Sunday, June 24, 2018

Todd Solondz: Bad taste never looked so bad

Todd Solondz is one of the "Hallowed 22." And by that I mean he directed one of the 22 films I have named as my favorite of their respective years, dating back to 1996 when I first started the practice. (And there have been exactly 22 different directors in those 22 years, as no one has ever directed more than one of my top-ranked films.)

Solondz got in pretty early in the whole shebang. He was the third director I presented this honor when I named Happiness my favorite film of 1998. He was a real dose of the eccentric after I'd handed my first two such honors to Al Pacino in 1996 (Looking for Richard) and James Cameron in 1997 (Titanic).

So you could say that Todd Solondz holds a special place in my heart.

But boy do I hate his movies.

I didn't imagine it would be this way, and it's not that I don't "get" Todd Solondz. After I saw (and obviously loved) Happiness, I then caught (and also liked very much) Welcome to the Dollhouse, his debut. I was on board with Todd Solondz and everything he was doing.

Then came 2001's Storytelling, which curdled my positive Solondz feelings right quick.

I don't suppose anything more outrageous really happens in this movie than in the others, but I could tell he was going for something more outrageous -- intentionally pushing buttons, seemingly only for that purpose. Yeah, I'm thinking of the bit about Robert Wisdom's Mr. Scott telling Selma Blair's Vi to repeat "Fuck me, nigger" while they're having sex. It just felt like empty provocation.

But that was actually the part of that movie I sort of liked. Its haphazard structure spends one third of the running time on the story of Vi and Mr. Scott and then two-thirds on a genuinely boring story involving Mark Webber. I don't even remember what it was about. I just remember it was boring and tedious.

I'm now learning that there was actually a third story featuring James van der Beek as a closeted football player. If Solondz stuck with these two other stories because he thought they worked, just imagine what a disaster this story must have been. (I think it was actually cut due to the explicit sex scene between men.)

Great Belle and Sebastian score, though.

I was so put off by Storytelling that I skipped 2004's Palindromes, and have not yet caught up with it in the 14 years since. I got the gist of what it was about, and how it featured like five different people playing the same character, and I just thought "No thanks." Apparently, it was already obvious to me that Solondz was continuing to stray from anything that was remotely digestible to anyone but himself.

I did watch Solondz' next film, 2009's Life During Wartime, as part of a series I wrote for another blog in 2013 in which I watched a movie set in each state. This one takes place in Florida. And it continues Solondz' "narrative sauciness," to put it generously, by functioning as a sequel to Happiness, only with the characters in that movie re-cast with different actors. Yep, sure Todd.

I don't hate Life During Wartime, but I think I give it a bit more credit than it deserves simply because of my feelings toward Happiness. It's an interesting failure. Its biggest problem is that it's incredibly stilted. Solondz has really lost his way in terms of directing actors.

I didn't intentionally skip 2012's Dark Horse. I knew it was Solondz and saw it available on streaming a number of times. Its running time was short, too. But no night was ever "the night" to watch it, and I still haven't seen it. I don't even know what it's about.

But for some reason I decided to come at his latest, 2016's Wiener-Dog, which I watched on Friday night, with a sense of optimism. I think it was something about the whimsical title, though I might have also subconsciously remembered that Greta Gerwig was in it. I didn't remember, until watching it, that Solondz was at it again; Gerwig's character is an older version of Heather Matarazzo's character from Welcome to the Dollhouse, Dawn Wiener. Can't you see the resemblance?

No one resembled anyone in Life During Wartime, which I thought was okay there, so I'm not going to get stuck on this one here. This was the least of Weiner-Dog's problems.

The most of its problems is what I considered its bad taste. Solondz has made his willingness to tackle taboo subjects -- rape, pedophilia, masturbation -- his calling card, and I obviously didn't mind in Happiness, which includes all three. But if you don't do something like this right, it just looks like you're trying to get attention, for all the wrong reasons.

The first of the four stories got me off on the wrong foot. The titular wiener dog has a nasty bout of diarrhea as a result of eating a granola bar with chocolate chips in it, and we get to see lots, and lots, and lots of dog diarrhea. But the amounts of dog diarrhea we see -- including a slow pan down a street strewn with it -- is probably what we'd see if a dog ate a chocolate cake or a whole bag of chocolate chips. Not half of a granola bar that, from the looks of it, had about three chocolate chips in it. So yes, if you're going to give me dog diarrhea, I'm at least asking for realism in my dog diarrhea.

But I probably should have started with the story Julie Delpy's character tells her young son about dog rape. I can't even remember her reason for telling it, though I think it had something to do with being a justification for getting the dog spayed. She goes on and on about how the dog she had when she was growing up was raped by another dog in the woods, and how this dog went around raping other dogs and giving them venereal diseases. The boy is like eight.

Funny, right? Oh Todd, you card.

Look, I'm not some blushing conservative who cannot listen to discussion of dog rape in a movie. But I just wonder what Solondz' point is. It's not delivered as humor by Delpy, or if so, it's an incredibly misguided idea about the delivery of what's meant to be comedy. It just seems to be another one of those instances of Solondz rubbing our noses in something naughty he's saying, the mere saying of which strikes him as some kind of victory. Be rude, be crude, but do it with a purpose other than just trying to show off that you are free from the shackles of other people's good manners.

The movie progresses on to three other boring stories, only the last of which I sort of liked. The second one involves Gerwig's character and a heroin addict played by Kieran Culkin, who go on a road trip to tell his brother, who has Down's Syndrome, and his brother's wife, who also has Down's Sydrome, about the death of their dad. Never mind that you would call someone to tell them about his own father's death, rather than make a long road trip there. Never mind the fact that the actors with Down's Syndrome do not seem to be very well served by this movie. The thing that annoyed me most about this sequence was that Culkin's character sees Gerwig's character in a convenience store, recognizing her as a person he went to school with, then blows her off rather rudely, then leaves the convenience store and pets the leashed wiener dog, then abruptly invites Gerwig's character to accompany him on this long road trip. Solondz would never want to give us an interaction between characters that feels realistic; oh no. To me, it just reads like something that would never happen, and what's the point.

The thing that annoyed me about the structure overall is that the movie sets us up to see how this wiener dog is passed between owners. See, Dawn Wiener works in a veterinarian's office, which is how she gets the dog initially after its near-fatal bout with diarrhea. Delpy and family took her to be put down, but Dawn saves her from this fate (despite the fact that she must have to do things like this on a daily basis), and that launches her story. All well and good, right?

Well no. After the dog is left with Culkin's brother and his wife, we have no idea how it gets in to the hands of Danny DeVito's miserable film professor, or then into the hands of Ellen Burstyn's miserable elderly woman. If you're going to start with a high concept of a dog passing between owners, and show us the first transition between owners, why just drop it after that? The answer is because Solondz does not hold himself accountable to any narrative conventions. He thinks his freedom from these conventions is what makes him great. I just think it's lazy, or worse, indifferent.

I did kind of like the last segment, but only because of this one weird fantasy sequence where Burstyn is confronted by a dozen eerie versions of herself as a young girl with brilliant red hair. The girl talks in a voice reminiscent of the twins in The Shining, and it's a discomfiting reminder to this character of the opportunities in life she passed up, leaving her as this shell of a person. But the scene lasts for about a minute, after which Solondz ends the movie with another of his bad jokes. I won't bother to tell you what that joke is.

As I write these words, I think Solondz, if he were reading this, would imagine me as being exactly the type of person he makes his movies to piss off. But see, I was not always that person. Possibly his most controversial film, when you combine its subject matter with the level of prominence that allows something to become controversial, is Happiness, my #1 movie of 1998.

I just think Solondz needs to do a better of job doing what he's trying to do, and he has not done so for 20 years now. He's capable of it. There's proof. But he seems more interested in squatting, shitting, and calling it art.

I need a lot less of Todd Solondz' diarrhea.

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