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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."
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Corrections or additions?
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