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 distinguish among:

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. (spoilers for Out of Sight)

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. (spoilers for The Dark Knight)

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 (spoilers for Kinsey) to (spoilers for Vera Drake) to (spoilers for Watchmen).

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. (spoilers for Out of Sight) 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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