Happiness and Life During Wartime

Life During Wartime (2009) is the sequel to Happiness (1998), with different actors playing the same roles. Both films were written and directed by Todd Solondz.

What follows is a conversation with Videoccult’s new and fabulously intelligent inductee, Mal Rehberger, in which we cover both films.

Lara Flynn Boyle and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Happiness

Daniel: Life During Wartime is shockingly inoffensive. It’s making me realize that when you strip away the absurdist humor and shock value from Solondz’s style and milieu, all that’s left are some mildly amusing performances by some well-respected actors. Basically it’s kind of boring, but not even boring enough to be seen as a “challenge”.

Mal: I was thinking about your Life During Wartime comments in a less stressy way, and it hadn’t occurred to me how much Solondz leans on having an ensemble of actors, generally, but I see that now.

D: I wasn’t that impressed with the ensemble in Life During Wartime, and I wonder if it’s because it was just too hard to deal with the lack of casting continuity. I just felt like some of the weird chemistry between the actors was missing.

M: Yeah, that’s a factor – it was all a little wooden, which personally I liked, but it’s a very different emotional quality. Happiness has much more clammy immediacy.

D: Even the visual style was less generous in terms of pleasing color compositions, etc. I didn’t get that vague hint of 50′s melodrama that I got from Happiness.

M: I think part of that is the gulf of time between the films? I felt like LDW was as much 2000s as Happiness was 90s oriented, both in terms of affect and visual cues. I feel as though woodenness was as pervasive a quality in most of the last decade as that particular 90s kind of emotional rawness was in that decade.

D: I think that’s true. And I’m now realizing that there was a nostalgic element to my appreciation of Happiness, especially since I’ve been more generally nostalgic for the 90′s lately. Not that Happiness paints such a rosy picture!

M: How convenient that you feel that nostalgia, when it is so hip. I seriously wonder if nostalgia isn’t culturally-conditioned in all cases, like the zeitgeist predisposes one for it, unless it’s perverse nostalgia.

D: I think there are personal and political reasons for it. I mean, I grew up in the 90′s so obviously that has a lot to do with it. Politically, there’s a pervasive sense of doom now that wasn’t present then. I think 90′s nostalgia is common because it makes a lot of sense in some ways.

M: Also we were kids then, and I think our aspirations as children are conditioning our tastes and aspirations now, though I think there is a very different affective and possibly a different aesthetic quality to how it presents now. Like I wanted a pair of floral Docs so badly when I was 10-11, and now if I saved for a few weeks I could have them, which is very convenient given that our age cohort has hit the point where (in theory) we have relatively greater discretion over what discretionary income we have. Although in practice, of course, nearly everyone is horrifyingly broke.

D: In some ways the 90′s was also a time in which we weren’t old enough to really appreciate or understand the wider culture, so there’s a desire to regress and discover what we might have missed.

M: Yes, and to act out what there was that we were somehow interpellated by.

D: I was thinking we could talk about what might make Kristina’s treatment [In the film Happiness] potentially different from all the other characters.

M: So, like, I showed it to Eugene, and he was at first struck by how sympathetic it was to the pedophile psychiatrist, and I think maybe he was expecting a similar higher-degree-of-sympathy-invested-relative-to-social-stigma across the board for the characters. I’ve decided all the characters except perhaps the pedophile psychiatrist are “made of tropes”, only those tropes are basically all interacting in really awkward horrifying ways. And perhaps Johnny Grasso as well, though I can’t make up my mind. But the assemblages of tropes are very 90s, like the particular kind of sad bachelor that Philip Seymour Hoffman plays or the kind of fake-edgy writer Lara Flynn Boyle plays.

D: I also think Solondz is on the attack because he’s trying to shatter a sense of complacency that was probably widespread at the time. Whereas LDW seems less interested in galvanizing the audience for its own sake.

M: I think that’s a very 90s project, too; LDW is about reflecting the kind of not-very-reflective lives the characters have, so it’s very mirror-in-a-mirror, which is rather 00s-ish, while trying to disrupt complacency through awkwardness is very 90s.

D: Don’t you think the characters in Happiness were equally unreflective? Aside from the pedophile psychiatrist, who I think we agree is the least self-deluded of all the characters. You’re right though that in LDW that same character of the pedophile lacked the same degree of self-awareness.

M: I think a lot of the characters were at least introspective enough in Happiness to be aware of their own unhappiness, whereas in LDW they mostly take refuge in platitudes and other substitutes for depth; I feel like Trish was the only character to do that successfully in Happiness.

D: I think you’re right. Even Helen seems completely confused by her circumstances in LDW whereas in Happiness she knew exactly what was making her miserable, even though she was less aware of how ridiculous her self-pitying rants sounded. And I can see how the political posturing in LDW might be a substitute for insight or introspection. I felt like that was true for the film itself as well, but maybe that was part of the intention.

M: Yeah, that was my feeling. It’s a lot like the moral posturing of Happiness, which is less marked, but very much there; the idiom is different, and it’s subtler in Happiness, but they function similarly. I do need to insist upon how great Paul Rubens was.

D: Paul Rubens was great, and his bits were probably my favorite – especially since he plays a dead character of whom we saw so little in Happiness.

M: I wonder if it would have been so easy [for the character Joy] to think “IF ONLY YOU HADN’T BROKEN UP WITH HIM” if Lovitz [the actor who played Andy in Happiness] had been recast in LDW? Rubens is such, SUCH a woobie.

D: He’s a volatile woobie, in a way that mirrored the opening date scene in Happiness but took it to a more absurdist place.

M: I just realized something else really 90s. Kristina’s chopping up the doorman? I think that’s partly related to Aileen Wuornos and the idea of the murderous rape victim with dubious motives, and the tendency to punish such women harshly. Like, the (female) rape victim who kills her rapist in a really over-the-top way that’s hard to piece out from motives of pleasurable retribution. It’s late in the decade for it, but that was a big deal in the media and in the underground/avant-garde art scene until pretty late in the decade. I’m trying to decide if Happiness is slightly less sympathetic to its female characters. The male characters are more basically “likable” in spite of being more markedly gross across the board, and when I was talking to Eugene we decided that was a component in what made Kristina seem less like her humanity was being restored to her than, say, Allen, her sad-fat-dude counterpart.

D: Well the pedophile issue and the fat-lady-stigma issue are both issues that Solondz is interested in because they’re taboo and subject to various codes of political correctness. I think with the pedophile he ignores societal expectations of how a pedophile should be portrayed. But with the fat lady Kristina he seems really intent on showing us how victimized she is, which seems more like a product of the general conversational noise we hear about fat people. I found Kristina quite likable, though.

M: I mean, I think when I watch Kristina, I feel her abjection simply bleed out of the screen onto me. I would think of myself as more of a Lovitz-esque person, but since I am misgendered consistently and body-fascism is exercised on me in the same way it is on women, it’s pretty raw. Like, it’s not just about that victimization, it sits on the border between mirroring it and recapitulating it. And also the pedophile is, and isn’t, a raping uncontrollable monster, while Kristina really is an asexual binge-eater; it’s not as much of a complication of the tropes.

D: I agree. Although going back to the topic of gender, I think Andy’s narrative has a similar trajectory to Kristina’s, which makes me less inclined to suspect Solondz of being overly harsh on the female characters. I mean, Andy is victimized (although to a much lesser extent), he takes revenge, and he dies. Kristina is victimized, takes revenge, and disappears from the film when she goes to jail.

M: Yeah, but we’re asked to identify with Andy and his nerd-rage, but simply to watch Kristina and her revenge. She’s still an object of pity, whereas Andy is in fact, in a borderline-pathetic way, vindicated.

D: That’s true. I think Kristina’s character is easily reduced to a stereotype if you take her at face value. I think Camryn Manheim’s performance redeems her though. She makes all of those hackneyed tropes feel very human and real. I identified with Kristina to a certain extent, and it’s not just because I use baggies [Kristina kept the severed parts of her victim in baggies]. I also don’t think Andy was entirely vindicated, since we feel sorry for Joy when she breaks down in the next scene because she feels like there’s so much “hostility directed at her”. And the fact that she’s the only person who cares about his death even in the slightest makes Andy’s anger seem misplaced.

M: That’s a good point, but I still feel like the viewer is expected to identify more strongly with him than with her, at least on the strength of the first scene, the way he’s posed in his death scene, etc. And his mom cares about him, but more to the point, I feel like Joy cares in part because she feels guilty, and rightfully so – that’s all he wanted out of it, and he gets it, so: vindication.

D: Why do you think Joy deserves to feel guilty, though?

M: I’m not sure she does in fact, but she certainly seems to feel the guilt, and she did start out by dumping him in a fairly shitty way, even if he did up the ante. I feel like the suicide is meant to induce guilt. Though I’m not an advocate of people staying with people they’re not into and Andy did turn out to be a creep, her dumping him was a precipitating factor, though probably in both the sense of “I’ll show her how bad she was and make her feel bad” and “I have no romantic success and therefore no reason to live”. I think the (nerd-schlub) viewer is invited to identify with Andy through the fact that he’s full of pride and nerd-rage, but then gets skewered for that identification and shown its arrogance/pathetic quality.

D: I agree that Andy’s suicide was in part a way to make Joy feel guilty, especially given the mother’s phone call. And I totally agree with that last part. I can identify with the “You’re shit, I’m champagne” defiance that Andy exhibits in those circumstances, but then I feel pathetic for hearing those sentiments expressed in such a self-parodic way.

M: Exactly! And the pose in death, among his Superman memorabilia, with the dramatic music. I feel like Kristina doesn’t even have pathetic dignity, for one thing. And it occurs to me that maybe the way you’re able to identify with her is because you’re not interpellated by her? Like, Eugene is skinny and cis-male, but spends enough time dealing with body fascism as it is wielded against female-bodied persons, between me, Leah, and various other folks in his life, that he’s really attuned to it.

D: I just see her as a victim of Solondz’s sadism, if anything. But whether or not Solondz “likes” any of his characters is so impossible to answer. I just sympathize with her because she’s so victimized, even by the director. And so I like her even if she isn’t meant to be liked.

M: See, It’s too close to what the rest of society says all fat ladies are like, so when I watch the film, or when Eugene watched it, it’s sort of like, okay, Todd Solondz, so this is what you really think fat women are like in their personal lives, basically these pastel-colored beings who exist solely as an expression of displaced appetites. That, frankly, can feel dehumanizing if you’re partially-interpellated by it, in part because it’s more of the same crap one sees everywhere else, but also because in context it seems more like a perfect reification of prevailing social prejudices about fat women when there’s usually something to complicate that in the other characters.

D: I’m just trying to think of her as someone I might see on the street. Because we do see people like her on the street.

M: Wait, hold up. I mean, it’s not like we see much of the interior lives of the other characters, but I do tend to observe that women who might look like Kristina on the street have something in their lives other than ice cream, and it’s hurtful to me to see fatness used as a metonym for filling emotional emptiness with inadequate substitutes for fulfillment when it should just be a physical trait.

D: How do you reconcile your enjoyment of the actor’s performance with your dislike of how the character is written and/or directed? To me, it all boils down to the performance; that’s the end result, which I found successful.

M: Personally, I find it hard to separate out performance from director-writer intent, unless I get a very strong sense that one is working at cross purposes with the other. It’s something I’ll admit to a degree of inattention to.

D: Did you think Camryn Manheim was complicit in the dehumanization of the character?

M: I thought it was well-done, sure, but I do think that’s an element of complicity. I mean, she did humanize the character, but I feel like that’s sugar-coating a very bitter pill somewhat, even if that made it more acceptable for her as an actor to carry out her work.  Perhaps giving a gesture of humanity to the not-me-not-who-I-want-to-be was part of why she humanized the role, and something laudable then, but not really enough to elevate it above the director’s possibly malign intent in and of itself. As a fat person who is not a binge-eater, who is comfortable with existing as a physical person most of the time, and who does not work to be beneath offense and notice as a good unto itself, it would be psychically damaging to give in to an identification with Kristina unless in the ‘hungry virgin’ sense. I don’t think I resisted it as strongly as Eugene, but neither can I give in to it as easily as you. Also, I don’t like the idea that some lady who is all pastels and ice cream is all that and therefore pathetic. Most such ladies also have their library science degrees or something else to them, even if that’s not in the purview of the script, and I kind of bristle at how that way of being a fat lady is used here, since I don’t think it’s inherently negative except in that it’s presumed to be the default.

D: Ok, I just found myself sympathizing with her desire to fill emotional emptiness with something mildly self-destructive, probably because I wasn’t as sensitive to the political implications of that portrayal. But I don’t think it’s wrong to sympathize with someone who engages in those behaviors. I think it is wrong to assume that those behaviors are the norm for fat people. And I think I understood you when you explained why identification with her character could potentially implicate you in the whole sordid exploitation (to borrow a phrase from the character Helen). I had always assumed the opposite was the case, but now I see that’s not true across the board.

Oh, that reminds me. Do you think Helen is a vehicle for Solondz’s own self-parody to some extent? Specifically I’m thinking of that line in which she bemoans not having been raped as a child (Solondz deals with rape in this film and others), and her fear of being just a “sordid exploitationist”.

M: Yes, but Helen’s also kinda an every-avant-garde-artist of the 90s, since her stuff is all the clichés of bad pretentious 90s poetry/performance art, like Karen Finley without the truth. I worry it’s specifically about avant-garde lady artists of the time, but that may be part of my anxieties about how women are depicted in this film generally.

D: Moving onto Johnny, I think the way Solondz handles his sexuality and effeminacy is probably almost as transgressive today as it was then, don’t you think? The only other example of such a portray I can think of is Mysterious Skin, so it seems like a taboo still.

M: It’s very much the spectre of the pedophile with privileged access to children and plausible deniability meets the spectre of the gay child – since the child, of course, needs to be protected from pedophiles AND homosexuals so that he isn’t spoiled for heterosexual procreativity. I think one of the reasons I call Johnny Grasso “queer” is that he’s not just effeminate, but also very, very strange – fey is the word that comes to mind.

D: I agree with your calling him queer I think, but I don’t know what about him is particularly strange. I mean, he plays videogames and likes tuna salad.


M: I think he’s odd; he doesn’t like chocolate fudge, he makes odd demands, he has a dewy glow. We see him as this pretty apparition across the ball field, and then it’s gradually made apparent that he’s actually not just the boy next door, but a sissy, and not just a sissy but an oddly un-childlike sissy. He has these weirdly specific tastes, and he’s weirdly serious and seems to like Dr. Maplewood as much as Dr. Maplewood’s son Billy. I can relate to being the weird kid who has really un-kidlike tastes, so perhaps I’m projecting.

D: Yeah, I think he’s also awkward in the way he carries himself in such a weirdly dignified manner. And he is very finicky about wanting to eat the sandwich or not (although partly that’s just Solondz playing with our expectations re: will he be drugged?)

M: Both! And very much so. I get the feeling that Johnny and the son are mostly friends because of being slightly-to-very girlish nerds.

D: You had mentioned earlier to me that the pedophile treats his son’s sexual awakening with openness and also with a considerate willingness to respect the son’s boundaries. The “problem” is that the son has no boundaries and the father doesn’t care, no? It’s hard to say if there’s any incestuous fantasy being projected on the child’s part because the conversation is so clinical. In a way, their relationship is moving because it’s the closest friendship we really get to witness in the film. And that’s what gives the ending it’s climactic sense of tragedy when Billy ejaculates but the only person who would care or want to know (i.e. his father) is now in jail.

M: Children aren’t supposed to have boundaries; it’s the job of their adults to set those (my psychiatrist was fond of saying that). It’s not clinical, more conscientious; I get the sense that the father is trying very hard not to mess it up, to give correct information and leave his son a little room for the kind of boundary-blurring that happens between same-gender parent and child pairs, but not to force it. It’s as if the awareness that he seriously could just rampage through all existing boundaries weighs heavily on him, and he’s taking extra care to be responsible but nurturing, perhaps because he wasn’t given the same respectful nurturance as a kid. I kind of wonder if that over-sharing and the ambiguity of his response wouldn’t have more plausibly damaged his sense of sexual security in real life.

D: That’s very true. Billy seems oddly typical of his age group in LDW. Solondz seems to address that though when he has the other teens talk about their fucked-up childhoods in a dismissively casual way. It’s like he’s saying that Billy isn’t really all that exceptional. Although Billy is the only one unwilling to share his past.

M: Yeah, because how do you say “oh, my dad was a pedophile, but he never molested me”? It makes one look suspect, for one thing, since society tends to be suspicious of victims.

D: But while it isn’t Billy’s job to set boundaries, don’t you think society would have sent him the message that there’s a certain level of sexual discussion that is acceptable with one’s parents and a certain level that goes beyond what’s acceptable? Or is it just a symptom of Solondz’s stylization and absurdity that he allows such an improbable conversation to take place?

M: It’s obviously more absurd, but it’s based on what I think is an ambiguity about what the appropriate limits of discussing sex are between parents and children of the same assigned sex that actually exists in society. Like, in my case I know it to be generally symptomatic of some wider issues around boundaries, but it’s not always that clear.

D: I guess you’re right. Billy is still at the age where it’s really hard to reflect on your upbringing with much objectivity. Which is why Life During Wartime does succeed in adding a whole new dimension to how we perceive Billy’s relationship with his father. We see how Billy’s perceptions of his dad have soured in his absence. Possibly as a result of his mother’s interference, but also society in general.

M: Though it’s hard to say how much of that is the same mindset that leads his brother to get all freaked out about non-sexual touch.

D: I think Billy’s willingness to submit to society’s view of his father is definitely analogous to Timmy’s misguided acceptance of his mother’s notion that all touch between men is perverted and wrong. And Billy seems much more miserable now that he has the “correct” view of his sick and perverted father. In both cases, the widely accepted moral code (which we generally call upon to prevent sexual molestation from occurring in the first place) causes the children a great deal of grief now that it’s being retroactively imposed upon them.

M: Definitely. I wanna bring this back to Johnny again for a second. I think the gay child who isn’t going to be corrupted (harmed, but not made queer) by molestation is an important part of how Johnny kind of disrupts expectations about what the dynamic is btw a pedophile and a victim. There’s this idea in the discourse of the 90s about “homosexual equals pedophile” and “homosexual equals corrupter of children”, someone who recruits kids who aren’t gay to begin with, and also the idea is that childhood sexual abuse is a major contributing factor in later gayness. So, in the discourse of family values, there’s this continual invocation of the pedophilic homosexual and of the pure, innocent, always-already-heterosexual child who needs to be protected from the malign influence of “perverts”. Whether from being “protected” from seeing Pride parades, or being legitimately protected from rape/sexual abuse. A major trope of how the mainstream talked about child sexual abuse was that it needed to be prevented in order to protect the presumptive heterosexuality, not the sexual/bodily autonomy, of victims, which is made complicated by Johnny being very queer, and also, his father seems to be anxious that Johnny somehow invited/enjoyed/was not sufficiently distraught over being raped.

D: Also Jonny’s statement that Bill [the pedophile psychiatrist] is “the coolest” complicates that equally. It’s a line that I’m surprised didn’t get more attention/condemnation from people. Not that it needed to, it just seems like an invitation to controversy.

M: There is something there in the way the scenes between him and Dr. Maplewood are filmed that’s a lot like the kinds of depictions one sees of underage female victims of sexual abuse/rape, in which the beauty/seductiveness of the victim is highlighted, which is notable because depictions of boys in that mode are almost unheard of in popular culture (save 70s homoerotic cinema). I think it’s a conscious invocation of the anxieties about gayness and pedophila at the time, and of the trope of “asking for it”. The same tropey tactics of filming the attractiveness of a teenage girl in the eyes of a heterosexual man are applied to the attractiveness of a 10-year-old boy, and it highlights the absurdity of treating such attraction as natural and inevitable.

D: OK, although I think people would still find it disturbing if Johnny were Billy’s female friend Sally.

M: Would they? It’s done all the time, when the prospective rape victim is 12 and female. Decent people who think rape is bad would see it as offensive, but it’s done very often with little outcry.

D: Polanski faced an outcry, and the girl was 14.

M: Yeah, though I was avoiding referencing that for the moment. Lots of depictions of rape of adolescent girls are complicit in sexualizing adolescent girls. And the same tactics are no more absurd, but more recognizable, when applied to pre-adolescent boys.

D: I agree that Solondz is challenging us by filming Johnny as a sexual being, but I don’t know if he has such a well thought-out take-away message. Not that your interpretation isn’t correct, but most people would only perceive it subconsciously.

M: I think the ambiguity here is important, though. I don’t mean it to be all that’s going on, these are just some strong impressions of some of what is.

~ by Daniel N. Goldberg on November 20, 2011.

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