I have to do casual responses to films after screenings for my American Independent Film class. Here are all the ones I've done so far.
Welcome to the Dollhouse
If one of the key markers of "independent spirit"--especially during the 1990s--was a sensitivity towards marginalized perspectives (whether with regards to race, gender, sexual preference, etc.) Welcome to the Dollhouse dovetails with this orientation in how it gives expression to an Ugly Person's subjectivity. The first scene serves to establish both Dawn's ugliness and the death of her idealistic hope that her inner goodness can shine through. When she sees "Faggot Boy" being bullied, Dawn attempts to rescue him. Here Solondz marks her ugliness as a particularly impossible barrier to cross, denying her a sense of solidarity even with her co-underdogs, as seen when the "Faggot Boy" refuses to accept her comfort, instead calling her "Weinerdog". "Faggot Boy" may be a "Faggot," Solondz seems to be demonstrating, but at least he isn't ugly. I think Edward Said may have once said that the process of colonialism instills the colonizing instinct in the colonized themselves. This seems to go just as well with Solondz's vision of an Attractiveness Hierarchy. As Dawn slowly realizes that her ugliness is the source of her unpopularity, she seeks to escape from it not through changing her outlook on life or concentrating on cultivating her inner goodness, but through a self-hatred and imprecise, generalized resentment which lashes out at everyone from Ralphy to random kids playing ball on the street. She imagines herself as a possible subject of a rescue mission up the Attractiveness Hierarchy by Steve, who she hopes can take her "away from this place". Dawn also tries to run away from her ugliness by imaginatively identifying with Steve. When she discovers that Steve hated Benjamin Franklin Jr High as well, she relishes this as a similarity, even though Steve likely hated Ben Franklin because of how it kept him away from sleeping with attractive girls, while Dawn hates Ben Franklin because of how it rubs her ugliness in her face. Another particularly clever demonstration of how the Attractiveness Hierarchy goes unquestioned even by those it most oppresses, one set of parallel scenes begins with Steve getting away with being late to study because he is Attractive Steve. But when Mark is similarly late, Steve cannot stand this and explodes in a fit of rage, while Mark is apologetic. A higher place on the Attractiveness Hierarchy guarantees both greater agency and more socially valued problems. Take, for example, the recurring shots of Missy dancing. Because Missy is a cute girl she has a greater phase space within which to exercise her inner goodness, as opposed to Dawn’s inability to effectively exercise her own inner goodness (as when she cannot defend “Faggot Boy”); while Missy dances at the anniversary party, Dawn has nothing to do but be called retarded and fall into the pool. Even the problems that attractiveness bring—such being kidnapped—seem glamorous and desirable in comparison to the prison of being ugly (with Mark implying to Dawn over kitchen table that she is not even worthy of being kidnapped). More than simply complaining about the unfairness of being unattractive, Solondz seems most concerned that the problem of being ugly doesn't even have the status of being recognized as a Problem with Dignity. We place enormous social pressures on the ugly and then hate them for how pathetic they are. Solondz seems to offer no hope of transcending these bounds. As Mark says, the best thing you can hope for is a place like high school, where people don't stop calling you names, but at least they stop saying them to your face.
If to be an "independent film" is to be anti-Hollywood in ethos, Solondz's first two films appear, at first, to be perhaps the most satisfactory rebel cries imaginable. While the traditional Hollywood film often uses music cues to imaginatively enlarge the hopes, dreams, and abilities of its protagonists, Solondz uses music to ironize and undercut these elements, leaving the main characters as objects of disgust, hatred, or condescending pity. In Happiness, there are no heroes, there are only neurotics too pathetic to even rise to the occasion of being villains. If you aren't naive, you are stupid. If you aren't repulsive, you are vain. If you aren't petty, you're a pushover. If you aren't directionless, you are casually cruel. At first, this appears to be a refreshing antidote to the schlocky sentimentality of the Hollywood imagination. But further inspection reveals that, far from creating a wholly alternative worldview to Hollywood, Solondz—in his black comedy—has merely inverted it. Solondz’s vision may be the dark to Hollywood’s light, but the shape of the vision has the same evaluative contours. The directorial voice casts negative judgment upon these characters precisely for how they fail to live up to Hollywood visions of life, for how they fail to learn from their mistakes, for how they fail to imbue their flaws with alluring swagger or likableness, for how they fail to inspire us. The best that can be said about any of these characters is that they are well-intentioned, helplessly captive to their own blind spots or destructive/self-destructive impulses. Solondz’s apparent sensitivity to these good intentions and this helplessness is no doubt the source of the common claim that, despite all of his black comedy, Solondz nevertheless has “sympathy” for his characters. But this view of life—where your only affection for someone is out of pity—is as uselessly sentimental as any embodied in the most mainstream of the Hollywood movies which Solondz films are supposedly an alternative to. For my money, a much more satisfying antidote to Hollywood can be found in a figure like Jean Renoir, who in The Rules of the Game showed as much understanding of the faults of man as Solondz, as much understanding of the fact that “everyone has their reasons,” but with Renoir you get the sense that he loves his characters, embraces them warts and all, and gets on with life like an adult. He sees and explores his own failings through his characters. Solondz is unwilling to embrace his characters in this way. He uses distancing music and farcical characterization to hold them at bay, to stand above them, to laugh at them in an adolescent gesture of misanthropic superiority. Solondz points the finger at some imagined middle-class America, and asks the audience to join him in this exercise in superiority. I prefer a filmmaker who, in a truly compassionate gesture, implicates himself in his critique of society, and so lays bare the mechanisms by which he (and we) might improve. For all the talk of Solondz’s radical critique of middle class America, I, a middle class American, walk away from a viewing of Happiness unscathed, unaware of my own possible blind spots and pretensions. I don’t molest children, I don’t jerk off on the wall, I don’t go to a therapist for validation of my neuroses, I don’t long for romantic dreams that will never come true, and I don’t murder doormen. His critique is too distant, too impersonal, too “other” to have any real force. But it is, admittedly, very funny.
Clerks (which I kind of changed into being about Stranger Than Paradise)
I think it may be profitable to put Clerks in dialogue with our other screening this week, Stranger Than Paradise, as well as some other films I have watched for various classes in these past two weeks.
To start with the two at hand, both films are notably shot on cheap, grainy, black and white stock in an era where high resolution, color film was the mainstream. As such, these films (whether out of necessity or out of intended effect) announce their opposition to the predominant film look of their eras and therefore lay claim to the status of being outsider films, as being "something different". Grainy black and white cinematography in a color era implicitly signifies authenticity, realism, and verisimilitude in opposition to perceived Hollywood practices of inauthenticity, illusion, and myth-making. The films both feature relatively aimless plots and a milieu of slackers, hipsters, con-men, and other various constituents which could fairly be considered "lowlifes" from a Hollywood perspective. But other than these surface similarities, Jarmusch and Smith put across vastly different visions of experience.
In spirit, Smith is probably closer to a Tarantino than a Jarmusch. For both Tarantino and Smith, the space of freedom created by a relative distance from a Hollywood mode of production is to be filled primarily with witty, scatological dialogue which often riffs on various aspects of pop culture (compare the Return of the Jedi scene in Clerks to the "Like a Virgin" scene in Reservoir Dogs). But this zany, dialogue driven approach gains its indie credibility more from its moral/amoral edginess than the nature of its form or expression, which bears some similarity to Hollywood films such as Bringing up Baby, which feature a similar emphasis on spoken repartee with conventional plot points being downplayed. And, admitting that in comparison to the average mainstream movie, the films of Smith and Tarantino can feel much more free from narrative constraints, both Clerks and Pulp Fiction have narrative through-lines of at least one character "learning a lesson" (Pulp Fiction ends in Jules leaving a life of crime, while Clerks erupts in various lessons: Dante realizing he was taking his girlfriend for granted, and Randal's rant about his pretentious ineffectuality).
Stranger Than Paradise seems to be doing something else entirely. Like Tarantino and Smith, Jarmusch deploys witty, off-beat dialogue as one of his key expressive strategies, and there are no shortage of memorable, quotable lines ("It's Screamin Jay Hawkins, and he's a wild man, so bug off" being my own personal favorite). However in addition to lines like these, Jarmusch's use of long single takes (usually in medium, medium-long, or long shots) in addition to a liberal sprinkling of dead air, force the audience to be much more alert to the placement of the characters, their subtle gestural and expressive tics, and the character of the spaces they move through as primary generators of meaning. There are a lot of thematically interesting things going on in Stranger Than Paradise, not least of which being Jarmusch's implicit claim that the paradise of America is not all that different for Eva than the communist bloc she is fleeing, but for me what is most interesting about the film is how it encourages new forms of pleasurable, movie-going experience. Jarmusch does not want us to be bored by his long takes or be impressed with their supposed realism. He wants us to enjoy the atmosphere of a girl walking down a post-apocalyptic-looking New York street blasting a tape of "I Put a Spell on You". He wants us to enjoy the way that when Eva is fighting with Aunt Lottie, both Willie and Eddie scrunch up their faces in embarrassment, but each do it in different ways which speak to the differences in their personalities (Willie being much more condescending and aloof, Eddie being much more tender-hearted and sensitive). Hollywood implicitly claims that the only thing in life worth enjoying are big events, big emotions, big gestures, and grand statements. Jarmusch directs us to the mundane, in-between pleasures of experience and claims that they are just as worthy of appreciation.