The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo

 

Happiness

 

The strand of American independent cinema known as “underground film” often used explicit or provocative sexual material to push censorship boundaries in the 1960s. Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures and Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising, for instance, became highly publicized censorship cases. Independent features, such as Shirley Clarke’s The Connection, also provoked court battles for other reasons. This explains why “The First Statement of the New American Cinema Group,” which was penned by Jonas Mekas, had made censorship in any form one of its major issues. In the case of Todd Solondz’s Happiness (1998), the matter of contention was not government censorship, but self-censorship on the part of October Films and its parent companies, which refused to release the film due to its controversial subject matter.

Happiness tells the story of the three sisters who live in New Jersey, and their Florida-based parents who suddenly find themselves getting a divorce. The three Jordan sisters – Joy, Helen, and Trish – are remarkably different from each other, yet on a same trajectory for an unhappy fate. Joy (Jane Adams) is the family loser, the one with the lowest self-esteem, who struggles with her career and relationships. Both of her relationships end disastrously. Her break-up with an office-mate, Andy (Jon Lovitz), leads to his suicide, while a later fling with one of her ESL students, a Russian immigrant named Vlad, leads to embarrassment and humiliation.

Joy’s sister Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle) is a best-selling writer whose commercial success only confirms her creative doubts. Despite the international set of physical hunks who orbit around her, she is sexually unsatisfied and winds up responding to an obscene phone call from her computer-geek neighbor, Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Only the obnoxious and superficial Trish (Cynthia Stevenson), mindlessly ensconced in suburbia, believes she has it all. But her suburban illusions of the happy life have blinded her to the marital problems with her husband, Bill Maplewood (Dylan Baker), a mild-mannered psychiatrist with serial-killer fantasies and his own dark secrets. His attempts to counsel their son, Billy, with his awakened pubescent sexuality eventually leads Bill to molest two of his son’s friends, destroying Trish’s “model-perfect” life.

In many ways, Happiness seems to be a sequel to Solondz’s previous film, Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995). It is easy to imagine the middle school kids of Dollhouse growing up into the kind of adult misfits we find here. Solondz uses their interlocking relationships and stories to paint an extended portrait of contemporary suburban life. The sanitized image of the suburbs as a refuge from urban problems gets turned upside down in Happiness. Solondz presents the suburbs as a nightmarish breeding ground for the worst tabloid excesses – child molestation, incest, murder, rape, exhibitionism, autoeroticism, sadomasochism, phone sex, drug abuse, suicide, divorce, and partner abuse.

The multiple plot structure of Happiness makes it a far more complex film than Welcome to the Dollhouse. Unlike Dollhouse, which has Dawn Wiener as its obvious central character, Happiness focuses on a host of characters, but nevertheless has the Jordan family at its center. There are the three Jordan sisters and their parents, Lenny (Ben Gazzara) and Mona (Louise Lasser), along with their families, friends, neighbors, and lovers.

Joy becomes involved in relationships with Andy and the petty criminal Vlad, who has a possessive girlfriend named Zhenia. Trish has a three-kid family, but the film only concentrates on her husband, Bill Maplewood, and their son, Billy. There is also Billy’s Little League teammate, Johnny Grasso, and his father, Joe, as well as Billy’s classmate Ronald Farber, who plays an off-screen role in Bill’s eventual downfall. Allen, the obscene phone caller, is Helen’s neighbor as well as Bill’s patient. To further connect the many dots in the plot, Allen makes obscene phone calls to both Joy and Helen. Kristina (Camryn Manheim) is another neighbor of Helen’s, but she only enters the film because of Allen. She, in turn, relates a murderous story involving an alleged rapist Pedro, the building doorman. And finally there’s Lenny’s friend, Diane, who threatens Mona by making a play for Lenny, but he turns out not to be interested.

The numerous plot threads of Happiness makes an analysis of the film’s structure difficult, especially in terms of segmenting the acts. The script of Happiness consists of 116 pages, which translates into approximately 134 minutes of screen time. Even though there are over a dozen major characters and multiple, often intersecting plotlines, Bill Maplewood has to be considered the central character of Happiness because he has the most at stake.

The first turning point occurs when Bill Maplewood drugs Johnny Grasso during a sleep-over at 48 minutes. The second turning point happens when Johnny tells his mother about the blood in his stools. From this point on (82 minutes), it will only be a matter of time before Bill will be caught. The overall act-breakdown would be a first act of 48 minutes, a short middle act of 34 minutes, and a long third act that is 52 minutes. The first act takes longer than most films because so many different characters have to be introduced. The middle act is short because there are not the usual escalating obstacles blocking the characters’ desires. Instead, the middle act simply develops the other character plots – Mona’s attempt to buy a condo, Diane’s play for Lenny, Allen’s obscene phone call to Helen, Kristina’s awkward attempt to befriend Allen, Joy’s sexual encounter with Vlad, as well as Zhenia’s assault of Joy. The final act is unusually long because so many plotlines have to be resolved.

Another way to segment the act-structure of Happiness would be to look at various plots and subplots in terms of their plot points. Bill Maplewood publicly masturbates at 19 minutes. Mona tells Trish Lenny wants a divorce at 25 minutes. Joy learns of Andy’s suicide at 35 minutes. Bill drugs Johnny at 48 minutes. Allen makes an obscene phone call to Helen, who gets turned on by it, at 65 minutes. Joy sleeps with Vlad at 78 minutes and gets assaulted by Zhenia at 81 minutes. Johnny informs his mother about his physical problems at 82 minutes. Bill stalks Ronald Farber at 87 minutes. Lenny rejects Diane at 96 minutes. Kristina confesses her murder of Pedro at 106 minutes. Helen spurns Allen at 112 minutes. Joy pays Vlad five hundred dollatrs to retrieve her stolen possessions at 118 minutes. At 121 minutes, Joe Grasso calls Bill and tells him, “You’re a dead man.” Bill mistakenly mentions Ronald Farber to the police at 123 minutes. Trish and the kids split at 129 minutes.

A look at the plot points above suggests that there are enough significant events occurring at regular intervals to maintain audience interest over the course of a very long and complicated film. In an interview in Filmmaker, Solondz discusses the ensemble structure of Happiness in practical and intuitive terms: “I had a bunch of different story ideas, and I couldn’t make up my mind which one I wanted to make a movie about. I wasn’t willing to do one over the other, so I figured out a way to combine them, hoping that they would cohere and play off each other.”

Even the three Jordan sisters, Solondz maintains, became a plot contrivance “to thread the different storylines together.” In the same interview Solondz insists the thematic links were of greater concern, and adds: “But I think the process of writing is a process of discovery.” Rather than diffusing dramatic tension and character, the elaborately intricate structure of Happiness actually allows Solondz to present a broader spectrum of suburban life. Despite having to juggle so many different characters, the film’s ultimate strength lies in its ability to create snapshot studies of this group of lonely suburbanites, who flounder about in manic searches for love and happiness.

Like Dollhouse’s Dawn Wienerdog who believes that sex with an older heart throb will make her popular, Billy views ejaculation as crucial to social acceptance by his peers. In a manner reminiscent of Dawn Wiener’s propensity to say or do something inappropriate, the film ends when Billy interrupts the family holiday dinner to share his excitement at his first orgasm. For this brief fleeting moment of happiness, Billy can overlook the sad events that have transpired around him and the future taunts that await him as a result of his father’s stigma. That Billy can exult in the fact that his ability to ejaculate makes him normal like other kids, but sexuality, as we witness throughout Happiness, turns out to be the root core of adult problems. The adult misfits who populate Happiness aspire to be loved and happy, but their efforts only leave them feeling more rejected and miserable.

Although the various characters in Happiness are given nearly equal screen time, Bill Maplewood’s story creates the dramatic glue that holds the other stories together for the simple reason that he has the most to lose. Lenny and Mona can divorce without any consequences. Helen’s masochistic obsession with an obscene phone caller does not have any bearing on her literary career. Joy’s affair with her Russian student, Vlad, will not get her fired or cause her to quit her ESL job, because teaching English to immigrants carries no emotional investment for her because she has no real direction to her life and is simply passing from job to job. On the contrary, Bill’s actions have serious and dramatic ramifications. His sexual abuse of minor children will not only ruin his professional career and break up his family, but stigmatize them forever. And while there is no allusion to it in the film – other than the symbolic closeup shot of Billy gazing at Johhny through the metal fence at the Little League game – his sexual transgressions will no doubt cause him to be locked up for a very long time.

Bill Maplewood is a homosexual version of Mr. Kasdan, the neighbor obsessed with Missy in Welcome to the Dollhouse. But whereas Mr. Kasdan’s kinkiness never got beyond the fantasy stage even after he kidnaps Missy, Bill Maplewood calculatingly follows through on his pedophilic fantasies by raping two of his son’s classmates. A seemingly reasoned professional and suburban family man, Bill is not beyond drugging Johnny Grasso during a sleep-over or stalking Ronald Farber, the Home Alone kid whose fatal mistake is bragging about the size of his penis. A walking time bomb, Bill Maplewood wreaks havoc on those around him, including his own son, Billy.

The scene where Billy interrogates his father about molesting his two classmates near the film’s end is one of the most disturbing scenes ever to appear in a movie. In an interview about the film in Indie magazine, Solondz provides his own spin on this painful-to-watch scene: “The boy becomes the psychologist and his father becomes the patient. The scene is crucial in any understanding of Bill the pedophile. He is not a monster, but he has a monster within him. He succumbs to his demon, and the only redemption for him is his honesty and openness with his son.” While it is certainly true that Bill’s honesty with his son is crucial, what seems even more remarkable is Bill’s lack of repentance. His admission that he would do the same thing again is perhaps indicative of his sickness, but it nevertheless contradicts the ordinary meaning of what is meant by “redemption.” And Bill’s additional incestuous admission will no doubt have a troubling effect on Billy.

Solondz’s characters go about their daily lives trying to balance enormous contradictions. In Happiness, sadomasochism has become the operative norm in relationships. The film’s opening scene becomes emblematic of this dynamic when the teary-eyed Andy gives Joy a reproduction pewter ashtray, only to snatch it back. Allen, the next character we meet, ups the ante. In his therapy session with Bill, he details the most violent and sadistic sexual fantasies about Helen, only to comment: “Not that I could ever actually . . . do that . . . See, if she only knew how I felt, how deep down I really cared for her, respected her, she would love me back.” When Joy visits Trish and tells her how terrible she feels because so much hostility is being directed toward her, Trish uses Joy’s vulnerable state to deflate her self-esteem even more completely. Her sisterly advice is laced with devastating cruelty.

Yet Joy seems to invite such behavior. After Vlad robs her guitar and CD player, he also tells her he loves her. But we’ve just seen signs of his love in Zhenia’s black eye and the bruises on her face. Low self-esteem and masochistic behavior seem to be a common thread linking the Jordan sisters together. In marrying a pedophile, Trish has set herself up for the most devastating punishment. Early in the film, Trish tells Bill her secret: “Like how come no matter how much you treat me like shit, I can’t help loving you even more.” She says this, presumably in an effort to arouse both herself and him sexually. And Helen, who laughs at Joy to her face, longs to be raped and abused.

Solondz breaks one of the cardinal rules of conventional dramatic screenwriting by not providing an external antagonist. There are no obstacles to be overcome as there are in most Hollywood films, which suggests that the film may have a gaping hole for a middle act. The characters do not battle outside obstacles or forces, but rather themselves. They are their own worst enemies; their various conflicts are fundamentally internal. Only Allen seems to go through any sort of psychological struggle over whether he should attempt to follow through on Helen’s demand that he have sex with her. But deep down, Allen already knows he’s hopelessly inadequate to the task.

Whereas the classical Hollywood paradigm depends on characters being able to make choices, Solondz replaces freedom of choice with a grim determinism. Happiness suggests that no matter what road these characters take, no matter what actions they choose, happiness ultimately will elude them. Their fates were long ago determined by their dysfunctional families, youthful peers, and the cultural forces that have shaped their contradictory, no-win desires.

Posted 7 May, 2009