Happiness

Dir: Todd Solondz, 1998. Starring: Jane Adams, Jon Lovitz, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Comedy.

Back in the mid-1990s during the heyday of the American independent film scene there were several films released during the decade that became lightning rods for controversy stemming from their, at the time, risqué subject matter. I use the phrase "at the time" because it's not clear whether movies are really capable of shocking us nowadays. In the age of the "torture porn" genre (Hostel, et al.), where even Law & Order plotlines can get pretty damn sick for prime time television, a lot of what stirred social conservatives to boycott studios over what they deemed objectionable material in movies just doesn’t work them up the way it used to. It may come down to whether or not movies are really the pop cultural force they used to be.

The idea that an indie ensemble drama that features mostly a lot of awkward communicating between the unbelievably dysfunctional could cause so much trouble now seems almost quaint. Happiness, with its empathetic treatment of a pedophile character and it's numerous, uh, money shots, might still seem provocative by today's standards if for nothing else than for its refusal to deny the film’s screwed up characters their essential humanity, but at the time of its release it caused an outright media firestorm prompting its original distributor to deem it too toxic for release. It eventually found a new distributor and did open to equal parts fawning praise for people who think that provocative equals good and righteous denouncement from a lot of people who probably didn’t even bother to see the film.

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Posted by:
Matt Messbarger
Feb 22, 2009 11:25am

Storytelling

Dir: Todd Solondz, 2001. Starring: Selma Blair, Leo Fitzpatrick, Paul Giamatti, Mark Webber, John Goodman, Julie Hagerty. Comedy.

Todd Solondz is, without a doubt, one of the best living American directors. His two works from the '90s, Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness, served as groundbreaking material in terms of dark comedy and a ruthless exploitation of sorts. Some regard them as his best work with the knowledge that the films that follow only get harder to swallow. But it isn't just the steadfast exposure to topics such as backyard abortion and pedophilia that unsettles his audiences, but rather his approach. Through bright colors and jovial songs, Solondz mocks suburbia and the tortured souls of those suffering with mediocrity and mental illness to the point that it is hilarious. And while you feel bad, or perhaps uncomfortable with the development of each film, there is something about them that keeps you focused and satisfied. Storytelling is wedged in between Solondz's nastiest and most complex work, Palindromes, and those aforementioned ones that made him big. Being in the middle means that it is not as easy-going and lighthearted as the first two (if you could even call them that), nor is it as nuanced and off-the-walls as Palindromes. However, this is the movie in which no one is spared as he attacks the hidden comedy within racial taboos, servants, rich Jewish families, and our education system. To add to this lineup of targets was a fresh approach; the movie is split into two unrelated character developments, one called Fiction, and the other Non-fiction. The separation of these two storytelling methods was not only interesting in a way that pars with anthology Horror films, but gave meaning to such methods for anyone who fancies themselves a storyteller.

FICTION: In this segment we find Vi (Selma Blair), a pink-haired college student looking for substance in all the wrong places. She and her handicapped boyfriend Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick) have a writing course with a professor of great prestige. Vi is just short of obsessed with him, though not because he's won the Pulitzer Prize for his literature, nor because he's a brutally honest teacher. Now's the time to mention that her professor is black. Solondz exposes her loyalty as a sort of Mandingo fetish, which causes an outrage in Marcus when he discovers that she and other white girls on campus seem to be under the same spell. Meanwhile, we see their classroom atmosphere develop as Professor Scott ruins his classroom's general hope of becoming writers. From there, we follow Vi as she pursues her professor and receives the lesson of a lifetime that is nothing short of brutal.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Apr 11, 2011 7:29pm
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