April 7, 2020 § Leave a comment
During my first week of lockdown, when I was still getting adjusted to being home all the time, my thoughts seized on “Room,” a movie so claustrophobic that I never want to watch it again. Mercifully, I soon started thinking of Todd Haynes’s 1995 masterpiece “Safe,” which approximates the isolation and angst of our present moment better than any film that has come since. As others have noted, images of a masked, desperately ill Julianne Moore—so strange and otherworldly when “Safe” came out—appear almost normal in the midst of Covid19.
At the beginning of “Safe”, Moore’s character, Carol White, a 1980’s suburban housewife as bland as her name, circles through life like a goldfish in a bowl. Unhappily married but too passive to do anything about it, Carol is forced to change her existence when struck by a mysterious environmental illness. After conventional medicine fails her, she flees to a desert community where similarly afflicted people live under the rule of a cult-like leader. In the end, Carol is utterly alone in her suffering—and yet it’s clear she always was.
Four weeks into my Safer At Home life, the films I recall are all about other times and places. Before Covid19 brought the world to a halt, 2020 was going to mark my return to overseas travel, something I haven’t been able to do since being sidelined by surgery in 2017 and a recovery that lasted two years. After that financial constraints put far-flung destinations beyond my reach until this spring, when I planned to visit Japan during the cherry blossom season. When that trip became impossible I set my sights on Scotland this summer, but that too seems unlikely.
Marooned in my living room, I find myself thinking about movies in which travel is a major theme. Two of my favorites, “The Sheltering Sky” and “The English Patient,” are set in the same place and decade: North Africa in the 1940’s. Far from home, the expatriate characters of both movies regard the desert as an exotic refuge and adopted country. In “The Sheltering Sky,” the bohemian Kit and Port flee the dissatisfactions of post-WWII America for a culture whose dangers they fail to grasp. In “The English Patient”, an aristocratic Hungarian cartographer’s wartime affair with the wife of a British intelligence officer leads all three to separate, tragic fates.
Despite the attractiveness and complexity of these characters, the real star of both films is the Sahara. Vast, beautiful and unforgiving, the desert is beloved, fetishized and misunderstood by its foreign visitors, regardless of their origins or intentions. As Michael Ondaatje writes in the novel on which “The English Patient” is based:
The desert could not be claimed or owned–it was a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names… Its caravans, those strange rambling feasts and cultures, left nothing behind, not an ember. All of us, even those with European homes and children in the distance, wished to remove the clothing of our countries. It was a place of faith. We disappeared into landscapes.