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solondz poster

This past weekend we were once again graced with cinematic awesomeness when Todd Solondz arrived in town to present four of his self-described “sad comedies” at the Indiana University Cinema. As nerdy as I thought he’d be (clad in yellow low-top Converse All-Stars, red sweater and gray pants), Solondz gave one of the great Jorgensen Lectures of the year thus far. In conversation with IU Cinema director Jon Vickers, they discussed the rise of Solondz‘s career.


Growing up in New Jersey, he lived a somewhat sheltered life. He was never able to see films that went beyond the G-rating so they didn’t really have much impact on him as a youth. He told a really funny anecdote about wanting to see Milos Forman‘s One Flew Over the Cockoo’s Nest when he was 16. Having read the raves about it, he really wanted to see it, but couldn’t because of its rating. His mother came home one evening after having seen it and also raved about it, telling him he should really see it…but then told him he couldn’t because of the material in the film.  His focus at that time was music as he played the piano, which he related had a great effect on him with regards to his filmmaking later in life. It gave him great dedication and discipline, both absolutely necessary for film work.

When he went to Yale for college (studying English), he finally had the license to see what he wanted to see, which was a revelation, but seeing the great films screened at an institution like Yale wasn’t what sold him on a career in film. It was seeing an evening of UCLA thesis films that gave him the courage to do it. Solondz noted that they were terrible (his own words) and thought, “If I can’t do anything slightly less terrible [than these], then I shouldn’t be trying this.” So after graduation, he enrolled in the graduate film program at the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU.

While at NYU, he directed Schatt’s Last Shot, a short about a kid wanting to get into MIT, but is failed by his gym teacher for not being able to hit one shot in basketball. In order to get a better grade (and prove himself to his dream girl), he challenges the gym teacher to a game of one-on-one. Solondz was widely praised for this short and quickly rose to the top of the most wanted list of student directors. He told of the fight between Fox and Columbia for who would get his first feature film. Polygram won the battle and MGM/ Goldwyn ended up distributing Fear, Anxiety & Depression. Solondz disowns the film, though. He said that making it “was the most depressed” he’d ever been. He didn’t get to make the film he wanted and didn’t even get the title he wanted for it. The studios sapped what creative energy he had and he quit filmmaking (even though he continued to write). He started teaching ESL (which he loosely chronicled in Happiness) and was happy doing so.

The more he thought about it, the more he wanted to give filmmaking another shot. Solondz stated that he “didn’t want his first experience to have the last word.” He thought about solely making After School Specials (what I would have given to see those), wanting to be a New York-based filmmaker. Instead he chose to make Welcome to the Dollhouse, a script he had written while making Fear, Anxiety & Depression, which went on to win the prestigious Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival as well as numerous other awards. And from there, his career was launched.

It is clear from his oeuvre, Todd Solondz is an original filmmaker. The subjects and themes his films tackle – rape, pedophilia, abortion, perverse sexual fetishes, bullying, extreme family dysfunction, social misfits – are not for mainstream audiences. When asked about why his films focused on these taboo subjects, Solondz responded by saying that “they’re front and center in the news and in newspapers everyday – it’s hard not to respond.” He can’t ever see himself making a studio film or doing like Steven Soderbergh, doing one film for himself and one for a studio. “I want them ALL for me. I’m just grateful there has been an audience for these films.”

I have seen all of Solondz‘s films with exception of Palindromes (which shall be remedied very quickly) and was lucky enough to see his newest film Dark Horse as well as Welcome to the Dollhouse again with Mr. Solondz in attendance to introduce and discuss. So a quick note about both.

darkhorse poster

Dark Horse gives us the story of Abe (Jordan Gelber), the ubiquitous and all-too familiar filmic man-child, suspended in the early years of his life. A sadder, perhaps darker version of Steve Carell‘s Andy from Judd Apatow‘s unfunny 40 Year Old Virgin, Abe exhibits different qualities. While still a toy collector, and one who will return an action figure with a tiny scratch on it, Abe still lives at home with his parents, played by an unexpectedly tame Christopher Walken and typically bubbly Mia Farrow. He consistently rebels against their authority, refusing to answer his mother’s standard “how was your day”-type questions and his father’s authority at the office, for whom he works. And to top it all off, he has an overachieving brother (Justin Bartha) who is a doctor who consistently makes him look bad for obvious reason.

Jordan Gelber in Dark Horse

Abe, his room still the same from middle school.

When Abe meets a visibly sedated Miranda (Selma Blair in a half-reprise of her character Vi from Storytelling) at a wedding, he sees a chance to make and change in his life. He pursues her with reckless abandon despite being shrugged off by her at first and asks her to marry him, to which she accepts.

Abe, are you real? Absolutely. A thousand percent.
Abe, are you real? Absolutely. A thousand percent.

As to be expected, things fall apart. The self-proclaimed “dark horse” surprises no one in his pursuits and meets an interesting end. Abe is a loser at the beginning and that doesn’t change. He is a character that we find hard to root for because what little good he does to modify his life situation, he triples in being an asshole in other arenas. As we drift through the last third of the film through dream sequences and reality, the narrative tends to drag, shifting from the pace that carried in the first two thirds of the film. Weighed down by the questions, “are what we seeing is real?”, the final act becomes more of a slog. This film is easily the most accessible of all of the Solondz films I’ve seen. It doesn’t tackle the same taboo subjects that all of his other films tackle, which certainly turn off the bulk of moviegoers. It does confront this man-child genre (if it can be called that) which has been such fertile ground for more mainstream comedies and turns it on its head, and its there that Solondz is most successful.

Unimpressed, Abe’s parents look on.

The soundtrack to this movie is pretty damn amazing, chock full of unsigned bands playing overproduced pop hits mimicking the more successful artists of today. It is delightful and cheesy and a crying shame that it doesn’t appear to be available on CD or downloadable.

Here’s the trailer:

Solondz himself touted Dark Horse as his saddest comedy, perhaps a little tongue-in-cheek. Having seen both Life During Wartime and Happiness and after rewtaching Welcome to the Dollhouse, I simply don’t see how that could ever be the case.

Welcome To The Dollhouse Movie Poster (Paper or Plexiglas or Canvas)

I had forgotten how unbelievably bleak and sad Welcome to the Dollhouse is. Having seen it during its initial theatrical run back in 1995, I remembered liking it very much as it was so different from the dumb shit I was watching back then.

WelcometotheDollhouse- Dawn

Dawn, in all of her glory.

Dollhouse follows the put upon life of Dawn Weiner (a powerful first role by Heather Matarazzo), a nerdy middle-schooler who has only one friend who is younger than she is. It doesn’t take us long to figure out Dawn’s plight as the film opens with maybe the scariest shot in the history of teen film – that of a nerd looking for a place to sit in the crowded and cliquish lunchroom. Dawn is clad in cheap department store clothes, skirt pulled up way too high and uniquely unstylish glasses, no one wants to be seen with her. When she finally finds a seat across from one of the low-rent slutty headbanger girls in school, the aptly named Lolita (Victoria Davis), she is approached by a popular cheerleader and her gaggle of sycophantic lapdogs who ask her if she is a lesbian to which she of course says no. And here is where you know Dawn is fucked: Lolita sells her out and says she made a pass at her, giving us no hope that Dawn will receive any respite from this kind of abuse for the rest of the film. Watch the pain:

And it is relentless for the rest of the film. Dawn is routinely hazed and called Wienerdog, and even when she tries to stop a group of bullies from beating up a wimpy smaller boy, he tells her not to help for fear of the repercussions it could have for being associated with her. At home, Dawn receives no less harsh treatment. Her mother (Angela Pietropinto) dotes on her cherubic younger sister Missy (Siri Howard) and her older brother Mark (Matthew Faber) who only has one thing on his mind…getting into a good college. Dawn is singled out repeatedly her parents proving that there is no safe haven except for her Special People’s Club clubhouse in her backyard, which is torn down to accommodate her parents’ 20th Anniversary party.

Welcome to the dollhouse Dollhouse - dilemma

Artist Aaron Jasinski’s very apt representation of Dawn’s situation.

When a teacher thinks Dawn is complicit in cheating, she and delinquent Brandon (Brendan Sexton III) are punished. This draws his ire as he can ill afford the trouble. After they get out of detention, he tells her he is going to rape her at 3 o’clock. When school gets out, she tries to get away, but he grabs her. They are interrupted by a custodian and Dawn is able to get free, but Brandon threatens her again the next day and is able to move her to a vacant lot.

Yo, Weiner, you better get ready, 'cause at three o'clock today, I'm gonna RAPE you

Yo, Weiner, you better get ready, ’cause at three o’clock today, I’m gonna RAPE you

When they get there, Dawn preps herself for the act to come in expected awkward fashion. This, however, turns out to be one an unexpectedly touching moment. Brandon details to Dawn his own issues, he also being an outcast like Dawn, albeit in a different fashion. They have more in common than they thought. The two then start a relationship of sorts, which gets cut short when Dawn falls for Steve Rodgers (Eric Mabius), the hot guitar playing, lead-singer of her brother’s band. Needless to say her efforts to net Steve, one of the most popular guys in high school, turn out as one might expect – badly.

Dawn’s brightest dream and worst nightmare come true all at the same time when her sister is kidnapped by a neighbor. Her biggest enemy is now out of the picture (partly due to Dawn’s negligence), but now her family’s focus is even stronger on Missy. Dawn even goes to New York City to post fliers about Missy in the middle of the night and her parents don’t even care that she is gone, especially after Missy is found. On top of it all, Brandon gets arrested for selling drugs, expelled, and runs away leaving her all alone again. Dawn ends up even worse off than when the movie started. THE END.

Sigh. This one is just cringingly painful to watch in spots, like an hour and half of David Brent on a loop. Matarazzo is really quite amazing as Dawn and worthy of the Independent Spirit Award she won for Best Debut Performance. While it’s hard to argue with Frances McDormand’s win for Fargo, Diane Keaton‘s nomination for Marvin’s Room was a joke. Matarazzo should have had that slot…but alas, we know the Academy are a bunch of chickenshits who shill for the big studios (I wonder if my invite to the Oscars is in the mail yet…). I have always enjoyed watching Brendan Sexton III (he’s great in Pecker) and this was my introduction to him.

Here’s the trailer:

Mr. Solondz’s visit was very insightful and it is interesting to sit in a room with a filmmaker who polarizes people so much. I appreciate his daring and his reach to provoke thought about many topics that we see every day yet are afraid to confront and talk about. He’s very brave in that fashion and his movies echo that bravery.

Kudos once again should go to the folks at the IU Cinema, especially director Jon Vickers, as well as Drs. Ron & Roberta Sherman who were instrumental in getting Todd to Bloomington. This was a top notch event and I still have to pinch myself to believe that filmmakers of such stature come here to Bloomington.

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