Whose Film Is It Anyway?
Todd Solondz
Note: The purpose of Whose Film Is It Anyway? is to examine the validity of the auteur theory through the lens of individual film-makers, taking a look at their bodies of work and highlighting the technical elements, personal style, and thematic consistency of their films. Ultimately, the goal of this column will be to generate a discussion of the merits of auteur theory through examinations of directors widely considered auteurs, analyses of directors whose status as auteurs is more tenuous, and occasional looks at non-directors who may drive the quality and content of their films with more assuredness than the directors they work with.

Addendum: Apologies if this week's installment is shorter or less coherent than usual. I had my wisdom teeth removed prior to writing it and I am currently on a good deal of pain medication. So please forgive if this is not the best Whose Film Is It Anyway? of all time.

"We say we embrace humanity, but what does that mean? We are all defined by our limits, so to what extent can we embrace all this? Because we all contain within ourselves equally the capacity for kindness, as much as for cruelty or evil."-Todd Solondz

Thematic consistency is a constant concern of this column, so much so that the other aspects of auterism are often granted short shrift. As I have previously stated, this is because I generally believe that it is easier for a person to walk into one movie by a director and pick up on a thematic thread than it is to immediately detect the technical style of a director. This is because many auteurs examine the same themes or ideas so often throughout their work that those themes come to define their films more than any other aspect of the process. One such example of this thematic consistency is Todd Solondz, who, much like Wes Anderson, is often critically accused of making similar movies again and again instead of branching out. It is true that Solondz' examinations of the dark things that often drive people, and the basic humanity of even the most monstrous of people are consistent throughout his work, yet it is also true that no one attacks the dark side of human nature with either the accuracy or the empathy with which Solondz treats even his most reprehensible subjects. He himself explains his basic outlook by saying, "I may be accused of a certain kind of misanthropy, but I think I could argue the opposite. I think that its only by acknowledging the flaws, the foibles, the failings, and so forth of who we are that we can in fact embrace the all of who we are."

Solondz' first studio film, Welcome to the Dollhouse,is set in perhaps the perfect place to explore his flawed views of humanity"”a middle school. The film is centered around Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo) a 7th grader who is constantly tortured at the hands of equally insecure adolescents. The film depicts her primary tormentors, Brandon (Brendan Sexton III) and Lolita (Victoria Davis) not simply as bullies, but as individuals who are equally troubled and take out their aggression on a weaker student. In fact, throughout the film cruelty begets cruelty, as Dawn repeatedly enacts the same injustices on another person right after she is hurt by one of the bullies at her school. When someone calls Dawn a name, it is usually only seconds later that she will call someone lower on the social chain than her the same exact name. While Welcome to the Dollhouse ostensibly aims to depict the realistic trials of a middle schooler, the film is more effective as the first attempt by Solondz at explaining the motivations behind human cruelty. No one in the film acts without reason, and though they do some horrible things to each other, each of their actions is understandable. Whether or not we condone their actions (and Solondz generally goes over the top to ensure that we will not), the important point of the film is that even acts of seemingly wanton cruelty usually come from a place of pure human suffering.

Storytelling focuses on two unrelated narratives, labeled "Fiction" and "Nonfiction" and attempts to get at the artifice of every story we tell through examinations of individuals who attempt to get at eternal truths through the lens of their own flawed perceptions. In "Fiction" Vi (Selma Blair) a creative writing student is generally rejected for a lack of creativity, until she mines the experience of having a racially charged tryst with her professor (Robert Wisdom) and comes away with her most successful piece of "fiction" yet. In "Nonfiction," documentarian Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti) sets out to depict the life of the American teenager, and chooses Scooby Livingston (Mark Webber) and his family (including John Goodman) as the focus of his documentary. When Toby's meddling leads to unexpected consequences, the question of who, ultimately, can be blamed for the aftermath haunts the end of the film. While there are clear aggressors whose actions lead to the film's unhappy end, Solondz carefully portrays each member of the family as a full human, and each of them is understandable, even if they are not exactly sympathetic.

In Palindromes Solondz grapples with a conceit that should come off as overly gimmicky: the central character, thirteen-year-old Aviva, is played by ten different actors, who vary in age, race, and even gender. The film follows Aviva on her endless quest to get pregnant, and wallows in as much human misery and cruelty as all of the director's other work, this time including abortion (both forced and elective), anti-abortion militants, the Christian right, pedophilia, and even attitudes toward the disabled. Through the film's bold gimmick, Solondz asserts that identity is less a choice than an outright prison, and also examines his belief that everyone, regardless of age, race or gender, is equally desperate, needy, and capable of acts of wanton cruelty, often without any reasonable motivation.

This seems as apt a time as any to digress on a recurring technical aspect of Solondz' films that works actively to deepen his thematic expectations, but also, in keeping with the nature of this column is readily identifiable to even someone who is viewing a Solondz film for the first time. Throughout his films, and especially during moments of deep pain, Solondz has a tendency to indulge in long takes, generally in close up on his character's faces, especially the face of the person in the most pain. This technique can be seen in any of his films, but is perhaps utilized most effectively for his purposes when one of his cruelest characters is showing his humanity and the close up works alongside his dialogue to express the pain that the person is going through. Murderers, bullies, pedophiles and just plain selfish people are all expressed in this fashion, which helps to express Solondz' ultimate point that every one of his characters, no matter how inhuman they seem, is a person and therefore worth endeavoring to understand.

Perhaps the best exploration of this theme that he has yet explored is Happiness (easily his best film), an expansive ensemble that runs the gamut of human misery and aims most dedicatedly at revealing their sympathetic sides. The film is centered around three sisters, the depressed, lonely, and ironically named Joy (Jane Adams), and her younger sisters Trish (Cynthia Stevenson) and Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle). Joy dates, but finds her encounters ultimately unsatisfying (particularly in the film's stellar opening sequence, in which she is on a date with Jon Lovitz). Trish exists in a loveless, sexless marriage to Bill (Dylan Baker), a deeply disturbed pedophile prone to shockingly candid conversations with his son Billy (Rufus Read) and hatches schemes to take advantage of a sleep over his son is having. Helen is the most successful in the family, working as a poet, yet is deeply unhappy and insecure, to the point where she becomes attracted to an anonymous prank caller, Alan (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who also happens to be her next door neighbor, simply because he is sexually demeaning to her. Even Alan only finds pleasure in his prank phone calling and rebuffs the advances of a damaged neighbor (Camryn Manheim) who may actually be attracted to him. Happiness is nothing if not disturbing, but each of the characters is deeply sympathetic, simply searching for a way to be happy in a world that tends to defeat their efforts at every turn. Solondz explains what he endeavors to do by using such shocking characters and situations when he elaborates on the character of Bill, detailing, "["¦] I think to be able to recognize that he is a man with a pulse, is the difficult thing to acknowledge. I don't ask more, really, than that." Rather than revel in the misery caused by his characters, Solondz asks us to attempt to look past the havoc they cause and try to see the reason for it, or at least the humanity apparent in their existences, even if that may be hard to do.

In his most recent film, Life During Wartime, Solondz revisits the characters from Happiness several years later, and examines how the events of the last film have scarred them in the ensuing years. While the film is much more flawed than its predecessor, and features an entirely new cast (including Allison Janney, Paul Reubens, Michael K. Williams, Ciarin Hinds, and Shirley Henderson), its flaws mostly derive from how closely Solondz sticks to the themes he has obsessively explored throughout his prior work (and also suffers from a lack of the jet black humor of most of his previous films, instead choosing to wallow in the misery of the characters).

It is perhaps valid to argue that Todd Solondz has made movies that deal with very similar ideas repeatedly throughout his career, but one can hardly maintain that he is playing it safe. It is also difficult to maintain that he is retreading ground that has been done to death; he may examine similar themes in similar ways, yet he looks at his subjects with such a unique eye that he still maintains an oeuvre that is inimitable. It is not always easy to watch one of his movies, and it is difficult to call most of them enjoyable, but they are certainly rewarding to anyone aiming for a realistic look at the dark side of humanity and a view into the mind of a humanist, who says in his own words, "Some people will of course accuse me of misanthropy and cynicism. I can't celebrate humanity, but I'm not out to indict it either. I just want to expose certain truths." And indeed, Todd Solondz does expose truths with a frankness, an openness, a darkness, and a humor unlike any other one in cinema today.

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Coming up on Who's Film Is It Anyway?:

8/29: Jean-Luc Godard

9/12: Sergio Leone

9/26: Ingmar Bergman

10/10: George Romero
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