The Black Hole of the Camera

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Best Independent Films of 2012

My best film list always appears in February, but I’m late this year, mainly because, even though I saw a streamed version of Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet, I wanted to see it again in 35 mm. It played at our Cinematheque only last Friday. Yet, that issue aside, it’s been a hard year for me to keep up with the blog. Due to time constraints, I’ve been forced to be more selective in my coverage. As a general rule, I don’t write about films unless I’m enthusiastic about them and have an opportunity to view them at least twice.

More of my attention this year went toward other pursuits. My book, The Black Hole of the Camera: the Films of Andy Warhol, was published by the University of California Press in April. As a result, I’ve been screening films and lecturing more than usual. I gave two conference papers, a couple of presentations at the Brakhage Symposium in Boulder, a keynote in Sydney, and screenings and talks in Milwaukee, Boston, and Houston in the fall. I’m also co-organizing, with my colleague Kelley Conway, an international conference on screenwriting. The 2013 SRN Screenwriting Conference will take place in Madison (August 20–22) and will feature 70 scholars from around the world.

On one level, I could complain that independent cinema seems to have fallen off a cliff. Although there are more films being made than ever before, getting them distributed has become even more difficult than in past years. Many people, especially those living outside major cities, don’t seem to want to leave their houses. People want their media when they want it, so streaming has become the preferred means of distribution, relegating DVDs to the latest casualty of the digital revolution.

The situation for indie cinema is a lot like in the 1960s. Now that there’s less prospect of there being a pot of gold out there for the grabbing, independent filmmakers, in some ways, are making the films they really want to make. I applaud that impulse. Greta Gerwig and Lena Dunham are now considered mainstream. You can make fun of mumblecore all you want, but it had an undeniable impact. By all accounts, 2013 promises to be a great year for independent cinema. Andrew Bujalski, Richard Linklater, Matthew Porterfield, David Lowery, Shane Carruth, Harmony Korine, and Jeff Nichols, among others, all have new films.

Most top ten lists are based on a film having a theatrical release. Using that criterion, Amy Seimetz’s Sun Don’t Shine, Dan Sallitt’s The Unspeakable Act, and Frank V. Ross’s Tiger Tail in Blue count for this year rather than last. The same goes for Tim Sutton’s Pavilion. I’m starting to feel that the line has become extremely blurry. I wrote about Bad Fever and Green ages ago. Chris Smith’s The Pool, which was listed in my 2008 poll, only recently made it out on DVD.

I’ve seen many of the films that made other more eclectic lists: Holy Motors, Amour, Cosmopolis, Tabu, The Master, Silver Linings Playbook, Moonrise Kingdom, The Kid with the Bike, In Another Country, and so forth. I also saw some wonderful avant-garde films, including several programs of Phil Solomon’s work, as well as programs by Vanessa Renwick and Stacey Steers during the past year. I also saw Chris Sullivan’s terrific animated feature, Consuming Spirits, but regret that I’ve only seen this new version once, and haven’t had the opportunity to write about it. I also try to follow what’s screening in museums and galleries. By far, the most impressive piece I saw was Eve Sussman’s self-generating and ever changing whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir, made in collaboration with the Rufus Corporation. I found the interplay between the computer program and what appears on the screen to be utterly fascinating. I enjoyed the opportunity to discuss the work with the film’s actor, Jeff Wood, who spoke at the screening I attended in Houston.

Here is my list of the best indie films of 2012:

(Click on the titles below for extended commentary).

  1. Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin)
  2. The Loneliest Planet (Julia Loktev)
  3. Two Years at Sea (Ben Rivers)
  4. Starlet (Sean Baker)
  5. The Dish & the Spoon (Alison Bagnall)
  6. The Color Wheel (Alex Ross Perry)
  7. Bad Fever (Dustin Defa)
  8. Green (Sophia Takal)
  9. Dark Horse (Todd Solondz)
  10. For Ellen (So Yong Kim)

I found the sheer ambition of Beasts of the Southern Wild to be totally impressive. It’s worth noting that Sean Baker has now made three strong films in a row, as has So Yong Kim. Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet convinces me that she has emerged as a major American indie filmmaker. Loktev has indicated that the film was incredibly hard to shoot. To anyone who has ever made one, that’s pretty obvious. In terms of performance, I found the chemistry between Greta Gerwig and Olly Alexander in The Dish & the Spoon and between Dree Hemingway and Besedka Johnson in Starlet to be pretty riveting.

For purposes of comparison, you might want to check out my lists of “The Best Indie Films of 2011,” “The Best Indie Films of 2010,” “The Best Indie Films of 2009,” and “The Best Indie Films of 2008.”

Posted 28 February, 2013

Dark Horse

Todd Solondz’s career started with such a bang that it’s pretty shocking that his latest film, Dark Horse (2012), struggled to gain a theatrical release. Solondz no doubt bears some responsibility. The difficulties can be traced back to his decision to make the controversial Happiness (1998) following the breakthrough success of his second feature, Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995). Solondz recently commented: “A lot of doors opened after Dollhouse, and I suppose by writing this script I knew I could close a lot of them and see who was left standing.”

The gamble profoundly affected his career. Solondz chose to make pedophilia the focus of Happiness and persisted in sticking with this subject matter. His last film, Life During Wartime (2010), returned to the same characters, Bill Maplewood and his son, Billy, so it should not come as much of a surprise that Solondz’s box office appeal might suffer as a result, even though Life During Wartime is one of his best films.

Dark Horse moves away from contentious subject matter, yet the film’s protagonist, Abe Wertheimer (Jordan Gelber), is as self-delusional as any other Solondz character. Rather than seeing himself as a loser, Abe, overweight and in his 30s, clings to the notion that he’s merely a “dark horse,” a come-from-behind kind of guy whom everyone underestimates, but who will eventually triumph. Despite the skewed inner script he’s following, Abe secretly knows that he’s a failure. In a series of recurring dreams or fantasies, his co-worker, Marie (Donna Murphy) serves as a reality check throughout the film.

Dark Horse begins with spirited dancing at a Jewish wedding to music by Kid Sister. Dressed in a tuxedo, Abe sits next to a woman with barely a pulse, named Miranda (Selma Blair). As the dancers are reflected in the mirror behind them, Abe leans over and announces brashly, “I don’t dance. It’s not my thing.” Miranda moves closer, looks at him quizzically, but doesn’t answer. He nevertheless chases her down at the coat check room as she’s leaving in order to get her phone number, which she only gives him with great reluctance.

Abe’s yellow Hummer, blaring loud pop music, pulls into the driveway of a suburban house, where Abe still lives with his parents, Jackie (Christopher Walken) and Phyllis (Mia Farrow). As he enters, he ignores his mother’s greeting, as she and her husband silently watch TV in the parlor. It turns out that Abe also works in his father’s real estate development firm, where Marie perpetually covers for him, and a cousin named Justin (Zachary Booth) sucks up to his dad. Rather than doing the spreadsheets his father impatiently waits for, Abe buys action figures on the Internet.

Abe interrupts a game of backgammon with his mom to make a date with Miranda, who hangs up before he can arrange the time. When he arrives at her house with a bouquet of flowers, she’s not there, of course, so he is forced to sit with her skeptical parents before Miranda eventually arrives. As she smokes a cigarette on the back porch later on, Abe demonstrates his lack of social skills by discussing a friend’s testicular cancer. He also brags about having a high sperm count and insists on the importance of numerology. “Dates and Numbers have to be right,” he tells Miranda, before he impulsively asks her to marry him.

Defeat is manifest in Abe’s downtrodden gait when he returns home and again ignores his mom. He mopes at work the next day, fails to provide the needed spreadsheets, and quits his job in a loud argument with his dad. Later that night, as his mother tries to console him, Abe threatens to move out and demands that she pay her backgammon debt. When she suggests that he see a psychiatrist, Abe launches into a tirade about people needing to face the truth. “We’re all horrible people,” he tells his mom, “humanity is a fucking cesspool.”

When he shows up at work the next day, his father counsels Abe to go back and finish college. He wants Abe to be more like his older brother, Richard (Justin Bartha), who is now a successful doctor. Abe, however, harbors deep-rooted resentment toward Richard as a result of the fact that his parents obviously play favorites. Richard calls his younger brother, but Abe only spews venom before hanging up.

Abe, however, gets a surprise phone call from Miranda, who feels terrible about what happened and invites him over. When Abe arrives, she’s sprawled on the bed. Once awake, Miranda confronts Abe: “Please tell me something, and I need you to be honest. Are you for real? And you’re not being ironic . . . like performance art or something?” If you don’t think those are hilarious lines, this film might not be for you.

While giving Miranda a tour of his room, Abe suggests that his family’s house would be a great place for them to live once his parents move to Florida. Miranda is taken aback that he doesn’t want them to get their own place, but she makes a tearful confession and manipulates Abe by asking, “Is this going to affect things, make you change your mind?” Marie certainly thinks so. “I guess that takes care of that,” she counsels him, but Abe is not one to heed anyone’s advice.

From this point on, the trajectory of Dark Horse becomes even more complicated. Although many of today’s independent filmmakers appear to be moving away from scripts and heavy plotting, Solondz’s strength as a filmmaker has always involved his considerable writing skills and trenchant wit. Dark Horse mixes fantasy and reality throughout, but as the film progresses, the divide between the two becomes even more complex and intricate, and various revelations are made about several of the characters (though many of them occur in Abe’s tortured mind). The film’s final shot cleverly makes us rethink what’s gone before.

If Dark Horse seems like a romantic comedy, Solondz deliberately undercuts audience expectations about genre. As he puts it: “I think the only tradition I’m interested in pursuing is a tradition of upending traditions, and finding new meaning in the way in which these conventions and old stories are tackled. It’s good to not always give people what they expect, but I don’t think anyone would mistake this for a Wes Anderson movie.” I think it’s safe to say that no viewer will make this error.

Solondz uses pop songs, clashing color schemes, clever flights of fancy, and a series of repetitions to convey abrupt tonal changes in Abe’s mood and character. Abe’s yellow Hummer pulling into his parents’ driveway becomes a barometer of his fluctuation between depression and naive optimism. Irony is a recurrent theme. Dark Horse aspires to end with a wedding, but, as most of us know, it’s always a risky proposition to bet on a long shot.

Posted 21 February, 2013

Best Independent Films of 2010

I’ve posted my “best film” list for the past three years now in February rather than December like other critics and bloggers. The reason is simple. Because I’m based in the Midwest, I always want to be sure I’ve seen all the major indie films that might be worthy of consideration. As I keep complaining, despite my best efforts, that’s not an easy task these days. So it takes me a bit longer to catch up with all the films I want to see. That said, as it turns out, I could have posted this earlier because none of the additional films I watched ended up making the list.

Some “best film” lists have strict rules. One blog limits indie films to budgets of under $1 million. The budgets on my list vary a great deal, but most of them (with the exception of Life During Wartime, Greenberg and Winter’s Bone) are pretty miniscule. On the other hand, there are many films made for a pittance that I wouldn’t consider independent – they’re really industry calling cards. I have little personal interest in such films. Another list insists that a film play at least three times. That might work in New York City, but here we’re often lucky if a film like Manoel de Oliveira’s The Strange Case of Angelica plays even once. It did in January at our Cinematheque, and I was grateful for an opportunity to see it. To my great surprise, Trash Humpers played for a week. The two other people at the screening I attended left after ten minutes. At least people had a chance to see the film, but that’s often not the case, which continues to be the major problem for alternative cinema.

I liked quite a number of international art films this year: Fish Tank, Everyone Else, Mother, White Material and The Strange Case of Angelica, among others. But again the focus of this blog is American indie cinema, not because of chauvinism, but because that happens to be my main research interest. There are plenty of other Web Sites out there that cover other types of films.

My list surprised even me this time around, which I guess is part of the fun of the exercise. For the record, I’ve seen every film at least twice. In fact, I never write about a film on the basis of a single viewing. No film seemed to benefit more from a second look than Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. Trash Humpers, while a polarizing film for audiences, also resonated more on a second viewing. Less than half of the films on the list had brief commercial runs in town (Madison, Wisconsin). Three of them played at the Wisconsin Film Festival.

I saw some excellent films and videos in art galleries and museums in NYC this year. Standouts include: Ryan McNamara’s dance piece, I Thought It Was You, Tommy Hartung’s stop-motion animation The Ascent of Man, and works by Kalup Linzy, Dani Leventhal (all seen at Greater New York at PS 1). I also admired Mika Rottenberg’s Squeeze at Mary Boone in conjunction with Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery.

In any event, here is my personal list of the best indie films of 2010:

(Click on the titles below for extended commentary).

  1. Daddy Longlegs (Josh and Benny Safdie)
  2. Greenberg (Noah Baumbach)
  3. Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik)
  4. Face (Andy Warhol)
  5. Life During Wartime (Todd Solondz)
  6. Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (Damien Chazelle)
  7. Tiny Furniture (Lena Dunham)
  8. Trash Humpers (Harmony Korine)
  9. The Exploding Girl (Bradley Rust Gray)
  10. Prince of Broadway (Sean Baker)

There were many extraordinary film performances this year: Greta Gerwig (Greenberg), Zoe Kazan (The Exploding Girl) , Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone), and Ronnie Bronstein (Daddy Longlegs).

For purposes of comparison, you might want to check out my lists of “Best Indie Films of 2009,” as well as the “Best Indie Films of 2008.”

Posted 23 February, 2011

Life During Wartime

Since Todd Solondz’s breakout second feature Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995) grossed nearly $4.8 million, the trajectory of his career has been decidedly downward, with each new film grossing half of the previous box office, culminating in Palindromes (2004), which promptly put his once promising career in limbo. As a result, the script for Life During Wartime floated around for a number of years, while Solondz struggled to obtain financing. Life During Wartime, his latest comeback effort, screened at a number of prestigious showcases, such as the New York Film Festival, Telluride, and Toronto, and won Best Screenplay prize at Venice. The film is being distributed by IFC, showing on VOD, and recently played locally at Sundance Cinemas for a week.

At the end of Happiness (1998), Helen, a tortured writer, offers to set up her sister Joy, the family scapegoat, with Allen, a sexual pervert, who makes obscene phone calls and happens to be her neighbor. Life During Wartime begins with a teary-eyed, sepia-toned restaurant scene between Joy (Shirley Henderson) and Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams) on their anniversary – one that’s nearly identical to the scene that began Happiness. Allen, rather than Andy, now gives her a reproduction Gainsevoort ashtray. The scene introduces what becomes a mantra in the film, namely whether it’s possible for its characters to “forgive and forget.” But when the waitress recognizes Allen from his voice, she refuses to forget and promptly spits in his face.

Virtually every scene in Life During Wartime verges on hysteria, mixed with delusion and denial. The above scene cuts to Trish Maplewood (Allison Janney), the ex-wife of a convicted pedophile, Bill Maplewood (Ciaran Hinds), who’s now serving time in prison for molesting a couple of his oldest son’s friends. Trish is on a blind date with Harvey Wiener (Michael Lerner), Dawn’s father from Welcome to the Dollhouse. Short, pudgy, older, and recently divorced after thirty-five years, Harvey is hardly a catch. He’s moved from New Jersey to Miami to be with his son Mark (Rich Pecci), whom he calls “paranoid with a good heart.” Harvey doesn’t want Mark to be “misinterpreted,” but anyone who has seen Palindromes knows that Mark has been suspected of molesting a young girl. Mark, a systems analyst, peaked in graduate school and now has become even more robotic in his demeanor.

Solondz claims that viewers don’t have to know the references to appreciate Life During Wartime. I can tell you from watching it with people unfamiliar with Happiness, Welcome to the Dollhouse and Palindromes that viewers will miss many of the film’s nuances and in-jokes. Like an episodic television series, the film resonates in an entirely different way when you actually know the back story of the various characters. Trish is clearly desperate. Despite recognizing that Harvey is “so not her type,” except for the fact that he’s a big booster of Israel, she immediately falls in love with him. And when she returns home from the date in a swoon, she speaks as inappropriately to her twelve-year-old son Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) about her sexuality, as her ex-husband Bill did to her older son Billy in Happiness.

Through Trish and Harvey, Life During Wartime connects the two dysfunctional families, the Jordans and the Wieners, creating a mashup between the characters from Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness. We thus meet all three Jordan sisters: Joy, Trish, and eventually Helen (Ally Sheedy), who has severed ties with the rest of the family. She now lives in California, where she given up poetry for the “purity” of screenwriting, and taken up with “Keanu” [Reeves] even though “Salman” [Rushdie] remains a close friend. Their mother, Mona (Renee Taylor), is bitter about being dumped by their father. She cries at the airport when she picks up Joy, who has temporarily separated from Allen because of his assorted misdeeds.

Andy (now played by Paul Reubens), who committed suicide in Happiness, returns several times as a ghost to haunt Joy in her dreams and actual life. If this doesn’t begin to feel like a hall of mirrors, all of the actors have been recast, with Allen (originally played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) now played by a black actor from the television series The Wire. We also know from Palindromes that Harvey’s daughter Dawn also committed suicide, and learn via Trish that Harvey’s ex-wife Marge is “horrible,” which hardly comes as a surprise.

Like Happiness, Life During Wartime has a multiple-plot structure. Timmy Maplewood, who is about to have his bar mitzvah, is preparing his speech “on becoming a man.” In this film about deception, Trish has told Timmy his father is dead, but he learns the truth from a school friend, who has discovered on the Internet that his dad is actually a child molester. Timmy laments to his Mom, “I could have helped him.” Like so many of Solondz’s characters, Timmy suddenly turns on Trish with a vengeance, as he screams, “I hate you” and “Fuck you, bitch” – just as Andy shouts at Joy, “Eat shit, you fucking cunt,” once she again denies him.

When Timmy later comes into her bedroom for a sex talk, Trish gives him the worst possible advice that will have major implications later on. Dressed in a dark suit, Bill seems like a refugee from film noir as he incongruously navigates the Miami sunlight upon his release from prison. He later tracks down Billy at college in Oregon, demanding to know whether he’s gay. Their heart-to-heart talk is as painful as the one they had in Happiness, where Bill admitted that the real object of his desire was Billy, who refuses to forgive his dad, even though, on the basis of his research interests, he’s obviously headed down a similar path. Solondz’s world view is an overdetermined one, where characters seem destined to repeat past mistakes.

Trish and her family are coping with the aid of anti-anxiety medications. Like Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone or Mary Sweeney’s Baraboo, the war abroad impacts the one at home. It’s Timmy’s classmate who first connects pedophiles with terrorists, which proves to be a skewed but interesting analogy. In an interview, Solondz responds to the question of his obsession with pedophilia: “The whole thing about pedophilia is that I don’t have any inherent interest in it but rather in how it functions as a metaphor for that which is most demonized, most ostracized, most feared and loathed.”

One of the most intriguing scenes occurs when Bill gets picked up by an older woman named Jacqueline (Charlotte Rampling) in a Miami bar. In need of a lay, she claims to be a monster and insists, “Only losers expect to get forgiveness.” Bill counters that people can’t help it if they’re monsters, and suggests – continuing Solondz’s wartime theme – that the real enemy lies within. In their exchange, she comments, “What are you, a shrink?” Yes, but a terribly messed up one, as is evident in the way (typical of Solondz’s heterosexual sex scenes) that Bill mechanically and dispassionately pounds away during sex. When she catches him rifling through her purse afterwards, he asks for forgiveness. Jacqueline responds tersely, “Fuck off, prick.”

Like Andy, Allen will later haunt Joy’s dreams as well. He tells her, “War’s evil, but what you did was worse.” By the end, even Timmy has had it with the abstract principles of freedom and democracy, as these maladjusted characters create their own personal hells. Masterfully shot with a RED camera by veteran cinematographer Ed Lachman, Life During Wartime strikes me as Solondz’s most stylized film, with its discordant colors, inventive mise-en-scène, and clever use of music, such as a collaboration between Devendra Banhart and Beck. Bill’s recurring dream involves several repeated pans over a park landscape with a pond to an out-of-focus figure, whose identity is only revealed the final time.

Todd Solondz loves to provoke viewers. Yet Life During Wartime might be one of the best films to register the effects of 9/11 on the American psyche, even if the fire power of his self-loathing characters indiscriminately turns all of them into casualties of their own private demons.

Posted 17 September, 2010



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

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