Summary of the Movie Happiness (1998) – Film Essay
The existence of the wound culture is demonstrated in Happiness, though the characters affected by it are not always willing participants. Bill Maplewood is presented in all ways as anything but your regular violent, or in his case abusive, criminal. He does not commit these violent acts to reflect himself, as Seltzer puts it “killing [as] a form of self-killing” , but to
somehow discover the happiness that he is denied by society. He enters the wound culture, though he doesn’t want to, and his private desire crosses the divide into the public sphere when his crimes are revealed, and his house is spray-painted. Bill’s victims are protected by unconsciousness, and Johnny Grasso is unaware that he is a victim of rape, and trauma, until his father, Joe, announces that he has been “fucking raped”. His patriarchal dominance is unsettling, and Joe is not a very likable character. His attitude towards his son, believing him to be a “fag”, seems to push Johnny towards the apparent loving father-figure of his friend, Billy. Bill Maplewood is displacing his desire for his son, who he admits he would “jerk off” over instead of fucking. Also, Bill is acting as a father-figure for Johnny, who clearly wants to impress him, even if it is only by eating a sandwich. This betrayal of a son’s trust makes the crime all the more abhorrent to the audience, but Solondz creates a situation where, through the flattening of affect in regards to Bill, we actually want Johnny to eat the sandwich and for Bill to get what he desires. The father-son relationship is further demonstrated in by far the most unsettling scene when Johnny says that Bill is “cool” as he is being driven home. Bill places a reassuring arm around him which, because of our knowledge of the previous night’s events, we see as something more sinister than just comforting.
Though the characters in happiness become a part of the wound culture, Solondz attempts to avoid engaging in it through the flattening of affect. As a paedophile, and the perpetrator of the crime, Bill is a subject of fascination in the “pathological public sphere”. However, our knowledge of his everyday life, his job and family, makes us react differently to him than we expect to. The violent acts he commits are not glorified or even shown, they are merely implied. Solondz has said in a society that would simply:
“pull the switch…you have to know what you are annihilating, and that for all the horror there is still a life there”.
There is a definite sense of tragedy to the character of Bill Maplewood; he is not merely the sex criminal, reduced to less than human in the pathological public sphere. Though not necessarily asking the audience to sympathise with Bill’s actions, Solondz challenges us to consider that the pursuit of happiness is not always socially acceptable. American culture is obsessed with this pursuit, as it is marked out in their constitution. In reality only those who are not, as Trish says in inverted commas, ‘depressed’, and who seek happiness from the usual places, family, house, money, consumer goods, can engage in its pursuit. Far from being pleased with his crimes, Bill feels that he is “sick”, though Trish understands this as being only superficial and advises him to “take some Tylenol, you’ll feel better tomorrow”. – cure culture, aesthetic health, face value, Trish is happy happy joy joy, Joy is unhappy (???), they toast to happiness at the end but each of them are not happy at all. Solondz’s depression creates this world his mind operates outside of the get-well system. Prozac Americans.
Helen is the one character in the film who desires to enter into the wound culture. She longs for the kind of experience that will bring “authenticity” to her work. Though we get the sense that her work is acclaimed, at least in literary circles, she feels empty because she lacks any real knowledge of the subject of her writing, which in this case is rape. Her work is already appealing to the “strange attraction” of the wound in American culture , but Helen wants to be focus of this attraction, not just her work. She begs Allen to “fuck her” because she believes that she wants to be raped. The idea is lost when she discovers who the object of her desire is, and Solondz utilizes the too-long shot to make an uncomfortable scene unbearable when she tells Allen “you’re not my type”. Even after this she still seeks to identify with Kristina, whose crime “we can all relate to”. Helen sees somehow that this experience will bring her a form of cultural capital in that being part of the wound culture, and a victim of trauma, she has a license to write, and be an authority on, the subject. Solondz shows this to be a foolish desire because those who are actually a part of the wound culture do not want to be. Johnny is an unknowing trauma victim until his father announces it. Kristina, whose rape occurs in Helen’s building no less, does not want to be a victim and commits her “crime of passion” to deny her part in the wound culture.
In his essay Perchance to Dream, Franzen also addresses this question of the cultural capital in trauma or experience but relates it to depression. He sees depression as being “fashionable to the point of banality” and that to be depressed is only one of two options in a “binary culture”, in which “you’re either healthy or you’re sick”. Franzen divides society between the depressive, the artist with cultural capital, and the “shiny, happy people” . However, he does not want to write a novel that necessarily falls on either side of this divide, and rather in searching for a reason finds that he wants to write “for the fun and entertainment of it”. Still we see the pressure that he feels to write a novel that is not a “vapid, predictable and badly written” bestseller, retains cultural capital and appeals to the isolated literary community. Franzen identifies and wants to connect with the “social isolates” that tend to make up the community of readership for the kind of novel that he wants to write.
His balancing act between healthy and sick is reflected in the Corrections, where nearly all of the main characters battle with some form of depression. Chip is the most representative of Franzen’s own attitude that the depressive is somehow not included in mainstream society, and that the culture that defines certain mindsets as sick or diseased is “flawed”. He questions the idea of the individual and whether “enhancement technologies” , drugs like Prozac or Ritalin, really allow a person to be themselves, and whether they were really sick in the first place. In this way he represents anti-depressants as a kind of flattening of affect, which we see most clearly in Enid when she takes her Aslan pills. Franzen shows the doctor who gives her the drugs to be little more than a dope pusher, who does not properly warn her about the dangers. Also, Enid is concerned about a drug that makes “everybody the same”, just as Franzen is, but Dr Hibbard assures her that even if “Aslan does make us a little more alike…we’re all still individuals”(Corrections, pp.372-3). Enid’s reaction to the drug is that everything seems a bit easier but she also appears to be detached from her surroundings. She is feeling “unprecedentedly calm”(Corrections p.389) as she watches Alfred fall from their cruise ship, and her reaction is not only unexpected but completely out-of-character for the Enid that we have been introduced to in the novel. By using this flattening of affect, Franzen is able to demonstrate his attitude towards these types of drugs and the attitude that any unhappiness or instability is merely a sickness that can be cured. It is not a cure but a homogenization of people and the removal of any abstract thought from people’s mind. Franzen says:
“…the invitation to leave your depression behind, whether through medication or therapy, or effort of will, seems like an invitation to turn your back on all your dark insights into the corruption and infantilism and self-delusion of the brave new McWorld”