2. Happiness: Father and Son
Some art is created with the aim of pushing buttons or making people uncomfortable. A movie like Happiness doesn’t want to entertain you. It wants to skeeve you out. I am annoyed that it absolute worked. If you read interviews with the writer/director Todd Solondz he acts all surprised that people respond the way they do to his films. He claims they are not trying to be grim and there is no reason we should judge fictional characters for their behaviour. What a troll. Dude was emotionally rickrolling people before the internet even really took off.
Like many ensemble indie hits before it and since, Happiness revolves around a family and some of the people they cross paths with and the film gets to show the different perspectives and experiences of each individual as the characters try and reach for emotional satisfaction in their own ways. The main focus is on the lives of the three Jordan sisters, one a glacial bored author, one a judgemental housewife, the third a sensitive hippy looking for meaning. The mood of the piece is horrifically depressing, a kind of a black hole of misery and a rank view of mankind as nasty and unbearably self involved.
I don’t like this film. Just gotta say. I watched it once and as soon as it ended I knew I wouldn’t be watching it again. For a movie pitched as a comedy it feels more like a snuff film or something-I wanted to shower for the rest of my life to get the feel of it off me. You could argue I am too low brow to get it or I am uncomfortable in recognising myself in the characters but all in all it is just a miserable, dreary experience to sit through.
That is not to say it has nothing going for it. It is well put together, very well directed and there are some good moments. One of these things is a brilliant performance by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman whose ability to play just about anything made him a truly special actor, possibly one of the best. In this film he is a guy who makes dirty phonecalls.
He went on to play Truman Capote and be a Mission Impossible villain. This guy. Dude was a chameleon.
What else? Well I am struggling to remember the plots of the other characters to be honest…This is what I mean. For all the controversy it is kind of unexceptional and hard to love. Oh wait, there is the Dylan Baker character…I remember him.
I. Remember. Him.
When people praise and talk about the film, it is the story of the psychiatrist who is married to the eldest Jordan sister they always talk about. There is a reason for that. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. It annoys me that Happiness is considered worthy of memory for one plot strand cause I sure as fuck can’t remember anything else of consequence.
Anyway, enough moaning we have arrived. Dylan Baker’s Bill Maplewood. The reason the film was rejected from the Sundance Film Festival and went on to get slapped with an NC-17 rating thereby limiting where and when it could be distributed. Time to tense your ass cheeks in horror…
So this isn’t a spoiler because we are told pretty early on. Bill is a paedophile. He is also a married Father of three with a highly successful professional career as a psychiatrist who has regular heart to heart talks with his young Son about the changes going on with his body. Baker plays the character like the ideal Father we were taught about in sitcoms…he is a straight shootin’, knowledgeable man, who is prepared to have the potential awkward conversations with his child without talking down to him. He is loving and kind and wants his family to be happy.
But his own search for happiness takes a dark turn when his son has a friend round for a sleepover and Bill drugs his sandwich in order to rape him.
Now it goes without saying we don’t see the assault take place. But that doesn’t change how uncomfortable reading that made you does it?
Even though the character brings up all these feelings of disgust that you would feel under any circumstances he is not a cartoon villain like so many rapists in movies (Looking at you Tucci in Lovely Bones) He is recognisably human and although he knows that what he is doing is wrong his attraction to the boy cancels out his moral compass and he is devastated when it seems like what he wants won’t come to pass after little Johnny (of course he is called Johnny) refuses the sundae with the drug in it.
Listening to Bill then trying to get the kid to eat a hurriedly prepared roofie sandwich is majorly tense as you become more invested in the outcome, the camera forcing you to view the scene from Bill’s world as he looks back and forth from the sandwich to his ‘prey’ from the perspective of the hunter even as the video games noises bleep and bloop away reminding you that the child is a child. It is delivered like a classic Hitchcock sequence that allows you to share the relief Bill feels when the unsuspecting boy finally eats his snack…and then of course you experience the horror of realising what this means.
The scene can be viewed at this link:
Later in the film, Bill also gets the opportunity to rape another of his son’s friends, Ronald, who has been left home alone. However after Johnny’s parents take him to the hospital who recognise signs that he has been abused, Bill is questioned about the sleepover and accidentally mentions Ronald instead of Johnny thus cementing his guilt. And then it happens. The final Father and Son conversation.
Oh it is brutal. So well acted, kind of funny, very sad and just vomit inducing.
As I mentioned, Bill has been having chats with his son Billy (of course his name is Billy) about the things Billy is worried about. Namely that he can’t cum. Bill reassures his son that he is normal and it will happen one day also softly suggesting that he could help him masturbate or measure his dick if he would like…Oh God my gag reflex is off again.
But in their final conversation, Billy now knows what is Father has done and wants to hear it from him. Bill, with his trademark honestly and sensitivity to the needs of his boy, tells the truth. The horrible, horrible truth. He tells Billy that he enjoyed fucking his friends and he would do it again if given the opportunity. He says it with shame and regret but he can’t deny his feelings. As they both sob together about how their lives have been unequivocally ruined by Bill’s depravity Billy asks his Father if he would ever fuck him. Bill assures him he wouldn’t but he has had a wank while thinking of him.
I watched this film with MY EYES.
This clip below contains all three of the Father/Son chats of which I speak. Now it has been edited poorly, out of context, with the song ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’ inserted awkwardly in-between the scenes but I’m afraid it was the best I and the internet could do. Hit play and Godspeed.
Y’still with me?
A lot of people respond angrily to art that allow kids to act scenes like this…How can you justify it, how can you accept it as anything else other than sick? Well I disagree and I’m ok with a young actor delivering these lines. Kids should know this stuff happen. It is disturbing, all the more so because abuse goes on all the time and it isn’t slavering weirdos in the dark that pounce if you are stupid enough to let your loved ones out after the witching hour. Rapists and paedophiles are regular people who you like, share a joke with, shake hands with, share your thoughts about the weather with…They are not outside of society. And even in all of this, Bill is a good Father and Husband. It is undeniable. Attentive, interested and responsible. Who can fault him?
As I said, Dylan Baker plays him like a TV Dad of old, and this works for me because we have an idea of the kind of man this is but we don’t really know him. People are quick to study the survivors of abuse for signs that they encouraged or condoned their treatment because it is bloody uncomfortable to admit that a likeable, interesting, intelligent man who our brains failed to recognise as a threat is in fact capable of making the kind of choices that parents have nightmares about.
The fact is people can control their wardrobe choices. People can control how much they drink. People can choose the company they keep. It helps people feel safe to imagine they can control what happens to them and if things go horribly wrong they can convince themselves that if they change their behaviour around a bit it won’t happen again…
The fact that we live in a world where on a regular basis people, again not creepy people in the dark but people we know and like, go around destroying lives and there is very little that can be done to reason with them is just too frightening. Who can we trust? Why can’t we stop them? Why are they doing this? Happiness provides an answer: Bill wants sex with little boys the same way you or I might want another cookie. It is there, it is tasty, he takes it.
It is easier for society to pretend there is an easy answer and that answer lies with us, the people who would never even consider treating another person with such little regard. Let’s not think about the ‘them.’ Let’s not give them a voice in this. It is easier for a survivor of childhood sexual abuse or indeed any abuse to question his/her own actions than look across the room at the guy/girl who seems to have already moved on from the experience that destroyed the survivor and ask: What was he/she thinking when they did that to me?
Because we don’t want to know do we? Not really.
Bill’s innermost thoughts and feelings are some of the most repulsive we can imagine and to be confronted with a man acting on that with actual predative behaviour in a film with a comedic and borderline sympathetic slant makes some people angry. If such topics are in films they have to be played seriously, whereas Happiness kind of shrugs about it even goes as so far as to make him a reasonable person. For many this is just not acceptable. Some things can’t be funny, some things can’t be dismissed.
But in the cesspool of Solondz, it is just a quick glance behind another white picket fence in another family with a lot of issues that nobody would guess just by looking at them. If it helps, young Billy gets his happy ending.
I’m not going to lie it didn’t help.
Tonight/Tomorrow..what could be more disturbing than that? Well it probably won’t seem that bad to you. But to me? I just attempted to watch the scene for the first time in over a decade and got 12 seconds in before I started to cry…Oh dear.
Tonight/Tomorrow return for my #1 most disturbing scene in a film as a seemingly throwaway joke from earlier in the film is called back with devastating effect.