The films of Todd Solondz are particularly hard to approach. He doesn't have many vocal fans and with running themes of depression, insecurity, murder, paedophilia, exploitation, bullying, rape and suicide you do have to ask yourself, exactly what kind of mood do I have to be in to sit down to one of these pictures? On paper it's all about as appealing as licking poo off a cactus. However, contrary to my expectations I have found his films resonate with an honesty and morality that makes them both unique and vitally provocative.
Welcome to the dollhouse (1995) has the veneer of a classic coming of age story but quickly steers into more awkward territory as 7th grader Dawn Wiener finds out not only does she hate everyone but everyone hates her. Things go heavily off track only to leave us all intact but with our heads spinning. I really enjoyed this film, it's like Dazed and confused, Freaks and Geeks and Ghost World all had a crack baby. And that baby shat out a film. And this was the sequel to it.
Happiness must've been released at 12:01am Jan 1st 1998, how else would the "No.1 film of the year" on the sleeve make any sense? His most critically acclaimed but personally my least favourite of his films Happiness sees Solondz develop his now trademark episodic caption approach. Philip Seymour Hoffman sells hard as a loner pervert in a plot so droning that it's the individual scenes you remember. Some really powerful characterisation here but it paces like a drunk pigeon in traffic.
Storytelling (2001) is a unique and original experience. A very strong film in which Solondz seems to confront his own issues with film making. He simultaneously lampoons his critics in a chapter where a writing class critique each others work. The statement made is en enigma nestled within a conundrum, but what does come through is a snide, searing criticism of an industry, perhaps even a species that benefits through exploitation of others.
With Palindromes we are again taken on a bizarre trip to the farside. We follow Aviva, a young girl who wants to have a baby no matter what. She runs away from home and what opens up is a debate on abortion, religion and parenting. The film bares various references to Dollhouse including the character of Mark Wiener, Dawn's older brother, now accused of child molestation. Some interesting storytelling techniques are used. For example, multiple actors are used for Aviva the main character. Some people have said this is to show that we are "all equal" but i think more precisely it works by erasing any prejudices across gender, race or age we might have and instead forces us to really learn the character. It is also a comment on the mental state of some of these adults and their child like approach to life.
Whilst these films certainly don't focus on the lighter side of life they also don't totally disregard it. Woven amongst these grotesque ruminations are fleeting moments of pure whimsy and humour. Solondz is going to push you into places that you'd rather not think about. He walks on a fine line and I feel although it's not actually gratuitous or exploitative, it certainly is made to feel that way. While a marathon of his work has left me quite mentally exhausted, it has also left me with the sense that we have a brave and thorny oddball among us that somehow found a voice and in making us squirm is somehow wreaking his revenge.
P.S. Before that guy Anon rears his ugly head, yes Solondz does have 2 earlier films called Schatt's Last Shot (1985) and Fear, Anxiety & Depression (1989). If they ever become available on DVD I'll be sure to let you know how long I felt dirty for afterwards. Solondz latest film Life During Wartime (2009) should be out soon. It stars Paul Reubens (Pee-Wee Herman) and tackles paedophilia....*sigh*.