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July 08, 2010


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I was very glad to read this review. I actually really like Solondz, which is an opinion I've found doesn't meet with too much sympathy these days. The reaction to news that LIFE DURING WARTIME was filming/was finished/is screening has tended to be "Oh great, another depressing movie!" As if that's all that's being offered. I think he's a really unique talent -- still raw, in a lot of ways, but because of that, also kind of appealingly reckless. I'm looking forward to this.

Off topic, but speaking of Hinds: Glenn, have you seen THE ECLIPSE (not that one, the other one)? I'd be really interested to know your take on it, especially as a horror film, of which I think it as a very unusual kind.

Tony Dayoub

Glenn, I had a problem with LIFE DURING WARTIME, and I wanted to get your take on it.

With this movie being so focused on the theme of forgiveness, it really irks me that Solondz stacked the deck in his favor by casting new actors, prodding one to emotionally detach from the original "crimes" each character commits in HAPPINESS.

One could apply this to any of the characters, but using Ciarán Hinds' Bill as the most obvious example, it becomes far easier to feel neutral (as far as one can with this kind of thing) about his perversion here, where it's simply spoken of anecdotally and with some distance, than in HAPPINESS where one experiences the repulsive crime along with Dylan Baker.

Would anyone feel so open to even addressing this theme in LIFE DURING WARTIME if it was Baker we'd be seeing up there asking for forgiveness instead of Hinds? Isn't this a cheat?

Fuzzy Bastard

I'm constantly impressed by Solondz's cinematic intelligence, even as I'm frustrated by the limits of his movies. He so relentlessly allows in only the very worst of human behavior that his films are something much worse than depressing---they're *unconvincing*. But he remains one hell of a director of actors, and I'm not sorry that he seems to have set aside some of the trickery of Palindromes, so... I'll have to check it out.

Matt Dutto

Haven't seen HAPPINESS in years, but wasn't that Jon Lovitz playing the ashtray-giver in the opening scene?

Glenn Kenny

@ Matt D. : Yes, that character was played by Lovitz. Here, he's played, in a quite inspired turn, by Paul Reubens.

@ Tony: No, I don't think it's a cheat, because I don't think the film is asking the audience to forgive Bill. It's more about looking at his desire to be forgiven than about "sympathizing" with him. At least that's how I saw it. I really didn't ever get the sense of the film trying to solicit any judgment of that sort from the viewer.

@Bill: Haven't seen "Eclipse" yet, just got the Blu-ray, look forward to checking it out this weekend.


Solondz is a severely underappreciated filmmaker, and for my money, the best writer of all current American auteurs.

Stephen Whitty

Glenn, thanks for this and your (unsurprisingly) very thoughtful reactions.

I thought there were some very interesting things in this film, one of the reasons I found a lot of the critical reaction when it showed in Toronto -- the usual sort of "But there's nobody LIKABLE here!" -- a little distressing.

As you point out, a great deal of the film is about forgetting and forgiveness (and how they differ). I wonder if that isn't part of Solondz' intention in casting different actors; not as Tony D. suggests, to make their past crimes seem less, but just to play tricks with our memory.

If, for example, Dylan Baker had returned, well then when Solondz referenced his crime we'd have very specific images to draw on. But with Hinds as the character now, I don't think it lessens our reactions so much as complicates them; what, exactly, were the precise facts, the exact feelings? Can we really reconstruct them a decade later?

And I think that goes back to Solondz' musings on what, precisely, real forgiveness is -- a willed acceptance, or a willful ignorance.

Not that, I hasten to add, I think Mr. Maplewood should be happily welcomed back into society -- or that Solondz is a particularly happy fellow -- just that I think this is part of the question the filmmaker is asking.

Tony Dayoub

Thanks for responding, Glenn. And Stephen, that's an interesting way of putting it.

I found this "complication" too distracting to appreciate what Solondz was going for. While I think Glenn is right to say Solondz doesn't want the audience to forgive Bill, I do think the director wants to reset one's feelings on the matter back to zero, in effect equalizing the feelings of viewers familiar with these characters with those who are coming to them for the first time.

I found the Hinds and Williams characters much more sympathetic in this film than when they were played by Baker and Hoffman in HAPPINESS. Inversely, Henderson and Janney seemed so much more whiny and shrewish than in their previous incarnations as played by Jane Adams and Cynthia Stevenson. I'm not sure this wasn't a deliberate intention on Solondz's part, and it felt more than a bit manipulative.

Dan Coyle

"The detachment he lacks is the sort that gives Buñuel's films, particularly the later ones, their lovely, eccentrically charming wry and dry quality; and the detachment Solondz does possess places him at such a remove that his perspective on his characters can be read as contempt by those who aren't paying close enough attention."

That's a apt descriptor as any for why I was never able to get on the Solondz train, though I don't despise him like some. I just... kind of sit there with his work, admiring it but unable to connect with it.

As for Bunuel comparisons, I used to call Alex Cox's Walker "The Bunuel of the Reagan Era", so, you know, at least you never did that Glenn. ;-)

Tom Russell

I really liked HAPPINESS and STORYTELLING, but found PALINDROMES really unrewarding, mostly because of the multi-casting tic. But LIFE DURING WARTIME sounds more appealing to me, and its casting seems to be less of an affectation and more of a new perspective on his characters-- like the casting of Michael Williams (fucking Omar!) in place of Hoffman that you mention.

Hoping to see it soon.


Dan Coyle: Wait a minute, what's wrong with calling Alex Cox's Walker "The Bunuel of the Reagan Era"??

Jeff McMahon

And to bring it full-circle, I was never able to get into Solondz's films until Palindromes, which I found touching and graceful in a very odd, somewhat bitter way.

Fuzzy Bastard

@ Dan Coyle: WALKER is totally "the Bunuel of the Reagan era", except maybe sharper in his political critique. I can't begin to summarize how happy I am that this movie, which I've loved in solitude since the 80s, is finally getting its due!

James Keepnews

Fuzz -- I think for the first time hereabouts I must beg to differ with your opinion. I think Walker is a borderline bomb, and this from someone who adores Cox and pretty much bows five times daily in the direction of Rudy Wurlitzer (Candy Mountain...mmmm, mm mm). As satire, it's threadbare, undercooked and, although I haven't seen it in some time and can't recall specific moments, seemed to strain uncomfortably for resonance with our undeclared war on the Sandanistas. But worse, the characters seem to be all straw men -- I felt like I got a deeper, truer portrait of William Walker from Pontecorvo's Burn! than I did from Walker. So much else by Cox deserves the due Walker is receiving lately -- anyone else see The Winner?

Yes, Solondz is a great writer, albeit an undistinguished director. Yet, as much as I liked Storytelling, I didn't fall all over myself to see Palindromes and, accordingly, missed it. I still feel like Welcome to the Dollhouse is his best work, but based on the buzz, perhaps that status will be challenged by This Ain't No Disco.

Dan Coyle

Well, I love Walker with all my heart, but I kinda got shouted down the last time I associated it with Bunuel. ;-)

James Keepnews: The Winner? Seriously? Excepting Frank Whaley, that film was a mess and Cox himself regrets making it, though mainly because his original score by Pray For Rain was thrown out by the producers.


Candy Mountain!

Keith Uhlich

Damn straight "Walker" is the Bunuel of the Reagan era. And Anthology Film Archives has it in their upcoming "Anti-Biopics" series. Good time for a big-screen view.

James Keepnews

I guess between one Candy Mountain cheer and one Winner jeer I'm batting .500, which is great for the majors.

Dan: seriously, and I'm well aware that Cox washed his hands over it. I knew none of that when I saw The Winner, in a period when I thought Vincent D'Onofrio -- albeit from day one at Parris Island so very much ham on wry -- could do no wrong. Naturally, I've since learned otherwise. I generally don't like Whaley and have little feeling for him in that film, whereas I think VO, co-producer Rebecca De Mornay and most especially Delroy Lindo are all superb, and the existential/surrealist sensibility brought to the subject of gambling felt like a less-coked-out, smarter older sister to the similar vibe in Repo Man. In that respect, even though it's not without the kind of major flaws that prevent it from being great, I think it's a better "gambling film" than either the overpraised, nearly contemporaneous Hard Eight or, ditto, The Cooler.

I guess I'm also longing for a bit more of Buneul in Solondz, whose nihilism, though transfixing when literally embodied by great actors like Dylan Baker or Jane Adams, seems to me to run a little glib, as do his social critiques; we could never say the same about Luis. TS' work plays like the love -- or is that "hatefuck"? -- child of Woody Allen and E.M. Cioran

The Siren

"...Solondz, whose nihilism, though transfixing when literally embodied by great actors like Dylan Baker or Jane Adams, seems to me to run a little glib, as do his social critiques; we could never say the same about Luis."


Fuzzy Bastard

@ James: I haven't seen The Winnd]er yet, but yeah, Walker. Love it. Love Ed Harris, in particular---his portrait of an Army man who's so tightly controlled that you don't realize that he's batshit insane is compelling and still relevant. And I love the Herzogian device of having the film slowly but surely lose its mind alongside the character. And I love the accompanying move from a relatively realistic period epic to Leone spaghetti Western to some kind of strange Brechtian theatricality, and back again---it's like a whole history of the American war movie along with a critique of same.

But yes on Solondz's glibness. This is what I mean about finding him unconvincing---I would find his nihilism more resonant if we could see it overcoming kindness and optimism, rather than the relentless deck-stacking he engages in as a writer. He's a potent filmmaker---the editing in Happiness is underrated and effective---but rather like Trent Reznor, his technical skill can't quite make up for his adolescent attitudinizing.

James Keepnews




Ditto on Solondz being too deterministic and glib. It would be nice if he had more of the depth and nuance of Bunuel, but it doesn't seem to be in the cards. Although his films are usually worth a look, and this review has certainly piqued my interest.

As far as Walker goes...while I appreciate its intentions (as best I understand them) I think the film is a shambles. The absence of recognizable psychology would be forgivable if it had any formal coherence, precision, or potent political critique. I had high hopes for that film, especially being a fan of Ed Harris, but it played like an adolescent attempt at agitprop, made all the more frustrating by the fact that its heart was, essentially, in the right place.

Hearing it compared to Bunuel, who could be amazingly nuanced and incisive - not to mention way more technically accomplished than Cox, is bizarre.

The Siren

@James Keepnews: Means I agree. :)


Damn straight "Walker" is the Bunuel of the Reagan era. And Anthology Film Archives has it in their upcoming "Anti-Biopics" series. Good time for a big-screen view.

Saw the Criterion disc recently. It reminded me a lot of Aguirre: The Wrath of God. Great soundtrack, but a little slow and uninteresting.

Sir Kenny, is your review of Happiness available?

James Keepnews

Siren: Thought so, but feel doubly validated now. :}

The one good thing I can say about Walker are the two words which often account for the best thing in most of Cox's films I've seen: Sy Richardson. Cox has a great feel for this extremely underused character actor who occasionally pops up in the damnedest places, like My Brother's Wedding -- near as I can tell, his finest work has been for Alex C. Any humanity obtaining among the agitproper straw wo/men in Walker comes from Richardson, and sadly not from the otherwise brilliant Harris' untenably broad caricature. I hear tell Richardson remains in excellent form in Cox's most recent post-Western, Searchers 2.0. The title itself seems kinda glib these many years past the freshness date of software-versioning-as-title, but I further hear tell this has more than a little of Cox trademark knowing punk absurdity, so who among us could miss it?


James Keepnews: "TS' work plays like the love -- or is that "hatefuck"? -- child of Woody Allen and E.M. Cioran"

I liked this bit in this column David Auerbach wrote on Cioran (URL at the bottom):

"Cioran paints himself into a nihilist's corner, offering no solutions, no hope, no happiness, and above all, no certainty. After tidily demolishing most major religions in a few pages, all he can do for an encore is attack materialists. After a while, Cioran's particular beef becomes less important than the overriding truth that it is wrong. More specifically, you are wrong, no matter what you believe. He picks himself as the first example, repeatedly looking in the mirror and going into conniptions over what he sees.

The only thing Cioran positively declares is a war on smugness. Unable to legitimate altruism and egalitarianism any more than fascism, he's happy enough to ensure that no one is ever again led around by their beliefs. Unfortunately, he includes himself in the enemies' list, and so his writings descend into an inextricable Gordian knot. He wants everyone to be as miserable as he, because he's scared of what will happen if everyone isn't. Despite all the intentional pointlessness of his efforts, you can't criticize Cioran for being puerile. With every indulgence into self-pity, Cioran gives a frightening example of what happens when conviction overcomes doubt: collaboration, oppression, and tyranny. The solitary good society is moved to doubt before all else; only then is it placed in check.

The same is true of his writings. Cioran intentionally antagonizes all who would seek to hold him up as thoughtful, mature, or worthwhile, because he does not want that respect. To him, it is poisonous, the seed of self-aggrandizing, self-propelling authority. And for those who have the conviction of their beliefs, and Cioran wants those with conviction in their beliefs accountable for them; that this precludes happiness is coincidental. But he phrases it in such an irritating manner that any such people would disregard him, because if they listened, he could not maintain his air of condescension. So Cioran excludes himself by minimizing himself: he writes a self-negating philosophical screed that will surely be ignored."

URL: http://www.yaleherald.com/archive/xxiii/3.6.97/opinion/freak.html

James Keepnews

"... a self-negating philosophical screed that will surely be ignored."

Huh! Did Cioran fuck David Auerbach's girlfriend, or something?

Wow, well, going deep on Cioran during a discussion of Todd Solondz' latest film is getting JUST A LITTLE off-topic, but that's on me, so...I don't disagree with some of what DA says, but that last sentence strikes me as a consummation devoutly to be wished by Davey and unlikely to be recognized by anyone else who appreciates the abject corrective Cioran's withering critiques have been, and can be in an age whose philosophical discourse is so jargon-laden and fatuously fabulist (I mean, "post-human"? We should live so long, and I'm sorry Cioran didn't so he could take a piece out of so risible a term).

Auerbach is quite right when he observes that the first (maybe, second) person E.M. points his finger at is himself, but wrong when he sees nothing worth elevating. "Unable to legitimate altruism and egalitarianism any more than fascism, he's happy enough to ensure that no one is ever again led around by their beliefs." -- Oh, really? Not St. John of the Cross or Teresa of Avila? Cioran's "Dealing with the Mystics" is a bracing, informed and thorough examination of his admiration of the great mystics true abjection with which he shares.

"After tidily demolishing most major religions in a few pages, all he can do for an encore is attack materialists."-- David is mistaken. As this essay was part of the overture, as it were, of Cioran's writing on the scene (viz. 1956's Temptation to Exist), I suppose he needed no encores with which to impress David Auerbach, very possibly others. Even as someone who has not read Cioran exhaustively, and loath as I am to keep slinging today's modifier-for-the-win here on SCR, Auerbach comes off slightly glib on this subject.

Here's Susan Sontag in her introduction to Temptation, re-published in Styles of Radical Will, resolutely unglib about the very essay discussed above: "Cioran's envy of the mystics, whose enterprise so resembles his — 'to find what escapes or survives the disintegration of his experiences: the residue of intemporality under the ego's vibrations' — is frank and unmistakable. Yet, like his master Nietzsche, Cioran remains nailed to the cross of an atheist spirituality. And his essays are, perhaps, best read as a manual of such an atheist spirituality."

Fuzzy Bastard

"abject corrective"?

James Keepnews

ab·ject (āb'jěkt', āb-jěkt')
1. Brought low in condition or status.

cor·rec·tive (kuh-rek-tiv)
tending to correct or rectify; remedial: corrective exercises.

a means of correcting; corrective agent.

Dan Coyle

James and Siren: These! Those! The Thing of it Is...

And James, I heartily agree on Sy Richardson. His cry of desperation at the end of Walker as the helicopter arrives is one of the best moments of the film, as his performance is excellent throughout. On the Criterion commentary, Cox cites a wordless scene with Richardson saying goodbye to one of his comrades (in the wake of Walker's decision to introduce slavery) as his favorite shot in the film, though he sheepishly admits Miguel Sandoval and the second unit guys shot it while he was working on another scene. It's also one of the few times on that commentary that Cox isn't insufferably smug (Wurlitzer, by contrast, is very thoughtful when Cox isn't talking over him).

Plus, he's friends with me on Facebook! ;-)

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