' Cinema Romantico: Happy Valley

Monday, April 20, 2015

Happy Valley

“We had Camelot.” So says Sue Paterno, wife of the late Joe, coach of the Penn State University Football team for forty-five years where he conducted a so-called Grand Experiment seeking to marry sports and academics before it all came crashing down over one turbulent week in October 2011. For an instant, you think she must mean it ironically. But she doesn’t. She seriously believes it. “Sue,” you want to say, “Camelot wasn’t real. King Arthur was a myth.” We invent such ideals in fiction because they are impossible to achieve in real life, and if you think you have, well, the fall from imagined grace is always titanic.

That fall, of course, originated from the utterly horrifying crimes committed by Paterno’s one-time top assistant, defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, a man eventually found guilty on 45 counts of child abuse that often took place within facilities on the Penn State campus. This is, without question, the greatest tragedy of State College, Pennsylvania, and the film understands it. But the film is not called “Sandusky”; it is called “Happy Valley”, the nickname for the insulated, idyllic farming community where Paterno and Sandusky once reigned. This is because director Amir Bar-Lev yearns not to simply re-hash the myriad sordid details but to observe the place torn in two by those sordid details. What he finds, frankly, is terrifying in its own right, a climate of denial so pervasive it’s an honest wonder if the area will ever move forward.


Formally, “Happy Valley” is hardly adventurous, relying almost exclusively on stock footage and talking heads. Yet Bar-Lev deploys these talking heads with a deft purpose. He interviews Paterno family members, a Penn State student in his early twenties, a local historian, lawyers, and Paterno’s biographer, Joe Posnanski, a writer for whom I retain much respect, though in this specific arena he continues wearing blinders eight miles wide. For a good while you fear the film is nothing more than a festival of Penn State apologists. Eventually, however, it dawns on you that what Bar-Lev is subtly, skillfully doing is allowing this unending line of talking heads to unwittingly dig their own graves.

Whether Joe Paterno knew for certain what was happening or how long it had been going on, is open to debate, even if it seems difficult to believe the ruler of this central Pennsylvania kingdom could have been unaware. And the idea of whether fulfilling his legal requirement once he did learn of “something” was enough or if moral obligations also played a role is for each person to judge. “Happy Valley” passes no judgment. It offers the information as we know it and allows each interviewee to speak to it, and as they do, it becomes apparent that protecting Paterno’s legacy usurps deducing precisely what happened within the Paterno empire to enable a sexual predator to roam undetected.

Was it a stretch for the NCAA to employ Louis Freeh’s investigation into the matter to lay the hammer to Penn State program, to strip it of scholarships and take away numerous Paterno victories that he still earned even if the “record books” claimed he didn’t? Sure, it was. As Matt Jordan, Penn State film professor notes, the NCAA engaged in a “shaming spectacle”, one that essentially diverted attention from the real crimes perpetrated by Sandusky. “It’s a way to avoid doing something about it,” Jordan says. Truth.

So when Jay Paterno, Joe’s oldest son, explains they wanted to do something about it, you think perhaps this is the moment when the community rallied around focusing its efforts toward Sandusky’s victims, but no. The “it”, we quickly learn, of which they choose to do something about is not matters of child abuse but protecting JoePa’s legacy. Not even protecting, really, as much as relieve themselves of guilt. They hire their own investigators to essentially counteract the Freeh Report and once their own investigators have done just that, well, then they can sleep at night, or something. One of Sandusky’s adopted children, Matt, interviewed throughout, comes forward with his own tale of abuse at the hands of his foster father, something he suppressed for years, and admits to being ostracized, illustrating the community's closing of ranks, its eternal deference to their “beacon of integrity”. 

Happy Valley chants “Fuck Sandusky” at a pro-Paterno rally as if it alone will settle the ethical bill. It touts high graduation rates as if they alone will provide absolution. It blames the media for focusing on the community's darkest transgression while refusing to cope with that transgression itself. As such, the film's primary point rises intrinsically from the people telling this story, those still immersed in a cocoon of outrage always aimed outwardly while what happened within its ivy tower goes un-examined.

Jay Paterno says it best, without realizing that he says it best. “I tell my wife, if I don’t hear it, it doesn’t exist. If I don't know it exists, it can’t bother me. … I know that’s denial but so what? It's healthy for me.”

1 comment:

Alex Withrow said...

Great review here, love that you wrote about this film. This was a hard one to take, but man... the imagery of that guy painting over that mural was really something else. I loved that you closed with those words from Jay. Very fitting way to end.