Chapter Two: Life During Wartime
By Brett Ballard-Beach
August 16, 2012
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?