink
    October 25, 2009 10:29 pm

    Good observation, Andrea! While examining the movie text along with Moraga’s play, I also cannot help but wonder if environmental issues are inextricably intertwined with economic ones. That’s obviously why most of us had a hard time to feel sympathy with Carol in the movie. As I read your posting, it came to my mind that it might be really interesting if we examine how environmental issues are discussed in totally different ways due to the differences of geography, gender, and class.

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