Todd Solondz, 1998
#4, 1998 Skandies
Colin Marshall predicts: strongly dislike. Given your distaste for
narrative indifference toward character amorality, I'd be surprised if you
didn't detest this film — that's all it is.
Surprise! I kinda liked it. Which was a surprise to me too, since I hated
Welcome to the Dollhouse.
As for my distaste for narrative indifference toward character amorality...
well, let's take that in reverse order. First, amorality. It seems to me
that there are at least half a dozen types of conduct that we need to
True amorality. That is to say, the character doesn't really give
much thought as to whether her actions are good or bad. She may be aware
that society criminalizes some of the behavior she's engaging in, but doesn't
trouble her beautiful mind over why. The law is just an environmental factor,
and the character knows she needs to avoid arrest the same way a scuba diver
knows she needs to avoid drowning. Close enough not to deserve its own
paragraph is effective amorality, in which the character may have
thought about the morality of a crime and agrees intellectually that it's
probably bad, but just doesn't care.
Immorality. An immoral character has put in the thought that the
amoral character hasn't. He knows that what he's doing is evil, that he's
making people suffer... and considers it a big plus. He's the murderer who
kills not for the insurance money or to dispose of a witness or anything
like that but simply for the sheer joy of taking a human life.
Alternative morality. The character believes that she is behaving
morally, and if society disagrees, then society is wrong. This category
spans a range of behavior, from to to .
Sin. The character believes that he's behaving immorally. He does
subscribe to the code that deems his actions evil. But either the temptation
outweighs his feelings of guilt, or he's in the grip of an uncontrollable
compulsion. I think you can throw in hypocrisy as a hybrid between
sin and amorality; whereas a guilty sinner does condemn himself for his
behavior, the hypocrite condemns others who engage in the same behavior but
considers himself exempt.
So, yes, narrative indifference toward character amorality is a real turnoff
for me. But that's not what we're dealing
with in Happiness (and the spoilers for Happiness begin here).
Who in Happiness is amoral? Okay, sure, Vlad the thief is... but the
film certainly isn't indifferent about it! When we see that he's stolen
Joy's CD player and guitar we're supposed to think it's awful. In fact,
that's the chief gimmick of the film: every action, every line of dialogue,
seems to have been selected in response to the question, "All right, what's the
most awful thing this character could say or do?" Sometimes this is played for
comedy, sometimes for pathos, most often a bit of both — but in all
cases, the humor and/or despair depends on precisely what indifferent films
lack: the recognition of awfulness.
And Vlad is actually something of an exception! Sure, the film is full of
people who say appallingly tactless things without seeming to realize that
they're doing so, but most of the characters are sinners. They have
at least an inchoate understanding that they are doing wrong, from minor
offenders such as the the sister who dominates a lunch with self-regarding
blather ("I'm just so tired of being admired all the time") and winds up
convulsing on her bed, furious at her own emptiness ("I'm no good, I'm
nothing, zero"); to the obscene phone caller who gets *69ed and, having
purged his darker impulses for the moment with his last call, is overcome
not just with shock at being discovered but with shame; to the genuine
monsters such as the serial child rapist who confides to his wife in a
strangled voice that "I'm sick." Wow! A glimmer of self-awareness? After
the last few movies I'd almost forgotten what that was like.
It's true that Happiness treats the pederast as a human being who can't
control his predatory urges rather than as some kind of incomprehensible alien
creature, but it seems to me that to call that indifference or forgiveness is
to fall into the same error that led the Bushies to equate an interest in
understanding the root causes of terrorism with support for al-Qaeda. Don't
get me wrong: I'm not crediting Happiness with any kind of insight into
the root causes of the atrocities it presents. It's closer in spirit to those
meditations on the banality of evil — you know, the SS officer has
a lovely breakfast around the table with his loving wife and cherubic children,
sends the Kinder off to school, chuckles at a light comedy show on the radio,
then heads off to the concentration camp to shove human beings into ovens. To
the extent that Happiness is about anything other than its own shock
value (and I admit there's not much more to it, which is why my liking for it
is tepid) it's about making the case that the
Josef Fritzls and
Chante Mallards of
the world are not disconnected from the rest of humanity but represent one
extreme on a continuum of behavior. Everyone has some sort of dark secret,
from the elementary school principal with a desk drawer full of kiddie porn,
to the church secretary embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from the
account she administers, to the honor student who sticks chewing gum to the
bottoms of desks. Why would I "strongly dislike" a film simply for pointing
out this all too often unacknowledged truth?
Takeshi Kitano, 1997
#5, 1998 Skandies
Colin Marshall predicts: dislike. While it's my favorite movie ever, I
imagine you'll give this one a "too slow, gave up."
Too slow, gave up.
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