Thursday, October 4, 2012

Life During Wartime: Is Todd Solondz a Cinematic Bully?

Life During Wartime, Todd Solondz's 2009 pitch-black comedy-drama, further establishes the project that he first began building in Palindromes. That 2004, again, pitch-black comedy-drama a) had eight characters of different races and genders playing the heroine, and b) featured a father and son who first appeared in his indie classic Welcome to the Dollhouse. Life During Wartime is a loose sequel to Happiness, which came out eleven years previous, and includes the father and son from Palindromes. All of the recurring characters are now played by different actors. On the surface, it would seem that these two impulses are antithetical. On the one hand, the multiplicity of actors playing a single role suggests a definition of identity as fundamentally unstable, if not outright fictional. (The content of the films precludes a reading that multiple actors playing a single role can actually deepen our understanding of identity like it does in I'm Not There--a film which is referenced in Life During Wartime.) On the other, there is continuity in Solondz's cinematic universe--characters appear and reappear like in Faulkner's Yoknapatwpha. Well, if Yoknapatwpha were filled with drunks, suicides, sexual deviants, and self-loathing narcissists. Um, oh, right. But  Faulkner's fiction aims to deepen the emotional resonance of the inhabitants of his 'verse through the breadth of their appearances in his oeuvre. That's not what Todd is up to.

Solondz's writing actually joins these two philosophical poses by and through his abiding cynicism. In Solondz's universe, the narrative arc irresistibly bends toward disappointment, rejection, and loss. Even though the individuals change, the story remain the same, and it ends in the same reaffirmation of the meaningless of this pain. Life During Wartime follows the three sisters who anchored Happiness trying to rebuild their lives after the events of that film, which saw oldest sister Trish's husband and father of her three children jailed for pedophilia, middle child Helen cruelly rejecting a prank phone caller with who she had become fascinated, and youngest Joy trying and failing to find love. Life During Wartime traces the theme of forgiveness, with Trish's middle son trying to come to terms with his father's crimes and discover what it means to be a man as Trish herself tentatively tries a romance with a "normal" man, Helen having cut off all communication with her family, and Joy married to her sister's prank caller. The film is for the most part a series of two-actor scenes, with more often than not, one or both participants dissolving into tears either sincere or in-. All the major players, with the exception of Helen, whose self-involvement and self-pity act like armor, end the film bereft and haunted, in some cases literally, by the failure of their love relationships.

So why do I keep watching this dude's movies? Good question. He's unapologetically unflinching in his examination of suffering. He is also a masterful director--the attention to detail in set design and framing reminds me of Wes Anderson, if someone drained Wes Anderson of all his whimsy and replaced it with cynicism. Because that's the thing that's bothering me now--Todd Solondz doesn't like his characters. There's a way of writing about people who are monsters, or people who make the same bad decisions over and over again, or people who lie to themselves, and still encouraging if not empathy, at least a recognition of and respect for their humanity. By putting his characters through the emotional wringer, and keeping such a distance, both through the script's humor and its naturalism, Solondz has bypassed irony and entered the realm of sadism.

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