Monday, July 25, 2011

You're the Only One Who Hasn't Forgotten Me

A common complaint leveled – by general audiences and some critics – against films of a darker philosophy than may be the norm, one that has been the source of some debate recently, is that the film in question does not have any “likable” characters. This criticism strikes many people, including myself, as completely dismissible (it can get slightly more complicated than that, but that’s not for today) since “interesting” or “good”, in the aesthetic sense, trumps “likable” any day of the week. If I needed my characters to be likable, I’d steer clear of Richard Stark’s Parker novels, lots of Jim Thompson and Charles Willeford books, and other works that I consider indispensable. So cram your likable characters with walnuts, see?

But there is another criticism, a close cousin of the “likable characters” one, and one that seems more readily embraced even by some of those cocking a snoot at the aforementioned, and that is the apparently fundamentally moral claim that a given filmmaker doesn’t like, or even hates, his characters. Because how dare he, for one thing, and who does he think he is, for another. This criticism does not tend to involve films in which a character that reflects the filmmaker’s political or philosophical or moral bias is set up to be knocked down. More often than not, those characters are what we in business like to call “the villain” and so it’s no biggie. No, in the cases I’m referring to, the hated characters aren’t villains, but might even ostensibly be the hero, or anyway the lead, and the evidence for the filmmaker’s rage can be found in the ways the character is mocked, verbally or through the hand of fate, as well as general misfortune and lack of empathy for the character from creator, or lack of openings for the audience to provide their own empathy, if the director’s going to be like that about it.

I’ll admit, I don’t really understand what it might mean for an artist to hate one of their characters, or why it should be the first thing that matters. I mean, you know made up people aren’t real, right? But let’s stop speaking in generalizations and get to the topic at hand: Todd Solondz. In his controversial 1998 film Happiness, one scene featured two overweight (this is important!) characters played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, as a deeply disturbed and chronically lonesome obscene phone caller, and Camryn Manheim, as a friendly woman whose idea of a perfect night is to drench herself in blankets and watch TV while eating ice cream, and who also killed a man who was trying to rape her, dancing to “All Out of Love” by Air Supply. Well, said some, why should this moment of tenderness be mocked by the inclusion by a song as lousy as “All Out of Love”? Why couldn’t Solondz have chosen a good song so that we would know not to laugh at the fat people? I know, it’s infuriating. Except, how about the idea that the song means a lot to Manheim’s character, and that “All Out of Love” means to the scene what it means to her? And that it might not be intended as an insult to say that someone like the woman Manheim is playing would probably like a song like “All Out of Love”? And that one needn’t even like “All Out of Love” to not mean that as an insult? And that the thousands (this is purely hypothetical) of Air Supply fans reading this must be wondering why this is even a question to be hashed out? And that, by the way, some people just really do like Air Supply? And that for all we know Todd Solondz is one of them? Point being, when you say a filmmaker hates their characters, you just might be revealing more about what you don’t like about that character than you realize. You fucking snob.

Then again! I watched Happiness again recently, as a lead up to watching Solondz’s kind of sequel, Life During Wartime, which will be released by Criterion tomorrow, and it struck me how many cheap shots Solondz really does take throughout the earlier film. The Air Supply thing does not count as a cheap shot, but the way he portrays Trish – played by Cynthia Stevenson in Happiness and Allison Janney in Life During Wartime, and one of the three sisters who are the core of both films – as entirely oblivious of the nightmarish crimes happening under her own roof and smugly condescending to her sister Joy (Jane Adams in Happiness, Shirley Henderson in Life During Wartime), and finally as a mockable “type” by twice having her chirpily and inappropriately ask “Did you see Leno last night?”, which carries a texture that is completely unlike that of the Air Supply scene. There is a context for mockery with Trish in Happiness that grates, and gives ammunition to the Air Supply protestors, if only they saw it.

This is all probably why Life During Wartime has been hailed by many as Solondz’s best film so far. The man makes pitch-black comedies about pitch-black subjects, and even in Life During Wartime he is not above the occasional cheap or easy shot at his characters, but he never does it in order to tear them down. For instance, at one point Janney as Trish, and Michael Lerner as Harvey Weiner (apparently the father of Dawn Weiner from Solondz’s earlier Welcome to the Dollhouse) are made to say trite things about terrorists – that they have no goals and hate freedom and that’s all that needs be said – that Solondz probably figures is the sort of thing that people dumber than he would say. Okay, fine, and then this is followed by a scene of genuine warmth and caring (though boy does it backfire) from Lerner and a subsequent fierce motherly protectiveness (though boy is it misplaced) from Janney. In other words, Life During Wartime seems to find Solondz developing a special brand of maturity that can still include taking cheap shots at your creations, as long as you don’t let those shots define them. In Happiness, that’s how Trish was defined; in Life During Wartime, while she’s still quite a piece of work (and played hilariously by Janney), she is no longer empty.

Life During Wartime has lots more to recommend it, too. If you’re a fan of Happiness, then it’s essential, and it’s quite interesting to see how Solondz – who once, in his film Palindromes, cast eight different actors to alternate playing the same role – has recast the major characters from Happiness, and how in some ways the casting and resulting performances mirror the earlier work (the switch from Jon Lovitz to Paul Reubens goes down pretty smooth) or starkly contrasts it (replacing Dylan Baker with Ciarin Hinds is much more jarring) or, in at least one case, significantly rewrites the character so that you have to wonder how connected the two films are really meant to be. In Happiness, Allen, the obscene phone caller, is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. In Life During Wartime, he is played by Michael Kenneth Williams. Williams is black, which doesn’t matter; what does matter is that Solondz has now given Allen a background as a former gangbanger, which would be hard to imagine when played by Hoffman. So Solondz is jerking us around, again. Plus he probably hates Allen anyway. But still, check it out. Solondz puts off a lot of people, with his funny stories about rape and pedophilia and abortion, and about half the time is frankly asking for it. He’s also the only guy I can think of who is currently making films like this. That’s no little thing.


Jason Bellamy said...

Great post.

This made me think of two things ...

1) Is there a difference between objecting to a film based on how a director "feels" about his characters and objecting to a film based on how a director treats his characters?

Because, I agree, whether a filmmaker (or author) likes or dislikes his characters, well, who cares? And yet I do find myself objecting (at least emotionally) to how certain directors treat their characters: do they make them punching bags, for instance, or do they attempt to suggest their own superiority by stacking the deck against their characters?

To be clear, I'm not debating with your stance above. Rather, I'm exploring the shades of gray.

2) "He’s also the only guy I can think of who is currently making films like this. That’s no little thing." That's well said. And believe it or not, it made me think of Sacha Baron Cohen. You could essentially make the same statement about his movies. And indeed his films often inspire rage and offense of the kind often reserved for Solondz. That said, I suspect that people consider Solondz a more serious artist than Cohen; perhaps unfairly. And I suspect that fewer people object to Cohen's films because instead of making his audience uncomfortable he makes his other "characters" uncomfortable; and, again, that might be unfair, too. The point? I'm not sure I have one.

bill r. said...

Thanks, Jason. And yes, there is a lot of gray area, I'll admit. There's even gray area in the "unlikable characters" complaint, because if I find a character unlikable, and have reason to believe the filmmaker wanted me to like him, then obviously there's a problem somewhere.

Also, the punching bag thing doesn't bother me, and anyway I don't believe it's a necessarily an indication of how the filmmaker perceives the character. Poor Larry Gopnik sure got punched around a lot, and it was uncomfortable to watch sometimes, but despite what some might claim, that wasn't the result of some sadistic glee on the part of the Coens. Or not JUST sadistic glee, anyway.

And I definitely consider Solondz a more serious artist than Cohen. I think Cohen is funny, but also dishonest in his manipulations -- he's like a documentarian in that respect. In any case, I've never bought into the Big Social Commentary angle of in Cohen's work. It's all just joke fodder that I can't really trust anyway, because I don't know what happened in the editing bay.

Jason Bellamy said...

On the Cohen part: Yeah, I don't think their works line up overall. But Cohen's interactions with sometimes real people often spark the same kind of outrage ("how dare you treat someone like that ...") and the same kind of shoulder shrugging. And both artists have carved out their own recognizable niches -- which draws respect from some and complaints from others who wish they'd just toe the line with everyone else.

As far as the punching bag thing, Larry Gopnik indeed gets mistreated, but it's the world around him that's portrayed as cruel and without feeling. That Larry clearly doesn't deserve all that happens to him is why it's so funny/painful. So that's a little different. I guess what I'm thinking of is more along the lines of Precious, where a character is so stripped of any quality or dignity that by the end the audience is tempted to confuse mere survival with grace ("Wow, amazing, she survived all that and never snapped and killed someone with a chainsaw, what an incredible spirit!"). But, thinking about it more, maybe what I'm really complaining about there is one-dimensionality.

bill r. said...

I haven't seen PRECIOUS, nor am I likely to, but surely in that film we're supposed to view the world around her as vile, and never think she in any way deserves what happens, right? As you say, I think the question becomes one of how good is this movie compared to this other movie about similar ideas.