Quantum of Solondz
With a dollop of irony, the director revisits Happiness.
It’s difficult to win an argument with Todd Solondz. Maybe it’s no surprise that the director of Palindromes would turn every criticism upside down, but the reigning figure of the ’90s indie cinema of cruelty—who first caught public attention with a comedy about teenage malice (Welcome to the Dollhouse) and followed it with a film (Happiness) that dared to humanize a pedophile—is still out to push buttons, assuming it’s accurate to characterize what he does in that way. “I don’t even know that it’s fair to say it’s button pushing, when in fact this stuff is on TV every day,” Solondz counters on a recent visit to Chicago. “None of these subjects is like, oh, Todd invented.”
Solondz never lets anyone get too comfortable—that’s his signature. His rhetorical approach might stem from his background as a yeshiva student. Then again, it might not. (“It’s going to be like a self-parody if I say”—adopting a mock-rabbinical tone—“On the other hand….”) He’s not even adamant about correcting factual errors. An online bio claims he cuts hair in his spare time, which is false. “As long as it’s benign, then fine,” he says. “Let me cut hair.”
Benign is not a word you’d associate with this most darkly comic of directors (though “I would hope you would!” he says, cheerily). But it gets to the paradox of his latest film, Life During Wartime, a sequel to Happiness that employs an entirely new cast. You can dismiss it as treading water creatively, but in terms of structure—almost theater-like, the film consists mostly of conversations between two characters—it’s totally different. You can call it a work of caricature or misanthropy (a charge Solondz dislikes), but at the same time, the movie understands its characters’ motives and poses real questions about their values. It’s possible to claim, for instance, that forgiveness is a virtue. But how far does that extend? To terrorists? Could a son ever forgive his pedophile father?
“I think it’s a different experience if you know Happiness or are familiar with my earlier work, but there’s a plus and a minus even to that,” Solondz says. “Because if you know the prior work, you can enjoy playing with the way certain actors are different and story lines get affected and how things mirror each other and so forth. One of the minuses is that it makes you more self-conscious. So people who know nothing have a nice kind of advantage, actually, because it’s all fresh for them.”
Solondz has changed a few things. The characters are now overtly Jewish (their assorted—but uniformly hypocritical—attitudes toward Israel are held up to a particularly withering critique). He also sees the movie as a post–September 11 film, an oblique look at the “insularity that Americans live with as they wage war.” The use of new actors is a way of redefining the characters. The pedophile father, unforgettably played by wormy Dylan Baker in the first film, has been replaced with wounded Ciarán Hinds. “There are different meanings you can get at,” Solondz explains. “Ciarán Hinds has a gravitas, a weight, a heft—he’s dead-man-walking, a kind of ghostlike, spent, shell, husk of a soul. I don’t see Dylan in this way.”
When the film screened at Toronto in September, Ally Sheedy, who plays the character originated by Lara Flynn Boyle, said Solondz extended his dialectical methods to directing. “He doesn’t let you make an assumption—ever,” she says, adding that she decided not to watch Happiness so she could come at the role from her own perspective. “He did not let me with Helen make any kind of judgment on that character, for one moment. He won’t accept it.”
The more you look at Life During Wartime, the more complex it seems. “What’s worse,” Solondz asks, “being misunderstood or being understood?”
Life During Wartime opens at the Music Box on Friday.