Happiness (1998 USA)

This sadistic 2 hour film has no plot, in the sense of a meaningful series of events. Things happen, but there is no “story.” The film functions only to document human ugliness and suffering in the most agonizing detail possible, depicting several people causing and experiencing suffering, and then eventually the credits roll. I’ve seen other films that had no story line, some of which were very good, so I don’t mean it as a criticism of Happiness. Its a fact. I’ve seen many films that depicted human suffering, the majority of my favourite films have done so to a greater or lesser degree. Art is largely about “the human condition”, and whatever else it might involve, that condition certainly has its share of suffering.

However, the crucial difference between films I have enjoyed and Happiness is how that suffering is depicted. Films are not mirrors. There is no such thing as simply showing the world “as it really is” – or rather, every film show the world as it is in some aspect. What distinguishes the good ones is that they show it to us in a way that is surprising, compelling, enlightening, etc. So those who claim that a film is “art” (by which they usually mean “good art”) simply because it depicts suffering are very mistaken. They all share one common feature: they allow us to relate to the characters whose pain we are witnessing. We may not condone or agree with their actions, but we see why they are doing them. We may not share their motivations, but we understand them. We are shown how their fears and desires lead them into and through (and sometimes miraculously, out of) their particular sufferings.

It is this revealing of the sad and beautiful complexity beneath our common human suffering that makes these films great. In Happiness, I saw none of this revelation. I saw only the characters’ ugly surfaces, deformed by the wounds they sustained and/or inflicted on others. Even when supposedly deeper motives were revealed, these too proved to be equally shallow and equally deformed. The question that rose to mind is “why?” Why did Todd Solondz make this movie? I have found three possible answers. The first is he thinks that watching people suffer in the way presented in this film is funny. I hope this is not the case. If so, I would like to say to Solondz, and to those people who have described Happiness as a comedy, “please seek out the help of a good counsellor, because right now you are very, very lost”. The scenes in Happiness shouldn’t evoke laughter any more than watching a handicapped child get beaten should. I’m sure there are people who would laugh in both cases, this doesn’t mean there is anything funny in either. Such scenes can be laughed at only in the absence of empathy, and without empathy, we’re less than human and life becomes a nightmare.

The second possibility is that Todd Solondz wanted to inflict the disturbing content of this motion picture on audiences as a form of violence. If the director sees the content of his film for what it really is – the psychological equivalent of “torture porn” – then what motive could he really have had for making it other than as an expression of anger or hatred towards his anticipated audience? Finally, perhaps the most generous possibility is that in Happiness, Solondz is just showing us the world as he sees it. If this is so, then I feel a great deal of sympathy for him, for it is a miserable and empty world indeed. In fact, I find it hard to imagine anyone seeing the world so bleakly and yet still wanting to continue living in it. Personally, I think even a week of such unremitting wretchedness would have me wishing for death. These are the only explanations for this film that I can imagine, and the few alternative explanations I’ve read have all been based on mistaken or seriously limited views of art or life itself. I wish I were wrong, because whichever of my explanations you agree with, Happiness is very sad film. It’s sad that such a film was ever made, and sad that people enjoyed it.

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Comments

  1. ‘Happiness’ certainly is a sad film, it represents a lack of hope in the same way that ‘Synecdoche, New York’ does. All in all I prefer to consume art that’s a little more on the brighter side of life. Excellent review as always!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for commenting. 🙂

    Like

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