Ally Sheedy helps Todd Solondz offer a variation on 'Happiness' with 'Life During Wartime.'

Todd Solondz' Cinema of Discomfort

Robert Avila August 9, 2010

Filmmaker Todd Solondz has stoked controversy, and a loyal following, with his daringly sardonic, beautifully controlled satires of suburban American life. The New Jersey native has long resided in Manhattan, but returns obsessively to the tortured if well-manicured landscapes of suburbia for such coolly excoriating, unexpectedly moving, and deeply funny films as Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness, Storytelling, and Palindromes—formally inventive works that share a bold visual and dramatic style, one that has brought comparisons to the graphic novel with its anxious realism and stark, deadpan relish for the blemishes normally airbrushed away in cinematic versions of “real life.” That fascination with the uncomfortable or unpalatable extends thematically into screenplays that squarely feature pedophilia, abortion, rape, and other taboo topics in serene juxtaposition to the most mundane aspects of daily life. Solondz’ latest effort, Life During Wartime, revisits characters and themes in both Happiness and Dollhouse, but with a unique set of concerns obliquely flagged by the title. Solondz spoke with SF360 while in town last month.

SF360: Your films are compared to graphic novels. Were they an inspiration for you?

Todd Solondz: No, I mean I learned about Dan Clowes’s work at some point. It may have been right after Happiness that I learned about Dan Clowes, but of course that was when I got him to do the poster. But I didn’t know him at the time.

SF360: Was there a shock of recognition when you saw his work?

Solondz: Well, I think he’s great, I love him, and I got to meet him through this process. And I love Ghost World and Terry Zwigoff, all of that. They came to the screening last night. But I don’t know what inspired me—my life, watching TV eight hours a day when you’re eleven years old. It seems just a little affected or false to say it’s because I was reading Dickens and Proust or watching Truffaut and Godard, which I really didn’t learn about until much later.

SF360: You grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey. Did you grow up in one particular suburb or did you move around a bit?

Solondz: We didn’t move too much, not really. I was pretty much based in the same place.

SF360: Were the suburbs something that you always thought you would escape?

Solondz: My Oz was New York. So I’m living my dream; I live in New York. That’s what I wanted. We lived in a development, and on some visceral level I just couldn’t wait to get out. You know, it’s funny, I went through a whole bunch of possible titles for Welcome to the Dollhouse, and one of them was “Escape from New Jersey.”

SF360: How much do you draw on real people you know in those places?

Solondz: No one is drawn after anyone I actually know, but I’m sure people consciously or unconsciously filter in, in different ways. While it’s possible that I had met a pedophile and not known it, I certainly had no interest in pedophilia. But as a metaphor for that which is most demonized, ostracized, feared and loathed, you couldn’t do better. So it’s through that prism that it’s dramatized. People ask is it autobiographical. What can I say? Yeah, it’s all autobiographical even if none of it actually happened. Emotionally and psychologically and so forth it’s true if not to my experience than to my understanding.

SF360: As a writer, then, you use the pedophile as a person almost beyond sympathy.

Solondz: He’s not sympathetic. Anyone who commits such a crime I couldn’t see as sympathetic. It seems tragic but not sympathetic. I think most Americans would sooner have Osama bin Laden at their dinner table than a pedophile.

SF360: The ending of the new film echoes the ending in Happiness. The child, post–bar mitzvah, now a man but longing for the absent father. . . .

Solondz: It is moving for me. The idea of that outsider status that [the character] Bill Maplewood has, becomes a kind of crucible to test in some sense our capacity—I mean, it’s one thing to say one embraces humanity or loves mankind, but those are abstractions. It doesn’t mean anything substantively. What are those limits? Is it just the Bill Mapplewoods? And what does that say? The terrible reality and painful truth is that he does have a pulse, and it’s a human one. That’s what gives it the stature of tragedy: He is, in fact, a great father who does love his son—and yet there is no redemption. The interesting thing is, we live in a world, a society, where everyone has his redemption. You know, every politician. They cry, they go find god, and they get redeemed and born again and so forth. But I don’t know that there is redemption for everyone; that, in fact, some people succumb to the wrong impulses and it’s irrevocable, irremediable. But that’s I suppose a heretical view to some.

SF360: You mention politicians or high-profile evangelists: Isn’t the 'privilege' of redemption often tied to power or influence?

Solondz: It is. It’s also a class and social thing; they’re related.

SF360: That personal fall also affects a web of other lives, of course.

Solondz: Yes. And when [Ciarán Hinds as Bill Mapplewood] has a pivotal scene with Charlotte Rampling—where he’s her mark as much as she’s his mark—on the surface there’s a kind of seduction that’s taking place, and everything he says is a lie. But there’s also—and this is what I think lends it it’s strange power—there’s also this struggle to form a kind of connection, a kind of bond, with both the self-described monsters. It’s that thing that makes them human. If there is redemption I think it lies in that.

SF360: The role of children in your films is pronounced. We often see child characters on the cusp of adulthood, looking at it somewhat bemusedly and idealistically. Again, the endings of both Happiness and Life During Wartime have a rite of passage, the ironic fulfillment of initiations into manhood for two boys missing their fathers. It’s comical and sad at once, especially since it's balancing the characters’ hopes and expectations with the dysfunctional adult world around them, with what we the audience think of as all the heartbreak and misery ahead of them.

Solondz: And yet, all that’s true, but for me there is also hope, at both the end of Happiness and this movie. In [Happiness], his ejaculation is almost a kind of communion with his father. And [in Life During Wartime], as long as he has the yearning for his father, there’s a kind of beauty and hope in that. And I just realized that—I’m just looking back now that you said I have these children entering adulthood—I think that’s Dawn Weiner, right there, as well. A girl that is initiated by, quote, rape into adulthood or adolescence; that has grown up in that way. Even the little boy in Storytelling, in the second half, as he talks with his cleaning woman, or nanny, and gets close to her, he gets a little too close and isn’t allowed to grow up. Children are, I think, particularly engaging to the extent that they reflect who we are as adults.

SF360: The last image of Dawn in Welcome to the Dollhouse is especially striking in its ambiguity too, surrounded as she is by the coffin of the bus but with this expanded consciousness.

Solondz: And I mean she will stoically—she will get through things. But I like the way you said it, the bus to Disneyland as her coffin.

SF360: Have you leaned things about directing child actors? Has it gotten easier?

Solondz: Nothing’s easy. It’s all hard. You always have to figure it out from scratch every time.

SF360: Fear, Anxiety & Depression, your very first film, which precedes Welcome to the Dollhouse, was not considered a success. You’ve said as much. Was there a big change in your approach to filmmaking between those two films?

Solondz: Well, it takes time for everyone to grow up. That movie also I didn’t have the control that I have had since. It was ill conceived and ill begotten, and a painful experience. But it takes time to find the way you can express yourself in this medium. I had to fail many years and many, many times before I hit my place.

SF360: The studio system, and all that goes with it beyond just making a film. Is it something you are comfortable with?

Solondz: I’m lucky people want to talk to me. I’m not going to complain. If they don’t want to talk to me then that means no one wants to see the movie and then I’m done. It’s all part of the job, you know. I’m shooting something—God willing it doesn’t fall apart—this fall, and if all this can help secure things then it’s better, because the audience has dwindled for these sorts of movies. The Internet, the TV with a thousand channels, Netflix—I feel there’s been a kind of permanent shift in the cultural landscape, in lifestyles. And I think the success of these 3-D movies that studios have made is a very big red flag. It’s like the '50s redux when there was that panic about TV. But I don’t know how we’re going to survive exactly the economic plan as it exists right now. All the piracy amounts to billions of dollars that have an impact on why you can’t get money so easily; it’s not just me. I’m gratified and lucky—when I look back and think that these movies got made at all? Very lucky.

SF360: Are there filmmakers you feel an affinity with? Some have pointed to the poster for Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There in the dorm room scene. . . .

Solondz: More is being made of that than I quite intended. First of all, I’m on such a blacklist of every corporation, no one wants to give me anything. I had permission for that poster. And in terms of the character, it seemed like the kind of movie the character would respond to; he’s an alternative kid, it would be precisely the kind of movie he would go to. Was I aware of course of the coincidental nature of that movie in terms of the casting choice? Yes. But did I feel that it would distract from the dramatic substance of the scene? No. I had different aims in Palindromes in terms of my casting. I had different aims in this movie, just as Todd had different aims in his. Ultimately, you want to find what’s right for the movie and make it breath and come to life.

SF360: But that subtle linking to that film, for whatever reason it may have happened, does resonate with something more fundamental across your films, which seems to have to do with the problem of human sympathy. Your work negotiates a lot of ambiguity in how we perceive ourselves and others.

Solondz: Everything’s fraught with ambiguity. That’s part of the pleasure for me. When I go to the movies, I want to be provoked; I want to be stimulated. I also want to have fun; I want to laugh and cry like everyone else. But I want to be taken somewhere where I’m more alive, for that 90 minutes or two hours. Then you go out and have a nice dinner. But if you can do that, that’s an achievement. It’s not going to change the world. It’s not going to stop war. I don’t know of any movie that has.

SF360: Which brings us to the title of the film, which no doubt you’re asked to explain over and over again.

Solondz: Obviously, we are living a life during wartime, globally. The movie is more politically overt, certainly than Happiness. It’s post-9/11. But it’s also, of course, the war among out intimates, and within ourselves. So like Happiness, I had a song composed for it [called “Life During Wartime”].

SF360: Do you ever compose the songs for your films?

Solondz: No—on this one I wrote the lyrics. If I had the talent I would be a musician, but I don’t have it.

SF360: The songs neatly project, in another form, that ambiguity your films explore. When the character of Joy sings the title songs in Happiness or Life During Wartime we initially feel embarrassed.

Solondz: It’s naïve.

SF360: But then you have, for example, Michael Stipe singing another version of the Happiness song over the credits and you realize that this song actually works; it’s viable.

Solondz: And likewise, I think what Devendra Banhart did—who has a song earlier in the film—I think Beck helped him a little bit, but it’s lovely, it’s just beautiful what he did. Actually Marc Shaiman wrote that song. Marc Shaiman wrote Hairspray, he’s done a zillion scores. But he kind of did a favor for me. It was the right song for that character, and I didn’t know it could be transformed into something so beautiful with Devendra and Beck.

SF360: Last question: Do you know San Francisco very well?

Solondz: I think, at the max, like three days I’ve been here in a row. I don’t know my way around at all. I just happen to know a few people here. It’s a lovely city; I just didn’t end up landing here. The only city I can live in, in the country, is New York, because it’s the only city where having a car is a burden. I don’t have a car; I don’t own a car; I don’t want a car. So that’s why I have to live in New York, if I’m to stay in this country.