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DVD Review: Happy Endings

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It’s obvious to me that the documentary Happy Endings was a labor of love on the part of director/producer Tara Hurley and editor Nick Marcoux. According to the commentary on the disk, Hurley and Marcoux labored for four years to produce this baby. But no matter how much parents love their offspring that doesn’t mean that their offspring is beautiful. And just like in real life, I’ve seen my share of unattractive babies.

Happy Endings focuses on the Korean massage parlors in Providence, Rhode Island. This documentary makes it very clear that anyone who lives in Rhode Island knows that these parlors are fronts for prostitution. The core of Happy Endings is a series of interviews with the mayor of Providence, the women who work in the parlors, a customer, some legislators, lawyers, social activists, and two employees of the local newspaper. Because of a loophole in the state's laws, prostitution is illegal outside a building or on the street but is legal inside a building. The obvious presence of legal prostitution has polarized the citizens of Rhode Island.

The first problem I have with Happy Endings is the audio. The music overpowers and mixes with the speech of the people being interviewed so it’s very difficult to hear what these people are saying. I couldn’t turn up the volume because then the music volume would also go up. So, I had to listen and listen again to catch some of the words. And there were times when there was no music, and the sound levels were too low. So, I spent a lot of my viewing time turning the volume up and down. And at a couple of points in the documentary, my stereo switched modes from mono to stereo and then back again. It appears that Timothy O’Keefe was responsible for the sound, but I don’t know how much blame he deserves if he had to work with bad recordings to begin with.

Many of the screen graphics detracted from the experience instead of adding to it. For example, running text in Korean across the screen did nothing for me as a viewer.

By searching the Internet, I tried to find out if Tara Hurley and Nick Marcoux have any formal video or film training or education: I found no evidence that they have any formal training. Happy Endings has the earmarks of an amateur video. There is a real mix of visual effects that take the viewer on a roller coaster ride of camera angles, fuzzy images, video tricks, and transitions. This documentary is incredibly choppy and switches back and forth from person to person with no apparent purpose.

For most of the interviews, Hurley’s questions are not presented, so one only hears the responses from the person being interviewed. During the commentary section of the disk, Marcoux compliments Hurley on her hard-hitting questions. What were those questions? From listening to only one side of the exchange, I thought the interviews were soft, not revealing, and lacked depth.

I wanted to know more about the people being interviewed. Heather, one of the massage parlor managers, is interviewed extensively. But at the end I knew almost nothing about her. What was her life in Korea like? How did she get to America? What was her first job like? Of all the men she met, how did she end up marrying her husband, Chris? How does Chris feel about Heather’s past as a prostitute? To care about the people featured in this documentary, I needed to know more about them. And I really wanted Hurley to ask the two newspaper employees how they felt about accepting ads and money from massage parlors that they know are fronts for prostitution.

An interesting line in the Happy Endings trailer goes, "You can’t clap with one hand." I could be mistaken, but I think this is a reference to the ancient Zen koan (riddle) that asks: what is the sound of one hand clapping? Usually the Zen master asks a student this question to determine if the student has reached a certain level of enlightenment.This could have been used more effectively in the documentary, and they could have explored how Heather’s religion allowed her involvement in prostitution. In one scene at the parlor, Heather fills some cups with water and then appears to pray or bow to them. What was the meaning of this ritual?

A weird thing about Happy Endings is that almost everyone’s face is hidden, including the creators of this documentary. And when you go to the Happy Endings website and view Hurley's photo, her eyes are covered with a black rectangle so that she can’t be recognized. Why all the mystery? Is an Asian gang or mafia running the parlors? Now, that would be an interesting subject for a documentary. And I know that with very little effort, I could locate Hurley, Marcoux, and the people in this documentary. And if I can do it, I know the Asian gangs or mafia could too. So, what’s the reason for hiding almost everyone’s face?

One person in the documentary referred to prostitution as the oldest profession. And because that’s somewhat true, Happy Endings isn’t revealing anything new about prostitution or covering this subject in an unusual or unique way. I’m sure that the residents of Rhode Island found this documentary interesting, but I just don’t think it’s interesting enough to attract a nationwide audience.

It’s obvious to me that the filmmakers have a passion for making documentaries. Their hearts and souls are on display in this documentary. But they need some honest feedback, formal training, and a more critical view of their own creation. I hope that they continue to make documentaries and wish them the best.

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  • Jason

    I saw this film six months ago, so my memory’s not so fresh. But I remember I only stayed in the theater because a friend invited me to watch it.

    It bored the hell out of me. 30 minutes could easily have been edited out, as the camera frequently allowed the subjects to ramble too long. It’s nice that Hurley allows the women to speak of their hardships and how they feel about their jobs, that they’re not hurting anybody, etc. But that’s as deep as it gets. There’s very little detailed debate about how decriminalizing prostitution could be beneficial for women- “these women aren’t hurting anybody” is as deep as it gets. You know, I think pot should be legal, but if I want to sway somebody’s opinion I will not merely say “It’s my body, I can smoke what I want!”. I would engage discussion on the prison overcrowding, dangers of creating a black market, stigma, etc.

    Yes, there’s a sad double standard in that the women are more harshly punished than the male customers. But simply pointing that out isn’t exactly revolutionary. If Tara Hurley returns to the subject of prostitution in the future, hopefully the results will be better as I think this is an important issue.