Film The other key film during my film studies days was Don Roos's Happy Endings which was the reason I ended up writing a dissertation about hyperlink cinema. The original subject was metafiction in Woody Allen's films, notably Annie Hall, Deconstructing Harry and one other which I could never quite decide on, but after reading around on the topic I realised that very little had been written about the topic in film terms at that time which meant I'd spend most of my time reading literary criticism and I didn't want to do that. Luckily I happened to be reading Jason Kottke's blog one afternoon and noticed him writing about hyperlink cinema and the article's he linked to became the backbone of what I'd spend the rest of that summer writing and led to the ability to say that I actually wrote about Richard Curtis's Love Actually for my dissertation. Actually. The guts of what I wrote about that film is here and I had planned to write something just as long about why Happy Endings isn't rubbish, but having reviewed the chapter it turns out I wrote a lot more about what Curtis did than either Altman (in Short Cuts) or Roos presumably because there was a lot more to say about it but also because I sensed, I think, that Happy Endings isn't really a hyperlink film, but an ensemble piece more akin to Hannah and her Sisters or Parenthood with its familial connections and the like. Expect spoilers.
The narrative in Happy Endings is closer to the more straightforward structure presented in most ensemble films with just three stories running in parallel. Don Roos identifies his work as a comedy ‘but obviously gets deeper’ (Johnson, 2005) and is not tied to a familiar generic story pattern. Quart confers hyperlink cinema status on the film because of the complexity with which those stories are told: ‘Roos takes the baggy plotting of the Altman picaresque into web territory: in Happy Endings playing games with time and personal history are a given’ (Quart, 2005: 48). Roos’s motivation for using the form was similar to both Altman and Curtis: ‘There’s not one story line that has to deliver everything […] because you have several stories, the audience can be freshened up. They can feel different things as they go from story to story’ (Johnson, 2005). The film opens with Mamie running into the path of a car, flashing back to the moment when she and Charley conceived their son and the aftermath, then forwards again to the scene when Mamie meets Javier for what appears to be a regular meeting. From here the film unfolds fairly conventionally, with three forms of disruption occurring in the set-up – Nicky blackmails Mamie into helping him make a film so that he can get the information about her son, Charley begins to suspect that Max might be his partner Gil’s son and Otis introduced Jude to his life, his house and his father. The connections between the characters are obvious from then on because Roos was wary of trying the force the connections: ‘I don’t like it when they all kind of connect co-incidentally at the end. Like Crash (2005) they all connect to something and I prefer it when its casual’ (Roos el al., 2005).
Narrative density is increased however because of the employment of non-diegetic captions that interrupt the mise-en-scène, presenting information regarding the characters and story outside of exposition within dialogue. The first instance is after the Mamie’s shocking motor accident to explain to the audience that ‘She’s not dead. No one dies in this movie, not on-screen. It’s a comedy, sort of.’ These effectively introduce an extra level of subtext into each scene, with details that the spectator would not otherwise have been aware of, impacting upon their relationship to the action, potentially increasing their level of suture because the concentration of information being presented is greater than the standard shot/reverse shot. In his opening scene Nicky is introduced to the audience before Mamie enters the café, and the caption explains that ‘Nicky is 25, oldest of three kids. He has a gun which he is realizing he left in the car. He has to pee’, de-threatening the character and changing the tone of the ensuing scene outside of the diegetic space (one wonders for his example if some of Nicky’s desperation is as a result of body functional needs). The implications and meaning of these captions change on subsequent viewings – it is later revealed that Nicky is the adopted older brother of the boy that Mamie could not abort. Note that these captions only ever complement the action and never intrude on scenes presenting important verbal or visual narration – usually action will pause (as occurs with Nicky’s introduction) or be of a humdrum nature (Mamie’s arrival at the salon) – so that the attention of the audience is still directed in a linear fashion.
The captions eventually restructure the climax, because once the narrative reaches its apparent conclusion, Roos explains the fates of the characters, sometimes years or decades after the timeframe of the film. Unlike the ‘where are now section’ of National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) or Friday Night Lights (2004), as Victor Morton identifies there are ‘enough changes in fortune (i.e. drama) to make a whole new movie. Compressed into three minutes. And then with a coda of its own’ (Morton, 2005). It could be inferred that this is partially the result of the editing process, since as with Love Actually the first assembly was three hours long and so the director needed to ‘cut a lot of scenes when it was done’ (Lee, 2005). Like Curtis but unlike Altman, Roos appears locked into a need to complete the narrative structure identified by Todorov, even if it means increasing the plot duration exponentially. The closing montage sequence includes a flash forwards ten years to show Mamie and Charlie meeting their son possibly completing both of their story arcs but in other cases the captions present exposition that reaches even further than that - it is explained that Otis ‘watches Ted and Charley’s dogs sometimes and never plays the drums again. But in 20 years he’s happier than anyone else here. But that’s another story.’ Indeed, this whole section also allows new key character relationships to be created and their ‘happy endings’ sometimes occur because of these chance or synchronous meetings, running counter to the normal expectations of hyperlink cinema that such incidents will motivate the central action.
By producing Happy Endings as an ‘independent’ film, Roos is able to make two of these characters gay without their stories being about their sexuality: ‘It’s a rare studio movie that you can talk about the things I want to talk about. You can have gay characters in a studio movie, but it has to be about them being gay, or else they’re the sidekick. […] You can’t really talk about the love life of a gay man, like I did in The Opposite of Sex (1998)’ (Cavagna, 2005). Despite Alyssa Quart’s insistence that the characters exist without hierarchy (Quart, 2005: 51) each of the three stories has a main protagonist. These are clearly Mamie and Charley; and although Roos thinks of the third as being Jude’s tale -- ‘The girl meets the boy, she changes her mind, she attaches herself to the father, she blackmails the boy to keep silent, she finds out in the meantime she’s fallen in love with the father, she’s exposed, she has to give him up’ (Cavagna, 2005) – the narrative and mise-en-scene suggest this is Otis. Jude’s appearance creates the disruption in his life and it is only when he has left that the equilibrium returns; in the scene after the band rehearsal Otis’s nervy reactions appear in relative close-up as he leans against the counter and the reverse shot is over his shoulder and the spectator enjoys his long shot point of view as Jude riffles through the kitchen looking for food, with the camera in a later seduction scene angled in such a way that Otis’s reactions are prioritised over hers. In the main, Jude appears antagonist to Otis’s protagonist.
See what I mean? Apart from odd lines noting how the architecture in the houses between the characters reflects their class and how Roos has a better idea of representing diversity in his film, although it's still with a secondary character. The key element which gave Quart and others the impression that they were watching something akin to Short Cuts must be the on-screen captions but the rest of it simply isn't akin to Crash or indeed Love Actually in how the stories are told. But it is still a remarkable film, because of those captions, because of the performances notably from Maggie Gyllenhaal whose character, a singer, contributes to one of my favourite film soundtracks. It's on this blog's old Forgotten Films list and although I haven't seen it recently images are stuck in my head. Images like:
Cavagna, Carlo. 2005. Interview: Don Roos. In. AboutFilm. Available at: http://www.aboutfilm.com/features/happyendings/roos.htm. Accessed: 17th July 2006.
Johnson, Tonisha. 2005. Happy Endings: An Interview with Director Don Roos, Jesse Bradford and Jason Ritter. In. Black Film. Available at: http://www.blackfilm.com/20050715/features/happyendint2.shtml. Accessed: 17th July 2006.
Lee, Michael J. 2005. Don Roos. In. Radio Free Entertainment. Available at: http://movies.radiofree.com/interviews/happyend_don_roos.shtml. Accessed: 17th July 2006.
Morton, Victor. 2005. Tone Deaf: 'Happy Endings' Can't Get It Right. In. TheFactIs.org. Available at: http://www.thefactis.org/default.aspx?control=ArticleMaster&aid=1048. Accessed: 17th July 2006.
Quart, Alyssa. 2005. Networked. In. Film Comment. 41:4.