The Onion AV Club started a conversation that got me thinking about the pop culture that I deliberately avoid, that I want to know as little about as possible. I could use this as a jumping off point for another rant about Michael Bay (whom I loathe in almost every way it’s possible to loathe a member of my species who hasn’t committed a mass murder) or as a launching pad for an assault on Stephanie Meyer (who doesn’t bother me, but whose works couldn’t possibly interest me less). Instead, I want to talk about someone whose works are widely admired, but whose third feature left me so cold that I’d emigrate to avoid seeing any of his others.
The film I saw was Happiness, which many critics whose views I respect took to be his masterpiece, and if the movie theater’s power had cut out at the 90 minute mark, I might have agreed. The opening scene with Lovitz was funny–uncomfortable, but funny. The characters were sharply drawn. The dialogue was witty with the ring of insight, and I was glad to see Cynthia Stevenson, whose work I’d enjoyed in The Player, back on the big screen.
But in the film’s last forty minutes or so, something started bugging me, something I couldn’t define at first. But as each of Happiness‘s protagonists traveled toward their separate, carefully plotted sexual humiliations, it occurred to me. (I was about to say “came to me” but that’s a hazardous phrase when discussing Happiness.) Todd Solondz had rigged the game to prove that sexual desire puts everyone on a slippery slope to humiliation, perversion, or crime.
Now, as I’ve said elsewhere, all writers rig the game. But Happiness felt rigged. What’s more, it felt rigged in the service of a point of view that is cramped, prudish, unimaginative, and worse than those three, false. Sexuality has many meanings and can lead in many directions. No outcome is predetermined. (Though, I’ll grant, with some people, some are more predictable than others.) It’s just as wrong to say that sexual desire leads inevitably to doom as it is to say that it inevitably leads to pleasure and fulfillment.
Solondz’s Happiness asserts that contingency and human agency mean nothing. According to his movie, our first orgasm is our first, irremediable mistake. After that, all that remains for us is to find a suitable humiliating perversion in which to sink until we die or go to prison. I’m not sure if Solondz includes himself in this contempt he bears for the rest of the sex-having world, but whatever the answer really is, it makes him look bad.
That’s why, even though I admire the performances he draws from actors, and even though I think the man has mad skills at pushing nouns against verbs, I’ll never watch another Todd Solondz film. Because in the end, I hate to see him waste all his talent (which is considerable) trying to prove the lies he thinks are true.