Twelve years ago, Todd Solondz shook up American cinema with a dark film slyly called "Happiness." It portrayed "normal" life in the suburban middle-class culture with the inclusion of taboo topics (pedophilia) that our society does everything it can to reject. (Premiere Magazine has it on its "25 Most Dangerous Movies" list.) While his work has never relished in using these dark areas (unlike what his critics may think), his films always force those open enough to his stories to also accept the discussion of sympathy as an element of even the worst parts human nature. Now, Solondz returns with a "quasi-sequel" to Happiness entitled Life During Wartime, a hauntingly beautiful film that ponders whether "forgiveness" is also a possible component in life. The highly amicable Solondz allowed me to pick his brain about these topics, which include his own thoughts on his characters and the situations he puts them in, along with the meaning behind casting actors like Paul Reubens.
While the idea of sympathy has been in your films, where or how did the idea of forgiveness come into play?
I would like to back-track just a little bit with the “sympathy” … I’m sensitive to that word. I actually would say that I would not describe a character like Bill Maplewood (from Happiness, as played by Dylan Baker) as a sympathetic character. I would describe him as a tragic one. Sympathetic? No. I have no sympathy for him, like his son says, “I have no sympathy for you.” Of course what he has done I have no sympathy for. But he’s tragic, so far in that he’s a great father who loves his son. That moves me. To recognize, as painful as it may be, that even he has a human pulse. Pedophilia, persay is of no interest, but as a metaphor for that, which is most demonized, ostracized, feared and loathed, I don’t think you can do better. I think most Americans would rather have dinner with Osama Bin Laden at their table than a pedophile. Even if they’ve already had a pedophile at their table and just not known it. Now to the other part of your question – as people about how they embrace humanity or mankind, what does that mean? They are abstractions. It really is without substance. We are in fact defined by the limit of what we can accept. And limits of forgiveness – to what extent, that is played out here. The more you say you’re sorry the less it has meaning. If you have a set of parents for example with a son or child who is raped and murdered, if they’re of a certain religious persuasion, they might actually forgive the criminal. Different people of a different mindset, something happens to their kid, and they do nothing but seek vengeance. To me, their both valid view points. My movie is not prescriptive. It’s exploratory. It’s a moral investigation of these experience, and these dilemmas.
Do you agree with the element of sympathy in your films?
I have different feelings about my characters, and I get very attached to them in different ways, and my heart goes out to these people struggling with different afflictions, and desires, and pain and so forth. That’s what moves me. To what extent is their redemption? I don’t know. But we live in a world where redemption is so embedded in the fabric of Aemrican mind. If a person well known like a celebrity or politician gets caught with drugs or a prostitute, and everyone is looking down on them with disapproval, and then they apologize, and then they win re-election, they get born again, and find God … it’s a cycle of … we love those stories of redemption. I don’t satisfy those impulses I think. I try to stay true to these characters. I feel that I am moved by the sorrow that these people are weighed down by. In just surviving and moving on, that’s like “Hamlet,” “Macbeth” … you’ve got body count all over the place. It’s not like you’d walk out and say, “That’s a very optimistic experience.” But I’m moved by these sorrowful and wounded lives. If there’s a message, perhaps it’s just “You are not alone.”
How did the choice of having various cast members play one person in Palindromes affect your decision to re-cast the same characters of Life During Wartime?
That was a certainly a radical conceit. I don’t think it’s radical what I’ve done here. In fact, if you’ve never seen any of my work before, what would you know? You don’t need any prep to see this movie – you don’t need to know anything to follow the narrative. For me, it’s with different intentions. I think certainly one of the things that I get is finding new colors and shapes, things I couldn’t get when using the same actors. For example, Paul Reubens. He can be a very funny character just like Jon Lovitz. But of course he has a whole history. There’s a whole extra layer of sorrow, pathos, poignancy. I think there’s something revelatory for an audience to discover that even about Paul Reubens. And then at the same time there’s a playful part in my head that says he’s playing a character who has his own Pee-wee Herman doll at home.
There’s a scene in the film where Alison Janney’s motherly character discusses with her son the idea of a woman getting “wet.”
It’s something that seems true to these characters, and to the reality I’m trying to set up here. It doesn’t … it’s not shocking to me. I believe in it. But it may be to others – it’s a question of sensibility I think.
I heard about your next film, Dark Horse, and that it doesn’t have the shocking elements you’ve explored before. Is that the direction you’re possibly heading towards next?
Well, I don’t know if it’s a direction. It’s just a script that’s voids of certain elements that have appeared in other work I’ve done. There’s no child molestation, rape, or masturbation. But that doesn’t tell you where I’m going or what’s not in the movie. I think the movie really could be rated PG-13. But that doesn’t mean I see this as a particularly commercial juggernaut. So, we’ll see what life it has, and what it takes on. God willing, it won’t fall a part.
I hope it comes much quicker than Life During Wartime.
Yeah, it was a rough one. I would have made [Life During Wartime] years ago, and it took forever.
It used to have Paul Dano in the cast, and was called “Forgiveness,” right?
Well actually, Paul Dano was at once attached, but the movie was meant to be called “Life During Wartime.” In fact, if I wanted to call it “Forgiveness,” I would hve made the title song “Forgiveness.” But the problem was that there was a point in post and I thought the movie might never be completed because of budget problems. I didn’t want to give out the real title. It was very precious to me. But then it turned out the movie was going to be completed, it turned viral, it was “Forgiveness,” whatever.
How did you find out about [title song singer] Devendra Banhart?
On this mailing list. I liked this song which I put in the movie, and I wanted it reprised, and he did such a beautiful job. Beck helped him on that. I didn’t know it would actually be possible, because Marc Shaiman (Hairspray) actually wrote this song really as a sweet kind favor. It was right for the character. But then it got transformed into something really magical.
As I was leaving…
Are you from here?
No, I’m from Massachusetts. We’ve got that Catholic guilt going on here.
I don’t know what guilt. It’s good to have guilt. It makes you laugh.
Do you think guilt is good?
In your case it makes you so goodwilled and high-spirited. You’re laughing the whole time.
I’ll remember that, next time I feel weighed down by guilt.
That’s right, always laugh. It’s much better than jumping out the window.
Quick Questions with Todd Solondz
Favorite Summer Movie? What’s playing? I haven’t seen Inception, I saw a still, and the still looked pretty neat … but it looks very complicated for me. I liked Greenberg, that was in the Spring.
Last Album You Bought? I’m on this list, and people keep sending me things. I can’t keep up with it all. I got some Yo La Tengo.
Book You Wish You Had Written? I don’t have one. I think whoever wrote whatever book should have written that book. If I were to write a book, then I would do it. People say, “Well, why don’t you write?” And if it happens, it happens.
Have you thought about it? Well, I think about a lot of things. It’s like your when yours parents are friends come up to you and say, “I’ve got a story, you’ve got to make a movie,” and I say, “Why don’t you write it?”
Age of First Kiss? Well, there are all kinds. And it’s sooo personal. I’m too shy. I was slow at growing up. Whatever the latest age, I’m sure that’s me. I’d probably win the contest of latest for everything.