Catching Up With Todd Solondz

8.1.2010

By Barry Walters

In Happiness, the dad is super-precise when talking about sexuality to his preteen son to the point where you wonder if he's getting off on the conversation. And in Life During Wartime, the mom is at the complete opposite end of the spectrum. The son suggests that he knows something about sex between a man and a boy, and yet she so doesn't want to talk about it that she sets up a serious misunderstanding.
That's the sad debris that comes from all these reports of pedophiles and the church. It comes in waves of horrors and it settles, and then it comes up again. Let me put it this way. When I grew up and you went to the park, they didn't have a sign that would say, 'Adults may enter the park only when accompanied by a minor.' Because gays are always so much on the defense and straights as well, it creates a very poisoned atmosphere. Anyone who is a Boy Scout leader is looked at with suspicion. It's important that crimes and corruption be exposed, but one can't be physical with a child without it being suspect, and it's a terrible crime to look at that as a perversion.

All your films deal with the problems of communication. One of my favorite scenes in your latest is where the ex-con father meets the Charlotte Rampling character in a hotel bar. He's sitting next to a mirror that suggests the split between his public and private selves, and he's being interrogated --
And everything he says is a lie. Is he her mark, or is she his mark? What lends that exchange a poignancy is that they're having a communion, a struggle. They're really trying to connect to each other beyond all the other imperatives and of course it's doomed, but it moves me in that way.

Your films always have remarkable performances, and for me this has the strongest of them all.
Oh. [This time quite sincerely] Thank you.

And part of the weight they carry is what we know about the actors themselves.
Like Paul Reubens, if you want to talk about him. Like Jon Lovitz [who played the same role in Happiness], a very funny sort of character, but of course he brings with him a whole other history that lends an extra pathos and poignancy and sorrow to his performance. And at the same time, there's a level of play because he's playing a character who probably even has a Pee-wee Herman doll at home.

You manage to get humor out of a situation where a ghost is attempting to rape his still-living ex-girlfriend.
You have to be mindful of the fact that these are ghosts not in any literal sense. They're all a psychological manifestation of the inner lives of these characters, of their fears and desires and so forth, and it's in that context that it all has to be taken.

You seem like a very non-confrontational person, but your films --
Well, it's important to be polite in real life, but it's also important to not be polite in your movies. Movies articulate things that are very difficult even amongst our intimates to talk about. It's about tearing away so you can get at the inner lives of these characters and you can't be too fussy about that.

I think that's another reason why your films are appealing to gays: Because we still to various degrees need to keep up --
Masks. You know, there's one thing I should say about the gay audience. Because I'm Jewish, I think I identify with the gays in some sense. There's always the sense of being ostracized or being 'other.' Even though Jews are very prosperous and I didn't grow up under the Holocaust, my sense of otherness began early on and I think it was certainly informed by going from an Orthodox yeshiva as a little boy to a public school and the different experiences I had there.

Did those things get conflated? You're picked on, you're called gay, and it's because you're Jewish. Did that happen to you?
There may have been a few people who said things about me being Jewish, but there are things in one's family. I mean, my Mom came over as a child from Europe, and was of the first post-Holocaust generation. I think that if we were in the supermarket and she saw someone she wasn't too fond of, she might describe that person as 'the kind that would turn you in,' and I think that's not so foreign to gay experience.

Life During Wartime is now playing in selected theaters nationwide.

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