In honour of the release of Todd Solondz’s new film Wiener-Dog today I thought I would dig up my old piece on the man and his films. I wrote this in 2003, a young precocious undergraduate, full of admiration for Solondz. I am still in love with his films although I hope my English and my ideas have become a bit more sophisticated. This already shows my affiliation for Žižek and tries to put him in context through Bordwell and post-theory, a piece very much of its time.
This is about the films Solondz did up to this point. I will tell you all about Wiener-Dog when I see it Sunday.
In the foreword to the script of Happiness, Eytan Mirsky writes of his friend, the New York filmmaker Todd Solondz; ‘Success has not spoiled Todd Solondz, he is just as depressed as ever – If not more so.’ 1 Visually at least, Solondz could easily be the protagonist in one of his own films. A little clumsy, shy and bespectacled, with bad hair and bad clothes, the impression he gives is the cliché of the ‘nerd’; the human delineation of depression. Customarily, seeing or dreaming of ‘nerdishness’ in oneself indicates feelings of inferiority and/or ineffectiveness. The nerd feels that he has been overlooked; Solondz, however, certainly has not been overlooked.
Recognition and understanding, in spite of the constant possibility of being misconstrued: this is a matter that Todd Solondz explores in his work. He is the scriptwriter, producer and most importantly the director of his films – he could be called a model auteur. Moreover, by venturing into the labyrinth of humanity’s connections with society, and trying to make sense of them, Solondz amply displays his sincere artistic and social motives.
In his films, Solondz addresses the best and the worst truths about human nature, ‘not in order to shock or to evoke sympathy, but to comprehend and communicate all that makes us human’.2 He does this by deconstructing the contemporary social and cultural issues that surround his characters, and their ever-desperate struggle to engage with the society they live in.
I am examining Solondz because his work, although not plentiful, is in my opinion unparalleled. His films are exceptional in their subject matter – the desire to be human in an inhuman society – and its expression, as a comedy of manners. The characters of his films are unrelentingly put into the most uncomfortable and unnerving situations without ever finding any closure to their struggle. On screen this can be terribly cruel, but also very funny. ‘This film is a comedy’, says Solondz about Welcome to the Dollhouse (1996), ‘because comedy is the only way known to me to deal with this excruciating pain.’3
In Solondz’s films the audience is forced to reflect not only on the director’s motivation but also their own when judging the characters’ often bizarre behaviour. Not only is the characters’ behaviour extreme, but also extremely funny. In Solondz’s film Happiness (1998), Helen explains to her sister Joy: ‘We’re not laughing at you, we’re laughing with you.’ To which Joy replies, nonplussed, ‘but I’m not laughing’. It is this tragic/comic duality that drives Solondz’s work.
Solondz was born in 1960 in Newark, New Jersey. Although he soon left the suburbs for the New York metropolis, the atmosphere of the suburb, as well as many other autobiographical elements, would become essential to his films. Solondz enrolled in the New York’s University Film School in 1983 where he made several student films. One of them, Schatt’s Last Shot (1985) was so good that it landed him a visit in the office of 20th century Fox, as well as a contract for three films. However, nothing came of it. Solondz made his first film Fear, Anxiety and Depression (1989) with Polygram. This film, carrying a title that already epitomised his future themes, was not a commercial success, and Solondz turned to earning his rent as an English teacher for Russian immigrants.
Solondz got his second shot at filmmaking through the help of an acquaintance who had raised a little money for an independent film. This made it possible for Solondz to turn his script for Welcome to the Dollhouse, which he had written some years before, into a movie. Again, his work was not a commercial success. However, Welcome to the Dollhouse was critically highly acclaimed and won the Grand Jury prize of the 1996 Sundance festival. When his next film Happiness was released in 1998 by Good Machine it had first been rejected by its original distributor (Universal via October Films) for its unflinching treatment of such sensitive subject matters as rape and paedophilia.
His latest film, Storytelling (2002) was also well received; his earlier success had given him access to big names such as John Goodman. Still, Solondz did not intend to rely on movie stars to carry his film. To the disappointment of many fans, Solondz cut a complete story line showing Dawson’s Creek star James van der Beek engaged in gay sex.
Solondz has divided the viewing public with his films. He has a particular fascination with an unrelenting pessimism that many would dismiss as hip posturing. Yet because he confronts his subject as no other filmmaker does, his work is an excellent demonstration of the influence of modern cultural politics on the life of the individual. Solondz does not expose the workings of society by parading cultural icons symbolically on screen. Rather, he identifies a certain tragic view of the American social landscape, a landscape he exaggerates by selectively pointing the camera at its different aspects. He does this in order to interrupt unthinking acceptance – in order to induce reflection.
In this essay I want to look into the work of Todd Solondz in order to investigate the issues of contemporary culture which are evident therein. In the first chapter, I will engage with Solondz’s particularities as a director, and outline his use of an objective reality as a narrative framework. In the second chapter, I will discuss how his artistic concepts are mirrored in modern social and political debates. I will then look individually at his three latest films, Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness and Storytelling, in chapters three, four and five. I will do this in order to demonstrate how Solondz visualizes his notions about the individual in relation to society. His films become progressively more political; because of this I intend to dissect them in chronological order. My work will hopefully provide an insight not only in the films of Todd Solondz but also the workings of the contemporary discourse of the social.
1 A desire for reality, or the particularity of Todd Solondz
Compared to the blockbusters of American cinema, Solondz’s films are technically rather unspectacular. His films are not lavish, they rely on almost invisible camerawork. He only makes the camera footage a character for good reason, as in Storytelling, where self-styled documentarian Toby Oxman uses the camera to create the drama in the story of the schoolboy Scooby, to rather patronising effect. Generally speaking, Solondz is not after trickery or beautiful pictures. His main aim is to tell a story, as if he wants to let the truth speak for itself, simply and without rhetoric. Like the stories themselves, his filmic style is somewhat deadpan. For example, he uses hardly any tracking shots; still frames allow the audience to see through the camerawork comfortably, allowing them to concentrate on the characters.
Solondz’s generally deadpan attitude brings to mind comparisons with other American filmmakers. Woody Allan would be an obvious analogy. Both Solondz and Allan have found success flaunting the ‘neurotic nerd’ image. Both make dark comedies about the follies of the human condition. (Incidentally, like Allan, Solondz always uses the same typeface for his title sequences, but instead of using Windsor, a Victorian type, Solondz uses an elaborate script.) They both set their films in the same places, Allan in New York, Solondz in New Jersey. In films such as Manhattan, (1978) Allan demonstrates a distinctly metropolitan attitude. However, whereas Allan’s stories are explicitly in and about New York, Solondz has a less parochial attitude. Although his films are always set in New Jersey, they just happen to take place there. The individual dramas are exportable to not only most other people but also most other places. Whereas Allan explores the traditional, almost modernist ideas of an older generation, such as the general absurdity of society, Solondz is much less charming and his characters far more bleak.
Another director exploring postmodern concepts, such as fame (Being John Malkovich, 1999), and the nature of storytelling (Adaptation, 2003), is Spike Jonze. Like Solondz, he is kind of quirky and deadpan, and loves to break with traditional Hollywood rules of narration. However, unlike Solondz, Jonze’s films cross the line into the fantastic to explore abstract concepts. For example, in Being John Malkovich, Craig Schwarz discovers a portal into the head of real life actor John Malkovich in his office, and hires it out to people who want to experience what fame is like. In Solondz’s films, reality is often bizarre enough.
In films such as Pecker (1998), director John Waters captures a similar atmosphere to the one Solondz purveys in his films – people’s lives in the suburb of New Jersey, and this environment’s effect on them. Significantly, and contrary to Solondz’s characters, Water’s characters are happy with what they are – they have no problem with themselves. There is almost no self-awareness within the individuals in Pecker. Solondz’s films, on the other hand, live from the self-reflexivity of the characters. Waters creates the impression of his wanting everyone to be accepted, and therefore completely relativises all the different qualities of his characters. Nothing is normal or abnormal for Waters. However, whereas in Water’s film everything is up for grabs, the drama in Solondz’s films arises from the fact that nothing can be redefined, the characters are caught in their own self.
Solondz’s films play with, amongst other things, concepts of puberty, ambition and identity. Because these concepts are of such a personal, individualized nature, it is an obvious step to see Solondz’s own anxieties as an inspiration in his work. This approach, however, can be rather futile. Solondz’s own preoccupations are so much part of the expression of his broader ideas that it does not pay to comment on specific autobiographical references in his work. For Solondz, events in his personal life – such as his childhood traumas or Jewish family background – should not be of explicit concern. Although these themes in themselves clearly play a role in all his films, it is the more general experience of the subject placing itself in society that Solondz refers to.
Cineaste says about Welcome to the Dollhouse, ‘The film can still be autobiographical in ways that have nothing to do with facts but with feelings about the past, about what it means to be a kid.’4 For Solondz these themes are universal, rather than an individual experience. Solondz’s motive is the reasons and the consequences of such anxieties, and these can, due to common experience, only be universal. He explains, “These themes of isolation, desire, alienation, connecting are universal. It’s not like I’ve experienced anything unique. It’s not that my experience of life is more profound. The only thing I’ve got going for me is to what degree I have the craft to tell the story.”5
The New Jersey suburbs are part of the autobiographical colour in Solondz’ films, and are ever present in his work. In Storytelling, a pupil in a documentary about his school, says enthusiastically, ‘People always try to diss New Jersey. BUT JERSEY’S WHERE AMERICA’S AT!’ Of late, the post-war American suburb has become its own myth, as evinced in much modern American culture. Although architecture and landscapes may vary from one suburban scene to another, in contemporary thought the suburbs have all come to stand for the embodiment of the same purpose – the spontaneous creation of middlebrow culture by and for the middle classes. In American cinema history, the concept of the suburb has thus become almost as a character in its own right. Films like Back to the Future (1985), The Truman Show (1998), American Beauty (1999), Pleasantville (1998) and Far From Heaven (2002), visually expressed, in the landscape of the suburbs, a middle class set of values as a way of life. These values were, more often than not, held up as reactionary and banal.
It is the director David Lynch who most famously plays with and twists the image of the suburb. In Lynch’s almost surreal suburbs ‘… the aura is violently cheerful and bright.’6 But unlike Lynch, who plays out the grotesque beauty of the suburb as something alien and inhuman, Solondz does not distort nor hide behind the suburb. The power of the suburb lies for Solondz not in its potential as a symbolic construct but in its concrete reality as an actual place where many people live.
In Happiness, the successful writer Helen Jordan lives in New Jersey rather than New York. On the phone to her sister she says, ‘None of my friends can actually believe I live here. But that’s because they don’t get it. I’m living in a state of irony.’ It is deliberately unclear whether she means state in the sense of a condition, or a state as a geographical entity. By letting a pretentious character, Helen, say these words, Solondz comments on those observers who see the suburbs as the ultimate visualisation of the post-modern age. Solondz does not parade the suburb as an abstract, reality-distorting monster, but reveals it as a human reality. The fact that the suburb is in itself sluggish and stagnant, hindering its inhabitants in acting to their fullest potential, is authentic not symbolic – that is the tragedy. Solondz shows the suburb for what it is, a reality to many people.
Solondz displays a similar, unrestricted approach to his characters. Throughout cinema history, characters on the whole tend to have one overriding attribute to manifest their role in the story. Psychopaths, sex-bombs or mad professors only behave within their restricted narrative boundaries. Solondz, however, sees all different modes within one character. For Solondz, people embody all characteristics, not one overriding mode. There is no contradiction when, in Welcome to the Dollhouse, Dawn suffers the rejection and verbal abuse of her classmates, and at the next opportunity bestows the same name calling and distancing on her only friend. Solondz: ‘I think that the persecuted and the persecutor reside in each of us. Contending with these forces is part of growing up.’7
Solondz does not make excuses for his characters, nor does he condemn them for what he sees as essential to human nature – the desire for closeness and recognition. Although his characters are often vile, they are simply fulfilling the same human need, and often act inhumanely in doing so. ‘All these characters are suffering souls. To me, this is their connection, the topics that are dealt with are loneliness and desire, isolation, alienation and the struggle for some idea of closeness. These to me are universal subjects and I can only hope that with all these extremes and taboos this will not be overlooked’8 No matter how objectionably his characters behave, their sheer desperation to become more fully human makes them understandable. Their struggle to define their human boundaries is a point of identification. Yet the characters fail; they are stuck in their own circumstances, without having the chance to ever improve their situation.
Human beings define themselves socially through other human beings, and this process is a constant throughout life. If this process has been made culturally and socially impossible, individuals find themselves at a dead end, as the characters in Solondz’s films do. It could be argued that today there is a crisis of definition on every level of modern life. Because Solondz characters demonstrate what happens at the receiving end of this crisis, his work is highly political as well as topical.
2 Society, Film And Politics or The Conflict of Too Many Theories
To grasp fully the personal struggle that Solondz’s character face, it is important to explore the political dimensions that his films cover. Society has become stagnant for Solondz’s characters, a doldrums of existence in which no one believes in anything any more. This state of affairs in Solondz’s work is representative of the general listlessness in the modern post-cold war society. The demise of collective organisations, especially politically motivated ones, on both left and right, has unleashed a general insecurity about life as it is. This loss of faith in a comprehensive society is most evident in the resignation of modern politics, which in turn is ultimately expressed in the rejection of a comprehensive theory about life altogether.
In his Book ‘How to Read a Film’, James Monaco expresses the current trend of contemporary cultural studies when he describes the implementations for film studies today as follows:
‘The present development of Film theory is moving away from normative ideas and towards the descriptive. People contemplating film no longer have any interest in establishing an ideal system of aesthetic, political and societal norms and conventions.’9
This notion, of the turning away from traditional ideas of political engagement with art and society is, for philosopher and film theorist Slavoj Žižek, perfectly represented in the conceptualisation of ‘Post-Theory’ by David Bordwell and Noel Carroll, as it is described in their book of the same name. Together with Carroll, Bordwell demands, in the introductory sequences of their book Post Theory, a turn from the global, transhistorical theoretical models of ‘Grand Theory’ and instead pledges for a form of film theorising that is empirically and historically orientated. Bordwell describes his approach as ‘New Formalism’. In their approach Bordwell and Carroll employ a method call ‘middle level research’ or ‘piecemeal theorising’.10
The so-called New Formalism, as fostered by Bordwell and his confederate Kristin Thompson, is a purely aesthetic form (or ‘aesthetic approach’) 11 of film analysis. It is carried over from the film and literary theories of the Russian Formalists of the first half of the twentieth century.12 Just as the term Formalism was a defamation by the Marxist opponents of the Formalists (who would call themselves ‘Morphologists’ or even ‘Specificators’), the term New Formalist was also meant pejoratively before it was embraced by Thompson and Bordwell.13 Bordwell’s New Formalism attempts to investigate cinematic structures in direct connection with a cognitive based, aesthetic conception of film, in combination with empirical historic data. In effect Bordwell intends the integration of film theory, analysis and history.
For Bordwell there is no interest in a cultural, ideological, sociohistorical or gender orientated context of film.14 On the contrary, Bordwell’s New Formalism understands itself as a reaction to preceding theoretical models. With these, Bordwell specifically touches upon concepts of French structuralism as well as its apotheosis, poststructualism. Or as Bordwell refers to them: ‘SLAB. The Saussarian – Lacanian – Althussarian – Barthessarian Paradigm of poststructual film theory.’15 Hans J. Wulff writes, New Formalism “sees itself set against linguistic, psychoanalytic and Marxist orientated theories of the 70s and 80s called by Bordwell ‘grand Theories’.”16 For Bordwell, Post Theory is a reworking of film criticism set against previous doctrines of cinema studies. Bordwell insists that, ‘What is coming after Theory is not another Theory but theories and the activity of theorising:’17 Bordwell’s arguments against a Grand Theory are led by the notion that former theories of structuralism/poststructualism neglect stylistic elements of film analysis and instead ‘concentrate on isolated narrational devices on the expense of the whole film’.18 In lieu of one totalizing Theory, he demands a pluralism of methods and approaches of film analysis, based on the idea that a good theory should have ‘internal coherence, empirical breadth, discriminating power and some recognition of historical change’.19 For Bordwell, the break with structualist and poststructualist theories is experienced as a relief from the ‘nightmarish burden of total theory’.20
Žižek, however, sees Bordwell’s Post Theory approach not as a stand against, nor as an alternative to, the structualist/poststructualist discourse that dominates cultural studies today; rather he sees both approaches to film theory as a direct result of postmodern culture concepts. To Žižek, Bordwell and Carrol’s greatest error consist of their consideration of those theories rejected by them as representatives of the concept of ‘Grand Theory’. He makes it clear that both Post Theory and cultural studies share a rejection of the all encompassing, what Žižek calls, TOE (Theory of Everything).21
Žižek points out that both approaches – Post Theory and modern cultural studies – are joined in the relativist belief that there is no universal truth that could be held up by a comprehensive, metaphysical ideology. This is because both approaches to theorising are based on the postmodern premise that there is no such thing as an all-embracing, objective truth. There is only a variety of conflicting, parallel truths that may all be regarded as valid. Difference has no real function and thus no meaning.
However, as Kenan Malik writes, ‘Its [difference] meaning emerges only in the context of a common standard against which the relationships, and hence the differences, between a set of objects, phenomena, or events can be judged.’22 Cultural relativism, on the other hand, does not allow for an absolute standard against which any progress or change can be measured. Therefore, the subject of postmodern theorising is condemned to be passive – it can not actively change its own discourse. And what is true for the abstract subject of modern cultural theory is, for Žižek, also true for the real, concrete individual in modern society.
For Žižek, Post-Theory within the field of film studies, with its attachment to the pure, depoliticized film analyses, is an elementary part of a broader crisis in modern culture. ‘The enthusiastic professionalism of Post-Theory is often sustained by a stance of profound political resignation, by will to obliterate the traces and disappointments of political engagement.’23 This resignation towards any real political struggle, ‘in our era of globalized capitalism and its ideological supplement, liberal-democratic multiculturalism’,24 is a sure sign for Žižek that the current intellectual debate has rid itself of the last vestiges of an engaged leftist attitude. Rather, it has found its solution in a quasi, third way solution to politics as a mitigation for giving up the struggle for real equality.
The same idea is expressed by James Heartfield in his book ‘The Death of the Subject’. However, his approach toward the lack of political engagement within society is overtly more political than Žižek’s philosophical one. Heartfield describes how the collapse of the political left as well as the political right at the end of the cold war was crucial to the emergence of both the postmoderninst mindset and ‘third way’ politics, with its new kind of social movements. 25 For Heartfield, these streams can be understood as an altogether break with the idea of social transformation as well as a break with the idea of a collective agency. He describes how this is evident today, in that there is a crisis of confidence at every level of society; everywhere people try to evade responsibility and accountability. A desired pluralism of ideas and political apathy lead many to follow a pseudo-liberalism, which ultimately finds its deification in political correctness. This misunderstood liberalism is often experienced just as dictatorially as the dogmatic elements it tries to stand against.
Whereas Žižek sees the disengagement of the individual with modern society as a philosophical struggle and Heartfield sees it as a political one, Solondz’s treatment of this struggle as a filmmaker is an expression of how this process manifests itself in the individual. Solondz, in his diverse films, addresses closely the problems of the human condition in a postmodern cultural environment. A crisis in society becomes a comedy of manners and dialogue, an interplay of the gap between meaning and expression. Solondz’s characters are helpless in a world where nothing is definable anymore. Instead of living, let alone celebrating some sort of diversity, they are losing the last vestiges of humanity and real human closeness. These themes become more and more explicit in his consecutive films, from Welcome to the Dollhouse, which is told straightforwardly and personally, to Happiness, which is more concrete, and finally Storytelling, which is his most overtly political film.
3. Welcome to the Dollhouse
In his film Welcome to the Dollhouse, Solondz gives a portrait of the American suburb as endless mundanity for its inhabitants. It is a remarkably thorough evocation of life as experienced by an eleven-year-old girl. Dawn Wiener, called ‘Wienerdog’ by her contemporaries, is a high-school girl who puts herself through a miserable societal apprenticeship. She does so by relentlessly pursuing schemes that she believes will gain her acceptance among her peers. She fails, not because she is surrounded by antisocial monsters, but only by an assortment of common philistines, snobs and hypocrites. The themes covered in this portrait of an unbending society are solidarity, dignity and popularity, and the business of dealing with the frustration of not achieving these goals.
The title sequence of Welcome to the Dollhouse is a close-up tracking shot towards a traditional family portrait, hanging in a white house in the New Jersey suburbs. The focus of the frame is not the head of the family but, at the side of the picture, the awfully leering girl with crooked teeth and a pair of thick, distorting spectacles jammed firmly on her nose.
The next scene shows a high school cafeteria. Again we see the girl from the portrait, serious this time. It is Dawn, dressed in a loud, embarrassing ensemble. She is carrying a tray, looking for a free seat. The camera follows her gaze; happy children crowd around the tables. Eventually there is a table with only one girl sitting there. ‘Can I sit here?’ Dawn asks. After a reluctant moment the other girl says, ‘If you feel like it.’ Although the other girl, Lolita, seems to be just as much an outsider as Dawn, she does everything to make Dawn feel uncomfortable. The school’s Cheerleaders appear, asking Dawn vindictively, ‘are you a lesbian?’ Lolita coolly comments, ‘She just made a pass at me.’ Under loud ‘Lesbo! Lesbo!’ chants they leave Dawn alone at the table.
This opening sequence quickly reveals the subject and perspective of Solondz’s film – the life of adolescents in the heart of the American suburb, as seen from a distance, an outsider position. What quickly becomes evident in this scene is that there is no solidarity amongst outsiders. On the contrary, the social order of the school is ruled by a strict hierarchy of acceptance, an organised pecking order. The aim is to maim and destroy those more vulnerable in order to climb the ladder of peer approval. Popularity is the most prized possession, and the stake of the struggle everyone is fighting.
Being at Benjamin Franklin Junior High is not easy for Dawn. She is awkward and ugly, and she bears the unfortunate surname of Wiener. These traits are enough to mark her out as the pariah of the school; her locker stands out as the only one plastered in insulting graffiti – ‘Wiener Dog Sucks’ and ‘I wish I was beautiful’. Dawn is a lumbering girl, doggedly stalking through the school corridors, tense and shy. However, her awkwardness does not dilute her relentless fighting spirit.
Dawn’s friend Ralphy is another outsider, also called faggot by the other kids. Together Dawn and Ralphy found the ‘Special People Club’; an amateurish shack of a clubhouse in the back yard of the Wiener’s house. This refuge later turns out to be an illusion – ‘Special People’, she is told, ‘equals retards’.
In their clubhouse, Dawn explains to Ralphy ‘I want to be popular’; however, this wish does not just apply to school but also to her family. In terms of popularity, Dawn has no chance against opponents such as her little sister Missy. Unlike Dawn, Missy is pleasing in every sense. She is sweet and adorable, and in her pink tutu, the picture-perfect front lawn ballerina. ‘She has it so easy,’ Dawn tells Ralphy.
Dawn’s older brother, Mark, is as sad a character as she is. Unlike Dawn, however, he has surrendered himself to his nerd image, with the excuse that it will help him to get a good education. In order to get extra curricular points for his college entrance Mark plays clarinet in his band ‘The Quadratics’. Mark has also recognised the power and politics of popularity; he asks high school stud Steve Rodgers to be the new singer for his band. Mark tells his parents, ‘he is the most popular guy in school. If we get him, we will get in everywhere’.
Dawn lives in a world in which liberalism is not simply the norm but the law. In her Jewish, middle-class family, the rituals of pseudo-liberal culture are perfectly translated into psychological terrorism. Her mother forces Dawn at the dinner table to declare her love for he little sister Missy. ‘Tell her you are sorry, and you love her.’ Dawn’s refusal – to apologise would be hypocritical about the true nature of the relationships in the family – makes her the most unpopular member of the family.
Still, Dawn fights back, and fights for her happiness. However, the more she fights the more she is put down, by her fellow students, her teachers and her parents. Paradoxically, her teachers insist that dignity is one of the most important characteristics of a person. Her teacher, Mrs Grisson, punishes Dawn to write a 100-word essay on dignity as a punishment for ‘grade grubbing’. Dawn is then made to read her essay out loud in front of the class. This proves to be a most undignified experience; she is constantly interrupted by the teacher shouting ‘louder!’
With the courage born of desperation, Dawn chases the boy of her affections. Mark’s band mate Steve is a Jim Morrison ersatz, who loans his popularity to the ‘Quadratics’ in return for some extra computer science tutoring from Mark. Dawn knows that Steve is ‘horny’, as Mark acknowledges, and lives in hope that, since he beds everything female, he might take mercy on her. Steve is indiscriminate in his sources of admiration and blasé in his deportment. Dawn however does not realise that his apparent kindness is in fact indifference, and has nothing to do with affection. She is in fact so marginal to Steve that he even does not call her names.
On the other hand, Dawn’s greatest tormentor is Brandon, who comes from an impoverished and literally broken home. He desperately needs to feel social acceptance and is constantly trying to maintain the little he already has. Brandon, together with his gang of low-life cohorts, constantly taunts Dawn. Brandon is higher on the ladder of popularity than she is due to his rebel/bully image. If he is not threatening her, he is trying to copy her work in class.
Tellingly, Dawn’s relationship with Brandon starts with insults and humiliation, when he repeatedly threatens to rape her. He even phones her house to tell her ‘tomorrow I’m going to rape you – be there.’ Dawn, at the other end of line, gives her OK. She is at the same time appalled by his violent behaviour and intrigued by what she sees as his sexual interest. They meet after school for their rape session, which never happens.
This bizarre friendship leads to the only truly human moments in the film. Their communication is inept and childish; after all, they are children. However, together they are honest with one another, something Dawn does not experience with others. Here is where the moment of real closeness happens. Solondz: ‘I love this idea that this ‘rape’ becomes the moment of greatest tenderness. When she says, ‘I’m sorry for being such a cunt’, the word cunt is transformed from the ugliest word in the dictionary to a beautiful word, or funny, in a way.’ 26 The two outsiders are strangely drawn to each other, and their lack of communicative skill does not prevent them from making their affection for each other apparent.
Dawn is constantly on a quest to improve her situation. She tries to find out how to be popular, only to be told that she has no chance in life because she’s ugly, and so should not bother trying. Proving her fighting spirit, Dawn asks Steve’s ex-fling if she would one day stand a chance of becoming Steve’s girlfriend. Steve’s ex tells Dawn straight that this is never going to happen – ‘you are ugly. That’s just the way it is – no cutting’.
Dawn suffers not so much from the actual injustices and insults inflicted on her, but more from her own powerlessness to improve her situation. Her powerlessness stems from her inability to offer any improvement on anyone’s popularity. Dawn cannot offer social upward mobility to her peers, only social downgrading. In school as well as her home, people have chosen Dawn to measure their own status in society against. No matter how low they are, they can always look down on Dawn. This hierarchy of acceptance is established and held up by bullying; not only is she bullied by the schoolchildren but also by her mother and teachers. The other children inarticulately tell Dawn that she is powerless because she is ugly. What they really mean is that she is the lowest rung.
The only way out of her life of non-appreciation and lovelessness, it seems, is to get out of the suburbs and into the city. ‘That’s where its all happening,’ as Steve asserts. Dawn prays at the shrine to Steve, that she has made in her bedroom, that, ‘you will take me away from here’. But whereas Steve, one of those people who ‘have it so easy’, simply quits school and goes off to New York to become ‘the next Jim Morrison’, Dawn and Brandon are literally locked in the suburbs. When they feel the urge to flee most keenly they are confronted with an insurmountable hurdle. Solondz uses a visual metaphor, a chicken wire fence, which both Dawn and Brandon encounter when contemplating their respective rebuffs at the hands of their peers. When Brendan finally runs away, to escape going to a correctional institute, it is clear that he will not be very successful in his attempt.
The alternative course of action for those who cannot find their place in society is to try and change it actively. However, as Dawn finds out, this is not easy. Dawn is called to the principal’s office together with her parents, after she accidentally shoots a spitball at a teacher during an assembly. She was aiming at the boys who were also throwing spitballs at her, openly and unpunished. In her interrogation, Dawn excuses her behaviour, saying, ‘I was fighting back.’ To this, her mother can only say incredulously, ‘Whoever told you to fight back?’
It is also Dawn’s mother who sweetly requests of her to tear down her clubhouse for the parents’ anniversary celebrations. When Dawn refuses to comply, her mother not only ignores her wish, but also ignores the entire girl by pretending that she is not there when handing out deserts at the dinnertable. Dawn is told by her father, after she refuses her mother’s wishes, ‘Dawn, be smart. Make it easy on yourself.’ He obviously knows that oppositional behaviour only leads to punishment, if anywhere at all. Like Mark, Dawn’s parents have already given up trying to change their own circumstances; they have surrendered themselves to their position in the family as they have to their position in society.
Dawn’s belief, that she will be popularly accepted if she fulfils the wishes of more popular people, proves to be false. On the other hand, her emotional and violent outbreaks – cutting the head off Missy’s Barbie doll, destroying the family home movie – are generally ignored. The times Dawn takes action of real consequences, such as the spitball incident, she is unapologetic, but also fails to improve her situation. When she deliberately fails to give Missy a note from her mother, resulting in Missy abduction, instead of rising to Missy’s place of beloved daughter in the family, Dawn is now completely passed over by her parents.
Welcome to the Dollhouse describes the narrative of the social outcast, not in terms of surreal horror story but as comedy. Dawn’s daily tortures are not exaggerated, nor her responses justified, by Solondz. She hands out, to those weaker than she, the same insults she receives, in the end rejecting her only friend Ralphy. No matter how hard she tries, she does not gain in popularity. The hierarchy is eternal and immutable. As Dawn’s brother tells her, ‘High school’s better than junior high. They call you names, but not as much to your face.’ Abuse is an everyday occurrence, permeating every level. What happens to Dawn is not special or unique.
The nature of Welcome to the Dollhouse only provides an indirect link to ideas of modern cultural philosophies. The characters’ helplessness is based on the cruelty of the everyday, rather than abstract theories. However, these cruelties are fostered by the given social structures, and these in turn are also real. Dawn’s dilemma suggests that, in modern society, people cannot improve their social situation, even by force, and that any form of solidarity is futile. Even the idea of opting out is an illusion – the Special People Club is a complete failure. What Welcome to the Dollhouse proves is that everyone lives in the same society, whether they like it or not. There are no Special People.
Happiness is, as the title suggests, a film about the idea of happiness; not only about the much-celebrated American pastime, the pursuit of happiness, but also about greed, despair, disappointment and desire. In the film, the pursuit of happiness transforms human longing into a destructive, all-consuming monster – the search for happiness is futile and destructive, turning people into perverts and hypocrites. The characters are all rather drab or peculiar, an assortment of unsatisfied, lonely people – losers, pederasts and telephone perverts. Yet, their search for happiness is ultimately an expression of the desire for closeness and human aspiration.
Compared to Welcome to the Dollhouse, the storyline of Happiness is much more complicated. It is an ensemble film, with more than one protagonist, in which the central plot links clusters of different characters. At the centre of the different stories are three sisters, each with their own ideal of what life should be.
Helen, the middle sister, is a successful poet. She is glamorous in a rather contrived, mundane way. Her biggest literary success is titled ‘A Pornographic Childhood’, and is a collection of poems about childhood rape. Helen is unhappy, lamenting the lack of authenticity that her own biography gives to her tales of victimhood. ‘What the hell do I know about rape? I’ve never been raped. I’m just another sordid exploitationist. Oh if only I had been raped as a child! Then I would know authenticity!’ To overcome this problem of authenticity, Helen becomes involved with a telephone pervert. This tragic onanist, however, turns out to be her frustrated next door neighbour Allan.
We are first introduced to Allan in the office of therapist Bill Maplewood, where Allan drones on with his secret sexual fantasies about Helen Jordan. ‘I want to undress her, I want to tie her up and pump her, pump, pump, pump, till she screams bloody murder … Not that I could ever actually … see, if she only knew how I felt, how deep down I really cared for her, respected her, she would love me back …’
Allan obviously has a problem telling the difference between his real and imaginary life. He is, on the other hand, the object of desire of another neighbour – the obese and deadly Kristina. On their first date, she confesses to killing and butchering their puny doorman Pedro. She did this after the little man had raped her on her kitchen floor. Although Allan and Kristina are both physically and psychologically quite grotesque, they are two of the three characters in the film who, in their new-found acquaintanceship, find a kind of closure by the end of the film. Also, they are the only ones whose closeness, although bizarre, is real.
The oldest and self-proclaimed happiest sister of the three is Trish Maplewood. She is a married mother of three, and flaunts her perfect family life at every possibility. Talking to her husband, Bill Maplewood, about her sister Joy, she says, ‘I’m concerned. I mean, she’s not like me. She doesn’t have it all.’ She does not know that her husband, the successful psychoanalyst, is not only a genuinely loving father and husband but also a paedophile, who rapes two of his eldest son’s schoolfriends.
Trish and Bill’s son, eleven year old Billy, has just entered puberty and his greatest desire is to ‘come’ for the first time. Trish’s parents are also going through a crisis. After what looks like a very long marriage, Lenny Jordan wants to live separately from his wife Mona, without getting a divorce. He is bored with life, and believes that it cannot offer him anything anymore. Of course, with cruel predictability, his doctor diagnoses him to be ‘as fit as an ox’ and that he is going ‘to live to a hundred’.
Joy, the youngest sister of the three, has just turned thirty but still lives in her parents’ house in New Jersey. The opening scene of the film shows Joy and her date Andy in a restaurant. Soon it becomes clear that she has just finished her relationship with the corpulent man. Andy is angry and desperate, ‘You think I’m not hip. You think I’m pathetic, a nerd, a lard-ass fatso. You think I’m shit. Well you’re wrong. ‘Cause I’m champagne. And you’re shit.’ Joy can say nothing to this accusation. A few scenes later she gets a call from the police; Andy has killed himself.
Pushed by herself, and even more by others, to find the ‘right’ kind of happiness, Joy soon loses sight of its particularity, expediency and uniqueness. She is an aspiring singer-songwriter, and composes a song about her mixed feelings on the subject.
It seems the things I’ve wanted in my life
I’ve never had.’ And so it’s no surprise
That living only leaves me sad.
Happiness, where are you?
I’ve searched so long for you.
Happiness, what are you?
I haven’t got a clue.
Happiness, why do you have to
Stay so far away from me?
When I’m in despair
And life has turned into a mess
I know that I don’t dare
to end my search for happiness.
Joy’s song is not only about her confusion over how to be happy, but also demonstrates that she feels somewhat a more general emptiness, a sense of incompleteness. She is at a loss, and does not know how to fill the gap.
Andy’s death gives her the excuse to quit her sales job. In her completely disorientated state of mind, Joy believes that she is obliged ‘to do good. Work with the poor, the needy’. She overlooks her own, less tangible need. Joy is also oblivious to her genuine motives; the real reason she starts a new position as an English teacher for immigrants is because it makes her feel better knowing that there are people worse off than she is. In this context, even she has something to offer. The original teachers of the school, however, are on strike for more benefits. Joy questions their problems: ‘You know, there are some people in real need in there.’ Some of her colleagues are equally unenthusiastic: ‘I mean, it’s pathetic. Such losers’, says her fellow teacher Rhonda.
Joy is constantly patronised by her sisters for her misguided romantic sensitivity. However, while on the way home she meets Vlad, a Russian émigré and pupil in her class, and he offers to give her a ride to New Jersey. They stop at a diner. Joy shows that she wants to be respectful at any cost.
‘Don’t you miss Russia?’
‘Fuck the cunt of Russia.’
‘Well, I guess it’s best to feel that way.’
Joy’s noncommittal, synthetic tact soon becomes very patronising. After arriving at her house Joy tells Vlad why she is not married. ‘Vlad. Life is different in America. Here a woman can – I know this is hard to understand – but a woman can fulfil her potential. There are opportunities to do something, do good … really improve the world.’ Vlad does not care for her liberal, self-serving babble and just wants to get into her pants. She gives in to his demand, and her own desire for human contact. After they have sex he says, ‘Okay’, casually pulls up his trousers and leaves. Joy is screwed by him in every sense – the next day she discovers that he has taken her guitar and her stereo.
Later, Joy is attacked by Vlad’s girlfriend, about whom she did not know. Joy decides to pay a visit to her attacker, taking flowers to apologise for sleeping with her boyfriend. When she arrives, she discovers that Vlad is also there. He has obviously badly beaten his girlfriend, and continuously treats her with total contempt. Joy assumes that Vlad has no understanding of American morals and values, and implicitly excuses his antisocial behaviour on the basis of cultural difference. Meeting him again, she feels a pang of liberal guilt, combined with nervous respect for his sheer physicality; she timidly asks for her belongings back. He then asks her for some money. Joy willingly lends him $500, never expecting to get it back. When she is gone, Vlad mumbles only, ‘Stupid American.’
All the characters are in the constant pursuit of happiness, or more exactly a form of human completion. At first glance, this undertaking seems to take different shapes for each individual. Trish sees her happiness in her family life. However, recognition beyond her life as a housekeeper is out of reach for her.
Helen thinks she would be truly happy if she knew authenticity, and even invites Alan to live out his sordid fantasies with her. Allan, on the other hand, thinks he will be happy if he could have Helen. However, the moment they both get their chance to live out their individual rape fantasies, they realise that this has nothing to do with reality, let alone achieving their goal of happiness. After Helen asks Allan over, they sit next to each other in awkward silence. Alan very slowly tries to reach out for Helen, inching his hand along the sofa. Helen interrupts, matter of factly, ‘This isn’t working.’ Expanding on her theme, she explains, ‘you’re not my type.’
Whereas both Helen’s and Allan’s sexual perversions are only fantasy, Bill Maplewood actually acts upon his urges. Using sleeping pills he drugs his family and his son’s friend Johnny Grasso in order to secretly molest the boy. A short while after, he pays a visit to another of his son’s schoolfriends, who he knows is home alone, and rapes him also. Bill’s unlived fantasies are worse than those of any of the other characters; he daydreams of casually machine-gunning a park full of innocent people. The question therefore arises: is Bill so twisted because he is unhappy, or unhappy because he is twisted? Bill identifies with sexuality to such an extent that it becomes the prism through which everything is viewed, even his relationship with his wife, and more peculiarly his son, is couched in purely sexual terms.
Despite Bill’s short satisfaction, the larger consequences are terrible; he loses his family and his freedom, and is overcome by feelings of remorse, not for his gross acts but for what he experiences as an illness. He feels guilt about his clandestine behaviour and furtive trickery, about the sexual acts he is unrepentant. In effect he denies his responsibility for his own actions, he cannot bring himself to see his own deeds objectively. Even his excuse, that he is sick, is a self-serving apology. It is only in a final conversation with his son that Bill admits full responsibility and does not excuse his behaviour. He tells his son, ‘it was … great.’ In effect, Bill mistakenly treats all children as adults, even treating his son as confessor/therapist. In doing so he infantilizes himself, lowering himself to the state of naïve ignorance and wilful irresponsibility of a child.
For most of these characters a lack of happiness is equated with failure in life. Those who admit to being unhappy are pitied and are treated condescendingly. The pursuit of happiness is therefore also a quest for social acceptance. Between the sisters the quest for happiness has reached such a pitch of competition that Joy takes the role of underachiever. She is consistently patronised by her sisters as ‘poor, innocent, sensitive Joy’. She is repeatedly asked by her sisters, her work colleagues, and Vlad, if she is happy, if she is ‘OK’, to which she always replies ‘yes’ – and then breaks down in tears. She would rather not admit that she is unhappy; the admission of unhappiness is regarded as an admission of failure.
When pitching Happiness, James Schamus, from the production company Good Machine, described the philosophy of the film as follows: ‘It is a film about the overproduction of desire. The average American has too much desire to know what to do with, and it is in the disposition of this excess desire, in the inability of the social structure to absorb it properly, that trouble starts in suburbia.’27 This emphasis on the corruptive nature of consumerism is a logical step for critics when talking about Happiness. For example, Cineaste Magazine writes, ‘In a culture that encourages self-involvement and consumerism, often conflating them with sexual gratification, the search for happiness, almost by definition, reflects these same cultural excesses.’28
This idea is reminiscent of Marcuse’s formulation of false happiness, which he regarded as being achieved through the acquisition of material goods. For Marcuse, a new system of power relations broke with traditional Marxist concepts of class. The post-industrial society emerged, ‘with its new wealth, and cheaper products, an emergence of a new middle class and the obliteration of major class differences.’29 This new system depended on creating consumer goods for an ever-expanding market.
For Marcuse, political power relations have shifted towards those who produce culture goods and those who are reduced to passive consumerism. To make this system work, new consumerist desires have to be constantly created. This formulation could easily be read into Solondz films: the emptiness, the acquisitive desires are the result of the overproduction of need. Yet they become distorted, fulfilled through perversions rather than acceptable consumerist channels. However, Solondz work shows more subtlety than this. The characters certainly are slaves to their desires and needs, yet only gain a modicum of true happiness when they actively change events rather than passively respond to them.
Happiness, in itself, is not necessarily a good thing for the characters. Rather, it turns them into hypocrites about their human desires – desires for closeness which are hard to fulfil, and have subsequently turned into perversions. The characters, trying to fill the void of desire they all have with they don’t know what, soon find perverse substitutes and urges. From Kristina’s consumption of huge amounts of ice-cream to Bill’s rape of little boys, nothing is alien for Solondz, and his portrayal of these depravities is unnerving in its unflinching scrutiny. In their search for human closeness the characters have become so desperate that they have to cross not only the middle class boundaries of ethical values but also the boundaries of human dignity. Everyone’s desires are in one way or another perverted. However, no matter how crass one of the characters acts, there is always someone more perverted. And when the films ends with Billy finally ‘coming’ all over the balcony, it is apparent that he now also has entered society as someone with perverted desires as his private goal for happiness.
For Joy, her experiences at the mercy of Vlad do more good than harm; she perhaps feels that $500 was a somewhat small price to pay. Her encounter with violence and straightforward sexuality shocks her to the extent that she is forced to live in the real world. Before this point she mouths the dogma of unquestioned respect and understanding, which is essentially patronising to those less fortunate. Joy subsequently begins to understand how to engage with events, which can be humiliating, but also unexpectedly beneficial. She finds more sympathy for the strikers, identifying with their resilience. ‘I think … now I have more sympathy for the strikers,’ she says to Vlad after giving him the money at the end of the film. Most importantly Joy learns that humiliation is not cataclysmic; she learns nothing about happiness per se, more that unhappiness can be borne and occasionally deflected.
Besides those characters who resign themselves to their circumstances, there are also those who defy the idea that true happiness and true closeness can never be achieved. As Joy discovers, the striving for happiness and true closeness itself makes people more human, because it means accepting a reality external to the self and dealing with it. Allan finally commits himself to Kristina only to find out firstly, that she is a psychopath, and secondly, that he doesn’t really mind.
‘Can we still be … friends?’
‘Um … I guess … Yeah … I mean, we all have our … plusses and minuses….’
For Solondz, happiness is the experience of something more human, the recognition of an enduring common reality. Other people are decidedly not hell, but in fact the only thing that makes people fully human.
Storytelling is even more of a struggle with the social that was Happiness or even Welcome to the Dollhouse. It is far more explicit and straightforward in its critique of modern cultural philosophies than Solondz’s previous films. This makes it look not only far more caricatured, but also like a pre-emptive strike against his critics. Instead of answering directly any possible criticisms of his work, he has made a film that itself plays out any possible disparagement. By showing this in such an overt way, Solondz not only emphasises his points but also draws his critics attention to the fact that he his aware of the modern intellectual discourse of culture that he describes in his films.
As a film, Storytelling is basically about the difficulties and problems of how to tell a story. The film is divided into two segments. The shorter, first part is titled ‘Fiction’. It is the story of college student Vi, who has a boyfriend, Marcus, with cerebral palsy. Together they are students in the fiction class of the black, Pulitzer Prize winning writer Mr Scott.
During one lesson, Marcus reads aloud to the class his hackneyed and anodyne short story about a boy with CP who, by the end of his story, becomes a ‘cerebral person’. His fellow students are eager to criticise his story in terms of his disability, and compare him to other famous writers with disabilities. ‘It’s a bit like Faulkner. But East Coast and disabled.’ ‘Or Flannery O’Connor, She has Multiple Sclerosis.’ ‘Updike has psoriasis.’ Only one student has the nerve to put him straight; Catherine is obviously the most intellectual student in the class, and obviously also the teacher’s pet. She finds his story ‘a little bit trite’ and gives good reasons for her opinion. However, she quickly excuses her words by saying, ‘I’m sorry, but … Anyway, what do I know? Don’t even listen to what I say.’ Yet their professor, Mr Scott, agrees: ‘Catherine is right. Your story was a piece of shit.’
After the lesson Marcus breaks up with Vi, accusing her of being patronising and dishonest; she did not or could not tell him that his writing was poor. Vi tries to calm him down, telling him that Mr Scott could not possibly understand what he feels as a disabled person and as a writer, even if he has won the Pulitzer Prize. ‘He is just one opinion.’ Finally, she adds, ‘I don’t even like his novels. They’re just so aggressively confrontational.’ Subsequently, Vi is angry that Marcus has broken up with her and complains to her friend, ‘I thought he was different. He’s got CP’
When Vi later meets Scott in the bar, he establishes his power over her by making it clear that their relationship is about race; ‘You have beautiful skin.’ To which Vi only replies, ‘I have so much respect for you.’ When the two are at his flat, he tells Vi to strip. Although shocked, she complies, telling herself to do it in order not to be racist. He then acts out a Mandingo fantasy, a sexual act inspired by purely racial motives, framed in terms of power relations. He forces her to shout ‘fuck me hard, nigger’ while having sex with her. In the end, he has managed to remove the last shred of self-respect from Vi. Humiliated, she returns to Marcus who, while embracing her, comments, ‘you’re all sweaty’, ‘sweaty’ being their mutually understood term for ‘sexually excited’. Vi, it is implied, has been to some extent turned on by the experience.
Filmically, it is no coincidence that the character of Mr Scott looks like the seventies character Shaft, the black private Dick who always took what he wanted. Solondz is calculating in his portrayal of the teacher as manipulative and unpleasant. There is no trace of any positive discrimination in the representation; Scott is a sadist who happens to be black. It becomes clear that Scott knows how to use the race card to get what he wants; he plays on the liberal guilt of America’s white, middle class population. Even the title of his book, ‘A Sunday Lynching’, implies that he gained his recognition through using race.
To save her pride, Vi takes this experience and turns it into a short story, which she then reads out in Mr Scott’s next class. Her fellow students dismiss the story as completely ‘unbelievable’, ‘clichéd’ and ‘disgusting’. They spurn Vi’s tale because it is in no way politically correct or socially acceptable, and is therefore beyond discussion. Solondz lets the students mouth the buzzwords of today’s cultural studies. They call her story ‘racist’, ‘sexist’, ‘phallocentric’, ‘mysoginistic’. Catherine has more savvy than to regurgitate these common platitudes. She says of Vi’s writing; ‘It was confessional, yet dishonest … She thinks she ‘respects’ Afro Americans, she thinks they’re ‘cool’, ‘exotic’ and what a notch he would make in her belt, but … In classic racist tradition she demonises and the turns for cover. But then, how could she behave otherwise? She’s just a spoiled white girl with a Benneton rainbow complex.’ Unlike the others she is aware of her own discourse, she situates it as an argument outside herself. However, although Catherine is able to see behind Vi’s façade of fake liberalism, she still describes what happened to the female protagonist in terms of race. Instead of understanding Vi’s story as a tale of human struggle, she still goes for one of the competing theoretical explanations.
Vi has sex with men because of what she sees as their social handicaps, their difference; she is subsequently disappointed when she discovers that these same men are just as capable of cruelty or weakness as any other. Solondz looks at her story through all contemporary cultural prisms as voiced by her fellow students; it turns out that there is no consensus over what her story actually means. A multiplicity of meanings is offered, yet the sexual act itself, between her and Scott, remains singularly personal. With no all-encompassing framework to fit events into – even brutal events – Vi is literally and philosophically fucked.
The second, much longer part of Storytelling is titled Non-Fiction. Here, aspiring filmmaker and director Toby Oxman intends to make a documentary about teenagers, which he pitches as ‘a sociological study in the aftermath of Columbine.’ He clearly has only traumatic memories of his own days at Fairfield High School, and is convinced that the children in the ‘landscape of the suburban highschool today’ should be even more disorientated than he was. Even the school psychologist claims that Bosnian war victims showed less signs of stress than high school children who are revising for their SATs.
Oxman fancies himself as a misunderstood artist, blaming his lack of talent on the corrupt system of the American movie industry.
Interestingly, the poster over Oxman’s bed is dedicated to Dogme films. Dogme filmmakers set their characters in certain artificially extreme emotional or physical situations and, so to say, see what becomes of them. The original Dogme manifesto ranted against the melodramatic effect of common bourgeois cinema. ‘Discipline is the answer … we must put films into uniform, because individual film will be decadent by definition’30. Swearing a vow of chastity against any artificial, illusion-creating devices, they see themselves as an alternative to traditional Hollywood cinema. To what extent Oxman follows their manifesto is not clear; it is enough to know that he identifies with this project.
Oxman also claims to have asked Derrida to do the narration for his documentary about high school students. This delusion of grandeur has little basis in reality: he is working in a shoe shop, from which he has taken some time off for his documentary.
The hero Oxman chooses for his film is the phlegmatic student Scooby Livingstone, whose sole ambition consists of becoming the next Conan O’Brian. They meet for the first time in the school toilets, where Scooby is smoking some pot. ‘Are you a pervert? ‘No. Really I’m a documentary filmmaker.’ Scooby quickly realises that Oxman’s concepts are a lot of hot air. However, Oxman tells Scooby that he has connections to the television industry.
When Oxman meets Scooby’s parents, he explains that ‘Scooby has a quality that is emblematic of America today. Part disillusionment, part hope’. Scooby has opted out of any social, let alone political, engagement; recategorising his CD collection takes priority over any real human contact. It even looks as if he opts out of an active sexual life. When a friend asks permission to perform a blowjob on him, Scooby simply concurs, takes a few magic mushrooms and enjoys his personal trip.
Scooby has no qualms in exploiting Oxman’s trust in him for his potential personal gain, and agrees to let him make his documentary about him and his family. The irony is that Oxman is unable to do any justice to the actual drama that is happening in Scooby’s house.
The Livingstones live in a large house in New Jersey; they have a pool and a cleaner. Scooby has too younger brothers, Brady, an all American, Tommy-Hilfiger-clothes-wearing Jock, and little Mikey, who is something of a prodigy. Scooby’s parents are affluent but also self-righteous in their faux-libertarian beliefs. His mother particularly has a rather ostentatious understanding of Jewish heritage. On the phone she asks her friend in a rather rhetorical way, ‘What does it mean to be a Jew today?’ When talking about Holocaust survivors at the dinner table, she firstly applies the term to the actual survivors of the holocaust, and then to everyone else.
The Lvingstones worry about being exploited by Oxman, but have no concern about exploiting others, such as their immigrant maid Consuelo. The El Salvadorian woman is subtly present in most scenes, scrubbing and serving, covered in perspiration. Her greatest torment however, does not seem to be the physical labour but Mikey, who constantly questions her, not because he is interested in her, but in order to pass judgement on her. Mikey is reminiscent of one of the ‘Village of the Damned’(1960) children; he is unnaturally clean and smart, and seems to have no genuine human emotions whatsoever.
One night, Mikey spills some grape juice in the kitchen and goes to fetch Consuelo from the little room in the cellar where she lives. Here he finds her crying because her grandchild Jesus has been executed in El Salvador. ‘Maybe its for the best’, Mikey suggests, ‘bad people should be killed.’ When Mikey asks about the nature of Jesus’ crime, Consuelo tells him that he was executed for rape and murder. Unsure of the meaning of the word rape, Mikey asks Consuelo for clarification. She explains, ‘rape is when you love somebody, and they don’t love you back, and you do something about it.’ Mikey replies, ‘sometimes I think my parents don’t love me’, although it is possible the child does not know the meaning of this word either. Consuelo tells him that when he is older he also can do something about it.
One of the consequences of the conversation is that Mikey finally convinces his dad to let himself be hypnotised by him. While his dad is in a trance, Mikey demands that not only should he be the favourite son from now on, but also that he should dismiss Consuelo ‘because she is lazy’. There are several possible motives for Mikey’s request. Perhaps he is scared of Consuelo; she knows the truth about his familial feelings. Maybe Mikey recognises the danger to the social order from people who are willing to change their fate. Most likely is that he regards her as subhuman, beneath his dignity and resents her presence. Whether Mikey’s hypnosis is successful or not does not really matter – Consuelo is fired by Mr Livingstone. Late at night Consuelo comes back to the house to do something about the Livingstone’s heartlessness – she opens all the gas valves in the house and kills the entire family except Scooby. In all likelihood she has to pay for the consequences of her actions in the same way as Jesus.
At the time of the murder, Scooby is in New York to witness the test screening of Oxman’s film, which he has entitled ‘American Scooby’. One could easily see Toby Oxman as Solondz’s alter ego, as a director who struggles with the art of truth and self-reflexivity. This is especially true when Oxman features Mr Livingstone in his film, who tells him to pull himself together and stop lamenting his childhood traumas. ‘You had a bad time in school? Well, boohoo! Get over it, Stop imposing your misery on others’. However, where Toby does not own the gift of self-awareness, Solondz is perfectly capable of playing with characterisations or spoofs of himself and his type. Nevertheless, it is apparent that it is of no importance whether any of his characters represent him or not, to grasp the fundamental question of the film – how much does a story belong its author?
Toby wants a test screening because his editor, who is decked out with obvious feminist paraphernalia and mannerisms, accuses his footage of being glib and insincere. She thinks Oxman’s film improves only after Brady is knocked into a coma while playing football at school. At the same time, every time Oxman comes to see her, she is concerned about the exploitation of the subjects:
‘You are making fun of them.’
‘No!’ says Oxman, ‘ I’m showing how it really is.’
‘You’re showing how superior you are to your subjects.’
‘But I love these people.’
As it in Fiction, the difficulty of any storytelling lies in the conflict of interpretation. None of Oxman’s footage seems to do his subjects justice, nor do his methods. The Livingstones are exploited by Oxman, in that he profits from several family tragedies. The feminist editor feels that the subjects are not represented ethically and correctly, but are exploited by Oxman’s overriding interpretation. As for Scooby, he is shocked and humiliated when he finds the test audience laughing at him, instead of laughing with him. Naturally, no one offers him the role of Conan O’Brian’s sidekick. Scooby has also been exploited by Oxman’s personal ambition.
Fiction and Non-Fiction both deal with concepts of narrative. Fiction is about the interpretation of the end product, the finished story. Non-Fiction looks into the interpretation the process of storytelling, the selection of the events to be shown. In both cases there is still an author. No matter which, the intention or product of interpretation, reality is a process that needs to be defined. The facts are there: all that is needed is interpretation. Yet, in the current cultural climate, events have the tendency to defy categorisation, even ‘piecemeal’ categorisation.
It could be argued that Todd Solondz is, in a sense, a cowardly director – that by turning his characters into cartoons and then making fun of them, he is performing a cheap trick for cheap laughs. Showing fat people gluttonously eating ice cream, or portraying opinionated women as butch feminists, can never be anything but ridiculous.
Another potential criticism might be that Solondz is not for real; he plays too easily with the image of the loser as a trademark. It could be said that he has taken on his nerd image in order to gain a reputation as an eccentric, as well as an authentic director; the super-nerd as director wunderkind, a sort of hard-core Woody Allen. He is like Mark in Welcome to the Dollhouse, who has embraced his image as ‘computer nerd’, with the idea that he is building a strong college application.
These accusations may or may not be true. Personal idiosyncrasies are of little consequence to the thematic concepts with which Solondz engages. On the contrary, Solondz second-guesses contemporary prejudices and uses them as a tool to perfectly describe the traits of modern culture, while at the same time being fully aware of its intellectual discourse. He employs his talent to express the discrepancy between meaning and words within people’s daily dialogue, posing this as an attack on the fake liberalism in society, especially the mouthing of empty phrases and pseudo-slogans by the righteous. Thus Solondz describes the crisis of solidarity in contemporary society. There is no common aim to improve life on a communal level, just individual preferences and ways of life. In his films Solondz shows what replaces engagement with society: a self serving platter of consumerism, pseudo-liberalism, multiculturalism, infantilism, psychobabble, victimhood and so on; nothing that fosters the responsibility of the individual.
The rationalistic-idealistic driven spirit of the Enlightenment made the reasoned human take on the responsibly and the shaping of the world. This mentality made possible by the human capability of understanding, legitimised the belief in progress, as well as the possibility to overcome past forms of social orders. The impression of two World Wars and the emergence of Fascism in the first half of the twentieth century brought doubts to the power of reason, and this was voiced in different theoretical concepts. Reason, it seemed, apparently fuelled by a totalitarian drive, only led to dictatorship, and ultimately death camps.
The new post-modern theorists had ‘no use for the term ‘subject’.’31 Now deprived of the ability to act upon reason, human beings became only members of different social systems. This way society produces people who have no real influence over their destiny. These postmodern theories, whether it is Bordwell’s New Formalism or some form of post-structuralism, categorise events only in terms of their own discourse. That means many parallel theories are applied to approach a matter instead of one totalizing theory. As Žižek points out, the subject matter can never be understood entirely, and thus never satisfactorily acted upon. This can lead to real problems as Solondz’s characters show.
Because his characters are confronted with real life events that require decision making, they are helpless in a world where their ability to make decisions is denied. Hanko Uphoff writes, ‘In reason, human beings have the ideal approach to the world. Theories that cut the subject from this relationship are responsible for discrediting the most suitable tool of mastering practical, technical and theoretical problems.’32 As in modern society, Solondz’s characters have no totalling social framework upon which they can compare their lives. There are competing cultural modes that are unquestionable by different cultural circles, in the way Vi rather endures abuse instead of passing judgement on what she considers otherness. Since no cultural grouping can lay a total claim on anything anymore once established concepts become a ‘free for all’, like the term survivors Mrs Livingstone feels the right to apply to anybody she chooses.
Solondz himself says: ‘to not dismiss something as other makes us more fully human.’33 Solondz films are gripping and truthful to contemporary life. His films are progressively more refined, exposing the false socialising and the general frustration of social impulse, expressed by the inadequacy of ‘acceptable language’. ‘Part of the process of growing up is beginning to understand the reality underlying the fantasies we might have or he language that we use. ‘34
In a culture that has no comprehensive goal, people do not even have each other as a certainty. As Bill Maplewood asserts, ‘we are all alone’. There is no solidarity amongst people because there is no comprehensive project.
Human beings only mean something through other human beings; as Swift says in Gulliver’s Travels; ‘Nothing is great or little otherwise than by comparison’.35 A desperate urge to be more complete, to be recognised, drives Solondz’s characters to the most extreme behaviour. Yet as they look for recognition in others they never find any – there is nobody there. The ersatz sensations that they substitute for real closeness inevitably end in disappointment, and soon turn into perversions. These can be superficially perceived as obvious sexual or moral perversions. Ultimately, however, they are perversions of more fundamental human qualities.
For Solondz the problem of objectivity cannot be resolved, thus his films are also unresolved; the individual and society are ongoing processes, without resolution. Solondz’s characters begin to represent forces larger than themselves, and invite the viewer’s judgement. However, Solondz’s skill is his ability to make any judgement or evaluation an uncomfortable process. Through his method contemporary platitudes are questioned; for example, multiculturalism seems out of step with the reality it describes. Solondz exposes his characters’ weaknesses, and by doing so reveals not only their humanity but also that of the audience – Solondz’s desire for closeness resides in all of us.
1 Todd Solondz, Happiness, Faber And Faber, 1998.pvii.
2 Defino, Dean, Todd Solondz, in: Tasker, Yvonne, (ed.) 50 Contemporary Filmmakers, London, Rourledge, 2002, pp311-319. p318
3 Epd.Film 2,35 1996
4 Cineaste. No 3 22, 25 1996
5 Newsweek, Oct 12 n15 132, 87. 1998
6Infante, Guillermo Cabrera, Nichts als Kino, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt A. M. 2001.p378
7 Cineaste No 3 22, 25 1996
8 http://www.auteur.de/tsolondz.html visited 10.06.03
9 Monaco, James, Film Verstehen, Rohwolt Verlag, Hamburg, 1995.
10 David, Bordwell Noel Carroll, Post- Theory, Reconstructing Filmstudies, University Of Wisconsin Press, 1996.p2
11Thompson, K. Neoformalistische Filmanalyse, Ein Ansatzt, Viele Methoden, in: Montage AV 4,1, p23-62. 1995., p23
12 Especially the writings of Sklovskij, Ejchenbaum, Tynjanov and Tomasevkij.
13 with regard to: Thompson, Kristin, Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible: A Neo-Formalist Analysis, Princeton, N.Y., Princeton University Press, 1981, and
Bordwell, D, A Case for Cognitivism, in: Iris 5,2 vol.9, 1989, p 11-40
14 Bordwell, David, Narration In The Fiction Film, The University Of Wisconsin Press, 1985.335ff
15Bordwell,D Historical Poetics of Cinema, in: Palmer, R. Barton (ed.) The Cinematic Text: Methods and Approaches, New York, AMS Press, , 1989. p369-398. 385ff.
16Hartman, Britta, Hans J Wulf Neoformalismus – Kognitivismus – Historische Poetik Des Kinos, In: Felix, Jürgen, (Ed.) Moderne Film Theorie, Bender Verlag, Mainz, p 191-216. 2002. p209
17 Bordwell, D., Carroll, N, Post- Theory, Reconstructing Filmstudies, 1996.p xiv
18 Hartman, B., Hans J W, 2002.p209.
19 Bordwell, D, 1985.pxiii
20 Žižek, Slavoj, The Fright Of Real Tears, BFI Publishing, London, 2001, P14
22 http://www.kenamalik.com/papers/sshb_universal.html visited: 01.09.03
23 Žižek, S., 2001, p13
24 Žižek, S. The Ticklish Subject, Verso, London, 1999. p4
25 See: Heartfield, James, The Death Of The Subject Explained, Sheffield Hallam University Press 2002.
26 Cineaste no3 22,25 1996
27 The Nation, April 5, , 265,34. 1999
28 Cineaste no 5, 24,83 1999
29 Hayward, Susan, Cinema Studies, The Key Concepts, London, Routledge, 2000.
30 http://www.dogme95.dk/menu/menuset.htm visited : 21.08.03
31 Uphoff, Hanko, Das Subjekt: Ein Trauerfall? , in: Novo No 66 9/ 2003-10.2003.p45
32 Luhmann, Niklas, Soziale Systeme, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt Am Main, 1987, p 51.
33 http://www.auteur.de/tsolondz.html visited 10.06.03
34 Cineaste no 3 22, 26. 1996
35 Swift, Jonathan, Gulliver’s Travels, Penguin Classics, London. 2003. p 83