MISERABLE? GREAT! 


;With The Pursuit of ;Happyness opening this week (review below), the thought occurred that sometimes it's not the "happy" films that bring us joy. Sometimes it's those films that allow us to revel in what the Germans call schadenfreude: deriving pleasure from someone else's misfortune. When the good guys don't win … well, that's often more rewarding than when they do.

;;What better way to start probing this paradoxical genre than with Happiness itself? With his discomfiting third feature, Todd Solondz wrote the book — or, rather, the screenplay — on feeling perversely happy when the world is in a state of decay and degradation. Happiness ;;— with its confrontations of pedophilia, suicide, cannibalism, self-loathing and Philip Seymour Hoffman masturbating — easily could have been a hateful, heinous exploitation film. There's no way we should enjoy this. But Solondz coats his misanthropy with dark humor, making us think we're watching a comedy. After all, it may be preceded by a dog licking semen, but does not the film's infamous final line, "I came!," satisfy the same punchy, rimshot function as Some Like It Hot's lauded closer "Nobody's perfect"?

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;The rest of Solondz's films are just as emblematic of this peculiar trend. ;We leave the theater relieved we're not his protagonists, all the while enjoying numerous knee-slappers at their pitiful expense.

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;Lars von Trier takes Solondz's equal-opportunity hatred one step further with the risky Dogville, a blistering piece of social criticism that uses little humor to cloak its abrasiveness and dares us to take pleasure in the systematic rape and humiliation of Nicole Kidman's Grace. Von Trier's worldview is depressingly contemptuous, and only a sadist would feel jubilant during the two-hour-and-45-minute buildup, but Dogville works as a satisfying, exhilarating film, due completely to its cathartic climax of carnage. Everyone who destroyed Grace's life is in turn destroyed, and we feel vindicated to experience it, regardless of our beliefs on capital punishment and eye-for-an-eye vengeance.

;;Dogville is just one example of the kind of warm, fuzzy feeling of contentment achieved by watching mass slaughter. Appalling/appealing acts have long been glorified in cinema, often at the hands of attractive young people. Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers tried to put a hip, kinetic face on the director's shrill and splashy media critique, but it's Man Bites Dog that subtly poses the same questions as Stone's noisy lecture, spitting murderous venom at its audience's infatuation with on-screen violence while showing it in its most explicit forms. Still, this Belgian masterpiece's filmmaking is so fresh and exciting that we leave the movie happy to have partaken in it; it's a film filled with death that makes us feel alive and never more conscious of our role as spectators.

;;Last, don't overlook American Psycho, a quintessential example of the hateful-happy duality. A businessman making mincemeat out of women and animals? Not fun. A businessman making mincemeat out of women and animals while providing dissertations on Huey Lewis & the News and Genesis? Fun!

;;One could easily dip into the horror pool for countless examples of gleeful schadenfreude, from The Leopard Man to Psycho to Scream. But if a horror film doesn't produce visceral enjoyment from the mutilation of others, it's not serving its utilitarian requirement. The movies spotlighted here are genre anomalies, making their accomplishment of providing the opposite of their seeming intention that much more admirable.

film@orlandoweekly.com

More by John Thomason

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