Like his movies, Todd Solondz is lovable because he is so quietly extreme. To understand the man behind such acclaimed indie films as Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness and its current sequel-of-sorts, Life During Wartime, one should know that the Newark-born, Greenwich Villagebased writer/director wavers between being very Jewish and being very, very, very Jewish -- as in Zero Mostel playing Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof Jewish. Hes the Hebrew equivalent of the queen who in his relaxed moments would set off even your mothers gaydar, and when feeling excitable lets loose a wrists-flailing string of "Marys," "Girlfriends," and "Miss Things." To help navigate this vacillation, Ive marked his moments of hyper-Semitism as such.
The other crucial thing you should know about Solondz if you dont already is that his films are as smart about emotions as they are extraordinarily funny, which is really saying something. And although theyre usually not explicitly about gay life, they ring truer to gay experience than most actual gay films. Like the gay directors of yesteryear who translated their difference into particularly adept renderings of womens stories, this exceptionally ethnic guy thoroughly understands us. To better comprehend how he knows what he knows, Out shared a San Francisco hotel room couch with the filmmaker on the eve of Life During Wartimes opening.
Out: You go to places that other filmmakers dont go and bring laughter out of situations that others cant, and thats an amazing achievement.
Todd Solondz (As Zero): I take it all as a compliment. I dont tire of a compliment. That is a good thing, so thank you, thank you!
In general, how would you like your audience to relate to your characters? Identify with them? Sympathize with them?
Theres a mixture of elements going on at any point in the film. Some of them I think are more open to an emotional connection than others. With some, theres more of a satire going on. So it shifts from time to time. There are all kinds of laughter.
You put audience members in a place where what is funny and what isnt funny is constantly shifting.
The movies have a kind of moral gravity, a moral center. And even the act of laughing becomes a moral dilemma. And I think thats part and parcel of movies like mine where the comedy and the pathos are so inexplicably intertwined, where subject matter that is so delicate and intimate is explored in a serious way.
Are you sometimes surprised at what people will laugh at?
I cant really control everyones response, nor do I try to. Obviously, theres sort of a manipulation, but its a very fine line that Im navigating. When I first screened Happiness years ago, a college kid came up to me afterward. He was a little drunk, and he told me how he just loved the movie. Man, when that kid got raped, that was hilarious. And I knew I was in trouble. Id been playing with fire, and so thats why afterward I said that my movies arent for everyone, especially for people who like them. If you watch the movie alone, then you have one experience, but if you watch it with an audience, then the laughter creates certain crosscurrents between the screen and people laughing and you, and that can effect -- for better or worse -- ones response to the film.
Do you take into account gay viewers?
First I have to please myself. But Ive always instinctively felt that the gay audience would respond to my work -- after I first learned that there was anyone responding. So much is about feeling marginalized and having outsider status and the failure to become accepted and so forth, and how that can shape and either empower or distort ones view of the world. Look, I actually have no particular interest in pedophilia, but as a metaphor for what is most demonized and most ostracized and loathed and feared, it speaks close to me, to what I want to express. Im always actually grateful that I havent been attacked by the gay audience because they have enough attacks as it is. Everyone just assumes that a gay teacher is going to rape a child, when in fact -- as gays and others who are informed certainly know -- most pedophiles are in fact heterosexual. But I think a lot of the humor is accessible to the gay audience.
Because its coming from an outsider place?
I dont know -- its just a feeling Ive got. I feared initially with Dollhouse that women would attack me because Im a middle-aged man talking about an 11-year-old girl getting raped, but they gave me a pass. Im always nervous because you cant control these things. Who is my audience? With the Internet, and the TV with a thousand channels, and Netflix, its difficult to still have an audience and make movies, so I just feel lucky. Its hard to know, but Im sure there are things in the movies that gays will connect to more than straights.
Well, I think that one of the things that make your films gay-friendly is that they have a sensibility in which heterosexuality may be the norm, but the healthiness of its practitioners is being called into question.
Well, the word normal, its hard to use without quotations. But yeah, maybe you can have more insight than me. Im not an intellectual here.
Oh, you went to Yale!
(As Zero) Dont hold that against me, OK? I write as a creative process. Its not an intellectual one so much. Things emerge and you think, What am I doing? What is this all about? And its a process of self-discovery as well. In some sense you could say that its all an autobiography, even if none of it actually happened. What would be interesting to me -- and I havent yet come across it -- is a gay analysis of what is going on in my movies that connects with a gay audience. That I havent quite read and that would be interesting.
Id love to write that article.
(Zero) Hey, its up to you!
In this film, theres the constant line of questioning: Are you gay? Please tell me youre straight. Thank God. And in some cases the next question is, Are you a pedophile? as if that one leads to the other.
But thats the father talking to the son who wants the solace that his son will not inherit the same fate. He speaks and its shocking but given where hes coming from, it makes sense.
Yes, its completely germane to the story, and yet if youre queer its unnerving to hear constantly throughout the film, Are you gay? I dont want to be gay. I dont want to have a man inside me!
Right, right, right. With the little boy asking about the nature of all of that.
Are you gay?
(Whispers) No, Im sorry.
But, you know, nothings black and white. I dont have, um, I dont have ... I have a woman in my life, and so ... but anythings possible. (Zero voice) I never say never.
Good for you!
(Zero again) I keep an open mind.
Are you comfortable with members of your audience thinking you might be gay?
I think thats fine. (Zero voice) If itll sell more tickets, Im happy.
In Happiness, the dad is super-precise when talking about sexuality to his preteen son to the point where you wonder if hes 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 doesnt want to talk about it that she sets up a serious misunderstanding.
Thats 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 didnt 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. Its important that crimes and corruption be exposed, but one cant be physical with a child without it being suspect, and its 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. Hes sitting next to a mirror that suggests the split between his public and private selves, and hes 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 theyre having a communion, a struggle. Theyre really trying to connect to each other beyond all the other imperatives and of course its 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, theres a level of play because hes 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. Theyre all a psychological manifestation of the inner lives of these characters, of their fears and desires and so forth, and its in that context that it all has to be taken.
You seem like a very non-confrontational person, but your films --
Well, its important to be polite in real life, but its also important to not be polite in your movies. Movies articulate things that are very difficult even amongst our intimates to talk about. Its about tearing away so you can get at the inner lives of these characters and you cant be too fussy about that.
I think thats another reason why your films are appealing to gays: Because we still to various degrees need to keep up --
Masks. You know, theres one thing I should say about the gay audience. Because Im Jewish, I think I identify with the gays in some sense. Theres always the sense of being ostracized or being other. Even though Jews are very prosperous and I didnt 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? Youre picked on, youre called gay, and its because youre 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 ones 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 wasnt too fond of, she might describe that person as the kind that would turn you in, and I think thats not so foreign to gay experience.
Life During Wartime is now playing in selected theaters nationwide.Send a letter to the editor about this article.