A former actor with art in his blood, Mitchell Lichtenstein is now making a name for himself as the creator of eccentric, darkly humorous films. His newest, Happy Tears, opens this month.
By R. Kurt Osenlund
Art enthusiasts will probably recognize the name of writer/director Mitchell Lichtenstein's latest film, Happy Tears – or, at least, pop art enthusiasts will. The title is also that of a 1964 painting by Mitchell's father, Roy Lichtenstein, the immortal modern master whose graphic, comic-book style work is known the world over. Mitchell says he was drawn to the title's contradictory nature – something that certainly permeates his new movie.
Opening Feb. 19 in limited release (and available OnDemand Feb. 24), Happy Tears is at once comical and dismal, grounded and dizzily aloft. It tells of two sisters, loopy Jayne (a looser-than-usual Parker Posey) and no-nonsense Laura (a superb Demi Moore), who head to their childhood home in Pittsburgh to care for their dementia-addled father, Joe (Rip Torn, characteristically brash). The wife of a wealthy and mentally unstable California art dealer named Jackson (Christian Carmago), Jayne is so detached from reality, she daydreams and hallucinates on a regular basis, abandoning uncomfortable scenarios for colorful fantasies that excite the look of the film. Environmentalist Laura, on the other hand, is faithfully levelheaded, and a wee bit jealous that Jayne, a party girl since the death of the sisters' mom, wound up living the charmed life. The family reunion sees the resurgence of old skeletons and the arrival of new ones, like Joe's gold-digging, crackhead “nurse” girlfriend, Shelly (Ellen Barkin, cartoonishly grotesque).
Not everything in the movie works: certain characters are underwritten, the tonal shifts are occasionally irksome, and the disparate components don't always cohere. But the delirious humor is fun and free-flowing, and Posey and Moore make convincing screen sisters. Perhaps the best thing about Happy Tears is that it's bursting with quirks, yet it never stoops to become a product of the ever-growing quirk cinema genre, which too often births films that are rife with insincerity. Genuinely odd, this very much feels like the vision of one daring individual.
And why shouldn't it? The filmmaker is, after all, the man behind Teeth, the campy 2008 horror thriller that had everyone talking and has become a cult hit. An actor originally, Mitchell, 57, is relatively new to the directorial game. He may still be best known as the son of a famous artist, but his work of late is in no way indicative of someone living in his father's shadow. Contrarily, it is the work of someone boldly casting his own.
Mitchell discussed his father (and female sexuality, and mental illness) when we spoke over the phone in early January.
R. Kurt Osenlund: When did you know you wanted to be a filmmaker?
Mitchell Lichtenstein: It was pretty recently. I started out as an actor and always wanted to get back into writing, which I had done as a teenager. It wasn't really until I wrote what turned out to be my first feature, Teeth, that I decided it would probably be best if I directed it because it was such and odd piece with subject matter that's not necessarily appealing to a lot of people. Before I tackled that, I turned a short story of mine, Resurrection, into a short movie to see if I enjoyed directing, and if I had any aptitude for it. I enjoyed it, and it turned out pretty well, so, I went ahead with Teeth, and now I really love the whole process. It was a gradual thing, but it certainly started late in life. I didn't grow up wanting to be a filmmaker.
R.K.O.: Did you ever want to be a painter like your father?
M.L.: No. I did draw and paint a little bit growing up, and I guess I had some talent, but I was never really into it. I never seriously considered it.
R.K.O.: Well, there is a bit of a painterly feel to certain scenes in Happy Tears, and there's also the more literal presence of paintings in the film, from the opening credits to the scene where your father's titular painting makes an appearance. How important was it for you to have artwork not just in the story, but up there on the screen?
M.L.: Well, certainly, it's integral to Happy Tears because the one character, Jackson, had a father who was a painter. So, plot-wise, it's important. We had [artist] Cy Twombly's work to represent the painter in Happy Tears. He was very generous with letting us use his images. The work is not super-highlighted in the movie, but I loved it so much, I wanted to show it off [in the credits].
R.K.O.: How did that come about – the collaboration with Twombly and the use of his work in the film?
M.L.: I've still never actually talked to or met Cy. I had known his dealer, and his dealer asked him if it was okay to use some of his images. So, it wasn't exactly a collaboration, he just allowed some of his work to be used.
R.K.O.: Regarding the title, how did that chain of inspiration, so to speak, work? Did the painting and its title influence the story? Or had you written the story already when you were drawn to the painting?
M.L.: It was the latter, really. I was searching for a satisfying title. I had actually written [the film] first as a short story, and it had various other titles, but I wasn't happy with them. And then, I happened to have a Christie's catalog on my desk, and the painting happened to be on the cover because it was going up for auction. And I looked at it and realized that it was actually a really perfect title. So, it was kismet, I guess, that it happened to be on my desk. It all seemed to fit.
"Happy Tears," by Roy Lichtenstein.
R.K.O.: On that same note, in terms of the concept of “happy tears,” there are moments in the film where we can't tell if Jayne is laughing or crying. Was that intentional?
M.L.: Yes. It's part of what made it a good title because we don't know if she's happy or sad and, in a way, she doesn't know, either. For most of the movie she's so unconnected to her feelings, or escaping from her feelings, that certain situations, such as reminders of her dead mother, send her into what we don't know is convulsions or tears or laughter. And it's because she hasn't dealt with her feelings. I thought it was integral to the character.
R.K.O.: When casting the film, what made you choose Parker Posey and Demi Moore? And did the resemblance have anything to do with it?
M.L.: The resemblance was definitely a bonus. When writing it, I hadn't thought of any particular actresses, but once I started thinking that way, I immediately wanted Parker. I got the script to her and, luckily, she was enthusiastic about it, so then it was a question of finding someone who matched up well with her. Demi came to mind, secondarily because of the resemblance, but because she's a really grounded actor. Compared to Jayne's flightiness, it seemed a good opposition and just an innate quality that part needed to have.
R.K.O.: In the production notes, you refer to Parker and Demi as “The Opal” and “The Diamond,” respectively. Could you give a little explanation for those nicknames?
M.L.: Well, Parker is The Opal partly because her character is obsessed with her mother's opal pendant, which figures into the plot. And it made me think that, in fact, Parker is sort of like that: an opal has a lot of subtle coloring, and that's something Parker's work really has. There's a lot of shading, and she really understands how something is both funny and serious at the same time, bringing a lot of color to every moment. Demi tends to be really crystalline, or diamond-like, and her choices are super-clear. You're always sure about what she's thinking, and it's a very different kind of talent and effect she brings.
R.K.O.: Are the characters, specifically the female characters, based on people you've known in your life?
M.L.: Some of the characters are from my extended family. Part of the story came from events that happened, and I don't want to get too specific about who it was, but it is from my extended family, and that's how I began to develop the story. But the relationship of the sisters is not based on the relationship of sisters in my family.
R.K.O.: You've said that the character of Jackson isn't you, and that you were “known” by your father, and that he “got a kick out of you.” What do you mean by that?
M.L.: Well, Jackson feels like he has to prove himself to his recently-deceased father, and he takes on the job of dealing with his father's legacy and paintings and exhibitions – stuff that really isn't a one-person job and that he's not committed to. But he feels, devotionally, that he needs to do it, which is sort of his downfall. I didn't have that kind of relationship with my father, and I don't have that kind of relationship with his legacy. What do I mean by, “he got a kick out of me?” He would drive up to my college in Vermont and see me in plays, and he really went out of his way to be supportive. I'm a pretty shy person, and I think he got a kick out of my wanting to be on stage, seeing as I'm so shy in life.
Parker Posey and Demi Moore in a scene from Happy Tears.
R.K.O.: Given Jayne's fertility obsession, in this film – and, certainly, in Teeth – you deal with feminine sexuality in this exaggerated sort of way. Why do you think you're drawn to those themes?
M.L.: Um, yeah, I don't know. That's a question for my shrink, I guess.
R.K.O.: Interestingly put, considering my next question is in reference to mental illness, which shows up in at least two forms in Happy Tears. What were the motivations for incorporating those elements?
M.L.: Well, my mother had dementia. Not Binswanger's disease like Joe has, but she had brain damage from alcoholism. So, I grew up with that, and I'm sure that was an influence.
R.K.O.: Speaking of influences, as an actor, you've worked with great directors like Robert Altman and Ang Lee, and I definitely felt a David Lynch vibe during certain scenes in Happy Tears. Have these or other filmmakers influenced your work?
M.L.: I love David Lynch. I could only aspire – some of his movies are my favorites. I don't know if I'd call them influences, but I love Robert Altman, and Ang, too. John Waters. Almodóvar. I'm sure there are plenty more if I thought about it long enough.
R.K.O.: What's a better indicator of what we can expect from you in the future: Teeth or Happy Tears?
M.L.: Good question. What I'm writing now is closer to Teeth than it is to Happy Tears. I'm adapting a novel called Angelica [by Arthur Phillips]. It's a psycho-sexual, Victorian ghost story. It deals with some of the same themes as Teeth, although there's no actual teeth.
R.K.O.: At the end of Happy Tears, Laura offers a toast, saying, “To creation, wherever it may come from.” Where does your creation generally come from?
M.L.: I think it comes from my upbringing, my childhood memories. Well, I don't know if Teeth really came from that, but I think that I've been influenced by my father a lot – his sense of humor, his work ethic. I think both Teeth and Happy Tears have a certain amount of sly humor that his work often had. The tone of his work, I am sure and I would hope, has brushed off on me.
*This article was published in the February 2010 issue of ICON magazine. It has been reprinted with permission.