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Film Studies: Watch out: there's a new sort of cinema nasty about

A little touch of nasties in the dark? Sometimes I get a notion that America's movie weather is changing. Such predictions are foolhardy, I know. As soon as the paranoia of fresh torrid zones overtakes you, lo, it's snowing in Bakersfield and Las Vegas.

Nevertheless, if for the better part of a century, American movies have been confident, heroic and happy, let me draw your attention to something new, or aberrational. It's not large yet, let alone prevailing. But there's something out there I want to call Nasties, or Unpleasants, movies that make an orthodoxy of doubt-ridden characters, despondent endings and absolutely no comforting moral values. They're like life - the form American movies were once pledged to ignore, or improve upon.

Only last week, Antonia Quirke noticed one of these aliens - Peter Berg's Very Bad Things. She was right in saying that this film was less than it might have been, but I'm interested in its casual use of murder, the realisation that there need be no automatic retribution, and the conclusion that life goes on anyway.

You might call this just modish cynicism - kids trying to shock their elders. If so, there are other films coming with the same numbness, some of them better than Very Bad Things. There's Your Friends and Neighbors, the next film by Neil LaBute (the man who made In the Company of Men), and Happiness by Todd Solondz.

Your Friends and Neighbors is a ronde in fashionable young New York, about a group of "friends" who really lie, manipulate and feed on one another. It's a more polished film than In the Company of Men, and it's clear now that La Bute's coldness comes with style - a withdrawn, non- judgemental camera, as if the people were rats in an experiment. When I saw Your Friends, there were cries of disgust and disturbance in the audience. These people were so awful, and we were expected to watch them escaping censure or comeuppance.

Happiness is better yet, and with its deadpan title it stands as the model of the creepy genre. Like La Bute's film, it lacks the inner emotional shape of a mountain. What I mean is that most American movies have been about one or two people who behaved as if on top of a mountain: they breathed the rarefied air that said they deserved story, romance, melodrama. Everything else in life was on the lower slopes, as it were - hence the very American idea of supporting characters, stooges who do not have their own life but who sustain stars.

You may have noticed that life is different - though there are still tyrants and romantics who believe they are higher up than others. Let's just say there is another model: of life as flat as Kansas, with people like ants scurrying around in their jittery dance. We are not special; we do not qualify for "story".

Happiness, therefore, is another group portrait, and its sad but oddly resilient point of view leaves as little room for hope as for blame. We are all alike: liars, compartmentalists, bland exteriors with secret flaws. And in Happiness we see all manner of "deviant" behaviour - including paedophilia - without being surprised, or persuaded that the steep slopiness of the mountain will impose healing or happiness.

Jean Renoir once said of his films that "everyone has his reasons". Todd Solondz, who surely lacks Renoir's faith in vitality, may respond that we all have our excuses. Such creatures are not aimedat happiness so much as survival, escape or getting away with it. Everyone is a supporting character - but don't count on support. Happiness, in other words, is a very private recourse - obsessive, neurotic, secretive, a version of unbreachable isolation.

All this could pass. The new film-makers could be promoted to make big (ie, big-salary) films, in which they find a way back to old-fashioned positivity and star-power. There is by now a great tradition of looking on the bright side as the energy of American movies - and it surely helps if you (the artist?) are suddenly put a few million dollars on that bright side. You can tell yourself that once you've revealed the squalor of life, you have a duty to offer escape, and a boost.

But maybe a hundred years of this steady deceit has done more damage to America (and its reluctant colonies) than any amount of sex, violence and outrage. You can argue that a Solondz is simply reacting, in a camp, cool way, to the habit of stupid stories and rosy guff. He might also be a reflection of how much OJ and Bill and others do get away with, because censure is so old-hat and futile.

If you wanted to be positive about this negativity, you could point to a halting tradition of darkness in American film - I mean a genuine sense of lost human control. You can trace it back through Altman's Short Cuts, Chinatown, film noir, and even Citizen Kane, which knew the solitude and solipsism in being an American champion.

But those films grieved over what was lost. They voiced pain, protest and outrage, such as one can hear in Faulkner's novels, or in the loneliness of great jazz solos. And these new films are something else, something new, so downcast and bereft of hope, they might leave you wondering whether watching or caring are worthwhile still. I recognise their tonal novelty and their skill, but do I want to read or watch if the darkness is so wall-to-wall that no one bothers to think of light any more? Do we prefer the mountains or the flat lands?