Nationality: American. Born: Newark, New Jersey, 15 October 1959. Education: Studied film, New York University. Career: Made three award-winning short films while at New York University, Feelings, Babysitter, Schatt's Last Shot; spent six years teaching English as a Second Language to immigrants from Syria, Russia, and other countries; made short film, How I Became a Leading Artistic Figure in New York City's East Village Cultural Landscape, for Saturday Night Live.Awards: Grand Jury Prize, Sundance Film
Festival, for Welcome to the Dollhouse, 1996; FIPRESCI Award, Cannes Film Festival, for Happiness, 1998.
Films as Director:
Fear, Anxiety, and Depression (+ sc, ro as Ira Ellis)
Welcome to the Dollhouse (Middle Child) (+ sc, pr)
Happiness (+ sc)
Films as Actor:
Married to the Mob (as The Zany Reporter)
As Good as It Gets (as Man on Bus)
By SOLONDZ: articles—
"Surviving Adolescence with Dignity: An Interview with Todd Solondz," interview with Alice Cross, in Cineaste (New York), vol. 22, no. 3, Summer 1996.
"Bullies for You," interview with Geoff Andrew, in Time Out (London), no. 1379, 22 January 1997.
"Suburban Shocker," interview with Kitty Bowe Hearty, in Interview (New York), vol. 28, no. 11, November 1998.
On SOLONDZ: articles—
Taubin, Amy, "Before the Fall," in Village Voice, 5 September 1995.
Chang, Chris, "Cruel to Be Kind: A Brief History of Todd Solondz," in Film Comment (New York), vol. 34, no. 5, September-October 1998.
Lewis Conn, Andrew, "The Bad Review Happiness Deserves or: The Tyranny of Critic-Proof Movies," in Film Comment (New York), vol. 35, no. 1, January 1999.
"The Culture," in National Review, 9 November 1998.
Lucia, Cynthia, and Ed Kelleher, "Happiness," in Cineaste (New York), vol. 24, no. 2–3, Spring-Summer 1999.
Taylor, Charles, "Welcome to the Nerdhouse," Sight and Sound, March 1999.
Charity, Tom, "Solondz Is Golden," in Time Out, 14 April 1999.
* * *
Todd Solondz's first film—the one almost nobody has seen including (or so he claims) Solondz himself—was called Fear, Anxiety, and Depression. It's a measure of the precision with which the director has staked out his own highly specific territory that the title could have served equally well for either of his two subsequent features. With Welcome to the Dollhouse and, even more, Happiness, Solondz has definitively established himself as the cinematic bard of squirming, self-despising misery. Swimming determinedly against the mainstream of American cinema, with its propensity for easy consolation and feel-good narrative closure, he has so far persisted, often in the face of public outrage and critical abuse, with his disquieting brand of anguished comedy.
"Misanthropy" is the charge most often levelled at Solondz; in a sustained and largely personalised attack, the critic Charles Taylor accused him of "timidity of technique, paucity of insight and smug misanthropy." These and similar indictments were prompted by Happiness. But it could be argued that the widely acclaimed Dollhouse painted a blacker picture of humankind in general. While continuing the cycle of "schooldays are hell" dark comedies such as Michael Lehmann's Heathers and Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused, Solondz's film lacks any leavening of borderline sympathetic characters. In Dollhouse nobody is likeable, not even the victimised heroine; when the opportunity offers, she callously vents her spleen on someone yet more vulnerable than herself. It's clear that Dawn—even her name is a cruel irony—will grow up into a bitter, unpleasant adult thanks to her childhood torments. In Solondz's own words, "Both the persecutors and the persecuted are damaged and warped, maybe for life." The characters of Happiness are all, in their different ways, social disaster areas, but not all of them are ill-intentioned.
Ironically, if Solondz had made everybody in the film nastier it might have hit a lot less flak. Press hackles were raised, and Happiness's distributors, October, were forced by their parent company Universal to drop the film, largely on account of its paedophile element. The film's most seemingly normal and well-adjusted character, a happily married psychiatrist, turns out to be a serial rapist who drugs his 10-year-old son's male schoolfriends during overnight stays in order to sodomise them. Solondz has the audacity not only to present this man in the context of a comedy (albeit a thoroughly miserabilist comedy), but to refuse to demonise him. The psychiatrist, Bill, may be a pederast, but he's also a good husband and a loving father. The scene where Bill, exposed, has to explain himself to his son is honest, tender—and funny.
In response to the expressions of outrage, and to objections that the film as a whole mocks and patronises social inadequates, Solondz responds, "I don't see them that way. I endeavour to get under the skin of characters who for me are bleeding souls. The compelling themes for me are loneliness and desire, alienation and a struggle to connect." At the same time, the director who originally wanted to call Dollhouse "Faggots and Retards" could scarcely claim that controversy over his work was unexpected, or even uninvited. "After Dollhouse everything was open to me, careerwise. I wanted to take advantage of that. . . . So I thought what's the most horrific, horrible thing? I wanted to know how far I could push."
It can't be denied that the comedy of Solondz's films—Dollhouse no less than Happiness—derives from cruelty, and several of his characters, such as Philip Seymour Hoffman's sweaty sexual harasser in Happiness, can well be described as grotesque. But it's disputable whether their creator treats them cruelly; even at their most abjectly inadequate, they never lack the last saving degree of pathos. Solondz's films tread a very fine line, a knife-edge between comedy and contempt. It's a fiendishly difficult balancing-act, and he doesn't always succeed in maintaining it; but in view of the vast preponderance of comedies that plump, complacently for the easiest of options, Solondz deserves applause for the disquieting audacity of his vision.