Happiness proved an early trial for the indie industry, dashing any fantasies that film studios moving into the acquisition, financing, and distribution of "small" films would value artistic merit or cultural cachet at the risk of damaging the larger brand and/or bottom line. Just over a decade later, the indie-film business is held aloft by tasteful crowd pleasers like Juno and The Kids Are All Right — "movies that would have been produced by studios in the old days," Solondz notes — while audience-agitating auteurs such as himself plug away on the margins. Though less aggressively provocative than its predecessor, Life During Wartime is being released into what may be a more hostile climate.
"Unfortunately, I don't think it's cyclical right now, what's going on," Solondz frets. "There's been a kind of shift that we have to figure how to contend with: The 20th century was defined by the movie as the pre-eminent touchstone of pop culture. It no longer is. You now have to compete with the Internet, you compete with the TV with a thousand channels, the DVR, the piracy. Most people don't wanna go out. I think the studio movies are doing well, [but] this 3-D thing seems out of desperation, like a replay of the '50s, like, 'My God, TV's coming!' The little movies, audiences, have dwindled. How many American filmmakers actually have careers outside of the studio system?"
Todd Solondz is one of the last audience-agitating auteurs.
Written and directed by Todd Solondz. Starring Allison Janney, Ally Sheedy, Shirley Henderson, Dylan Snyder, Ciarán Hinds, Charlotte Rampling, Michael Lerner, and Paul Reubens. Not rated. Opens Friday at the Lumiere.
Solondz himself has never taken a work-for-hire gig, or dabbled in TV, or directed a film he hasn't written. He pays the bills by teaching at NYU. "I never thought, in a million years, I would ever want to teach," he says. "Then I learned that they could give me a generous arrangement, and it could make my life much more manageable. It's strange, because they have a school in Singapore, so I teach there in the fall for six weeks and then I teach in the spring for 12 weeks in New York. Singapore is a lot like Boca Raton, Florida — only instead of the Jews, you've got the Chinese."
Speaking of Jews in Florida, faith plays a much more direct role in Wartime than it did in Happiness; with its ghosts crashing the physical world and plotlines dovetailing at a bar mitzvah, Solondz' latest feels, in some sense, like a companion piece to the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man. "In my head, the family was Jewish [in Happiness]," Solondz says. "Not Maplewood. Trish married a gentile. And look how she paid for it!"