The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo

 

Momma’s Man

Azazel Jacobs’s low-budget second feature Momma’s Man (2008) serves as yet another example of an independent film that deliberately blurs the line between non-fiction and fiction as an alternative narrative strategy (see previous post). The thirty-something protagonist is roughly the writer/director’s age. Jacobs sets the film in the lower-Manhattan loft in which he grew up, casts his own parents – noted avant-garde filmmaker Ken Jacobs and painter Flo Jacobs – in the role of parents, and his best friend from high school as, well, his best friend. And a flashback to childhood depicts footage of the film’s director rather than lead actor. It’s difficult not to get lost in the autobiographical hall of mirrors Jacobs creates. That Momma’s Man, as Voice critic J. Hoberman suggests, at times slips into something that feels like a psychodrama turns out to be part of the power and fascination of the film

Momma’s Man tells the story of Mikey (Matt Boren), who on a business trip to New York City during which he visits his folks, finds himself unable to leave. That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, but Mikey has a job and a wife and infant back in Los Angeles. Mikey’s flight gets overbooked and he has to take another one the next day – but the situation rapidly transforms into something more vexing. Jacobs never makes it clear what is going on with Mikey. Is it nostalgia for his happy childhood? Has Mikey made a double mistake in marrying and having a child? Does he regret relocating to the West Coast? Does it suddenly dawn on him that his parents are growing old? Is his wife having an affair? Is Mikey having a nervous breakdown? For some critics and viewers, Jacobs’s use of buried motivation poses a problem. They want Mikey to be explained, but Jacobs wisely opts for ambiguity.

Rather than being goal-driven, as manual writers would insist, Mikey is a passive protagonist. His conflict is internal. Part of the pleasure of Momma’s Man is watching Mikey’s behavior for clues or hints about what might be going on inside him, and Jacobs provides just enough of them to keep us guessing. Mikey’s parents are perplexed. His father seems caring, but aloof. His mother dotes on him in a very smothering way. Her desire to offer him something to eat or drink becomes an irritating mantra (it’s no wonder he’s overweight). Most people would run for their lives – I’m speaking of myself here – but Mikey regresses. He hangs around the loft in his longjohns and watches a movie on television, while lying in bed with his parents. He rummages through old scrapbooks and love letters. He plays the guitar and sings lyrics he’s written in high school so loudly that his father has to tell him to turn the music down.

Mikey begins to embellish his situation. He’s not being malicious, so much as irresponsible. He lies to his wife Laura (Dana Varon) and even to his parents when he implies that Laura might be having an affair. We do see her visited by a neighbor named Tom (Richard Edson from Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise), but there’s no clear evidence that anything is going on. The film begins with a closeup on the clasped hands of Mikey and his mom. He asks, “You sure everything is okay?” She answers, “Of course.” Her initial note to him alludes to a doctor’s appointment. Mikey later tells his co-worker his mother’s been in the hospital as an excuse for missing work. Is she, in fact, ill? There’s no further indication of this either.

As the film progresses, Mikey develops agoraphobia – he’s unable to walk down the hallway stairs of the loft. There’s a sense that Manhattan has receded or disappeared, only to be replaced by his family’s claustrophobic loft – chock full of stuff – made dark and more womb-like by Tobias Datum’s cinematography. When his parents indicate they’re going for dinner in Chinatown, Mikey’s immobility prevents him from joining them. As he attempts to shave, he covers his entire face with lather and stares into the mirror. In an effort to get beyond the threshold of the loft, he gets drunk and crawls on all fours. During the night, he literally hurls himself down the stairs, which succeeds in breaking the spell.

Mikey seeks out an ex-girlfriend named Bridget (Eleanor Hutchins) after finding an angry letter from when they were in high school. Does he have lingering romantic feelings? When they meet at a coffee shop, Bridget brings along her young child in a stroller. It’s an awkward get-together. She asks, “So, what’s up?” Mikey refers to the letter and apologizes. Bridget appears bewildered. She’s obviously forgotten whatever pain he caused her. When Bridget asks about him, Mikey shows her photos of his wife and daughter, Anna. After she returns them, he stares pensively at the one of Anna. If Bridget is no longer the same person, Mikey’s friend Dante (Piero Arcilesi) – obsessed with boxing tapes and the Indigo Girls – also seems to have morphed into someone else. After Dante has a drug relapse, Mikey observes him with bemused detachment as his old pal manically works out and sings “Closer to Fine” off-key.

The fact that things change seems to be at the root of Mikey’s problem. He wants to stop time, or go backwards. He clings to the past – to earlier memories. Matt Boren plays Mikey with a quizzical look that fits his character perfectly. There’s a scene toward the end where his mother gets him to sit on her lap like an overgrown baby, dwarfing her in size. The image serves as an apt metaphor. He’s not a momma’s boy, but a grown man – stuck in a state of arrested development. As he snuggles and cries and his mother comforts him, she recalls a sweet image of her actual son, Azazel, as a child – fast asleep on a plate of spaghetti. In the old home-movie footage (from Ken Jacobs’s epic Star Spangled to Death), she lovingly lifts up Azazel and places him in bed. The next morning, Mikey listens to his phone messages and calls Laura.

Very little happens in Momma’s Man. Jacobs avoids the causality of classical narration. Much of what occurs within the family dynamic involves subtext – the things that remain largely unspoken. At one point his father demonstrates a mechanical windup toy – a headless crawling baby. The parents do try to intervene. In a family conference, his father confronts him, but Mikey becomes defensive and snaps, “Are you asking me to leave?” His mother inquires about Laura, “Is there someone else?” As Mikey begins to cry, his father presses him, but his mother insists, “It’s all right. You can stay here as long as you want.” His father later overhears a despondent message from Laura on the answering machine and watches Mikey erase it. Later, as Mikey starts to discuss Laura seeing someone, his father responds, “Can you recall us once lying to you?”

In Momma’s Man, Jacobs employs an episodic structure in which the dramatic and character arcs have been flattened. Just as mysteriously as Mikey falls into a personal crisis, his funk lifts by the film’s end (though I’m sure there will be consequences once he gets back to Los Angeles). I suspect some female viewers will find Mikey’s self-absorption to be a problem – for obvious reasons. But it’s Jacobs’s willingness to explore these issues so honestly that makes Momma’s Man such an absorbing and distinctive character study.

Momma’s Man played at the Wisconsin Film Festival back in April. It’s now available on DVD from Kino Video.

Posted 5 July, 2009

The Girlfriend Experience

Noted screenwriter/director Paul Schrader wrote a very interesting piece in the Guardian the other day in which he suggests that viewers are suffering from narrative exhaustion. He speculates that the average thirty-year-old has already watched 35,000 hours of audio-visual narratives. Given the limited number of possible storylines, today’s media-makers have resorted to other strategies to make their work seem fresh and less predictable. This has given rise to the popularity of such forms as reality television, documentaries, videogames, short-format pieces created specifically for cellphones, and what Schrader calls “anecdotal narrative.” In discussing this last term, he explains: “The attraction of films such as Slacker and its mumblecore progeny is the enjoyment of watching behaviour unencumbered by the artifice of plot. It is not ‘fake,’ not ‘contrived’ (although of course it is).”

Like a number of Gus Van Sant’s recent films or Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control, Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience represents a similar attempt by a major American filmmaker to create an alternative to conventional narrative by eschewing a fully-realized screenplay in favor of a brief (six- to seven-page) outline, the use of mostly non-professional actors and structured improvisation. Shot quickly with a small crew and a high-definition Red camera over several weeks, Soderbergh’s film is a portrait of a high-priced escort. Chelsea, played by porn star Sasha Grey, is a different breed of prostitute. While trafficking in sex, what she really offers is the simulation of a personal love experience.

Set during the heat of the presidential election and the financial meltdown last fall, The Girlfriend Experience documents the excess of wealth that fuels the GFE phenomenon – extravagant lifestyles involving art, high fashion, chic restaurants, and weekend junkets to Las Vegas on private jets. The film suggests that, as the discrepancy between rich and poor widens, sexuality for the super rich has become another commodity. Indeed, Chelsea narrates her various appointments in terms of designer outfits and other status markers, while also noting client’s financial anxieties involving friends, business, and an economy suddenly in free fall. Sessions often begin with questions about spouses and children, who are addressed on a first-name basis, providing the veneer of intimacy.

Chelsea is also involved in a relationship with a live-in boyfriend named Chris (Chris Santos). He’s a personal trainer at an upscale gym – another service industry for people with too much cash to burn. We watch Chris at work as he uses his charm to con his clients into signing up for additional sessions by developing his own ersatz relationship with them. Chris is also on the make – he also attempts to peddle a new line of clothes and angles for a cut of his gym’s business.

If the film examines the contradictions of paid escorts as intimate personal relationships, it also delves into similar conundrums involved in living with a prostitute. For both parties, it necessitates compartmentalizing their lives. When one of his clients suggests that Chris join a group of business guys for a weekend in Vegas, he initially declines out of deference to Chelsea. She’s into “personology” books – an irrational system Chelsea relies on to make decisions about clients and to cope with the dangers implicit in her line of work. It leads Chelsea to decide to spend a weekend with a new client on a whim, but this violates the “rules”of her relationship with Chris. When she breaks the news to him, Chris lashes out at her in very frank terms that belie the mutual deception at the heart of their arrangement.

Throughout her interactions, Chelsea projects an image of a woman in control of her emotions, or someone who shows very little affect. Her blankness is part of her allure to these men, allowing them to project their own fantasies onto her. Yet fissures eventually develop in her armor. Despite her belief that she’s the best at what she does, Chelsea nevertheless gets jealous when she sees a client with a new competitor. She also gets victimized by a sleazy operator (played by film critic Glenn Kenny) of an online Web site, entitled The Erotic Connoisseur. Under the guise of raising her profile to even greater heights within the profession, he hustles her into giving him a freebie in exchange for promotion. His review of her performance is a brutal and devastating putdown. After Chelsea breaks up with Chris because of feelings for a new client, a screenwriter named David, her intuition turns out to be misguided. As Chris has predicted, the client dumps her in order to return home to his wife and two young daughters, which leaves Chelsea stranded and in tears.

Although The Girlfriend Experience was apparently shot chronologically, Soderbergh scrambles time in order to create greater narrative complexity. We move back and forth between Chelsea and Chris. We observe Chelsea’s various interactions – with numerous clients, the operator of the erotic Web site, a business manager, and a magazine journalist who asks her probing personal questions about her line of work. Soderbergh confounds the story by having an adult sex star play a Manhattan call girl and by casting nonprofessional actors to play characters who bear some resemblance to themselves in real life. In a sense, the performers become the characters. The collapse between actor and role and the use of controlled improvisation lends a degree of authenticity to the film.

Soderbergh shoots mostly with available light, resulting in scenes that have either warm orange-red or cool blue tones. At times he plays with focus to give the image a greater sense of abstraction. Andy Warhol rather than Cassavetes proves to be the stronger influence here. Soderbergh told Filmmaker that he has become more interested in “this fusion of real people and real stories with a fictional story.” He elaborates: “I guess it’s something that grows out of my frustration with the norms of cinema narrative storytelling and the fact that I’m convinced that the gains that can be achieved through presenting something that seems like it is really happening in front of you are more significant than the gains you get from something that doesn’t seem real but is better constructed.”

In sex, lies, and videotape (1989), Soderbergh managed to capture the Zeitgeist of the time – people’s fear of sex in an age of AIDS – by exploring issues about intimacy and pornography. It’s hardly surprising that he would use a porn star to explore issues of intimacy in his new film. Even though the outline for The Girlfriend Experience was written by David Levian and Brian Koppelman in 2006, Soderbergh has managed to create an snapshot of a period in which America appears to be on the verge of change and late capitalism feels as if it is finally unraveling. This timeliness turns out to be one of the major advantages of Soderbergh’s more open and flexible method of making a film.

Postscript:

It is ironic that Columbia Pictures has placed Soderbergh’s $50 million film Moneyball in limited turnaround, a mere four days before it was scheduled to begin production, even though the film has actor Brad Pitt attached. What’s interesting is that Columbia head Amy Pascal was unhappy with Soderbergh’s re-working of the script. According to Variety: “The move came after Pascal read a rewrite that Soderbergh did to Steven Zaillian’s script and found it very different from the earlier scripts she championed. Pascal was uncomfortable enough with how the vision had changed that she applied the brakes.” The article goes on to say: “Even though it was approved by Major League Baseball, the script doesn’t follow the traditional narrative structure of most sports yarns.”

In the same Filmmmaker interview from which I quoted earlier, Soderbergh indicates that Moneyball was going to be his “most extreme attempt” at combining reality and fiction. Based on this recent development at Columbia, it would appear that Soderbergh’s current artistic interests do not necessarily coincide with those of Hollywood, especially regarding the primacy of the script. Is anyone surprised?

Posted 23 June, 2009

Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis

Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis, Mary Jordan’s absorbing documentary portrait of the legendary filmmaker and performer, certainly gives a strong flavor of this underground artist, whose importance never really has been disputed within avant-garde circles, even if he’s not a household name or nearly as famous as many of the other major artists he influenced, including Andy Warhol, John Waters, or the Italian director Federico Fellini.

Jack Smith (1932-1989) led a very troubled life. Smith was born in Columbus, Ohio. His mother, who married three times, moved to Galveston, Texas and then to Kenosha, Wisconsin. The film reveals that she left Jack and his sister, Sue Slater, alone for two weeks before the final relocation. It’s no wonder that Smith blamed his mother for sending him “crippled” out into the world. In a letter to her, which he recites in the film, he confesses, “I’m left with feelings of jealousy, mistrust of women, homosexuality, impotence.”

Jack Smith’s issues were not only with his mother, but with the world at large. A militant anarchist, the intensely political Smith railed against capitalism in the guise of “Landlordism” and “Lobsterism” – his own colorful vocabulary for “exploitation” – as the source of much of his own and society’s ills. A modern-day Proudhon, Smith couldn’t fathom either paying rent or art collecting – to him both were merely different forms of theft.

Smith vented against people and institutions for not supporting him in his artistic endeavors, believing that “real art” was destined to get “mutilated” within capitalist culture. He became famous for making one of the most notorious underground films of the 1960s, Flaming Creatures (1962) – a baroque, gender-bending orgy of naked and costumed bodies, which was busted and became a test case of censorship laws. The experience had a traumatic effect on both Jack Smith and his career. The reception of Flaming Creatures became a rationalization for his “never making any masterpieces again” or finishing any of his later films.

As a child, Smith became enthralled with the B-movie actress Maria Montez, who became a lifelong obsession. According to the composer John Zorn, Jack would cry whenever he watched her movies. The late playwright and Warhol screenwriter Ronald Tavel calls the actress a “diva,” while John Vaccaro refers to her as “the apotheosis of the drag queen.” Only filmmaker Nick Zedd counters that he couldn’t understand this adoration of Montez because she was such a “mediocre actress.” When Smith was dying in the hospital after deliberately contracting AIDS, Tavel suggests that rather than being bored, Jack was happy because it gave him more time to ruminate about Montez.

For Jack, Maria Montez represented the epitome of exotic glamour. To him, she became a fantastic imaginary world that replaced the ugly one in which he found himself. Smith turned the NYC loft where he lived for the last nine years of his life into a virtual fantasy land. The film provides a glimpse of Smith’s glorious inner life by tracking through what was in reality an elaborate and colorful stage set, which was dismantled and destroyed after his death.

Jack’s performances were notorious within the art world. He would announce that an event would begin at a certain prescribed time and then delay it for hours, causing many audience members to flee when nothing happened. Tavel suggests that Smith did this deliberately. He quotes Jack as saying, “I don’t want the scum of Baghdad. I want only the best.” The artist who insists that art should be made free to the masses turns out to be an elitist at heart. Jack Smith was full of contradictions, but his own response to the issue of audience was simply: “Something had to be done in order to keep them from becoming sofa-roosting cabbages.”

My only personal experience with Jack Smith was being invited to a small gathering at someone’s loft in the late 1970s where it was rumored that Jack was going to perform. Throughout the night, he made strange faces, glared at people suspiciously, periodically whispered in the host’s ear, and continually disappeared into a hall closet, where he seemed to rummage around for hours. Needless to say, Jack lived up to his reputation, and I finally left around midnight. Yet what he was actually doing could be construed as a weird performance of sorts.

Jack Smith’s personal animosity for Jonas Mekas became another major fixation. Smith despised Mekas for using Flaming Creatures as part of an anti-censorship crusade during the 1960s. Smith complains that Mekas could “be made to seem like a saint, to be in the position of defending something, when he’s really kicking it to death.” Ronald Tavel suggests that Mekas’s strategy was to make “as much money as possible from those films and give as little as possible to the filmmaker.”

Although Jonas appears in the film, it’s never clear that he’s ever responding to such charges, which is one of the unfortunate drawbacks of Jordan’s decision to make a heavily-edited compilation film. As far as information obtained from interviews, it’s simply not possible to understand either the questions or the context of the answers. In any event, I seriously doubt that there were buckets of money to be made from screening Flaming Creatures at the time, or that Jonas secretly was pocketing money that was owed to Smith.

Smith began to refer to Mekas by a variety of disparaging names, including “Uncle Fishhook.” Sylvère Lotringer helped to legitimize Jack’s personal attacks on Mekas in a 1978 issue of Semiotext(e). As Lotringer explains in Jordan’s film, Uncle Fishhook became a symbol of the system: “Uncle Fishhook became like this kind of embodiment of a myth that was so much bigger than Jonas Mekas could be.” Jack also had the bad habit of turning on people. Lotringer tells of hearing rumors that Jack was walking around the East Village with an ax and wanted to kill him.

There are plenty of published sources on the ongoing feud between Mekas and Jack Smith, but we never do get to hear Jonas’s side. There is an explanation for why Mekas withheld the original film of Flaming Creatures from Jack Smith once it came into his possession. As an archivist, Mekas wanted to preserve Jack’s legacy, especially because Smith would project and edit his originals during screenings that he turned into theatrical events. Is trying to save the original of Flaming Creatures such a bad thing? For Smith, it became part of a larger paranoid conspiracy in which he cast himself in the role of victim.

Jordan’s film also glorifies Jack Smith at the expense of Andy Warhol. As Nayland Blake rightly states: “So many contemporary artists trace their practice back to Warhol at this point, and a lot of the important ideas in Warhol come from Jack.” Robert Wilson indicates that Warhol couldn’t have made the films he did without having known Jack. John Waters claims of Jack Smith: “He did it all first. He started something that other people took and became more successful with.”

Lawrence Rinder, the museum curator and director, along with noted composer and filmmaker Tony Conrad, point to Warhol’s Factory and the whole notion of superstars as deriving from Jack Smith. Artist Mike Kelly mentions the fact that Warhol used Smith’s actors for his own films. Yet none of this is really news. Warhol, who watched films at the Filmmakers’ Cinemateque prior to making them, was influenced by many experimental filmmakers, including Kenneth Anger, Ron Rice, and Jack Smith. Warhol never denied his admiration for Smith’s work. Instead he indicates that Smith was “the only person I would ever copy” and adds, “I just think he makes the best movies.”

Jack Smith appeared in a number of Warhol films, including the unfinished Batman/Dracula (1964), Camp (1965), and Hedy (1966). George Kuchar points out that in Batman/Dracula, Warhol failed to record all of Jack Smith’s performance because of bad framing. Henry Hills and others claim that Smith took over Camp, where he managed to get Warhol to move his camera. Mekas suggests that the two artists clashed because Smith wanted to have complete control. If Smith was all about control, Warhol was the exact opposite – he was interested in abdicating authorial control.

Mario Montez, Jack’s drag-queen incarnation of Maria Montez, appeared in a number of Warhol films as well, which Smith didn’t appreciate. Like an overly protective parent, Jack Smith criticizes how Mario Montez was being employed by Warhol. While Smith never specifies a title, he seems to have in mind Screen Test # 2 (1965) when he laments: “I just hate to see this happening to Mario. Slowly watching Mario’s brain being eaten away . . .”

The schism between Smith and Warhol was personal, but also represents the difference between a baroque and pop sensibility. Smith had a trash aesthetic. His art was about making something beautiful out of nothing. Warhol used techniques of mass production in his art, hence the whole idea of The Factory, which enabled him to become an incredibly prolific artist. Jack Smith takes a direct swipe at Warhol when he suggests that “manufacturing and making art” are  two different endeavors.  Warhol obviously didn’t think so. Smith insists, “I want to be uncommercial film personified.” Warhol, on the other hand, always had commercial aspirations and made the fact that art was a business only too evident.

While the film certainly sides with Smith over Warhol, the film’s compilation technique allows it to move, for instance, from John Waters saying, “He [Jack Smith] was a great personality and a great filmmaker who changed everything” to someone claiming that “Jack Smith was the real Warhol.” Frankly, I find that to be an incredible leap. There is no question that Jack Smith exerted an enormous influence on Warhol, but what does it mean to say he was “the real Warhol?” In different voices of various interviewees, Jordan also edits fragments of the interviews into the hyperbolic assertion that Jack Smith reinvented theater, photography, film, performance art, glitter, installation art, time, and music videos.

Many notable artists get a chance to discuss Jack Smith and the brilliance of his work, which alone makes this film worth viewing. Voice critic J. Hoberman, who has written extensively on the work of Jack Smith, is sorely missing as an interviewee for reasons that have to do with the making of Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis and issues related to Smith’s estate (For details, click here and here). And the inclusion of scholars, such as Callie Angell, might have provided the film with a more balanced perspective on Warhol.

Smith’s social critique extended to curators, museums, and foundations, whose real function he believed was “commercialization.” Only John Waters introduces a dose of reality into Jack Smith’s vilification of museums: “He bit every hand that could ever, ever feed him. And so, the problem is nobody knows his movies because of that. And he never finished them. And if he maybe had been a little less difficult, maybe we would have seen his movies more. They’re very obscure now. He bit the hand! Museums. . . who else is going to show them? It’s [sic] not going to play at Radio City Music Hall!”

Toward the end of the film, Smith makes a startling and rare admission about himself in terms of his artistic career: “It’s my fault. I haven’t been organized properly. . . I was never organized nearly enough. I didn’t know those things.” But, as Jack Smith insightfully points out, had he done all the things he should have done or that were expected of him, “I wouldn’t have been the same person.”

Posted 29 May, 2009

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

Gomorrah

Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah (2008) has been available on VOD through IFC, but I had a chance to catch the film on the big screen at the Orpheum Theatre last weekend. Even if you’re not a fan of gangster films, you owe it to yourself to see this revisionist epic. Set largely in and around a suburban Naples housing project that suggests a run-down Aztec-inspired LeFrak City, Gomorrah involves five different plot threads, but, unlike most ensemble films or network narratives, they never intersect. The film’s structure mirrors that of the Camorra, a crime organization bigger than the Mafia, whose tentacles extend into almost every level of Italian society and the global economy – toxic waste disposal, sex clubs and prostitution, arms trafficking, loan sharking, and high fashion. The Camorra so permeates the fabric of everyday life in Naples that no one seems immune to the violence, which has resulted in four thousand deaths in Italy over the past thirty years.

The film opens with a dark blue-filtered shot inside a tanning booth. As the image gradually brightens, it feels as if we’ve entered a science fiction film, as the body of a gangster is illuminated by ultraviolet radiation. We glimpse four gangsters as they joke, tan artificially, and one gets a manicure, only to get blown away in quick, methodical fashion by their rivals. The prologue serves as a apt metaphor for what follows – in ways that will only become obvious to us later on. Whereas classic gangster films usually emphasize honor and loyalty to family, clan, and country, the world mapped by Gomorrah is one marked by betrayal. All traditional values have been leveled – it’s only money that motivates anyone’s actions. Even those on the dole – the families of gangsters who receive regular payments – complain about the cheapness of the crime boss.

We follow five major characters. Toto (Salvatore Abruzzese) is a thirteen-year-old boy who delivers groceries for his single mom in the sprawling housing complex. He’s a good kid at heart, but survival in such an environment demands that one must eventually choose sides between warring clan factions. There’s an intense scene where the mobsters test Toto’s courage and manhood by shooting him at close range while he wears a large chest protector. Toto survives, but later stares in the mirror and fingers the purple bruise left by the bullet.

Other major characters include Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo), a tailor making high-fashion knockoffs in an mob-financed Italian sweatshop. He accepts a bribe from Chinese competitors and secretly switches sides. The Camorra accountant Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato) goes from family to family with subsidies, but he has no loyalty either – he’s merely following the list he’s been given and doing what he’s told. When the going gets rough, he seeks an accommodation with the opposition. There’s also Roberto (Carmine Paternoster), who starts working for a waste management firm. He watches as his boss Franco (Toni Servillo), who wears suits and looks very much like a legitimate businessman, hires young kids to drive toxic material and illegally dumps it on nearby land with disastrous consequences. In a scene near the end, we see the effects on a man dying of cancer (which we learn in the end credits has increased in the area by twenty percent).

As the Roberto and Franco drive back, Roberto becomes disgusted and indicates he’s not cut out for the business. The two get into a heated exchange on the side of the road:

FRANCO: You think this job sucks? You know guys like me put this shit country in Europe? Know how many workers I’ve helped by saving their companies money?
Franco chases after Roberto and points to the green farm land.
FRANCO (Cont.) Stop and look. What do you see? Debts. All these people have been saved only thanks to us.
ROBERTO: I saw how you helped them live. You save a worker in Mestre and kill a family in Mondragone.
FRANCO: That’s how it works, but I didn’t decide it. We solve problems created by others. I didn’t create chromium and asbestos, I didn’t dig up the mountain. That’s how it works.
ROBERTO: That’s how it works? I don’t work that way. I’m not like you.
FRANCO: What are you like?
ROBERTO: I’m different.
Roberto walks away from the older man.
FRANCO: Go make pizzas!

Franco’s rationalization for his criminal behavior suggests how ingrained such a cynical mentality has become, which is precisely what feeds and sustains the operations of the Camorra.

The two most colorful characters in Gommorah are two teenage knuckleheads – Ciro (Ciro Petrone), aka “Sweet Pea,” a gangly kid with a crew cut and prominent nose, and his pal Marco (Marco Macor), whose voice sounds as if his larynx is caught in a vice grip. To the annoyance of the local area crime boss, the two fantasize they’re characters right out of Brian De Palma’s Scarface. These hopeless romantics naively believe they can outsmart the real gangsters. Marco is bit crazy, while Sweet Pea might easily be nicknamed “Pea Brain.” The two ridicule the local crime boss, rob African coke dealers and later a pool hall, and steal a cache of arms from the mobsters. At one point, as the two walk along the beach in their skivvies and sneakers, they shoot high-powered weapons and inadvertently blow up a boat on the opposite shore. Without the comedic charm and goofy shenanigans of Marco and Sweet Pea – Garrone compares them to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza – the film would feel much more like the grim exposé it actually is.

Garrone uses a nervous hand-held steadicam to probe the characters and events in the story. The brutalist architecture of the housing complex defines its inhabitants, suggesting at various times the inside of a prison. His camera moves fluidly around characters and back and forth between them as they speak, giving the film a documentary-like quality. Yet certain scenes such as the tanning booth and sex club are highly stylized through the use of colored gels. And when Pasquale pays a visit to the Chinese competitor, the inside of the factory building is bathed in a orange light that suggests he’s entering hell – a hell within hell. There’s one shot, however, when the mob shoots up the car carrying Pasquale, and it careens into a garden full of reproductions of Roman statues that would make Manny Farber turn over in his grave. For me, it’s the only false stylistic note in an otherwise compelling story of how crime has infiltrated virtually every aspect of the lives of these characters.

It’s no wonder that Roberto Saviano, the author of the 2006 book on which Garrone’s film is based, has been under continual police protection. Garrone, however, has attempted to distance himself from Saviano, who apparently divulged Camorra secrets while on publicity tours. Garrone told an interviewer from LA Weekly: “It’s terrible what’s happened to him, but he made a pact with the Devil, to have a best-seller.” Garrone’s Gomorrah has grossed nearly $34 million at the box office worldwide, but only $1.5 million in the U.S. thus far. It hasn’t helped that the film was somehow passed over for an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Picture. Anyone who sees Gomorrah – and it’s not been exactly been easy in this country – will surely wonder why.

Note to local readers: I’m happy to report that Gomorrah is being held over for a second week at the Orpheum. 

Posted 24 April, 2009

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