Saturday, March 9, 2013

The best movie of 1998 finally gets revisited

In my 17-year history of ranking all the new movies I've seen each year, only three of my top-ranked movies are ones I've seen only once. Even my favorite film of 2012, Ruby Sparks, is something I've already seen again. (The night before I coronated it, as a matter of fact.)

Make that two I've seen only once.

Wednesday night I finally re-watched Todd Solondz' Happiness, which was my top film of 1998, the third year I kept the stats. That's 15 years since its release year, though only a little over 14 since I saw it.

You could say that Solondz' film is a classic one-timer; one of its main characters is a pedophile, and recently ejaculated semen is seen not once, but twice. (Neither time by the pedophile, at least, though one instance is from an 11-year-old boy.)

But I did love the movie, and I really should have re-watched it before now. (In case you're interested, the other two I haven't rewatched are the very first movie I crowned, Looking for Richard in 1996, and A Separation in 2011).

Perhaps I suspected Happiness wouldn't hold up. Although it seemed quite original and fresh at the time, how would it seem now, now that there have been scores of independent films featuring dysfunctional extended families working their way through hot-button issues?

Also, it qualifies as an early version of a term I've heard popularized recently: "hyperlink cinema." It's not really a positive term. It refers to movies where multiple story lines are threaded together, seeming at first to have no relationship to each other. Over the course of the narrative, we realize that this character has this connection to this character, who has this connection to this other character, who has this other connection to the first character. It's supposed to be profound. Lately, it's seemed like hack screenwriting. Happiness doesn't 100% qualify, because although the connections between these characters are there, at least the characters don't have to come together into some kind of big finale that's supposed to blow your mind.

Well, I'm glad to say that Happiness still felt fresh to me.

What's still fresh? WARNING, SPOILERS AHEAD.

1) The sympathetic pedophile. By far the boldest thing Solondz does in this movie is introduce a character who rapes young boys (Dylan Baker), yet somehow is presented with enough complexity that you don't simply condemn him. Society reserves a spot somewhere below rapists and murderers for the pedophile, yet Solondz has the guts to present this man as the victim of an illness rather than a moral degenerate. In fact, Bill Maplewood is so unflinchingly honest with his son -- even confessing to his son without hesitation, and speaking to him with the frankness he would reserve for an adult -- that there's something morally upright about him. Which of course doesn't excuse the whole pedophilia thing. But if the goal of some filmmakers is to change minds, you might say Solondz succeeds at that better than most, if only because you want Bill to figure out a way to stop doing it, to save his own soul as well as the bodies and minds of his victims. Fifteen years later, I still haven't seen someone else pull off such an unlikely trick.

2) The explicit sex discussions with children. I can't find much information on Rufus Read, the actor who played young Billy Maplewood -- his IMDB page is as stripped down as they come. But he's playing an 11-year-old and certainly couldn't have been much older than that. Yet he asks his father what "cum" means, and waits around for the answer, which is nothing short of clinically accurate. Later, he asks his father about the crimes of which he's accused, and gets similarly frank answers. His final act of the movie is to jerk off while watching a woman sunbathing. The lower half of his body is of course not seen, but Solondz had to direct him to make some kind of motions that would simulate the convulsions of the real act, so the upper half of his body would respond correctly. The act culminates with a droplet of his splooge dripping off his balcony's white horizontal piping -- before it gets licked away by his dog. Not only is it pretty crazy content for a child character to be involved with, but the child actor couldn't simply be fooled into thinking it was something other than what it was.

3) The nice girl who always gets shit on. Yes, we meet Joy (Jane Adams) while she's in the process of rather callously breaking up with Allen (Jon Lovitz), but there's something about her -- probably the irresistible sympathetic nature of Adams as an actress -- that makes any apparent callousness seem purely accidental. At her core, she's a genuine person who genuinely wants to help people and do good things in the world. Yet she is repeatedly unlucky -- in all things, really, but especially in love. Not only does Allen kill himself (an act for which she is blamed both by him and by his mother), but she is robbed by a Russian-born cab driver (Jared Harris) who beds her and immediately leaves. Did I mention he's married and his wife assaults Joy? In an ordinary narrative, these occurrences in the plot would lead us to a moment of transcendence for Joy, in which her patient wait for a good person pays off. Uh-uh. The humiliations continue to pile on top of themselves. The only thing preventing her character from being an unremitting tragedy is that in the final scene of the movie, she doesn't seem overburdened by despair -- she just has the normal, healthy level of despair. Another nifty tonal trick by Solondz.

This list would be more impressive with five examples, but let's leave it at three.

Since I began writing this blog entry, I have watched Solondz' sequel to Happiness, Life During Wartime. It would have been great to incorporate that into this piece if it hadn't already been 75% written. As such, I think I need to chew on this one for a day or two, and maybe then I'll have collected some thoughts for a follow-up.

I was curious about whether Happiness is still my favorite film of 1998, so I decided to consult Flickchart to see what I have ranked ahead of it and whether I'd seen those movies at the time I completed my rankings. Flickchart tells me that it's actually ranked third, though that's really second, because Flickchart counts Run Lola Run as a 1998 movie -- my #1 1998 movie. Which it probably is, because that's when it hit German theaters, but I can't think of it as anything other than 1999. See, Run Lola Run was actually Happiness' successor, my top-ranked film of my next year of rankings.

Number 2? It's Sam Raimi's A Simple Plan, which I had seen at the time (and ranked #3). Now there's a movie I need to revisit -- though it would probably be my third or even fourth viewing. 

Number 2 on my year-end rankings between Happiness and A Simple Plan? Waking Ned Devine, which must have fallen in my estimation some, as it now ranks only eighth from 1998 on my Flickchart.

And that's probably enough reminiscing about the year 1998.


Emil said...

Very nice write-up on Happiness. I wouldn't go as far as to call it my #1 for its year, but it is a unique beast of a movie, and instantly compelling.

For an at least equally fascinating take on a pedophile character, I'd recommend The Woodsman if you haven't seen it. Great movie, and Kevin Bacon is amazing in the lead.

Vancetastic said...

Thanks Emil! As a response I feel compelled to post my review of The Woodsman from All Movie Guide. You will see that I thought the same thing.

The "sympathetic pedophile" was purely an oxymoron before Todd Solondz, who included a repugnant -- yet strangely pitiable -- child molester as part of his 1998 ensemble film Happiness. Now, Nicole Kassell dares to make such a person not only the central character, but the protagonist, in The Woodsman, adapted from Steven Fechter's play. Critics had a lot of trouble with this film, some accusing it of letting Walter Rossworth off too easy, others grappling with their discomfort over being so personally confronted by the inner workings of his sickness. But if Kassell paints in broad strokes, it's because the audience needs some amount of spoon-feeding to comprehend such damnable sins, which get disqualified from any normal notion of forgiveness. If there are some formulaic characters, obvious symbols, and maybe a few seemingly pat answers, it's because this type of film is so unfamiliar to audiences, it need not be more than the prototypical case study of the child molester's return to society. At its core, the film asks, "Now what?" Families of pedophiles -- and their victims -- deal with this every day, just never on film. Kevin Bacon's portrayal is anything but simple, though it may be quiet, quivering, and at times shell-shocked. Kassell wants the audience to open up to him, but she's not about to make him a saint, leaving the perversions of his past dangerously close to the surface. The secondary, more pernicious molester stalking the nearby elementary school is too blunt a narrative device, and some viewers will undoubtedly be troubled by the character arc of Walter's new girlfriend, played by Bacon's real-world wife, Kyra Sedgwick. However viewers ultimately feel about Walter Rossworth, The Woodsman is sure to open a dialogue about the possibility of rehabilitation and the sincerity of regret.