Thursday, April 16, 2009

God and the Cinemas Part V: Todd Solondz

Todd Solondz is one of the most interesting filmmakers at work in the world today. In the mid to late 1990s, he was a critic’s favorite with back to back critic’s favorites Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness. Since then, however, he seems to have fallen out of critical favor, and I’m not exactly sure why. I thought his two films since Happiness, 2001’s Storytelling and 2004’s Palindromes were as strong as the two films that reaped all the critical huzzahs. Now apparently, Solondz is close to wrapping up his new film, a sort of quasi-sequel to Happiness, in which entirely new actors have been cast in each of the roles (including Paris Hilton, although no one is sure what role she played). This takes what Solondz did in Palindromes, a quasi-sequel in its own right of Welcome to the Dollhouse, seem almost quaint.

Solondz’s films are obviously a theater of cruelty, although unlike many critics, I have never thought that Solondz sits back and simply mocks his characters. In a strange way, he loves his characters. He screws with the audience much more than he screws with his characters – he sets up moral traps where we think we know what the right answer is, only to have the rug pulled out from under us at each stage.

Storytelling is an interesting movie to look at in terms of God and the cinema, because it casts different people in the role of “God” at different junctures. Not literally God of course, but as people who have power and control over their subjects.

In the first part of Storytelling, entitled fiction, Selma Blair plays a University Student in a creative writing class, with somewhat kinky sexual appetites. Her boyfriend has cerebral palsy, and although this used to be kinky enough for her, it isn’t anymore (“You don’t sweat when we have sex anymore”, her boyfriend complains). One night, she meets her professor (Robert Wisdom), a large African American man at a bar, and agrees to go with him. In a scene that got Solondz in trouble with the MPAA, Wisdom has anal sex with Blair while making her say “Nigger, fuck me hard”. She was drawn to him in part because of the stereotype of the “virile black man”, and he uses that to get her to come home with him, and then turns the tables – it is no longer her using him, but him using her. At first uncomfortable with what is going on, Blair slowly gets into it, and actually enjoys it, proven after the scene is over and she runs back to her boyfriend who tells her that she’s all sweaty.

Feeling guilty about what happened, Blair it into a short story for Wisdom’s class, but instead of making it the consensual sex it was, she turns it into a rape. The students proceed to rip apart her story as “unbelievable”, and when she protests that it actually happened; Wisdom calmly informs her “When you put it down on paper, it all becomes fiction”.

The second segment of the film, entitled “Non-Fiction” deals with a documentary filmmaker (Paul Giamatti) who is making a film about a Jewish family in New Jersey. The father (John Goodman) rages at the slightest provocation, the mother (Julie Hagerty) simply tries to get through the day. The oldest son (Mark Webber) wants to be a talk show host, and spends his days sullenly in his room. The middle son is a football star, who ends up in a coma. The youngest son manipulates the entire family, and plays games with their Spanish maid – cruel, nasty little games.

Most people think that in the second segment, that the Giamatti character represents Solondz. Solondz certainly wants you to think that way – as he cast perhaps the only actor who looks anything like Solondz, and then proceeded to make him look more that way. But I’m not so sure. The filmmaker is clueless at times, and prone to the type of filmmaking that Solondz in obviously mocking (there is a shot in the documentary of a bag blowing around, and the voiceover tells us how beautiful it is – obviously taking a shot at American Beauty). No, I think that if Solondz is anyone in that second half of the film, it’s the youngest son, who manipulates everyone into doing just what he wants them to do. He’s really the one in control, pulling the strings behind the scenes – much like Solondz is with the movie itself.

Storytelling is really about art – the motivations that drive it and the responsibilities the artist has to his creations, whether they are real or not. In their own way, each of the storytellers are playing God with their creations – they make them in their own image, show us only what they want us to know and control their fate.

Palindromes goes even farther than Storytelling does. In the film, a 13 year old girl gets pregnant, and is determined to keep her baby (that is after all, why she had sex in the first place). Her mother, Ellen Barkin, wants her to get an abortion, so she runs away from home, and ends up with the Sunshine Family, a seemingly happy, Christian family, who has taken in a number of children with the type of birth defects that the girl’s mother described could happen. They seem happy, and nice, but are they really. The girl is played by 8 different actors throughout the movie, including one boy, and two adult women, to go along with 5 different teenage girls or different shapes, sizes and ethnicities.

The girl is obviously completely naïve about sex from the beginning. When she lets a trucker have anal sex with her, she is shocked to discover that you cannot get pregnant that way. She does get pregnant by seducing a family friend of about her own age. For her, she wants a child so that way, she will always have someone to love, and someone who loves her, which seems vitally important after her cousin, Dawn Wiener (from Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse has died).

Palindromes set up a series of moral tests that are probably impossible to pass. In one segment, we are sure of who is right and who is wrong – who is good and who is bad – only to have our opinions completely reversed in the following segment. It is comforting to audiences to see their values reflected on screen, and Solondz specializes in a cinema of discomfort. No matter what you believe, you are sure to have those beliefs challenged and you are sure to be offended.

Has Solondz every really presented a positive character in his films? Surely Aviva, the pregnant girl in Palindromes isn’t really evil, but she isn’t really good either. She’s a confused child, who everyone simply uses as a pawn in their game. But for the most part, Solondz gives us characters who we initially feel sorry for, only to later discover that they are rotten to the core, just like the rest of them. The only two characters who, I think, remains truly sympathetic throughout an entire film is Jane Adams’ in Happiness – a woman who is constantly trying to open herself up to different people and relationships, only to discover that people are consistently rotten underneath. The other is Dawn Weiner in his debut, Welcome to the Dollhouse, who is like a teenage version of the Jane Adams character. Everyone else in his movies are too corrupted to be nice.

And yet, we feel sorry for these characters. In Happiness, Philip Seymour Hoffman may have violent sexual fantasies, gets drunk and makes obscene phone calls, but he does it because he’s lonely, and wants to make a human connection, but does not know how to react around people. Dylan Baker may be a pedophile, but he is also a loving father, who respects his son enough to tell him the truth. Solondz sees his characters with his eyes wide open – both the good and the bad in them.

I am realizing now that for a piece about God and the Cinema, there has been little talk of God in this piece so far. That’s because I think Solondz’s films take place in world without a God. His characters are so desperately alone and miserable, and they are put through so much pain and torment, how can they possibly believe that there is some sort of benevolent God watching over them. They can’t. The cinema of Todd Solondz shows us a world where people are cruel, mean, ugly and alone. You want to label him a misanthrope go ahead, but people like this exist out there in the world. And they are people – not monsters. If there is a God in the world of Todd Solondz, he has long ago given up trying to help his characters. They’re on their own.

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