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Q&A: Todd Solondz Demythologizes the Movie Manchild in “Dark Horse”

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By Graham Fuller | It’s often mentioned that the deadpan tragicomedies filmed by Todd Solondz hold their protagonists in contempt. But that’s a kneejerk reaction to the discomfiting work of a writer-director who believes that the irredeemably weak, pathetic, embittered, and habitually sad need to have their stories put on screen as much as the conventionally heroic do.

Not unlike the sadsack working-class types whose failings have been made manifest in Mike Leigh’s comedies of embarrassment, Solondz’s losers, like “Welcome to the Dollhouse”’s Dawn, “Happiness” and “Life During Wartime”’s Joy and Allen, and “Storytelling”’s Vi, suffer, therefore they are. He neither lets them off the hook nor sentimentalizes them – character is destiny, which spells living death (or the real thing) in his savagely Darwinian Jewish suburbia. Yet it’s wrong to suggest that he sneers at their neuroses and anxieties in the interest of schadenfreude. Instead, he unflinchingly reveals that traditional movie panaceas like hope, optimism, and resolve are not privileges everyone can rely on. Thus, there are inklings of compassion in his boldly non-therapeutic cinema. Read the full Q&A on Spotlight.

Solondz’s latest misfit is slightly more assertive than his predecessors. Abe Wertheimer (Jordan Gelber, above) in “Dark Horse,” which opens today, is a rancorous, paranoid, self-infantilizing thirtysomething shlub who still lives at home with his coddling mom (Mia Farrow) and lugubrious dad (Christopher Walken) and goofs off in the latter’s New Jersey property-development firm.

Through sheer persistence, Abe becomes engaged to another live-at-home, the beautiful but suicidal Miranda (Selma Blair, who played the masochistic Vi and extends that character’s life here). He even punches out the Muslim ex-boyfriend who infected her with Hepatitis B, though, like much else that unfolds, that act of aggression happens in the increasingly addled Abe’s head: signs of triumph in Solondz’s movies seldom augur well. I talked to the 52-year-old filmmaker about why he’s drawn to the terminally damned.

What strikes me about Abe in that not only does he have the outward trappings of arrested development, but his particular kind of truculence and egocentricity are very much those of an adolescent boy. What prompted you to build a film around such a character?
The manchild, so to speak, is something of a trope and a genre in TV and movies, and he is almost always a cute and cuddly creature. You could even say that, physically, Abe is a cute and cuddly guy. But, of course, I don’t sentimentalize what it is to have an arrested development – it’s not a cute thing. It’s a kind of pathology that he’s afflicted with. More poignantly, it’s about a kind of clinging to the hopes and dreams of one’s youth.

What interests me as a strategy is that I take this character who is naturally off-putting – who is obnoxious and distasteful – and yet who has a vulnerability and a bleeding heart underneath that makes him compelling, that makes me care about him ultimately. I’m not so interested in explaining how he got this way. I don’t think his parents were so much more terrible with him than they were with his successful brother. Obviously, these phenomena are mysteries. Life works out this way. But it’s a struggle to escape the deadend-ness of where he is, and part of my aim was to throw a gauntlet to the audience. Here’s someone you don’t even want to be associated with, but what are the limits of one’s sympathy and empathy? It’s something of a test. You don’t want to have dinner with Abe, just as you don’t want to have dinner with Bill Maplewood, the pedophile in Happiness and Life During Wartime, but it’s about recognizing that he, too, is someone with a pulse.

Is there any significance in the fact that Abe comes from a suburban Jewish background, or is that simply a milieu you know?
It is a milieu I know. I didn’t want to advertise it any more than I wanted to hide it. I just take it as a given. You make more or less of it, as you like.

Miranda is “Storytelling”’s Vi grown up but still attracted to negative relationships with men. Is Abe attracted to her intuitively because she’s also damaged?
It’s hard to say. On the one hand, he is desperate to escape his plight, and so he rashly proposes to her. And yet there is a kind of self-fulfilling doom in making such a proposal to insulate himself from the pain of failure and rejection. It interested me to make it believable that they could ever get together. She, for different reasons, lives at home with her parents, too, and through their shared pain of being lost there is a real connection between them, tenuous though it may be.

You don’t show them sleeping together and yet it’s implied that they do.
It’s all I know: everything is very ambiguous here. [Laughs]

Contrasting with the anxiety and despair in the film is the bright palette and the inane commercial pop songs that stitch it together.
I wanted to set it up as if you were watching a Judd Apatow movie, or one of the zillion manchild movies or shows that get made, and then take it someplace else. That soundtrack is American Idol-inspired adolescent pop, which is supposed to serve as a counterpoint to the struggles that Abe is going through and also to underscore them at the same time. This is a soundtrack loop, let’s say, that he’s living – that he both embraces and seeks to escape.

The merging of his reality and his dream and fantasy life is seamless. Was it always in your head that you’d write it that way?
It evolved over the course of the writing. I liked the idea of getting at his fears and his inner life in this way, and of un-anchoring the audience by this expression of his turmoil. Even if one loses the thread of what’s real and what’s not, what’s most important is that the emotional thrust is clear.

One thing that doesn’t interest me is showing dreams that explain. Reality, like fantasy, serves to bring us to a closer understanding of the character and his inner life. It’s not about explaining it, but dramatizing it.

Abe’s fantasy version of his colleague Marie [played by Donna Murphy, pictured above] is psychologically very accurate. He has that tendency people sometimes have to sexualize acquaintances they’re not attracted to. Consciously, he doesn’t see her as anything other than a dowdy woman in the office who’s kind and helpful to him, and yet he suddenly fantasizes her as a cougar living in the lap of luxury. She’s maternal on one hand and a femme fatale on the other – it’s all very Oedipal.
And there is a payoff at the end when we see that this woman had tender feelings for him. She, too, has a fantasy life. It serves to undermine his philosophy, which is somewhat juvenile and cynical at the same time, where he talks about how horrible humanity is.

What appeals to you about depicting people who are depressed or defeated? Why is that a staple of your films?
Look, I don’t want to psychoanalyze myself, but first of all I think they’re interesting because they struggle to escape their condition. Secondly, I think I’m just moved by the experience of those who are marginalized or ostracized, or who have failed. There’s no better metaphor than Bill Maplewood for expressing that which is most loathed and demonized. It’s not quite so simple as, “I, in some sense, feel myself to be an outcast, therefore… ,” because, as I say, it’s a strategy. It’s easy to make a character sympathetic, but to get an audience to connect with someone they wouldn’t ever want to come near is a much more interesting endeavor to me.

Their struggle is a form of heroism.
Yes. It’s easy to write off these characters as coming from the imagination of someone who is a cynic and wants to show how terrible humanity is – as if that monologue of Abe’s is me speaking! It’s a facile and reductive way of looking at these films. It comes down, ultimately, to a question of sensibility, to the way in which viewers are able to open themselves up, or not, to these characters. The irony is that I’ve always found this world I’ve devised so much softer than the real one that I live in. All you have to do is pick up The New York Times any day of the week and you can see that the world is so much crueler and more horrible than anything I’ve put out there.

Does “Dark Horse” actually feel like a softening for you? It seems less harsh than most of your other films.
You know, I leave that to others and however they quantify these things. It’s not a conscious, calculated ploy. Yes, I am older and I feel that I couldn’t make today the movies I made earlier. One’s sense of things changes. “Soft” has certain negative connotations, but maybe “Dark Horse” is a bit more humanistic for lack of a better word – a little bit more generous, perhaps, in exposing the sympathies. I don’t know.

Do you think you could make a wholly optimistic film?
Well, every time I make a movie there’s no greater leap of faith. But I’m not interested in wanting it to be optimistic and sunny any more than I want it to be bleak, sad, or depressing. It doesn’t come from me that way. It starts with the characters and their particular struggles, and how that evolves, and I just try to stay true to that reality. I may not agree with what my characters say or do, but once you devise them you have to be true to them. As long as you are, then you perhaps find out how optimistic or pessimistic you are.

Are you interested in your films evolving stylistically?
The thing about my so-called career is that there’s no design to it. I finish a movie and then I write another movie, and then I wait for the funding. I try always to get at things from a different angle to make it fresh for myself, with the hope that if it’s fresh for me it will be fresh for others. Writing is not such an intellectual process – it’s a creative one, and you discover during the course of doing it what you really want to write about. You may go in with a certain intent, but once you’re writing that doesn’t matter because it takes on a life of its own.

“Life During Wartime,” of course, makes allusions to terrorism and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they’re really just there in the background. There’s nothing of that in “Dark Horse.” Do you see think you might engage more with polemical issues?
I’ve done a lot of, let’s say, enfant terrible-type movies – material that’s taboo and controversial – and one of the things that I did with this movie was to make it so a 12-year-old could see it. There’s nothing off-putting on screen. The next one, which is set in Texas, has different aims. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to attack certain kinds of zeitgeisty discourse things that are out there. In the meantime, I think there’s already enough critique and satire already built into what I do that I don’t have to broadcast it.

Image: Jordan Gelber and Donna Murphy in “Dark Horse” / Brainstorm Media

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