Empathy or Schadenfreude?
July 19, 2010 8:06 AM   Subscribe

"I wasn't sued, I was never fired, and I survived it. That's my great achievement." Idiosyncratic auteur Todd Solondz speaks about his newest film Life During Wartime, which will finally get a (limited) theatrical release on Friday. The film, originally titled Forgiveness, is ostensibly a sequel to his acclaimed 1998 film Happiness; however, every role has been recast and some details have been consciously ignored. For example, Philip Seymour Hoffman's character Allen [NSFW] is now played by black actor Michael K. Williams of The Wire fame, a tactic Solondz also employed in Palindromes, his divisive fairy tale about abortion. This is the Welcome to the Dollhouse director's fifth feature (he disowned his first one) and his first in six years.
posted by Houyhnhnm (42 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
 
We're discussing Solondz's Palindromes and other films over at the MetaFilter Film Club.
posted by shakespeherian at 8:09 AM on July 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


I will go see this just to see Omar. Indeed.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 8:20 AM on July 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


Given what Happiness was like, I'm not sure I'm going to have the stomach to see Life During Wartime.
posted by orange swan at 8:24 AM on July 19, 2010 [4 favorites]


I took a girl on a date to see Happiness - protip, always check IMDb before seeing a movie with someone you're trying to impress. Trailers are misleading.

The, uh, postcard scene was a little uncomfortable.
posted by Happy Dave at 8:33 AM on July 19, 2010 [5 favorites]


Yeah, I don't want to say self loathing can't be elevated to an artform, but Todd Solondz surely gives it his best.
posted by cavalier at 8:33 AM on July 19, 2010


It's amazing, there isn't a single moment in the entire film that isn't an awkward one. It's one long cringe from start to finish.
posted by mullingitover at 8:36 AM on July 19, 2010


The four Solondz movies I've seen have been outstanding, so I would hope for more of the same.

Trailers are misleading.

That trailer is awesome. I never saw that.

Self-loathing is the inspiration for plenty of great art.
posted by mrgrimm at 8:38 AM on July 19, 2010


This interview with Solondz is pretty great. He talks about feeling uncomfortable hearing people laugh at his movies, an experience that he drew from for a scene in Storytelling.
posted by roll truck roll at 8:39 AM on July 19, 2010


Trailers are misleading.

I sort of feel like that trailer is part of the dark, twisted joke that is Happiness. I especially love all the hugging/making out at the end. It makes it look like something that would be shown on Oxygen or WE on a Saturday afternoon.

I remember watching Happiness with some friends in college on a Friday night. It was just going to be a typical college weekend night - watch a movie while eating some dinner, then go out to a party. You could actually feel the mood in my living room sink lower and lower as the movie wore on. Finally, at the end, two of my friends completely bailed on the party. The rest of us went, and proceeded to sip our keg beer glumly in the corner for two hours, before finally heading home.

Great movie!
posted by lunasol at 8:57 AM on July 19, 2010 [12 favorites]


I'd already seen Happiness and loved it... though I'd never really utter the sentence, "I loved Happiness" because, well, my relationship with it is more complicated than that.

Anyway, one Friday after a particularly hard week at work, it came on cable one night when a friend who hadn't seen it was visiting, and she sat down to watch it with me and my then-boyfriend. I fell asleep in front of the TV right before it started.

Oh the dreams I had.

tl;dr -- Don't fall asleep in front of a Todd Solondz movie. Ever.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 8:58 AM on July 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


Between this and the Nolan film...I am positively in love with the world and will get myself to a theater asap. Can't wait.
posted by iamkimiam at 8:58 AM on July 19, 2010


lunasol, I had a similar experience with my friends and watching The Accused, with Jodie Foster - a true story about a violent gang rape in a bar. Great film, but whoa...not the 'entertainment' we thought we had signed up for.
posted by iamkimiam at 9:02 AM on July 19, 2010


I took a girl on a date to see Happiness - protip, always check IMDb before seeing a movie with someone you're trying to impress.

I don't know--I would have been very impressed had you taken me to see Happiness.
posted by millipede at 9:07 AM on July 19, 2010 [6 favorites]


I absolutely loved Happiness. But I saw it before I had kids. Don't know how I'd feel about it now.
posted by Dragonness at 9:18 AM on July 19, 2010


I really, really like every Solondz film I've seen so far. I enjoy the 120-minute cringe fest they induce.

You could actually feel the mood in my living room sink lower and lower as the movie wore on. Finally, at the end, two of my friends completely bailed on the party. The rest of us went, and proceeded to sip our keg beer glumly in the corner for two hours, before finally heading home.

I had the same experience seeing Requiem for a Dream in the theater with a few friends. Jovial group goes in, solemn group comes out. Nobody said a word until we got back to my apartment, and then one friend declared "Well, they all got exactly what they deserved." Yikes.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 9:20 AM on July 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


I had a very long stoned discussion once about the correct verb you should use for films like Happiness which deal with difficult subjects. We were actually talking about American History X which is a great film, but it just sounds so fucking wrong to say that you "enjoyed" it.
posted by jontyjago at 9:25 AM on July 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


When I am feeling particularly grim, yeah, the Happiness / Requiem for a Dream double-feature is always a treat. There's something to be said for a film where the child molester is one of the more sympathetic characters. Maybe throw in one of Neil LaBute's darker films if any warm feelings about humanity remain.

How the film will work without Dylan Baker, who seems to have found his niche as the slightly retro, tightly-wound, crazy-on-the-inside actor (Fido, Trick or Treat) or the frazzled energy of Cynthia Stevenson, I don't know. English just doesn't have an easy way to express "I hope this director succeeds in his usual intentions to deprive me of any previous hope."
posted by adipocere at 9:33 AM on July 19, 2010


I took a girl on a date to see Happiness - protip, always check IMDb before seeing a movie with someone you're trying to impress.

I don't know--I would have been very impressed had you taken me to see Happiness.


For context, I was sixteen, it was a first date and, to put it mildly, my date didn't appreciate the subtleties of Solondz's themes. One of the odder experiences of my dating life. Also, growing up in West Edinburgh in the mid-Nineties, people with the tastes of yer average MeFite were few and far between. The less said about the time I took a girl to see ExisTenz the better.

Still, it did awaken in me an openness to seeing some deeply odd films over the years. And the fine lady I have ended up with shares that openness. Our LoveFilm queue is a hoot.
posted by Happy Dave at 9:35 AM on July 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


The older I get, the less point I see in making or watching a film like Happiness. It seems like a freak show rather than a reflection of real life, but, then again, it's been more than ten years since I've watched it.

At the same time, the final scene of the movie is pretty brilliant, in an extremely twisted way. The dog licks the semen, and then licks the mother. Utter horror.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:37 AM on July 19, 2010


I loved Happiness when I saw it at the cinema. It's still probably one of my favourite cinema experiences: it definitely adds to the film watching it in a large, mainly unsuspecting audience and feeling the almost palpable waves of awkwardness, shock and embarrassment etc.

I rewatched it on DVD a few years later with a couple of friends who hadn't seen it, and second time round I found it jerkily paced, slightly turgid and pretty obvious in its obnoxiousness.

I thought Storytelling was pretty interesting and (marginally) thoughtprovoking in an early Neil LaBute kinda way, and maybe even a better film.

All of which is a fairly content-free way of saying: yay that he can still find the funding to make films! And double yay that my partner has never seen any of them and yet loves The Wire and Omar so that can (hopefully) be tricked into see a film she'll undoubtedly find unpleasant and uncomfortable!
posted by Hartster at 9:43 AM on July 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think the beauty of Happiness is the way it teaches you to laugh through these deeply awkward and tragic moments and situations. Then when you experience them for yourself IRL you can't help but step back and chuckle. It's a masterpiece of black comedy.
posted by mullingitover at 9:50 AM on July 19, 2010 [4 favorites]


The older I get, the less point I see in making or watching a film like Happiness.

For me, one of the big reasons is this:

There's something to be said for a film where the child molester is one of the more sympathetic characters.

The ability Solondz has to get me to empathize with even the most terrible people I can imagine, without romanticizing them, is a valuable thing indeed.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:51 AM on July 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


One of the things I find brilliant about Happiness is that it isn't a choice between empathy and schadenfreude, its both. All the time. I think the fact that Solondz doesn't let the viewer off the hook in regards to his character sympathy is one of the reasons people find his films so "cringe inducing." He blatantly mocks his characters and abuses them with a perverse, sadistic glee. But he also cares for them, and treats them with honesty and compassion. Both of these approaches to his characters seem, to me, to be genuine, but they occur simultaneously. We don't laugh at the characters one moment, and then cry with them another. We do both, at the same moment. And lack of directorial manipulation in that specific regard (and Solondz is a very manipulative director, in most regards) is what I believe results in his minuscule audience. There's the content, sure, but its not solely the content. Happiness isn't the only film about a child molester, but its the only film that I know (not a child-molester film expert here) where the scene where the child molester tries to drug his victim is played for slapstick laughs, and the audience is led to sympathize with his task, very much akin to the way the audience is led to hope that the car sinks and Norman Bates gets away with murder in Psycho.

And I say this as someone who thinks Happiness is one of my favorite films of all time, but can't stand any of Solondz's other films. I particularly can't stand Palindromes, and I think that while Storytelling and Welcome to the Dollhouse have interesting moments, they're pretty incompetent.
posted by fryman at 9:58 AM on July 19, 2010


I'm glad for this post and I'm glad the hive is pretty positive on Solondz and Happiness.

It's one of my favorites, and I remember being grateful to see a film that made me feel and react as much as it did. And even't though those were obviously not joyous reactions, I valued them all the same, and I wanted to share it.

I had a very long stoned discussion once about the correct verb you should use for films like Happiness which deal with difficult subjects. We were actually talking about American History X which is a great film, but it just sounds so fucking wrong to say that you "enjoyed" it.

(Nods). Towards that end, I found myself recommending it to friends in odd ways like, "It will make you feel awful - you've got to see it!" I remember watching it with one friend (I had seen it already, he hadn't) and when Dylan Baker starts speaking about his exploits to his son, my friend goes, "No....no....." and tried to flee the room. I made him stay. I endured it, so must you.

I will be VERY interested to see how the recasting of Allen works out, as he was my "favorite" (another strange word to use) character in the first one. So powerfully pathetic. My favorite scene (I can't explain why, it's just so raw I guess) is when he gets sick from drinking, discovers his lovelorn neighbor is there, and screams for her to get out.

And as is so often the case, Roger Ebert's review is spot on.
posted by mreleganza at 10:39 AM on July 19, 2010


I never laughed at any of Solondz's films. I always felt the 'funny' parts of his movies came from a place of awkwardness so the viewer is supposed to laugh as to assure yourself that what horrible or emotional thing you're seeing on-screen is not real. I realize awkwardness can produce laughter, but that's usually coming from a place of viewer reflection or association. Kinda like thinking, "it's funny because it's true." Not once watching his films have I ever think, "that's just like something that happened to me."

Also, I never thought his characters that did horrible things were all that sympathetic. The people who did horrible things in his films always had the option to stop what they were doing but continued to do it anyway. I always felt the people who were sympathetic in his films were people who actually changed their behavior or were trapped because something was forcing to continue as they were.

Regardless, it should show that people who do watch his work usually have an opinion about it which tons of filmmakers would love to have.
posted by lowrentkicker at 10:49 AM on July 19, 2010


when happiness came out, i'd make my friends that liked 'american beauty' sit down and watch it. it sorta tracks through a similar theme, but without giving any ground at all. it's wicked ballsy.
posted by mrballistic at 11:06 AM on July 19, 2010


One of my favorite things about Happiness is the scene in which Bill (the child molester) is in bed with his wife, Trish. The conversation is very oblique. Trish says something like, "Oh, please don't get mad at me, Bill. I know you hate it when I ask, but, do you still?" and the viewer is like DOES HE STILL WHAT, GODDAMN IT??? But then Bill says, "Yes, very very much" and we get it—she was asking if he still loves her. We also realize that she asks him for reassurance so often that she doesn't even need to finish her question. I find this restrained approach much more effective than having her cry out "BILL DO YOU STILL LOVE ME?????" with tears in her eyes.

I've seen all of Todd Solondz's films multiple times and honestly, I don't think it's ever schadenfreude. I think he's an extremely compassionate filmmaker. His films are not freak shows because he doesn't exploit or ridicule his characters. A major theme of his work is dignity; Dawn even makes a speech about it in Welcome to the Dollhouse. He cares for his characters very much and he doesn't want us to laugh at them. He wants us to recognize their humanity and identify with them—only then can we laugh with them. His goal is always to dignify his characters, and I'd be lying if I said his films haven't helped me learn to empathize with the people society conditions us to dismiss. I'd say he puts a lot of faith in his viewers and I'm grateful that he has been able to make these audacious, iconoclastic films.
posted by Houyhnhnm at 11:28 AM on July 19, 2010 [5 favorites]


Palindromes is - strictly speaking - not his best movie, but it is the one that I think best encapsulates Solondz's project. It's a movie about abortion that never makes a stance, never lets you off the hook. It makes everyone equally comfortable, regardless of politics, but that discomfort can lead to a weird kind of empathy.
posted by roll truck roll at 11:35 AM on July 19, 2010


Oops. It makes everyone equally uncomfortable. Sorry if you just read my comment and rented it for your family reunion.
posted by roll truck roll at 11:36 AM on July 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


Sorry if you just read my comment and rented it for your family reunion.

Tell it to Aunt Margaret.
posted by shakespeherian at 11:49 AM on July 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


The scene in Welcome to the Dollhouse where she's in the principal's office getting blamed for something she didn't do while the kids outside are flipping her off is priceless.

That movie nailed what it's like to be a kid sometimes.
posted by joseppi7 at 11:54 AM on July 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


I do believe this is the first time I ever felt a bit of normalcy regarding my love for Happiness. Thank you, Metafilter.
posted by psylosyren at 12:20 PM on July 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


ahem...."have" ever felt.
posted by psylosyren at 12:21 PM on July 19, 2010


Happiness did make me happy. I was giddy to escape back into my normal boring life.

The "lovable losers date scene" with the ice cream is one of my favorite moments; the romcom setup and subsequent crash is priceless.
posted by benzenedream at 1:58 PM on July 19, 2010


Houyhnhnm: I think he's an extremely compassionate filmmaker. His films are not freak shows because he doesn't exploit or ridicule his characters. . . . He wants us to recognize their humanity and identify with them

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston had a premiere of Palindromes, with Solondz in attendance. Predictably, whenever the obese African American actor was onscreen, assholes in the audience broke out in guffaws and sniggers. I wondered at the time if that casting choice was specifically to encourage viewers to think about their unexamined reactions ("Wow, this actor is really really different from the others playing Aviva. Why would he have chosen someone who looks like her?"), to get beyond standard Point And Laugh At The Fat Black Comedic Relief behaviour, but if so, it failed in the screening I attended. I wish I'd had the wits to ask him right then and there if that was his thinking, and if he'd really been idealistic enough to think viewers would empathize instead of ridicule.

I admire what he was trying to do. Maybe his answer would have been, "It was worth a shot." Maybe he did succeed to a certain extent, because now that I think about it, the guffawing assholes were in the minority.

Thanks for the post.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 5:04 PM on July 19, 2010


I find it incredibly weird that the sort of assholes who would laugh at the mere sight of an obese girl would also be people to attend a Todd Solondz film premiere at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
posted by shakespeherian at 5:51 PM on July 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


I saw Life During Wartime at a film festival. I'll try to avoid spoilers for anyone looking forward to it, but I will recommend that you.... umm... restrain your expectations. It definitely feels like a Todd Solondz movie, but it's lacking in the edge that his previous work has.
posted by dodecapus at 6:19 PM on July 19, 2010


Welcome to the Dollhouse is a great coming of age film. Happiness is even better, somehow light and dark in equal measure, cringe-worthy in the extreme. Solondz lost me with Storytelling, a crude, overly blunt script trying way too hard to shock. A step backwards for Solondz. I didn't see Palindromes, but might check out this new one.
posted by zardoz at 6:35 PM on July 19, 2010


zardoz, fwiw, I was likewise disappointed with Storytelling (yet felt the same way about Happiness and WttD, much more positively toward Happiness), and I liked Palindromes a lot.
posted by mrgrimm at 8:51 PM on July 19, 2010


His films are best seen in the theater as it's a dare; see if you get more uncomfortable than the people who twitch and walk out eventually.

I always make it through, but man. Sometimes it was hard, though other times I laughed so hard I cried when I really shouldn't have.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 9:42 PM on July 19, 2010


Life During Wartime is a fine movie. But I did find that it slipped from my mind pretty quickly, which is either a sign that my worries about incipient Alzheimer's are justified, or.

Either way, as dodecapus suggests, I'd say it's certainly a more restrained affair than Solondzeseses's previous work.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 12:58 AM on July 20, 2010


There was a fantastic interview with Solondz on last week's Filmspotting.
posted by Houyhnhnm at 5:49 PM on August 6, 2010


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