Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Dysfunction Junctions

By Chris Herrington

DECEMBER 7, 1998:  Todd Solondz’s sensational, controversial Happiness (see it while you still have the chance) isn’t the first film to find perversity lurking beneath the facade of normalcy that is middle-class suburban life and/or the nuclear family, though with its exhilaratingly honest struggle between compassion and revulsion, it may be the best. It’s not even the first Todd Solondz film to tackle the subject. Welcome to the Dollhouse (1996), Solondz’s second feature, but the first with significant distribution, is a hate letter to suburbia filmed with an aching identification with its protagonist, junior-high outcast Dawn Wiener.

Though smaller in scale than the Altmanesque Happiness, Welcome to Dollhouse shares with its more commanding successor a vision of (suburban) life that exists just beyond reality. The pastel colors and grotesque characterizations are the exaggerated memories of a sensitive soul who lived through and escaped the bland conformity of suburban life. Though stopping short of the taboo-busting excursions that have garnered Happiness press and protest (adolescent rape and pedophilia are threatened but never consummated), Dollhouse portrays the prototypical family unit as a den of desperation, and the community outside the home as merely an extension of that suffocation. Welcome to the Dollhouse’s great subject is the twisted symbiotic relationship between comfort and cruelty in a culture of conformity. Characters use cruelty as a means of distancing themselves from others and thus establishing identities based on what they aren’t. Could there be a more perfect setting for this than junior high school, where the realities of life are laid bare with the least possible tact?

Both of Solondz’s films, but especially Happiness, are more pessimistic than misanthropic. As repulsed as these films may be with the situations and surroundings their characters struggle with, both Happiness and Welcome to the Dollhouse exhibit an extraordinary degree of empathy for even the most transgressive characters – the junior-high bully/would-be rapist in Dollhouse; the pedophile and the pornography-fueled obscene phone caller in Happiness.

By contrast, John Waters, whose defiantly tasteless ’70s films (Pink Flamingos, Desperate Living) set the stage for the kind of graphic button-pushing Solondz indulges in Happiness, feels no pangs of identification with the suburbanites his films skewer. Polyester (1981), which now seems like a transitional film bridging his confrontationally obscene ’70s work and his more easily digestible ’80s output (Hairspray, Cry Baby), is a corrosive satire of the suburban nouveau riche. The gleefully misanthropic Polyester begins with an aerial view of a suburban neighborhood that eventually focuses on one model home. Inside is a nuclear family on the verge of meltdown. At the center of activity is Divine, the 300-pound transvestite playing the “polyester queen,” a “normal” suburban housewife whose husband runs a porn theatre, whose daughter makes extra money dancing for boys during lunch break, and whose son is a Angel Dust-addicted foot fetishist. Waters has his troupe of consciously bad actors running through this mish-mash of ’50s melodrama (imagine a Douglas Sirk film shot with a cast of carnies) with nothing but contempt for the middle-class concerns of their characters.

Of course, Waters wasn’t the first director to embrace extremity as a means of getting his audience’s attention. For shock value, few moments in cinema can match the pre-credit sequence of Samuel Fuller’s The Naked Kiss (1965), where an enraged bald-headed prostitute beats her pimp senseless. Fuller’s tabloid style was honed from years of newspaper work, and his pulp fictions have gained far more respect in recent years than they were given at the time. Like Solondz, Fuller sees human cruelty as a given. When the prostitute from the opening sequence moves to Grantville (a.k.a. Small Town, USA) to start over and becomes a saintly figure (a nurse at a hospital for handicapped children!) almost literally overnight, we know that it can’t last. Fuller’s aim is to expose the corruption and hypocrisy lurking ever-present beneath the bucolic mask of middle-American life. Like Happiness, The Naked Kiss (slang for the way a pervert kisses) achieves this by locating the most heinous crimes (pedophilia) in the most unlikely of places.

Many reviews have compared Happiness to Blue Velvet (1986), the most accomplished example of David Lynch’s sensibility to hit the big screen, whatever that’s worth. Blue Velvet’s theme of exploring the sordid secrets of small town/suburban life was explicit from the film’s opening sequence, and its version of Eighties life as a Fifties-era fiction is pure Reagan. But Lynch’s philosophically muddled “masterpiece,” unlike every other film mentioned here, seems to find perversity on the edges of normalcy, a corrupting, tempting force for the film’s straight-laced protagonist to indulge before accepting his chosen lot with a blonde bride and two-car garage. Lynch’s borderline reactionary film wants to mock the Leave It To Beaver lie imposed by Reagan-era cultural politics while ultimately buying into it.

Instead, I’d like to offer a different touchstone for Solondz’s remarkable film: Atom Egoyan’s Family Viewing (1987). Other than maybe last year’s breakthrough The Sweet Hereafter, Family Viewing is Canadian filmmaker Egoyan’s best work. Its central subject is video surveillance and voyeurism, and as an exploration of how video technology has altered modern life, there’s no better film (pass up sex, lies and videotape during your next trip to the video store and check out this and David Cronenberg’s Videodrome). Family Viewing begins as an extremely dry black comedy on the modern nuclear family and its obsession with television. “Come into the living room and watch television with me,” a father says to his son, and there seems to be no more intimate thing he can say. If a viewpoint is privileged in this film, it is that of the TV screen itself. Has there ever been a film that spends as much time watching people watch? But gradually the comedic aspects of the film peel away to present a searingly focused portrait of family dysfunction, perversion, and obsession that reaches a climax of emotional resonance that Happiness can at least approach. Egoyan’s peek beneath the bland surface of middle-class comfort has a social point, for sure, but like Solondz, his investigation uncovers emotional and psychological pain that is rendered with uncommon tenderness. Family Viewing is a great film.

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