“We dress like students, we dress like housewives/Or in a suit and a tie/ I changed my hairstyle so many times now/ Don’t know what I look like” -- from Talking Heads’ song “Life During Wartime,” which is not featured in the film under discussion this week.
Chapter Two: Life During Wartime
By Brett Ballard-Beach
August 16, 2012
With Life During Wartime, his follow up to 1998’s polarizing feel-bad comedy Happiness, Todd Solondz is trying to break your heart. Building upon the outrage and narrative risks he evinced in the films that followed Happiness - Storytelling (2001) and Palindromes (2005) - Solondz leaves little doubt about his wells of compassion for his screwed-up lost souls. (Condescension toward his characters is a charge that has unfairly dogged the filmmaker his entire career, though its recurrence is easily understandable.) Solondz has never shown any interest in tidy endings or suggesting that his characters will find the measures of comfort they seek. After all, he did begin Palindromes with a funeral for Dawn Weiner, the pre-teen protagonist of his second and breakthrough feature, Welcome to the Dollhouse (1996), still his highest-grossing film.
Dollhouse and Happiness both relied heavily on shocking character behavior (more than narrative twists) and posited a world, largely centered in New Jersey, in which what would normally be dark secrets of the soul (bullying, obscene phone calls, pedophilia, dismemberment of a rapist) bubble up on the surface of his chatty character’s lives and acts of compassion or foundering attempts at moral decency are delivered apologetically, haltingly - and are usually received or answered with derision and scorn - or not at all.
Happiness received a fair amount of praise upon its release, is still his highest rated movie at Rotten Tomatoes, and if any one of his seven features could be considered “definitive Todd Solondz,” my guess is it would be that. Out of the five I have seen, however (I haven’t seen his first, 1989’s comedy-musical Fear Anxiety and Depression, nor this year’s Dark Horse), I would dub it his weakest, for several reasons, that are perhaps purely personal. Clocking in at over two and a quarter hours, Happiness is Solondz’s longest film by nearly 45 minutes. Running times are almost never an issue with me, but Happiness is a film of little scope saddled with an epic length that it can’t support. Solondz’s modus operandi - individual scenes staged for maximum impact without concern for a plotline that needs to get from A to B and which often swerves off onto a completely unforeseeable tangent - feels just right at an hour and a half, but grueling when extended past that.
As noted, I don’t subscribe to the notion that Solondz mocks his characters, but with Happiness, he seems to be submitting them to an escalating game of “You think you have it bad, but…” in which, say, the schlubby whiny call center guy who lusts after the self-loathing self-obsessed author but can only approach her via talking dirty on the phone, is relentlessly “stalked” by the neighbor down the hall with supreme intimacy issues who quite off-handedly tells him what fate befell the building doorman who got rough with her. I do, however, persist in thinking of Happiness as an R-rated feature-length sitcom pilot.
Many of the actors and actresses in the film, at that time, were better known for their television performances than big-screen careers (Lara Flynn Boyle, Camryn Manheim, Cynthia Stevenson, Jon Lovitz) and Solondz seems to have selected them precisely for being known in that context or for eliciting murmurs of “Where do I know him/her from?” Stevenson in particular does a gloss on the eternally perky sitcom wife and mom of yore, who in this case barely conceals over her fear and frustration of what she suspects has become a sham marriage. This sitcom attitude is mirrored in the technical aspects. The production design by Therese DePrez and art/set direction by John Bruce and Nick Evans establishes a plastic world of mostly interior sets where cubicles and closed apartment doors foster anonymity and perfect suburban houses hide secrets. Maryse Alberti’s cinematography complements this with bright (but not harsh) lighting and framing that highlights the flatness of these people’s world. It is perhaps no wonder that they are unable to maintain secrets. There are neither shadows to duck into nor corners to turn.
The questions are begged: why a sequel to Happiness, 10 years later (in real life and in the lives of the characters) and why one in which all the characters are played by different actors? More than one critic noted that everything that needed to be said about these characters had been said. Their lives, in effect, were over at the end of the first film. And why did I react more strongly to Life During Wartime? Would it have mattered if I had not watched Happiness again just prior (for the first time since in the theater in ’98) and is that cross-comparison desirable or necessary? Would someone who hadn’t seen Happiness enjoy Life During Wartime more or less?
I came into Life During Wartime with the knowledge that a) it was a sequel to Happiness and b) most of the characters were back but were played by different actors. Nothing else. I had read no plot descriptions nor seen any still photos, only the DVD cover/movie poster. I was only vaguely aware of its release in mid-2010 and could not say for certain if it played in Portland, though I imagine it did. All this in itself is unusual and lent an air of mystery to my first viewing. I watched it again the following night to see what my feelings would be like without the circumstances of the plot to surprise me. I certainly didn’t expect it to be one of the exceedingly few American films to posit itself in a post 9/11 world, with the terrorist act invoked on multiple occasions.
Life During Wartime is a tragicomic consideration of the living and the dead come back as ghosts, and those who walk among us who have fallen through the cracks and may as well be living ghosts. In many ways, it resonates for me as a Jewish suburban Our Town (if that isn’t too horribly mangled a comparison) where the dead can see clearly now, but what they have to tell us can be of no use to us. The three Jordan sisters at the heart of the first film also form the crux of the plot threads here.
Joy (Shirley Henderson) is still no further along in finding any meaning for her life through her work (with convicts) or her art (songwriting) and winds up harangued by not one, but two ex-lovers’ ghosts to do the world a favor and off herself. Trish (Allison Janney) wants to move out of the shadow of the ghost of her past that involves her incarcerated pedophile ex-husband, and in so doing finds sexual and romantic satisfaction (after a fashion) with an unlikely middle-aged suitor. Former poet Helen (Ally Sheedy) has folded in on herself, finding wealth and accolades out west as a screenwriter in Hollywood, but undone by a monstrous ego and massive self-loathing.
The film unfolds in what one could easily imagine as being adapted from a stage production, as a series of mostly dialogues between two characters. The scenes that feature multiple key characters gathered together are rare (Trish’s youngest son Timmy’s bar mitzvah being the key one) and the only extended conversation among a group of people, that I recall, is a brief round-robin among the college friends of Trish’s eldest son about who had the most fucked-up childhood. (Billy politely defers, passing on the chance to snag the crown with tales of his father Bill Maplewood, child rapist).
What is largely missing from Life During Wartime, when juxtaposed with Happiness, is a contrast of the personal and professional travails of its characters. In the first film, the work lives were often as dreary as their personal and romantic lives: Joy’s failings in the cubicle farm and as a “scab” ESOL teacher, Helen’s writer’s block, Trish’s attempts at maintaining the perfect wife and mother façade. Life During Wartime is incredibly insular by comparison and if you cotton to the notion that the divorcé Trish is dating (whose last is Wiener and whose son is named Mark Wiener) is the dad from Welcome to the Dollhouse, then Solondz has created a closed-loop universe. But it never feels like an inside joke for the knowledgeable hip, but fully in keeping with the walking wounded lives that populate the film.
Now’s a good as time as any to admit that, for all their humor (or attempts at), I have never found any of Solondz’s films particularly funny. Shocking yes, capable of producing empathy for painfully embarrassing or humiliating moments, definitely, but they never elicit anything from a guffaw to a nervous chuckle to an outburst of bewildered laughter. And I have never held this against them. I don’t feel like I have failed his button pushing, because that is only one level of his movies, and because, like Woody Allen in Deconstructing Harry mode, Solondz often lobs his critics’ complaints back at himself through his characters and their dialogue. Here, that role is accorded to Helen, who bemoans the fact that everyone always accuses her of condescending towards those she writes about.
Solondz exhibits tremendous chutzpah right from the opening scene, intended as a (distorted) mirror image of the opening scene in Happiness: Joy on a date with a lover that quickly sours and becomes painfully awkward. In this case, she is with her husband, who presents her with an anniversary gift that unintentionally dredges up some awful memories, and later turns out to have had an unfortunate past association with their hostess. It also establishes the recurring motif for the film: the ethical conundrum of whether it is better to forgive and/or forget, and what exactly we can forgive, in ourselves or in others? Some may find this handled in an overly polemical fashion and if the characters were any less realized or the performances less fearless or haunted, then it might simply have been a geeked-up presentation of an undergraduate Ethics lecture and I would concur with that stick figure criticism.
But almost to a person, I find the performances in Life During Wartime rise above the counterparts in Happiness. The masterful Ciarán Hinds takes over from Dylan Baker as the recently paroled Bill and his lost, limpid eyes and barely coiled physical tension establish the sense of threat that hangs over every scene. He recalls a young Pete Postlethwaite. For the first half of his time on-screen, he has no dialogue and no one to interact with - and in the second half he has only brief pointed conversations with a one-night fling, and later Billy, in his college dorm room - but Hinds speaks volumes in his silence and his desperate oral fixations on gumdrops and bottled water. Janney and Michael Lerner as the Wiener paterfamilias, have a touching middle-aged affair notable for both its selfishness and its honesty and for its affectionate portrayal of middle-aged carnal knowledge (a critic can be prepared to see many many things but my jaw did drop to see Janney and Lerner engaged in upright bare-assed wall-braced vigorous intercourse, followed up with further postcoital nudity). Henderson pushes Joy to even mousier extremes than Jane Adams did, allowing Joy to stay lost behind a tangle of hair with her voice pushed down to breathy registers, and in the process making her a contradiction in terms: the character most deserving of our empathy, and the one that is the hardest to handle being around for significant amounts of time.
Cinematographer Ed Lachman helms the camera here (shooting on a digital system for the first time as he reveals in a brief interview on the Criterion disc) and in many respects I was reminded of his work on David Byrne’s True Stories, interestingly another film that was much maligned for being condescending of and contemptuous towards its characters. Lachman’s choice for warm colors in both cases (and the obvious pastels for the parts of Life During Wartime that take place in Florida) does much to dismantle arguments of such coldness. But also essential to what Lachman achieves is his ability to weave heightened lyricism or even dream-like passages into both films without taking away from each film’s more prominent realism. I think of the night janitor in True Stories dancing to his walkman while wielding his mop and bucket or Joy here, who awakens in the middle of the night from her mother’s condo and “sleepwalks” her way down the street to a deserted all-night restaurant. One iconic shot places her with an enormous moon towering over her as she walks parallel to the highway.
Life During Wartime also continues a frequent theme of having the title song of Solondz’s film both featured as a composition within the film and as an end credits song. In the case of “Happiness” vs. “Life During Wartime,” you have Michael Stipe (accompanied by Rain Phoenix) delivering his most ebullient vocal this side of “Shiny Happy People” or “Superman” as compared to Devendra Banhart (with backing vocals and production by Beck) with a midtempo lilt more in keeping with the version in the film briefly performed by Joy. In the case of the former, its fervent sunniness is in keeping with the bitter irony of the final scene. In the instance of the latter, its ghostly musings and sparse arrangement help amplify the closing moments.
It would be a cheap shot to imply that Life During Wartime simply suggests a maturing or a mellowing of Solondz. It represents nothing of the sort. A film like Happiness countered the unimaginable with dark humor, of lives lived with far from quiet desperation in search of the seemingly unattainable titular state. Life During Wartime exists in the “after-life,” It posits possibilities of love and forgiveness and connection while acknowledging that they may forever be just out of our reach, destroyed by our clumsy efforts and our humanity. Two sides of the same coin.
Next time: The beginning of the first-ever Chapter Two/Sole Criterion crossover kicks off with the acme of needless sequels of the ‘00s. Whatcha gonna do when Michael Bay comes for you?