Todd Solondz, patron saint of pessimism

The director of \"Happiness\" discusses his fascination with pedophilia and his new film, \"Life During Wartime\"

By Matt Zoller Seitz

Published July 23, 2010 7:01PM (EDT)

American director Todd Solondz poses for photographers during of a photo call for his film 'Palindromes' screened out of competition at the American Film Festival of Deauville September 11, 2004. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler  VK/GB   (© Reuters Photographer / Reuters)
American director Todd Solondz poses for photographers during of a photo call for his film 'Palindromes' screened out of competition at the American Film Festival of Deauville September 11, 2004. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler VK/GB (© Reuters Photographer / Reuters)

If one made a list of films that seemed surefire candidates for a sequel, writer-director Todd Solondz’s 1998 black comedy "Happiness" probably wouldn’t be on it. Twelve years later, here it is: "Life During Wartime," a movie that revisits the characters and situations from "Happiness" with an entirely new cast and in a different U.S. state. The original took place in New Jersey, the filmmaker’s home; the follow-up is set in Florida. Both chronicle the misadventures and tragedies of the suburban, upper-middle-class Maplewood family, mingling naive yearning, social satire, sexual dysfunction and shocking violence in a way that enthralled some viewers and disgusted others.

The director’s other movies -- including the adolescent nightmare of the awkward young teen Dawn Wiener in "Welcome to the Dollhouse" and the prismatic experiment "Palindromes," which tells and retells the story of a young woman’s unplanned pregnancy via eight actresses of varying ages and body types -- are just as prickly and confounding. Solondz’s work tests notions of moral relativity. (The subject of pedophilia recurs in film after film.) The filmmaker also flouts the commonly accepted idea that a movie should be built around a character that learns something about him- or herself and evolves as a result. Solondz shows tragically myopic people carrying on as if they’re the righteous, put-upon, often misunderstood heroes of their own little movies, then being crushed when their sense of what life is supposed to be collides with the hard facts of the world’s selfishness, indifference and cruelty — then dusting themselves and moving on, traumatized but largely unchanged.

Few American filmmakers of note are less interested in being liked, much less popular. The much-debated centerpiece of "Happiness" showed the family’s patriarch, the outwardly charming but secretly pedophilic Bill Maplewood (Dylan Baker), trying to seduce one of his son’s young friends by way of a drugged tuna sandwich. The scene was staged mainly from Bill’s perspective and played for suspense and laughs, as if he were the decent and charming hero of a mainstream thriller trying to pull off a tricky but clever plan. Some viewed the tuna-sandwich scene as an especially brazen example of the American art house film’s obsession with flouting commonly accepted boundaries of taste — and it’s not hard to see why. At the same time, however, the scene was an object lesson in the manipulative power of cinema — especially its ability to compel us to identify with characters we would fear and loathe in real life.

Salon spoke with Solondz about his films' obsession with pedophilia, his pessimism and why he never recommends his films.

Would it be fair to describe "Life During Wartime" as a sequel to "Happiness"? If not, how would you describe it?

Well, I would just prefix that with "quasi-." It’s a quasi-sequel or variation on that film.

Was there any particular inspiration for going back to revisit these characters and these themes?

No. When I had finished "Happiness," I never imagined I would ever revisit the characters or stories in that movie. It just goes to show that my imagination wasn’t fertile enough, because I was wrong. And ten years later, for reasons I don’t know, I wrote the first scene of the movie and I decided that yes, there was still material here to mine and explore and get at in a different way.

You of course have been described as a deeply pessimistic, perhaps even misanthropic filmmaker. I don’t know anyone who is described that way who thinks of themselves in those terms. Do you read that sort of description of your work and think, "Oh no, they’ve got it all wrong!" Or are there aspects of it that are perhaps true?

To say that I’m misanthropic, I’m not going to quarrel [with that] one way or the other, because it’s ultimately reductive to write the movies off as misanthropic when I think that there’s a lot more going on. I think that the movies are all fraught with ambiguity. If one says the filmmaker is cruel and misanthropic, it kind of lets one off the hook, and there’s something facile about that. I think that there’s more richness, more texture, to the films than one would expect if all one heard was that they were misanthropic and cruel. I could argue the finer points of to what degree this may be true or not.

Do you ever find yourself thinking about your own characters and feeling a particular emotion for them? I know that may seem like an odd question, but you are the creator, and these people have a life beyond the movie you’ve just made. They live on in your head.

I can’t diagram this out for you. My feelings are complicated. Clearly they do take up my head and my heart. I am moved by them to varying degrees, and it depends on the character.

People often ask, "What is this all this pedophile stuff?" The great irony for me is that I have no particular interest at all — I never did — in the subject of pedophilia. But I think it came about as a kind of metaphor for that which is most demonized and ostracized, that which is most feared and loathed. I think most Americans would much rather have Osama bin Laden at their table than a pedophile.

The extremity of this, it becomes a kind of crucible of sorts — testing this notion of, to what extent can we embrace humanity as so many people may claim? — because to me, to embrace such an idea is to embrace an abstraction. It has no real meaning, because we are human to the extent that we can recognize our own limitations [and] the idea of forgiveness.

You can have a set of parents who are of a certain religious persuasion, their child is raised and murdered, and yet they see it within themselves to forgive the criminal. But for another set of parents of a different philosophical mindset, if the same thing happened to their child, they would want to seek vengeance. To me they’re both valid responses. My movies are not prescriptive. They aim to explore and test in some sense some of our preconceptions about who we are.

What you’re saying reminds me of a quote from the South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook. He said that the most important relationship in any of his movies was not between any two characters, but between the movie and the audience.

It’s true …. You know, if you watch the movie alone, it’s one thing, and yet if you watch the movie where people are laughing at different places, places where perhaps you don’t want them to be laughing, it can affect you in a positive or negative way. I think because the films walk such a fine line in terms of how the comedy and the pathos are married, the effect can be very discomfiting — or the audience can have an unexpectedly warm response. So much is about sensibility here.

I don’t remember if I told you the story of the young college kid who had seen "Happiness." It was one of his first screenings at Telluride. He was a little drunk and he came up to me and said, "Oh I loved your movie, it was awesome. Wow! Man, when that kid was raped, that was hilarious!" And I knew then that I was in trouble, and that I was playing with fire, and that I couldn’t control the way in which the movie would be experienced, which is why I then made the statement that my movies aren’t for everyone, especially people who like them.

I thought about your catching up with these characters again in context of some moments from your other movies. For example, in "Life During Wartime" there’s that wonderful scene in the dorm room with the paroled pedophile and his son, and there’s a poster up on the wall of one Bonobo buggering another, and that leads us into the son’s monologue about how you can’t change nature. Which reminded me of the bit where Mark Wiener, the accused young pedophile in "Palindromes," says that people always end up the way they started out — that no one ever changes. Was "Life During Wartime" a way to explore that notion on a much larger canvas — by making an entire other movie featuring the "Happiness" characters many years later, after they’ve relocated to a different part of the country and tried in some sense to start over?

I think the aim of "Palindromes" was very different than what’s going on here. Certainly to someone who has never seen any of my work there’s nothing peculiar at all. You don’t need any preparation or prior knowledge of any of my work to follow the narrative threads [in "Life During Wartime"]. In fact it may be to some advantage to not know anything about any of my prior work, because you approach it in a very fresh way. Of course, if you do know my prior work, the movie takes on a different level of interest in the way that the characters have evolved or changed, and how I play with the storylines and so forth, and the overall effect [on the viewer] by having different actors replace the others. On the minus side, though, it does make you more self-conscious — or it can — and that can get in the way of experiencing the movie on its own immediate terms.

I framed that question in terms of a pattern or motif because there’s a really wonderful article up on IndieWire about your work — at least I found it wonderful, you may not agree ...

I’m cool. Maybe I seem thinner skinned than I am … I’m always just happy, relieved if they’re not attacking me.

I only preface that because I don’t want to put words in your mouth. But there’s a description in the article of your early short movie "Schatt’s Last Shot," in which this character is endlessly haunted by his failure to make a shot during a basketball game. In so many of your movies there’s a constant sense of the characters being thwarted in some way, or having perhaps unrealistic expectations — or maybe just expectations, period — and ending up unsatisfied and unhappy. I saw perhaps a connection to your decision to revisit these characters from "Happiness" in a different place 10 years later. I felt that not a whole lot changed for them in terms of their essential natures.

Right, right. Well, it’s true, I think, to some extent. The thing is that I have to be true to the integrity of the characters and the reality that I set up. I don’t want to give any false sense of hope or comfort. But it’s not relentlessness that I feel. I am moved by the plights that these characters find themselves in.

I think that some people might complain about what they feel is a lack of redemption. The idea of redemption, certainly in this country, is very grounded in so many people. They do drugs, they go to prostitutes, what have you, and then they find God, and they find more prostitutes, and then they find God again. The public embraces the idea of redemption very profoundly. But I don’t think my movies function in that way. I don’t see that as a failing — although some may — because I think there is more a level of tragedy and of a certain kind of pathos that I have to be true to.

I don’t want to sound self-aggrandizing, but for points of reference, you look at "Hamlet" or "King Lear" — there’s not much redemption. There’s not much for "Hamlet" there at the end. You’ve got a lot of bodies piled up. While I don’t have so much violence [in "Life During Wartime"], I think it’s about speaking to an audience who wants to connect to concepts of, "You are not alone." And yes, there is something moving in that acknowledgment, that recognition.

There are some directors who enjoy interpreting their own work even if they don’t want to encourage any single interpretation of their work. You don’t necessarily strike me as one of those filmmakers. In fact, based on this conversation and a previous one that I had with you, the whole idea of trying to interpret a work of art seems to make you uncomfortable. And when I look at your movies, I do get a sense of them as being something that perhaps you want the audience to react against — or get into the head space of, if you can use that kind of term — and maybe not so much films where the point is to try to figure out what the film is saying, what the answers are.

I think that’s true. I think that’s fair. What I want is to have the audience engaged and experience the movie. Yes, there is an intellectual component. But on an immediate emotional level as well, there is of course irony at work.

Irony has somehow become tainted as something bad. But to go back to Shakespeare: Where would he be without irony? Irony can be well played or not. There are good and bad ironies. Once you get into interpretations, that’s all fine and dandy and interesting, and I can learn something from what other people have to say about my work, and in fact it can be informative. But it’s much less valuable to me than the immediate experience, the way in which these moral dilemmas are dramatized, the way in which these afflicted people struggle, the way in which people immediately engage with that. That’s what really drives me the most.

May I read you a reaction to "Life During Wartime" from a commenter on the Internet Movie Database? I think it goes directly to what you just said. "Gradually, as I watched this movie, I became aware that I was witnessing some of the most powerful and honest acting, writing, and directing I had ever experienced. And I'm glad, because if this material had been attempted by anyone without extreme skill and sensitivity, it would have been a monstrous disaster. As it is, I don't think I would add it to my DVD collection. I don't know if I could watch it again, and I'm not sure I'd feel comfortable people seeing it on my shelf unless they knew me well."

That’s funny, because whenever I meet someone socially out of context of New York, when I’m traveling and I meet different people, relatives, friends of friends or something like that, or [when] I’m talking to a plumber who finds out I’m a filmmaker, I never recommend my movies to anyone. I never feel comfortable recommending them to anyone. In some sense, I think they have to be discovered or sought out. Not everyone is the right audience. But those who do respond will find something of value for them.

That sense that I get from so many of your movies — from that line, "You can’t change nature," and from variations of it — is that you believe we perhaps do not have the degree of autonomy in this country, or in any country, that we think we do, or the power to change as much as we think we do. I guess on one hand you can take that as the ultimate despairing statement — but on the other, maybe a subtle admonition to be aware of the species’ limits and perhaps to be more humble and kind?

That’s the thing. Mark Wiener [in "Palindromes"], he’s a little bleaker than I am. Yes, I think you can only grow up once you recognize your limitations. You grow up being told you can do anything. But of course that’s an illusion. It’s a deception. We’re all defined by our limitations.

Of course I speak philosophically and not intellectually here — though at the same time, even within the parameters by which we are defined, there is infinite possibility. There are an infinite number of possibilities [within each person’s life] just as there are an infinite number of actors that could portray Aviva in "Palindromes." In this movie, I’m sure I could find another cast! There are infinite possibilities to still explore and heights that can still be attained.

But change in one’s fundamental nature? No. I think it has to be accepted and embraced for all our flaws and blemishes. I don’t see that as a bad thing. I see that as a good thing.

Matt Zoller Seitz

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