Issue 230 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review

REVIEWS

FILMS

Totally out of control

Happiness
Dir: Tod Solondz

Family life in New Jersey

Happiness is a heart stopping tragicomedy about the impossibility of attaining happiness within the alienating confines of suburbia and family life. It's long--nearly two and a half hours--but it seems painfully short, telling enough for you to identify with the characters and fill in the rest from your own experiences.
The film follows a group of characters interconnected by a fusion of sexual desire and disappointment. Thirty year old Joy dumps her boyfriend Andy because she wants more out of life. She's caught between the achievements of her two patronising 'successful' sisters--sickening Trish who is the perfect mother, a real Stepford wife at the millennium, and Helen, the pretentious ('My life is an irony') and famous poet. Leaving one dead end job she takes a post filling in for striking teachers at a language school, announcing, 'I am not a scab! I am a strikebreaker!' Bill, Trish's psychiatrist husband, is bored by the ramblings of his clients. It's all grimly funny and faintly depressing. That is, until we see that the apparently rather boring people are actually totally out of control.
Heartbroken Andy commits suicide. The man on the psychiatrist's couch makes compulsive obscene phone calls. Helen berates herself as a talentless fraud. Joy is so desperate she'll trust anyone. The man who escapes his stifling marriage finds he still has no feelings. And Bill, well... he starts off by masturbating to boy-teen magazines. Soon we are immersed in the underside of it all--physical revulsion, self disgust, fear of fat, loneliness and death.
Audiences are used to depictions of the repressive hell of habitual personal relationships through 'family denouement' films like Secrets and Lies (Mike Leigh) or the unpleasant Buffalo 66 (Vincent Gallo) where the parents' cheerleading effusiveness masks creepy, violent cruelty. In fact contemporary social satire in film is overwhelmingly centred around ritualised family scenarios--perhaps to the detriment of the social realist tradition with its commitment to offering some sort of explanation of why life is so frustrating.
Happiness isn't interested in explanations either but its treatment of trauma hidden beneath 'normality' is ground breaking and shocking. What really marks the film out is its focus on the child's confusion on entering the sexual world expressed alongside an unfolding horror story of sexual abuse.
Expressed from the perspective of the abuser, Bill, and through his close conversational relationship with his son Billy, this dual theme is all the more horrifying because it is so seamlessly fitted into the rest of the story, swamped by the same banality, twisted by the same dreadful humour. The child on screen is vulnerable, terrified by the mysteries of his own body and crushed by the gossip of his friends at school. What's added is our own horror at the events we know but don't see. Their final conversation is something few people would expect to witness, either in drama or in real life. How does a child abuser tell the truth to his own child? Be prepared to hold your breath.
Nicola Field


Band on the run

Swing
Dir: Nick Mead

This is a simple tale of a young convict, Martin, leaving prison and trying to make a go of things on the outside. He has done time with an older jazz musician and decides to set up his own swing band. His plans, of course, don't work out as simply as he thought.
For a start, he needs musicians. The only drummer he can find is from a Nazi skinhead band. Although the film is a comedy, I did feel a bit uncomfortable with this. The Nazi is certainly made fun of and shown to be pretty thick, but overall he is treated as a loveable cockney character. To obtain a brass section Martin has to contact his uncle, a staunch Orangeman. He manages to acquire the services of his uncle's colleagues in the Orange Lodge's marching band, but only on condition that his first born son is brought up Protestant (Martin is Catholic!). Finally, he needs a singer. Remembering that his old girlfriend (well played by Lisa Stansfield) had ambitions that way he gets back in contact--only to find that she's married to the particularly odious copper who put him away in the first place. Her husband wears police pyjamas in bed and gets his kicks by pretending to arrest her--handcuffs and all.
The band finally gets its first gig, after rehearsals in the completely inappropriate surroundings of the Orange Hall. Despite its talent the audience expecting a local heavy metal band--is not impressed. There are some laughs here, but I felt the scene was a bit clichéd.
The band's luck does begin to improve when it manages to get a slot playing for a tea dance at a posh hotel. The band goes down well but its members reckon without the scheming of the singer's husband and his police friends. The cops bust the dance and cause a near riot. The policeman, boasting in the canteen with his chums, gets his comeuppance when his wife broadcasts a tape of his inept sexual foreplay for the whole station to hear. His impotent fury is a pleasure to watch.
In the end the band find a patron in a local lottery winner. Since his big win he has led an increasingly reclusive existence. Allowing the band to play at one of his mansions will give him the public esteem he desires. All goes well when the band plays the gig--until the end. It turns out that the bandleader's brother has robbed the millionaire's house while they were playing. The police turn up and our hero ends up back inside.
The ending is, of course, a happy one. This is a fun film with some nice touches of Liverpool humour and the villains are definitely the cops.The cast are generally good, and include Alexei Sayle as a particularly uptight Orangeman.
Jonathan O'Brien


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