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He Holds Up a Mirror to Society, and It Is a Tacky Mirror

A.O. Scott demonstrates the tendency to try too hard to validate Todd Solondz’s plodding, soulless movie-making.

“He is unsparing in his attack on the complacencies of the suburban upper middle class, but to describe his attitude as cruel or contemptuous is to miss the compassion and the almost rabbinical ethical seriousness that drives his inquiries. And to take a movie like “Life During Wartime” as satire is to simplify its intentions and effects.”

Oh dear God. And here I was worrying there would never be another film attacking the complacencies of the suburban upper middle class. Just the other day I was telling my wife, “If ONLY there were some suburban upper middle class auteur who would take on their suburban upper middle class upbringing, so suburban upper middle class persons like myself could see how complex we are, and how our complacencies must be attacked.”

Solondz is neither cruel nor contemptuous, compassionate nor ethical. He’s witless, dull, and formulaic, staking out dark territory and wrapping it in that glacial, glassy-eyed Raymond Carver/John Updike style that charms the pseudo-intellectuals. The man takes the worst society has to offer and makes it, through some unknowable process, both creepy AND boring. I picture Solondz sitting down before each film, writing down nouns like “Rapist,” “Pederast,” and “Victim” and verbs like “Molest,” “Murder,” and “Rape” on slips of paper, throwing them in a hat, then picking them out at random to create characters and their motivations. Next he creates a timeline of disintegration, compounded by having not one but several characters’ lives slowly and painfully implode.

Solondz’s ability to get high-caliber actors such as Dylan Baker, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and others to mouth his twaddle is inexplicable to me, since it’s only by the power of their acting chops that his films are remotely watchable. It’s like watching Andres Segovia carry a garage band. Dylan Baker performed the amazing act of making a child rapist likable, though at the end of the day you need to ask yourself why. Answer: Solondz, in his desire to attack those dang complacencies, just wanted to sucker-punch us. Baker’s life is finished. His relationship with his son is irrevocably damaged. His family is destroyed. The community is in witch hunt mode. Fuck you. The end. Epilogue: Why in God’s name did we need a likable child rapist in the cinematic pantheon?

I’m sure it’s proposed that any negative criticism of Solondz films is based in prejudice because his films are hard to watch. Solondz’s films are hard to watch, it is proposed (as I infer), because they reveal that which we would rather not face. This is compounded, or rather muddled, by Solondz’s addition of an insincere jigger of emotion. By God, his characters may be damaged and unappealing, but they’re still human, and thus they deserve our sympathy. Roger Ebert (a Solondz supporter), said, if I may crib from the Wikipedia entry for Happiness,

“…the depraved are only seeking what we all seek, but with a lack of ordinary moral vision…In a film that looks into the abyss of human despair, there is the horrifying suggestion that these characters may not be grotesque exceptions, but may in fact be part of the mainstream of humanity.”

Reall? Ebert is a national treasure, but every now and then even he slides into ponderous-sounding muck. It sounds good, but apply the above sentiment to, say, John Wayne Gacy, or maybe just a pedophile priest. Still think they’re part of humanity’s mainstream, rather than walking horrors? Does someone need a hug?

You know why I like the show Dexter? Because it knows it’s satire/black comedy and clearly displays itself as such. Solondz’s films are described as satire, but his supporters really don’t want them to be. Labeled as black comedy, they’d lack the ambiguity that engenders gravitas. They’d be shown up as the crutch-kicking melodramas they really are. Also, they’d have to be funny in some way.

Solondz is accused of hating his characters. I don’t think he hates them. You can’t hate them because they’re made of cardboard, floating along on the windy whims of his plots and damp with crocodile tears.

Are his films challenging? Yes, in the way it’s hard to watch a kid with a runny nose licking away at his upper lip. But perhaps the booger-eater is a comment on society’s hypocrisy, and when we watch the vile little snot-gobbler, aren’t we just watching ourselves?

No, we’re not. And you’re trying too hard if you think we are in Todd Solondz’s movies.

Side note: I think Solondz first introduced Jane Adams in her perfect victim role. As Todd Field has proven, if you ever need a helpless, fragile as a glass unicorn whipping girl in your movie, hire Jane Adams. She always looks like she’s on the verge of hysterical tears, and won’t tell anyone what you did, no matter how many cigarettes you stubbed out on her.