Review of Two Documentary Films from First Run/Icarus Films: How Happy Can You Be? and Teeth

By Palumbo, Donald | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), September 2008 | Go to article overview

Review of Two Documentary Films from First Run/Icarus Films: How Happy Can You Be? and Teeth


Palumbo, Donald, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


How Happy Can You Be? and Teeth are two competently made, yet less than completely satisfying, documentary films distributed by First Run/Icarus Films in 2005 and 2007, respectively, that rely heavily on statistics to examine smiles from different perspectives. Teeth: An Investigation into Consumer Culture Identification and Good Smiles-a. 26-minute film by Alice Arnold-is the less engaging of the two both intrinsically and in its realization as a documentary. Essentially an investigation into the socio-cultural impetus driving the 300% increase (from 1999 to 2004) in America's "teeth whitening market," Teeth provides considerable, but sometimes-suspect, statistical information while featuring interspliced interviews with a psychoanalyst, three dentists, seven individuals who feel compelled for a variety of reasons to consider cosmetic dentistry, and a grill-wearer. These include frugal Leo, who does not like his smile because of missing teeth, initially fears he "couldn't afford it," yet finally has all his teeth replaced by dentures (the cheaper alternative to implants) only to discover that "eating with false teeth is like having sex wearing a condom"; a crooked-toothed, middle-aged Austrian immigrant who is surprised to be told to get braces, once in America, but attributes the American obsession with perfect teeth to "advertising . . . American corporate imagery is all about white teeth, big smile"; an Asian-American "insecure" about his "yellowish" teeth; a young woman who, told by her dentist to have her teeth whitened to "look younger," resents the "need to match" the current elevated "level of whiteness . . . of cleanliness," and feels that "this new phase of whitening, on top of the straightening, is a whole new level of beautification, and commodification"; and Markus Wailand, a handsome but gap-toothed actor who is advised by producers that those on TV need "perfect looks," and that all anyone will remember about him is his "tooth gap."

The dentists, one of whom quick-fixes the teeth of ordinary people who appear on the Montel Williams Show, discuss the procedures and expense of having teeth whitened or repaired, note that people want their teeth fixed because an "attractive smile" is important to dating (84%), friendship (71%), getting a job (74%), and succeeding at work (75%)-yet the source of these statistics is an Invisaline Smile Survey. They conclude, "Everybody wants to look good . . . . That's what our society is all about" while acknowledging that attractive teeth are a "class issue" as well as a "health issue." In this the dentists agree with psychoanalyst Michael Moskowitz, who asserts that this "false smile" is unique to the United States and that "we've developed this norm for showing the teeth that is in other ways an expression of class and power," not only because Freud interprets dreams about losing one's teeth as representing the loss of one's penis and thus "a loss of power," but also because dentistry is expensive. While opining that dental economics makes the quality of one's smile a race issue as well as a class issue, Moskowitz points out that hip-hop culture's preference for "grills" is a rejection of "the typical white man's attitude of allwhite teeth" that nonetheless, in the words of a pleased grill-wearer, similarly "signifies . . . I got more money . . . which means I got more power." (The best audio material in the documentary is the hip-hop song, "Show Your Teeth," that accompanies this segment.) The documentary is visually unimaginative in merely running quotations and statistics across the screen and in focusing excessively on talking (and reading) heads, but its primary flaw is that it is just too obvious: Its conclusion and central thesis, that "there's an industry out there that profits from making people feel like they need a certain kind of teeth," articulated by Moskowitz, does not go beyond what nearly everyone already knows.

How Happy Can You Be?-a 52-minute film by Line Hatland-has the advantage of examining a far more elusive topic about which there is considerably more that the average person might want to know. …

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