Getting Even With Todd

Talking on the phone to Happiness writer-director Todd Solondz, it's hard to avoid thinking of retaliation. How darkly funny, how pleasurably cruel it might be to give the maker of the decade's meanest satire a taste of his own medicine. One could begin by borrowing a few bilious lines from the obscene phone caller in the movie--a "comedy" that, like Solondz's Welcome to the Dollhouse, appears predicated on the vengeful perpetuation of bad vibes. Alas, it isn't so much my desire to break the cycle of cruelty that compels me to remain polite during the conversation: For one thing, as regards the exacting of verbal revenge upon the auteur, someone has beaten me to the punch.

"About a month ago," Solondz somberly recalls, "a young college kid--a little tipsy, I think--came up to me after a screening in Telluride and told me he loved my movie. Then he said he had a joke that he thought I would really appreciate--and he proceeded to tell me something, um, remarkably crass and ugly. And then he just sort of...ran off. What pained me the most about it was that this young gentleman would think, after watching my movie, that I would find humor in such a joke." Wow--a joke that unsettled Todd Solondz? What was it? I ask. "Well, fortunately," Solondz says, "I forgot it as soon as I heard it. It was truly horrible."

Ditto Happiness, a film whose punishing worldview is that America is ill, suburbia is polluted, most men are psychos, some women are mean and pathetic, and all children are victims. (And the viewer is a sick fuck for laughing.) "I may be called cruel," Solondz said at the New York Film Festival a few weeks ago, "but I don't see the film as cruel so much as exposing cruelty." So when aspiring songwriter Joy (Jane Adams) confesses, "I feel so much hostility directed at me," the director is apparently just an observer. But having landscaped the narrative cul-de-sac known as Happiness, might Solondz be responsible for helping Joy out of it?

"Oh, you see, I don't look at films as therapy," Solondz tells me. "By and large, films serve as a kind of entertainment. My movie, I suppose, is not, strictly speaking, a work of entertainment--it's a different kind of film, a work of the imagination. There's so much out there every day of the week--TV, tabloids, papers, and so forth--that we're all assaulted by, it's hard not to in some way respond." Yes, I see: hard not to respond, impossible to transcend.

So why remain on the planet? "I would say that while the fates of some of the characters are somewhat on the bleak side," Solondz offers in his perpetually weary murmur, "I do have a certain hope for others. I am fairly hopeful for Joy, and also for Allen [the obscene phone caller]. And I think that in terms of the little boy, Billy Maplewood, after that very heavy, brutal scene between him and his [pedophiliac] father, I wanted to give the audience something to sort's hard to avoid a terrible pun here, but, yes, there is a kind of release."

Perhaps. But is there any release for Solondz, whose debut feature, Fear, Anxiety and Depression (1989), featured himself in an excruciating portrait of the artist as a young masochist? In an effort to spread a little love, I wish the director good luck at his Happiness premiere in L.A. a few hours from now. "I hope you have fun," I say. "Oh, yes, well," Solondz replies, mustering the feeblest chuckle. "Me, too." (Rob Nelson)

Thy Kingdom Comes--Again

David Lynch is an overbearing hack. There, I said it.

Danish director Lars von Trier (Zentropa, Breaking the Waves) may or may not share this view, but his made-for-TV maxi-series The Kingdom--newly sequeled and repackaged for U.S. art-house distribution--has been often and quite aptly compared to Lynch's own small-screen head-scratcher Twin Peaks. Both are unusually bold TV forays by visionary filmmakers. And many of the same hipsters who geeked out over the bizarro hunt for Laura Palmer's killer have found similar raptures in von Trier's opus, a bleary hospital melodrama set in a near-psychedelic otherworld where depraved doctors and their sleep-deprived interns share hallways with restless phantoms, desperate fetishists, and Satan himself.

The Kingdom II compiles four-and-a-half more hours' worth of this mad serial, revisiting the same cast of morally contorted characters and following them deeper into the heart of schlock-horror anarchy. But whereas the megalomaniac Lynch made it tough to step into Twin Peaks midstream, there's really no need to have seen von Trier's first four hours to get with the update. The gist is pretty clear within the first 20 minutes of Kingdom II: Lingering spirits and ambiguously evil forces have seeped into the Kingdom, a monolithic state hospital in Copenhagen--and everyone appears to be suffering for it. The chief surgeon (Ernst Hugo Jaregard) is scheming to turn a young nemesis (Erik Wedersee) into a zombie. A female doctor (Birgitte Raaberg) has given birth to a deformed half-human/half-demon (Udo Kier) who bears an uncanny resemblance to her murderous ex-lover. A mild-mannered med student (Peter Mygind) strives to impress a would-be mate by taking homicidal joyrides in an ambulance. A mentally ailing administrator (Holger Juul Hansen) turns to porn as a means of self-therapy. And a pair of omniscient dishwashers with Down syndrome (Vita Jensen, Morten Rotne Leffers) appear to appraise the action at every turn.

So is this a heap of exceptionally fanciful Euro-trash? Heavens, yes. And von Trier knows better than to pretend otherwise. Amid the fairly rote "good vs. evil" and "science vs. spirituality" conceits driving much of this madness, the director maintains a sense of humor that's alternately jet-black and bone-dry. When the zombified young doc is locked in an alarm-equipped library with his elder foe, the two engage in a ludicrous slow-motion chase that would make Peter Sellers proud. There's even a little toilet humor, as the chief surgeon delivers troubled monologues to his own stool. Unlike a lot of his peers, von Trier isn't under the delusion that dark plus smart equals exclusionary: His dense, often surreal modern fantasy doesn't rely on smug inside jokes or answerless questions (à la Lynch) to keep us invested. And while his musty-yellow tones and hand-held camerawork are plenty arty, we're never left to feed on the aesthetics alone. As glimpsed in the cheeky epilogues that follow each hour-long episode, the tuxedoed von Trier takes pride in being an entertainer rather than another detached auteur.

Mind you, the man is still a head case. Although his latest feature, The Idiots, premiered at Cannes five months ago, von Trier has been at work since 1992 on Dimension, a crime story that's being filmed at the deliberately impossible rate of three minutes per year, for completion in 2024. By that time, maybe someone will have finally made honest sense of Lost Highway. Or not. (James Diers)

The Kingdom screens Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday at Oak Street Cinema; The Kingdom II starts Friday at Oak Street for a one-week run.

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