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Kind to be Cruel

By Ray Pride

OCTOBER 26, 1998:  Todd Solondz's "Happiness," shot in a starkly elegant manner, tackles dark aspects of loneliness and desire among its large cast of alienated contemporary characters, and the results have been easy for some to dismiss.

Talking to the slight 37-year-old writer-director after its North American premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, I had to wonder what he thought when "Happiness" was dismissed as a cruel film. "Well, people do say that. They said that about 'Welcome to the Dollhouse,' also. But I just disagree."

Solondz is soft-spoken, even when stressing his points. "I think it's about cruelty, or I think it exposes cruelty. You look at the very first scene of the film with Jane Adams. The kinder and the gentler she is with Jon Lovitz, the deeper the dagger digs into his heart. There's a kind of unwitting cruelty. I find this sad and also funny. There's a kind of poignancy to that."

But the appearance of rape, suicide and sexual mutilation in the story are what people will talk about. "There's all the taboo stuff people talk about, but I think it's the nature of cruelty itself that is a harder thing for people to acknowledge. No one wants to believe or know that that exists within oneself. It's too horrible for any of us to acknowledge. Yet we will all talk about how someone behaved toward us. Somebody must be being cruel."

To avoid the qualities of a television movie, a kind of distance is required. "It's all in how you see things, yes. Tone has so much to do with it. Obviously, many people are cruel in their movies and are cruel to their characters, but the perspective of the filmmaker has a lot to do with it. People have accused me of misanthropy, and I don't think that's accurate. To expose and to embrace people in spite of their flaws is in fact quite the opposite of misanthropy. It's about understanding, it's not about punishment."

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