Tuesday, June 14, 2005


Today's spoilers are Todd Solondz's films (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness and Storytelling--I haven't seen Palindromes yet) and some plays and films of Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men, Bash: Latter-Day Plays, and The Shape of Things). And it's pretty damn spoiltastic, since this entire post is a comparison of their work and a discussion of misanthropy in art, so you may not want to continue. You were warned.

I saw Happiness in eleventh grade, long before I saw any of the others. I saw it in response to this dialogue in my playwriting class:

Anna (student): "Have you ever seen Happiness?
Nancy (teacher): "Is it good?"
Anna: "Yeah, but it's so good that for the next four hours you're like, 'Oh my god, I don't know whether to kill myself or--'"
Nancy: "That doesn't sound so good."

So we see what kind of film viewer I am. And I lied about my age to get into the movie theater, and all that. I've seen it twice since then, each with people who didn't want to see it alone, at my advice. It's a really bloody disturbing film, following portions of the lives of three sisters living in East Coast suburbs, very lost and disturbed in very different ways, and the stories of the people connected to them (one of their husbands is a pedarast who drugs and rapes friends of his 11-year-old son--however, the character is played by Dylan Baker, an amazing actor, such that you can't overlook or dismiss him. I want to quote the best and most inordinately disturbing writing in the script, but even I can't be that much of a spoiler--suffice it to say it's between that father and his son at the end of the film). Its strength is undeniable, and so is Solondz's weird combination of contempt for humanity and unwillingness to blame it. Welcome to the Dollhouse, his first film, which I like much less, is a little more vindictive, but it still presents a blankness, a sense of inevitability. That sense is only pushed forward by Storytelling, which Emily and I rented a couple of months back. After the movie finished, we stared at the screen for several minutes, and then:

I: "On that note."
Emily: "On that note, we need to do something life-affirming."
I: "What've we got that's life-affirming?"
Emily: "Nothing."

These are the kind of movies Solondz makes. Storytelling is in two parts, "Fiction" and "Non-Fiction," each of which contains somewhat contemptible artists (in "Fiction," a college creative writing student; in "Non-Fiction" a documentary filmmaker) and the destructive powers of their art (both to themselves and to others) and of the people they interact with. Solondz is in most senses of the word a misanthrope, and all the characters in his movies are really rather horrible; even those we're inclined to sympathize with a little more, such as Consuelo, the manipulated Hispanic maid in Storytelling or the lost, victimized sister Joy Jordan in Happiness, end up doing horribly stupid or horribly vindictive things and leaving you not knowing what to hook into. And yet, there *is* something to hook into--they are not movies that shut you out or point an angry finger at you in particular. Solondz's characters are following perfectly clear logics, even as we are terrified by knowing their actions to be logical, and they're almost uniformly without self-awareness. (The one exception I can think of right now, interestingly and even more disturbingly, is Dylan Baker's pedarast.) For the most part, they lack moral compasses (the pedarast does, too), but almost more importantly, they have no idea that things can ever be done in any manner other than the way they're being done now.

Neil LaBute's characters, by contrast--at least in the works I know, which list is by no means comprehensive--tend to be in some way intellectuals, able to *see* other options and yet powerless to be or do anything else. I guess that concept is most concretely embodied in Christine, the deaf female character in In the Company of Men, who is the chosen mark of a pair of jilted men who decided to hurt a woman as best they can to compensate for all the women who've ever hurt them. One of them, Howard--less attractive and less confident--is a lot less capable and falls in love with her, but she rejects him for the other one, Chad, who's still committed to the scheme. And it goes about where you would imagine it would. And yet I feel like most of his characters, from Chad and Aaron to the disturbed and violent Mormon characters delivering their monologues in Bash (I saw Calista Flockhart, Ron Eldard and Paul Rudd do Bash in New York, which was pretty inordinately awesome), long to and cannot find the resources to break out of what they are.

In some ways, that makes LaBute more misanthropic than Solondz. And yet, neither of them is precisely contemptuous of their characters, which is what makes their work watchable. Most people who hate the human race insist that you do so too, by leaving you nothing to hook into in their characters, which makes you mad at the filmmakers/playwrights as well as the characters. LaBute sometimes walks the line--Chad's a pretty dangerous character in that sense, as is Evelyn in The Shape of Things, a conceptual artist who seduces a man as part of a new piece--but . . . Maybe it's that LaBute isn't telling you that the entire world is like that; he's very specific about his characters, it's simply that when you've seen enough of his work you get a definitive sense of how he thinks and of his, if not contempt, at least deep cynicism regarding the world, but it's not to be found so thoroughly in individual pieces. Solondz *is* telling you that the entire world is like that; while his characters are specific, his films are sprawling enough (LaBute's films & plays tend to be a lot quieter and more intimate, though there is a similar disturbing settledness to both men's cinematography) that you know they encompass social universes. However, since his characters don't have the slightest idea what's going on, neither you nor they are at fault for it--or rather, *everyone* is, Solondz won't let the blame fall in any one place. Which gets into a weird Boal/catharsis conflict: if we leave a film full of scathing social commentary feeling that everyone in it is equally at fault, does it have the same effect as the Aristotelian catharsis Boal so scorns--i.e. are we left feeling that we don't have to change anything, not (as in most cases of catharsis) because it's already been solved in the play/film, but because the play/film has made it abundantly clear to us that it cannot be resolved? I'm not really sure. (If you don't know what I'm talking about, see the post We Three Kings Be Renting Our Hair to Boal, in the December 2004 archives.)

When Emily rented In the Company of Men, the woman at the video store told her that it would make her angry. In the beginning I thought that would be the case, but as it went on I found that what I was was not angry, but compelled. Can you be both? Probably, but I was not. Or maybe you can't--maybe it goes back to what L. quoted to me from Susan Sontag, "you can't punch someone out and think at the same time." Anger's very active, and if you're busy getting into something else you may not have the active energy for anger. In that case we're getting into some *serious* Boal issues, both in the sense that Solondz and LaBute are in conflict with Boal and I am in conflict with Boal, whom I usually respect. But then again, what Boal does is about the endings--you're supposed to be compelled by the scene as it's happening, it's just supposed to end with you unsettled enough that you want to do something to change it. However, both Solondz and LaBute leave you a little helpless--there isn't a way to change it. Not that I think all art has to come in Boal form, anyhow. LaBute and Solondz both create a sense of despair in their movies, and yet, while Solondz makes *you* despair and LaBute tends to make you a little bit more reflective, it's not precisely anger they're aiming for.

What is it they're aiming for? Not just one thing, thankfully. It's pretty elusive. And yet . . . while it's not about anger, both men are definitely about making you, the audience, understand that you have a place in what's going on here. Not to sympathize, precisely, but to know that you are there, that this is your world. Weirdly, when I saw it in high school, I felt capable of separating from Happiness because it seemed like a critique of suburban life . . . while all of Solondz's films *do* take place in the suburbs, I really don't think that's what's going on anymore. It's about exposing you to a world and letting you know that you are one of the many people who made it, and that there isn't anything, any company (of men or women), that can save you from it.

And why do we set ourselves up to feel like this, again? Because it's good art. Which is another fifty thousand questions for another fifty thousand days.


At 2:21 PM, Blogger Connor said...

"Not to sympathize, precisely, but to know that you are there, that this is your world."

So, to bear witness.

I remember Peter Brook's criticism of Artaud was that the most faithful and compelling application of Theater of Cruely would have rendered an audience passive. I think I like the word you choose, "helpless," more, and I don't know how this intersects with Boal (who I'm not as familiar with, but it sounds like his tack is similar to Brooks, with a more activist/political bent).

Could you say a bit more about the validity of "witnessing," as an objective in art, on its own?

At 2:50 PM, Blogger Ammegg said...

That's an odd question. I mean, in most general terms I see the objective of art as to change people, and there's little psychological question at this point that the act of witnessing can alter people profoundly. So by that logic (combining disciplines is fun), I can see it making sense. But I would separate simply "witnessing" from *knowing* you have witnessed, and by extension knowing *what* you have witnessed. It is possible for witnessing to be passive, even when the audience is changed by it. It is not possible for knowing to be passive, or at least I don't think so.

At 12:15 PM, Blogger Connor said...

Sorry it took me so long to respond to this. I don't think it's an odd question, though, especially given your definition of the objective of art.

If the objective in art is to change people, and we're bearing witness to works of art that strip us of our autonomy, then in what way is that empowering? Yes, it does "change" us in the literal sense, but you're describing works in which monstrous characters are portrayed as either helpless and unaccountable or helpless and accountable, and the audience in both of these cases is relegated to witnessing. Which is, I suspect, why such films upset people so much. There's something atavistic about the experience.

Incidentally, I interpret "witness" much as you interpret "knowing." I think the difference, perhaps, between witnessing something and simply seeing it is the power to make some sense of what you've experienced.

I am somewhat playing devil's advocate. Two of my favorite plays, Cenci and Skriker, both seem to me to have a similar effect. So I do believe witnessing is sufficient at least. But I've never bought any justification I've heard for the process. I don't think this discussion is even close to being run into the ground (here or elsewhere). :)


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