Tragic comedy

The op-art specs, bright yellow sneakers and crisply laundered shirt – so clean you almost hear it crackle – make Todd Solondz look like a cartoon American preppy. He could even be a preppy Munchkin who has wandered out of an animated Wizard of Oz. As I meet him, 16 years after my first interview with him in wintry Berlin where he made his festival bow with Welcome to the Dollhouse, I wonder whether he has been translated by fate into one of his own characters.

Solondz, all film buffs know, tells stories in which American lives fall tragically, comically apart: Happiness (1998), Palindromes (2001), Life After Wartime (2009). The self-destruct button in his films may wear a smiley face, but it is still nuclear. So are the close-bonded families he portrays, with both children and adults often struggling to “grow up”. Happiness, his second feature, was one of the great independent films of its or any era: a Citizen Kane of Generation-X seriocomedy, with breadth of characterisation, confrontational subject matter (including paedophile rape) and the ability to combine cynicism with compassion.

But did Solondz, like Orson Welles, say it all too definitively and too early? Was Happiness too big an act to follow?

His new film Dark Horse, a sweet-sour love story between two arrested developers (Selma Blair, Justin Bartha), boasts brilliant moments but has under-wowed critics and audiences. Despite showings at the autumn’s big festivals – Venice, Toronto, Rio, Abu Dhabi – it has not managed to secure a release in the US or Europe. The film-maker goes into a lament that sounds like a signature tune. “Look, my movies make less and less. Each movie makes half as much as the last one. Happiness made half as much as Dollhouse. Storytelling made half as much as Happiness. My audience has shrunk. I was surprised to be able to make a movie at all.

“So,” he says of Dark Horse, “I thought: what can I make that will cost very little money? I wanted it to be just a girl-meets-boy story that evolves.” Evolves, to be exact, by not evolving. Neither Abe nor Miranda has grown up in a recognisable sense. They live cocooned lives waiting for love, passion, cataclysm – anything – to wean them into adulthood.

Todd Solondz at the Venice film festival

“In these times of economic crisis, the concept of kids still living with their parents is not so alien. There’s a genre of films today that already deals with men in this predicament. The 40-year-old Virgin, Knocked Up. One could say my take is a little more tragic, more weighted ... ” The word “infantilisation” falls from his lips. So is that what the Meltdown Era has given us? A retreat to the kiddy room, fully furnished with toys and collectables? Abe is a comic book enthusiast, and posters, CDs, video games are also everywhere.

“It’s the symptom of a consumer society. You don’t have these problems in rural China or Sudan. There has to be a certain level of prosperity, and secularism as well, to have these shrines to comic books and pop-culture deities.” And a level of neurotic, possibly retarded obsession. “One can be a hobbyist, but at a certain point do you own the collection or does the collection own you?”

Solondz “reads” America acutely. Maybe his shrinking popularity comes from the fact that he reads it too well. He doesn’t flatter US parenting, for instance, by having Abe’s mum and dad played – albeit with star wattage – by a cooing Mia Farrow (part mother dove, part mid-life Pollyanna) and a toupee’d Christopher Walken. Walken’s character is an office drone, drab if endearing: a man who surrendered years before to nine-to-five automatism and is now one of the suburban undead.

These scenes are done in a style of Extreme Sitcom – “the brightness chafes against the fragile parts of the characters” – and their acoustic is enlarged by a quasi-Pirandellian brainwave. “The TV show Seinfeld,” says Solondz, “has a character, George Costanza, who with his father and mother is a kind of counterpoint to Abe and his parents.”

So Solondz hired Costanza actor Jason Alexander (“who was born in the same town as me, Livingston, New Jersey”), plus the actors who played his TV parents, to sound-record a fake Seinfeld episode. We hear it as background audio during an Abe family scene. “I wrote the episode myself, I really wanted the Costanza character there” – overwrought, childlike – “as a reflection, or sounding board, for my own characters.”

It’s a neat inspiration. But I wonder if it doesn’t sum up simultaneously all that is right and all that is wrong about Dark Horse. And about Solondz’s cinema since Happiness. The ingenuity and allusive intelligence are there. But the shapes they take are becoming too picayune. Who cares about these little ingenuities if the big vision is no longer there?

“People basically try to encourage me to work in TV,” Solondz says, expanding on his funding problems, “which is more stable and you get a real salary. I teach, that’s my full-time job, at NYU [New York University]. I love doing that, it gives me a certain security. I’d much rather teach than work on some TV thing I’m not interested in.”

But he may be training up young film-makers so they can enter a world where it’s harder and harder to make movies? “I look at them and it’s funny, they have all this new, different technology today that makes film-making so much more affordable. It’s like the invention of the typewriter, what has been created with all these digital means. At the same time things are more difficult than ever in terms of finding theatrical distribution. Despite all the talk about digital outlets, and iPods and iCasts, I don’t know of any serious profits that can come from these things.”

Worse still, he points out, freedom of access can kill potential income from other, older revenue sources. “My movies are often on YouTube. They’re watchable straight through, you don’t even have to download. My people try to remove it and it reappears. I get no money, nothing.”

The independent cinema scene is simultaneously a jungle and a desert. If you’re in it, you eat or get eaten. If you’re on the edge you starve or die of thirst. Solondz is philosophical. He’ll keep trying to make films. (His longtime producer is auspiciously called Hope: Ted Hope.) And he’ll keep helping young Americans to try to make films.

I ask, as a last incitement to him to hurrah his best work, which of his movies he would try to save if his house caught fire. “I don’t know. Maybe I’d let them all go. I’d be very sad, and accepting, that it had had its time. Now it’s gone. Best to just accept that, rather than fetishising.”

He looks almost happy saying it.

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