Archive for Todd Solondz

The films of Todd Solondz – Part One

Posted in close analysis with tags , , on December 2, 2008 by babydylan

New Hollywood, the period defined by cutting edge cinema filled with character driven storylines lasted from the late sixties to late seventies, just under a decade, was chronicled in Peter Biskund’s critically acclaimed Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, a text which delved exclusively into the films, and their filmmakers of that pivotal era. Down and Dirty Pictures, a text which Peter Biskund wrote soon after, dealt with the modern equivalent of New Hollywood, the last American New Wave, which was a period of low budget, controversial, bizarre, poignant, cutting edge films filled with memorable characters – films similar to the New Hollywood pictures – that were made from the late eighties to mid nineties. Filmmakers involved in this period would include John Sayles, with City Of Hope, Passion Fish and Lone Star, Kevin Smith with Clerks, Todd Haynes with Superstar and Poison, Jim Jarmusch with Down By Law, Night on Earth and Mystery Train, and Quentin Tarantino with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. Of all these filmmakers, Solondz stood apart as being “the real deal”. Not only was he a genuine eccentric – he dislikes interviews and having his photo taken – but his 1996 feature Welcome to the Dollhouse was incredibly dark. It had no optimism or any sense of hope, it didn’t feature any characters who were likable, it didn’t end with any possibility of a happy ending, and the main character, the protagonist who carried the film, was inherently dislikeable. She brings many of the situations on herself. Despite all this, the film works more as a comedy than it does a drama, and like any comedy, the audience is subconsciously interested in the fate of protagonist. This is not because she has formed a connection with the audience, but rather because Solondz’s writing is filled with humanity and unpredictability. We cannot help but be interested in what is going to happen next.  This unpredictability would subsequently be a trademark of all Solondz’s work.

 

Recently a patron at work asked me to describe the Coen brothers’ latest film, Burn After Reading. I described it as being a black comedy, something which they hadn’t heard of. I told them that a black comedy was a film full of moments which you find funny, but which you quickly regret having laughed at. In saying that, black comedy is also used too easily to describe pictures that cannot be described, pictures that aren’t full of those ‘I shouldn’t find that as funny as I do’ moments. His films are indescribable because they fall between two categories, the Suburban Gothic – films that offer a supposedly ‘honest’ and ‘shocking’ portrayal of human lives, ie. American Beauty, Blue Velvet – and films which deliberately overplay the banality of Surburbia, ie. The Stepford Wives, The Truman Show, The Chumbscrubber, Donnie Darko, for comedic effect. As well as occupying the middle ground between two sub-genres, his films are hard to watch because they perfectly capture Solondz’s unique vision as a director, something which the audience cannot see in any other film. They are scathing, razor sharp indictments of the “everyman’s” attempts at normality. They are sad comedies, in which the audience is not laughing at the expense of the characters. They are their own genre.

 

I have see Welcome to the Dollhouse so many times that I cannot remember my initial reaction, however on first viewing, Peter Biskund remarked that the picture expressed an “uncompromising…personal version” with a protagonist who was “eminently un-likable”, whilst Geoff Andrew wrote it was an “honest, effective, and disturbing” look at the “anguish, cruelty, and loneliness of puberty”. All of Solondz’s films are pictures you have to watch more than once. For first time viewers, Welcome to the Dollhouse would seem to have failed as an “expose”, because the darkness of the subject matter is overdone. Yet on second viewing it becomes obvious that the darkness of the story is deliberately overt, because his films are mocking both the “unflinching” and “honest” films, and the teen comedies which include mundane teen problems, ie. dating, bullies etc. Solondz includes normal happy scenes so as the banality of Suburbia is understood, stressing the darkness of the characters and their world. This runs beneath the supposedly happy images, with Solondz mocking the characters fruitless attempts at normality.