New Jersey Film Fest

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Making Todd Solondz Laugh

This article by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on February 3, 1999. All rights reserved.

Todd Solondz says his new black comedy is blacker

than ever. Solondz, who wrote, directed, and produced the 1996 comedy

"Welcome to the Dollhouse," makes a personal appearance at

the screening of his new film, "Happiness," at the New Jersey

Film Festival, Sunday, February 7, at the State Theater, New Brunswick

(732-932-8482). Making its area premiere, "Happiness" is described

as a "subversively funny" new film, providing another Solondz

portrait of contemporary suburbia and the demons that haunt it.

Like all good native sons, Solondz is coming home for his New Jersey

Film Festival appearance. Born in Newark, he grew up in the very New

Jersey suburbs he so cunningly mocks. At New York University film

school he made three award-winning shorts. After graduation he made

"How I Became a Leading Artistic Figure in New York City’s East

Village Cultural Landscape" for TV’s "Saturday Night Live."

"Welcome to the Dollhouse" was his first independent feature

and won the 1996 Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Quickly

picked up for distribution by Sony Picture Classics, it went on to

win widespread critical and commercial success.

Re-visiting "Dollhouse" in preparation for Solondz’s new entry

offers a taste of this director’s black humor that comes clothed in

a sunny veneer. The film is a super-real (and surreal) chronicle of

a week in the life of seventh-grader Dawn (a.k.a. "Dogface")

Weiner, an 11-year-old so beleaguered by the oppressive forces of

family and school, so out of sync with the mysteries of junior high,

that she politely keeps an appointment to be raped by the class bully

(thereby deflating the bully’s interest). Despite the grotesque nature

of Dawn’s misadventures, we laugh nonetheless at her grossly egocentric

experience of her suburban universe.

Looking into the hapless Dawn’s pouty face and watery eyes, the viewer

watches these awful memories being etched into the girl’s memory like

so much subway "scratchiti" — the wreckless scratches

currently scarring the subway window glass. Even when Dawn musters

the courage to pull a casual trick on her insufferably perfect and

pretty younger sister, she winds up the loser: the child is kidnapped

and placed in an underground cell with all the candy, McDonalds, and

eventual media attention the little girl’s heart desires. It’s an

ugly world rendered funny by the exaggerated scale of each of Dawn’s


In "Happiness" Soldonz tackles a more complex but equally

bleak New Jersey social landscape populated by a larger array of struggling

suburbanites. The communities of Livingston, North Bergen, and Fort

Lee all enjoy production credits. Solondz describes "Happiness"

as "a series of intertwining love stories, stories of connections

missed and made between people, how people always struggle to make

a connection, and to what degree they succeed."

The storyline is woven through the lives of almost a dozen characters,

notably three sisters, their parents, friends, and neighbors. On the

surface, they all diligently seek the kind of companionship, love,

and stability that all good Americans aspire to. But gradually and

inexorably, darker, pathological forces break through this fragile

veneer of normalcy, eventually monopolizing these characters’ lives.

There’s 30-year-old suburbanite Joy Jordan who still lives in the

house her parents have deserted for a sun-filled, miserable retirement

in Florida, her sisters, housewife Trish, and the glamorous writer

Helen. Complicating the mix is an extra-lonely suburbanite-turned-stalker

and a father obsessed by his attraction to his young son’s classmates.

"It’s hard to separate what I find funny from what I’m moved by,"

says Solondz. "These are the two currents at work in me. There’s

a humor in some things that, at the same time, is disturbing. These

characters are interesting, not because they’re `dysfunctional,’ but

because they have real problems, crushing hardships, moral dilemmas,

and so forth, and yet they somehow still manage to get up in the morning."

The cast for the performance driven "Happiness," features

Jane Adams, Lara Flynn Boyle, Cynthia Stevenson, Dylan Baker, and

Philip Seymour Hoffman, with support from veterans Ben Gazzara, Elizabeth

Ashley, and Louise Lasser.

"Some of the material in this film is extremely provocative, even

taboo," says producer Ted Hope. "But in the hands of Solondz

and his team of actors, you recognize the humanity in even the characters

who transgress forbidden boundaries, you can see their humanness despite

what they may be doing."

The success of "Welcome to the Dollhouse" was such that Solondz

was able to stretch beyond the meager production budget of that first

film to win some backing. With producers Ted Hope and Christine Vachon

on his "Happiness" team, Solondz is describing himself these

days as "a pretty lucky guy."

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New Jersey Film Fest

New Jersey Film Festival. Presented by the Rutgers Film

Co-Op, independent, classic, international, and experimental films

screened in New Brunswick. Films are $5 ($8 Sundays), and begin at

7 p.m. Screenings Thursdays in Loree Hall, Room 024, Douglass College;

Fridays and Saturdays, Scott Hall, Room 123, Rutgers College Avenue

campus; Sundays at the State Theater, Livingston Avenue. Call 732-932-8482.

Gods and Monsters, Bill Condon restages the life of James

Whale, the British director who created the 1931 film "Frankenstein"

and killed himself in 1957, February 5-6. Happiness, from Todd

Solondz, with a personal appearance by the director, February 7. The

Adventures of Baron Munchausen , Terry Gilliam’s imagination takes

the baron and companions into a fish, a balloon sewn from underwear,

through a war-torn city, and a ship rippling through a desert, February


The Celebration, a Danish family melodrama by Thomas Vinterberg

about a 60-year patriarch faced with shocking accusations at a festive

family gathering (subtitles), February 12 and 13. 11th Annual United

States Super 8 Film and Video Festival , a national juried forum

for new independent work, February 19, 20, and 21. The Brandon

Teena Story, Susan Nuska and Greta Olafsdottir’s disturbing story

of the life and tragic death of a young transvestite, February 26

and 27. Touch of Evil, re-edited to Orson Welles’ original specifications,

about the collision of cultures on the American-Mexican border, February


Gadjo Dilo, Tony Gatlif’s portrayal of the experiences

of a French musicologist in the world of the Gypsies (subtitles),

March 5 and 6. Selections from the 1998 U.S. Super 8 Film/Video

Festival , the best of the independents by J.D. Barfield, Walter

Von Egidy, Victory Furniture, Maria Venuto, Gary Roma, and Dan Martinico,

March 24. Potemkin, Sergei Eisenstein’s landmark work depicting

the mutiny aboard battleship Potemkin which prefigured the Russian

Revolution, March 25. The Kiss, Andy Warhol’s cult-classic;

also Warhol’s My Hustler, a voyeuristic documentation of the

rituals of grooming and seduction, March 26 and 27. Last Year at

Marienbad, classic French New Wave by Alain Resnais that sets up

a puzzle that is never resolved; a key film in the development of

cinematic modernism, April 1.

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In Princeton:

2nd Chance Films

Movie-going is intended to be a social, communal, group

experience — not a solitary indulgence," says William Lockwood

Jr., whose "second chance" selections feature distinguished

films that have received little or no distribution in Princeton theaters.

Although some buffs may hunt these titles down on videotape, Lockwood

maintains, "there is no substitute for seeing a movie in a theater

with an audience."

The 12-week series of 13 films is described by curator Lockwood as

"movies you wish you’d seen but didn’t." Lockwood’s notes

published in the series brochure are well worth a phone call to the

Adult School, which sponsors the program. The series screens every

Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., through May 5, at Princeton’s Kresge Auditorium

at Washington Road and William Street. Cost is $55 for the series;

$5 single admission. Begins Wednesday, February 10. Call 609-683-1101.

Henry Fool, a gripping 1998 film by Hal Hartley about

the mysteries of the creative process, and the future of literature

in the digital age, February 10. Eve’s Bayou, Kasi Lemmon’s

directorial debut, a sexually charged family drama, February 24. The

Ice Storm , James Schamus captures a place and a people confused

both by loss of certainties and senses of new possibilities as the

Nixon presidency falls apart, March 3.

Ma Vie En Rose (My Life in Pink), Alain Berliner deals

with the delicate and potentially controversial subject of cross-gender

identity; and Love and Death on Long Island, a British comedy by Richard

Kwietniowski, describing the inexorable pull of illicit obsession,

March 10. A Taste of Cherry, Abbas Kiarostami portrays the journey

of a solitary man contemplating suicide, March 17. The Sweet Hereafter,

Atom Egoyan’s screen adaptation of the 1991 Russell Banks novel, March

24. The Thief, this Dickensian comedy by Pavel Chukhrai is also

a lesson in disillusionment and corruption, March 31.

Gattaca, a sci-fi film from Andrew Niccol set in a future

where society is rigidly divided into perfectly engineered humans

and faith babies, April 7. Western, Manuel Poirier’s portrayal

of two comic misfits trying to make it in a foreign land, April 14.

Character, enigmatic tale of destiny and parentage from Dutch

director Mike Van Diem, April 28. Men With Guns, odyssey about

war and responsibility from John Sayles, May 5. Mrs. Dalloway,

screen adaptation of the 1925 Virginia Woolf novel, May 12.

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