Armchair Cinephile

Crimes in the family

Happiness (Lions Gate)
The Honeymoon Killers (Criterion)
Vengo (Home Vision Entertainment)
Coal Miner's Daughter (Universal)

Capturing the Friedmans' story of pedophilia lurking within a happy family resonates strongly with Todd Solondz' Happiness (Lions Gate), the quasi-comedy that disturbed so many of us by treating a child molester like a sympathetic human being, and seeing his dilemma as a source (partly, anyway) of comedy. There are a number of plotlines running through the film - another features Philip Seymour Hoffman as an obscene phone caller - but the image that sticks with people is that of Dylan Baker, who is overcome with lust for his young son's schoolmate, sitting down for a frank chat with his kid. There are a number of ways to read the film, but whatever your take on it, Solondz (along with Baker) at least forces the viewer into a different kind of relationship with the father - he's not demonized as he would be in another film, and although you would never accuse the film of shooting for emotional realism, it at least asks you to think about the father's affliction in a new way.

Surprisingly, there is also some of that in The Honeymoon Killers (Criterion), a sensationalistic 1969 cheapie about a pair of lovers who pose as brother and sister and scam lonely women. Shot in black-and-white with the kind of rudimentary sound recording that evokes junior-high 16 millimeter projectors, it looks like a run-of-the-mill crime flick but strains at the edges with the desperation of its lead character, Martha Beck. Beck is a lonely, overweight woman who joins a lonely hearts' club only to find that her prospective Don Juan is a con man. Even after learning that he tried to swindle her, she insists that she's in love with him; as she sits on the sidelines of his crimes, we see that Martha has a more natural criminal mind than her "brother." It takes a while for small-scale cons to lead to murder - the real-life couple may have killed 20 women - but the murders transform the tone of the film. The two toward the end, particularly, in which the victims realize too late what's about to happen, have a horrifying pathos you don't get in too many exploitation films - long close-ups of desperate eyes, images of an ancient spinster sprawled on the floor trying to bargain for her life. It's easy to see why Killers, the only film director Leonard Kastle ever made, has become a cult classic.

Crime and family also intersect in Vengo (Home Vision Entertainment), an overlooked treasure that hardly got an American release, despite the fact that director Tony Gatliff's Latcho Drom was an art house phenomenon. Latcho Drom discarded dialogue and plot in the service of an cultural history (it depicted the long migration of gypsies through musical sequences set around the world), and Vengo partly applies this technique to an invented story: The main characters are some sort of high-living criminals in Spain, participants in a feud whose origins are unknown to us.

What we do know is that Caco, a vaguely shady nightclub owner who is as distantly cool as a flamenco Marcello Mastroianni, is haunted by grief over his daughter's death, and will do anything to protect his guileless, physically handicapped nephew. The story only exists to generate romantically exaggerated emotions - passions that shed light on the flamenco music and dance which fills the film. Long party sequences show a people who, even in an age of CDs and television, prefer to make their own entertainment, turning a restaurant into a concert hall and a cookout into a dance-off. There is so much local color going on that the intensity of the plot's climax is a jolt; we've accidentally come to care for Caco, not because the film tells us to but because we've shared his lifestyle for a few precious moments.

It may not have been a crime at the time in Appalachia, but Loretta Lynn's marriage at 13 to a man just back from WWII wasn't the most auspicious way to start a family. In the biopic Coal Miner's Daughter (Universal), the newlyweds (played by Sissy Spacek and Tommy Lee Jones) have a long, unpredictable road ahead of them. Loretta already has a few kids when her husband Mooney decides she should seek fame on honky-tonk bandstands, and the pair make an unlikely but relatively quick ascendance.

One odd thing about Daughter is the way it handles that long-lived marriage: Mooney is clearly a cheating husband early in the tale, while his wife earns their pay, but his philandering fades from view as Loretta becomes a star. You've got to guess that Mooney cheats on her while she is on the road, but Jones plays him as a man quietly coming to terms with an unconventional family; he carries his wife offstage when she's knocked out on pills, he surprises her with plans for a homey little house away from Nashville glitz. If you didn't know better, you would think Mooney's cradle-robbing actually had a happy ending. •

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