Todd Solondz: I'm Judd Apatow's dark side

Solondz on exploring a "different version" of George Costanza in his brilliant suburban satire "Dark Horse"

Published June 6, 2012 12:00AM (EDT)

Todd Solondz      (AP/Joel Ryan)
Todd Solondz (AP/Joel Ryan)

At one point in my conversation with filmmaker Todd Solondz -- which was very friendly and funny overall -- he accused me of using big words and having gone to graduate school. (Only for one semester, I protested.) This from a guy who describes his own movies as "a kind of crucible" designed to force the audience to confront uncomfortable truths. That's not the only evident contradiction in the life and work of Solondz, a writer and director who burst to prominence in the late '90s with the art-house hits "Welcome to the Dollhouse" and "Happiness," but since then has pursued an ever more individual and idiosyncratic path.

Solondz insists on referring to his movies as comedies, despite the fact that they have often dealt with the darkest possible themes, including child abuse, rape and suicide, and almost universally refuse to provide a conventional happy ending. His new film, "Dark Horse" -- which I think is clearly among his funniest and most affecting -- is actually devoid of any major felonies or unforgivable perversions, but nonetheless violates the norms of comedy in many ways. You can see what he's getting at with that term, though: Solondz accurately describes "Dark Horse" as a darker Judd Apatow film, or a more realistic counter-version of the life of George Costanza, Jason Alexander's "Seinfeld" character. Abe (Jordan Gelber), the central character of "Dark Horse," is a recognizable figure out of Jewish American shtick, an overweight and disgruntled man on the edge of middle age, who still lives in his childhood bedroom with his collection of Star Wars toys.

Solondz's movies always have terrific ensembles, and this one is no exception: Christopher Walken, in high-waisted slacks and a comb-over, plays Abe's dour, almost expressionless father, and Mia Farrow, in a succession of eyeball-melting designer outfits that Carmela Soprano would find overly vulgar, plays his mother. Selma Blair, as a character named Miranda whom we've met before in the Solondz universe, is the girl on whom Abe pins his hopes of escape from his depressive man-child existence. Except Miranda is in no way more of a functional grown-up than Abe is, and also lives at home after the end of a long-term relationship with a guy she still worships. With his unerring instinct about where in American society to stick the knife, Solondz makes the ex-boyfriend an Arab, but then (and full marks for this) never makes his background a plot point. (Except, arguably, for Miranda's oddly hilarious non sequitur, one of the greatest of all awkward Solondz lines: "I had a long Skype with Mahmoud.")

But it isn't the more or less ruthless suburban satire that makes Solondz, in my view, an underappreciated genius of American film. It's the way he violates ordinary notions of cinematic realism or perspective, often violently, to bring us into the psychological and emotional landscapes of his characters. In "Happiness," Solondz infamously appeared to adopt a pedophile's point of view, playing his attempted rape of a child for comic-dramatic effect. In "Palindromes" -- perhaps Solondz's most perverse and inscrutable work -- the naive runaway protagonist is played by numerous different actors, varying in age, race, gender and size. As "Dark Horse" proceeds, more and more of it takes place inside Abe's dreams and fantasies, until the illusion of surface reality is entirely destroyed and we can no longer be sure whether his dad's mousy secretary (the terrific Donna Murphy) is what she appears to be, or is instead a lustful cougar sexpot with a red sports car and a 1980s-style bachelorette pad.

When I drew a comparison in our interview between Solondz and Michael Haneke, the great Austrian ironist and artificer, I'm pretty sure Solondz was expecting me to bring up someone else -- perhaps Wes Anderson, another indie-flavored comedy director who emerged around the same time. I'm sticking with the original comparison. Solondz's marketplace dilemma may be that people expect something closer to the essentially optimistic American satire of Anderson, when what they're getting is more like the hard-edged European formalism of Haneke.

One of the most striking things about meeting Solondz in person, in fact, is that this 52-year-old man, a New Jersey native and Yale graduate, seems almost foreign in accent and manner, as if he'd grown up in the Soviet Union and arrived here as a teenager. He also speaks in complete thoughts and complete sentences, which is highly unusual. Journalists generally massage transcribed interviews, harmonizing grammar and syntax and deleting excess "ums" and "y'knows" and "OKs." With Solondz there were hardly any of those. What you see may be peculiar, but it's what you get.

Todd, one of the things that's almost universal in your films is that you offer us a protagonist that we may not like. Or, let's be honest, probably won't like. That's pretty unusual. And it's safe to say that Abe, this childish, abusive, arrogant, 35-year-old guy who still lives with his parents, is no exception.

I do set something of a challenge to my audience. There's a kind of crucible, I think. What are the limits of our sympathies? To what extent can we connect emotionally with people whom we might not expect to, or even care to? The movies in some sense try to put the audience up against the wall in a sense, to push them. To say, "Yes, I acknowledge that you will not like this person, you don't want to invite him to dinner." But I try then to get the audience to say, "Wait a second, maybe this is someone who in fact also has a heart." He also is someone that is worth caring about. Don't write these people off so quickly.

That's what makes it, for me, more interesting. To give a character sympathy is always very easy. You just throw them cancer. You know! And it's done. [Laughter.] And in general, most actors are very appealing, so one's sympathy always goes toward those who have an appealing physical presence. But it's more interesting and moving for me to get an audience to care for that which they would normally reject out of hand.

I couldn't help laughing every time I saw Abe's enormous yellow Hummer, right out of 2002 or whatever. It's like the universally accepted symbol for an obnoxious person!

Well, when you say that, you have to realize we're talking in values that are always shifting from one cultural circle to another. In some places, it may be a point of pride, of success, something to be admired. In the case of this character, clearly it's very humorous, because it's like another toy from his collection. It's a childlike kind of automobile. Clearly it's the one that's the most un-p.c., the most gas-guzzling kind of car. Perhaps if you were out in the Arizona desert, or the tundra, I don't know, it would be a different story. If you're living here in the suburbs, there's no need for this car or any other car of that stature. But this is a character where such questions don't even enter the universe of his thoughts: You know, will this be good for the environment?

It's all part of his clinging to his youth, which is a kind of universal phenomenon. And to his detriment it's become a kind of pathology. You can be 35, and chronologically be adult, but that doesn't mean emotionally you are. This is something that Judd Apatow taps into in his very big, popular films, "The 40 Year Old Virgin" and so forth. This is something that's out there, and it's often presented as very cute and cuddly and charming. Obviously I'm taking a different tack in approaching this subject matter. And yet, my hope is -- the thing is, it is a kind of comedy here! It's deliberately humorous and satirical and so forth, in many ways and many places, and yet it also is designed to tap into a kind of emotional well in the life of this character, and also to undermine his "philosophy" about the horribleness of humanity.

That's interesting! I'm guessing that when Abe delivers that monologue about how horrible and hateful people are, a lot of people watching the movie will assume that you agree, that you're speaking through the character. I kind of did.

Certainly the ending [a sad and romantic surprise -- no spoilers here!] is a way of showing how, in fact, people do care for him. That is a very unexpected thing that he was blind to, let's say. That's part of the point here, it's a very facile and childish philosophy, that cynical speech that he has. Superficially people may attach that philosophy to what I do, but it's a very reductive way of reading what I'm about. To me what's interesting is not so much about the character changing but about the audience's response to the character. It's not him changing -- oh, he now becomes a grown-up at the end -- but that we understand him, the pathos that consumes him.

Right. Judd Apatow could definitely make this movie -- indeed, he kind of did -- but it would have a quite different resolution. The character would adjust to life, decide to grow up, move out of his parents' house, and get the girl. Instead of that, you're telling us we have to get used to this guy the way he is.

Instead of writing him off as an ugly, obnoxious brat -- and it's not a matter of waiting until the end. Right at the beginning, when he asks the girl out, then you have the shot of the parents watching TV and we watch him come in and walk into his room. It's very poignant for me, it says something, that this is a man who bleeds as well. We can laugh and laugh, but that laughter's going to start feeling hollow if one doesn't realize there's an emotional core to this character.

I will admit that I had the instinctive reaction of feeling repelled by Abe and feeling more sympathetic to his parents, who at least are dealing with the world. And then I had to have a moment of crisis: "Do I really want to be on their side? What kind of person am I?"

Look, I make it hard. I know that. They're watching "Seinfeld," apparently, but I could never afford "Seinfeld." So I had Jason Alexander and Jerry Stiller and Estelle Harris -- because George Costanza is kind of the counterlife to this character. I wrote some dialogue, and unless you're some memorizer of the box-set collection, you're not gonna know that it's not "Seinfeld." So they came and recorded their lines, and it's like: Yes, that's the pop version. This is another version, a counter-version to what's out there in the public sphere.

There's almost nobody who knows how to provoke discomfort the way you do. I maintain that "Palindromes" made me as uncomfortable as any movie I've ever seen, over several decades and thousands of films. What are the artistic or narrative uses of discomfort, for you?

You know, the aim isn't to provide discomfort, any more than I am interested in providing comfort. It's just another tool, a strategy to get an audience to a place they haven't been, to understand emotionally something of these characters who may appear as something so alien, or who we want to see as more alien than they really are. If there is discomfort, it's about not wanting to make the connections that in fact already exist.

There's also the way you use stereotypes or archetypes, whatever you want to call them. The way Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow are dressed, in those horrible outfits, and their perfect middle-suburban New Jersey house. There's an element of calculated caricature at work.

Well, you can say caricature, but I say she's a woman who doesn't have a career, and she wears Tory Burch shoes. That's the reality of this social milieu that I'm portraying. You can make it a lose-lose: If you have them dress the way they actually dress, it looks like caricature. [Laughter.] What I'm always doing, in fact, is restraining, making it less than what is actually there. He wears an Izod or Ralph Lauren top, in a sort of bright peach, on his day off. It makes sense: His wife goes and shops for him, and picks that out. If it didn't seem grounded in a reality that I recognized, I wouldn't use it. I'm not exaggerating! In fact, I'm trying to mitigate.

If you say so. Maybe what I'm really talking about is your narrative mode, which is close to realism but not quite realism. It's exaggerated realism or superrealism or surrealism.

I'll let you call it whatever kind of realism you like! It's all a kind of artifice, ultimately, whether you do it with hand-helds and everybody looks dirty or whatever. Once people have the camera there's always a kind of artifice and design in motion. My job is to make it look like it's not all artifice and not all design. Otherwise people walk away saying it's all phony. These are all strategies: How can I get the audience to experience this in a fresh and different way to get at a kind of truth about who we are and the human experience as we live it?

You know, in reading the recent news from Cannes, an unlikely parallel occurred to me. Despite obvious differences in location and subject matter and history, you remind me a little of Michael Haneke -- in that his movies are always calling attention to their own artificiality, to the ambiguous relationship between the storyteller and his audience. His narrative effect depends on that, and so does yours.

Haneke is great! Well, you flatter me, although I'm not sure how much of a sense of humor this Austrian has! [Laughter.] I'm making comedies. They're all comedies, as wrenching, as painful, as sorrowful as they may be. They are all filtered through a comedic sensibility. It's something that I accept and embrace about who I am as a filmmaker. The problem is, it's always a hard sell, because when you use the word "comedy" people have certain expectations, OK? But if you call it "comedic drama" or something -- they're all a little bit off or misleading about what you're getting.

Look, I didn't know that I'd be fortunate enough to get to make this series of movies, and I tried to do things that I'd like to see. It's about putting out a kind of sensibility, a way of looking at the world and experiencing the world that is not always available to us. You know, if I get money to make another one, wonderful! But I never presume someone will put money into me.

Not long ago I had a conversation with Jim Jarmusch where he talked about the fact that once upon a time he had the chance to go to Hollywood and make commercial films, and he didn't do it, and he's completely OK with the idea that his works are culturally marginal, that people in Europe and a few big American cities care about them, and that's it. Are you in a similar position? How do you feel about it?

First of all, I was grateful to have any audience. And when people say they have a small audience, like Jarmusch, that means at least a million people have seen your movie! A million people! Are you going to be a happier person if 2 million people see it instead of 1 million? No! The only value, and it is a real one, is that if you have a larger audience it makes it more likely you will get financing for your next film. As it is, they play in all 50 states, they play in Europe, they play in South America, they play around the world! So I'm not going to complain about not having enough attention, about not having my movies out there. They're out there!

The difficulty is just that there's been a permanent shift in the marketplace, and this has an impact on what gets made and what gets financed. Wonderful movies will continue to get made, as long as there are young people. It's just that there's less money to put into these movies. What would have gotten $2 million five years ago now will get $1.2 million, etc. There's just a smaller audience, and because there's a smaller audience it's hard to argue for a bigger budget. You have to work within that reality. If I were French and lived in France, there is a system in place to support a filmmaker like myself or Jarmusch. If Claire Denis lived in the United States, she'd make her first movie, and then she'd have to do episodics. That'd be it. There's just no support system for filmmakers that don't work within the studio system.

Yes. A large proportion of the independent filmmakers of your generation, and succeeding generations, have wound up working in TV.

There's a new golden age of television now, and it's also a way to make a living. Making movies like I do, this is called a hobby, OK? [Laughter.] It's a privilege and a hobby. To go and work at HBO or ABC or any other network, you're making a living. But you're essentially just a director for hire. We don't want to see Claire Denis having to do that.

So you don't see VOD or whatever as the solution. You haven't seen some impressive new revenue stream coming from that.

Well, I never get anything, so I can't tell what's more or less! [Laughter.] I happen to be of an older generation, and I like to go out to the movies. I like to be in a big room, a dark room, I like an audience. Even if there's no audience, I like the experience of being in the big movie theater. I think they will continue to flourish as long as there are teenagers who are looking for a date, a way to make out. It's the cheapest way to do this. When I watch something on a computer, it's work. I just don't get pleasure from it. People say, "You can see it on VOD, on this format, on that format." That's all fine, but personally, in my free time, I just don't do that. I go out to the movies.

You've done pretty well with critics over the years, but there is a running theme among those who see you as fundamentally cruel and misanthropic. One friend of mine, a big fan of your work, always says that people who accuse you of being overly vicious in your portrayal of the suburbs have never lived there.

I think it's a question of sensibility. Life is just a lot crueler than anything I've ever put out there. You read the New York Times every day, and there are just nightmarish stories of what people do to each other. You've got "Babette's Feast" playing at the cinematheque, and just try cutting in line and see what savagery comes out. [Laughter.] Look, I like to have fun, I like to play, and not everybody likes to play and have fun with me. What can I say?

People say, "Oh, you're mean-spirited, you're cruel." I don't see it that way. I think there's a distinction between exposing cruelty and being cruel. Years ago, when I did "Welcome to the Dollhouse," I remember people could write a very nice review and yet in the course of the review talk about how I cast an ugly girl. Well, I never looked at her as an ugly girl, and to actually write such a thing, they would unwittingly become complicit with those seventh-graders. How many of us, in fact, have not outgrown the seventh-grade mentality?

All of us. I felt myself battling my mean inner seventh-grader while watching "Dark Horse." I had to argue with myself a little, to avoid actively wanting bad things to happen to Abe.

It's a very painful reality to recognize. The best of us are able to sublimate those impulses into something positive, into something useful and good. But we're all vulnerable to succumbing to those baser instincts.

As fans of your movies already know, the characters and stories tend to link together, in a sort of grand Todd Solondz Star Wars universe. And within that, themes, issues and situations often repeat themselves. How does "Dark Horse" fit into that?

Well, in a literal sense, Selma Blair's character is a continuation of what she did in "Storytelling." It's funny, because there's no design to my career, and writing and filmmaking is all a process of discovery and self-discovery at that. What I see is that there's a child in all my movies, and in this one it happens to be a man-child. Something about that experience, about that cusp of adolescence, informs what we become as adults. It's obviously something I haven't let go of.

"Dark Horse" opens this week in New York, with more cities and home video to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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