11 July 2010
The notorious Todd Solondz film I've been putting off for years for no good reason... I finally sat and watched it. It has such a reputation, for sympathizing with pederasts and dirty phone call makers, and so I was ready for some squirm-inducing scenes, but still, the degree to which it looks unblinkingly into the eye of some extremely uncomfortable moments and challenges your reactions -- do you laugh? do you flinch? do you judge? do you sympathize? -- is, well, bold. Nobody ever said Solondz wasn't a provocateur.
It feels like a pretty complete spectrum of people lacking -- and generally not deserving -- happiness, and it's full of some really beautifully put together moments (a subtle touch, for example: Ben Gazarra loading up his meal with salt at the end; the one thing his doctor said might prevent him from living to be a hundred). The film certainly has strong opinions on the amount of fakery that goes into middle class notions of success, and an almost Lynchian glee in pulling back layers to reveal something darker underneath. Plus, just like the very, very different Pusher I watched just before this, both can be seen as dramatizations of desperation, only here the desperation is a more First World Problem variety, and more open to derision and mockery.
Black comedy is when you tell a story with "dark" or "tragic" things happening but you paint them in a comic light -- people die but we are meant to laugh at it, for example. There is even a thing people call "pitch black comedy," where the dark stuff is darker than most. This goes well beyond that, giving us a black comedy of the blackest things we have: rape, pedophilia, predatory sex, incest, and the fear of dying alone. Plus, often black comedies look down on their characters (or at least their transgressive, "bad guy" characters) as dopes and lunatics, monsters and clowns. In Happiness, though, Solondz kind of flip-flops that formula. Here, the sisters are looked down on as pathetic, self-deceptive, judgmental monsters, complicit in the sins around them and even longing to transgress themselves (one sister desperately wishes she were raped as a child; another doles out judgment like she sat on high, and wants nothing more than to gossip with her psychologist husband about his patients' troubles) -- but the actual "bad guys" are the sympathetic characters, the ones with genuine human feelings and needs. Their monstrous sins are merely flaws they struggle with, whereas the suburban mom, the successful author, and even to an extent their listless, lonely younger sister who is without career, family, or love, are shown as the creeps of the story. That's an interesting perspective to take, no question, kind of a John Waters view of the world, but without the camp. Or at least without so much of it.
It's a pretty great film, I have to say, though about a dozen scenes throughout had me scrunching up my face in fear and wondering what I was sitting through. I expected Philip Seymour Hoffman's phone harasser to be the worst, but the exchanges between Dylan Baker as the pedophile father and his confused son were, in retrospect, obviously the most squeamish. Both actors were amazing, but those scenes were excruciating, and I'm someone who normally laughs pretty easily about stuff like that. But this... with the exception of one early punch-to-the-arm you-go-champ moment where Dad assures his son he'll come one day, not to worry -- with the exception of that moment it's all played so goddamn straight-faced, even I blanched.
Speaking of, you think I'm reading too deep into it if I notice that Hoffman's character has many (rape-centric) monologues about cum and coming, and uses his own cum as adhesive to keep postcards stuck to his wall, and that Baker's son looks a lot like a young Philip Seymour Hoffman, and is equally obsessed with his own ejaculate and ends the film with his first triumphant squirting -- for both characters we see the sperm hit the wall/pole; both characters talk about it the whole film every chance they get; both look alike. I think that son is meant to grow up to be Alan, the Phil Hoffman character. Anybody else see something like that, or am I just crazy?