Film Club: ‘Life During Wartime’
Sort of Sequel to ‘Happiness’
Tuesday, August 17, 2010
On the August Edition of the KPBS Film Club of the Air host Maureen Cavanaugh and film critics Beth Accomando, Anders Wright, and Scott Marks discuss "Life During Wartime."
You can listen to our KPBS Film Club of the Air discussion about Todd Solondz' "Life During Wartime" (opened at Landmark's Ken Cinema on August 13), a kind of sequel to his earlier "Happiness."
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. Joining me for the KPBS Film Club of the Air are Beth Accomando, KPBS film critic and author of the blog Cinema Junkie. Scott Marks is the author of the film blog emulsioncompulsion.com. And Anders Wright is the film critic for San Diego CityBeat. Let us move now to “Life During Wartime.” It’s a kind of a sequel to Todd Solondz’s dark comedy “Happiness.” We meet the Jordan family ten years after the three sisters, Joy, Trish and Helen, had to contend with shocking revelations of pedophilia, suicide, sexual aberration and murder. But despite efforts at a fresh start with new men, new directions and new locales, the past haunts this family, sometimes literally. Anders, Todd Solondz has a very particular approach and voice in filmmaking. How would you describe his work as a director?
ANDERS WRIGHT (film critic, City Beat): Oh, God, I mean, it’s – that’s a – that’s challenging. But I guess I would say that when I look at his work, I basically feel as though what he’s trying to say is that every sort of average, ordinary life has something underneath it that the rest of us don’t see. His characters deal with things that are generally much bigger than what most of us deal with. As you said, like there’s pedophilia, there’s, you know, there’s really like hyper-sexual perversion, there’s, you know, dirty phone calls, there’s – there’s everything to it and it’s just below the surface. And all of his movies have been like that. And I – I think what he’s generally trying to say is that when you look at most people’s lives on the surface, you sort of get a sense of like, okay, everyone’s normal. But I think we all know that everyone’s life, you know, outside of the service is something that is different and unique than what the, you know, what everyone else sees. You know, every family’s dysfunctional, everyone is screwed up. I – That’s personally what I think, and I think he’s saying the same thing. At the same time, he goes much, much further with it in terms of what his characters are dealing with. And it’s really hard stuff to watch sometimes. Often, it’s very well acted. Sometimes it’s very well written. I didn’t think this film was particularly well directed at all but, yeah, I mean, what do you guys thing? I mean…
CAVANAUGH: Well, Beth…
BETH ACCOMANDO (film critic, KPBS): Yeah?
CAVANAUGH: …I wanted to ask you, you know, a lot has been made of the fact that there are lots of cringe-y scenes in Todd Solondz’s movie and in this movie, in particular, “Life During Wartime.” How would you describe that to someone who has perhaps not seen these movies?
ACCOMANDO: Well, I found there were less cringing moments in this one than in “Happiness” because this felt more to be about the aftermath kind of some of the more difficult things that were dealt with in “Happiness.” I mean, I think if you’ve never seen one of his films before, I mean, coming into them he creates something that is sort of – there’s a lot of artifice to his world. There’s – The people don’t talk like you would really talk in real life. But I think if you give it a chance and you let yourself fall into that world, it creates a reality of its own but it does, when you first watch it or you turn on one of his films and watch the first couple of scenes, there is this point of which you feel very put-off and distanced from it because these people feel a bit stilted or a bit artificial and their – the way they speak seems, you know, to have a lot of art…
WRIGHT: It’s not real.
ACCOMANDO: …it’s not real but once it gets going it creates its own reality and sticks to it. I mean, I’m willing to give films quite a lot in terms of a leap of faith so long as they, once they set up the rules and dynamics of their world, they stay to it, and I think he does. So I think it – he’s an acquired taste and I think what probably makes people most uncomfortable is not kind of the discomfort of some of the things he deals with but the fact that there are times when he can find humor in it as well because I think that’s – a lot of people find that very jarring, that you can have a film about pedophilia and still have jokes or humor within that context, can make people uncomfortable.
CAVANAUGH: Well, Todd, have you – I mean, Scott…
SCOTT MARKS (film critic, Emulsion Compulsion): Oh, gee, thanks, Maureen. Thanks.
CAVANAUGH: Scott, have you acquired a taste…
MARKS: Todd, because I haven’t been on this show long enough?
CAVANAUGH: Scott, have you acquired a taste for Todd Solondz?
MARKS: Absolutely not. I think this guy is a hack. This man has no conception how to structure his narrative. He is a terrible filmmaker. 40% of this film are reverse angles of people eating dinner and just talking. I find that so boring. I think he’s mean-spirited yet you would nev – Oh, come on. Who’s the guy that plays the Philip Seymour Hoffman character?
WRIGHT: Is it Michael Kenneth Williams?
MARKS: …they pick a black guy to play Philip Seymour Hoffman, now that’s suspension of disbelief. And what’s the first thing he says? I smoke crack. He has this whole big revelation. So since he’s black, we can make fun of the fact. We can take all the stereotypical things about blacks and put this into a little speech. I think Kevin Smith goofs on this guy. I think this guy is one of the worst filmmakers working today. And I think that this is just an abomination of cinema. This guy has spent a career wanting to be two things: Woody Allen and John Waters. He’s nowhere near a good enough writer to be Woody Allen and he’s not sick enough to be John Waters. He would never put into his film what John Waters did in the pre-code stuff. See his first film, “Fear, Anxiety & Depression.” He stars in it. Horrifying. I mean, it’s just – he wants to be Woody Allen. I mean, it’s down to the mannerisms, down to the vocal inflections, the dialogue. I just think that this guy has nothing to say. And this whole gimmick of – in “Palindromes,” what was there, eight women playing one character.
ACCOMANDO: I don’t know if there was eight but, yeah, multiple.
MARKS: And then you have all the characters from “Happiness” now being played by different actors. At first I thought that this was a tribute to Buñuel’s “Obscure Object of Desire,” but in an interview with Todd Solondz he referenced the two Darrins in “Bewitched.” And, you know something, in Todd Solondz’s case, that makes a hell of a lot more sense to me than Buñuel.
WRIGHT: I mean, to me, the idea of, in both of those films, taking different actors to play the same parts, I mean, there’s something – If you take a step back, I think that’s an interesting idea. You’re really – I think what he’s really trying to say is that there’s something interchangeable about people and their problems and the things they deal with, but I don’t like the way he necessarily says it.
MARKS: It comes off as a gimmick and that’s my problem with him. This is his idea of originality and it’s just a gimmick. It’s a tacked-on gimmick. And I like a lot of people in this film.
CAVANAUGH: Yeah, tell us…
MARKS: Man, it’s great…
MARKS: …to see Paul Reubens.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s talk about the performances.
MARKS: Man, is it good seeing Paul Reubens there.
CAVANAUGH: Yeah, Paul Reubens…
MARKS: He is just outstanding in this movie.
CAVANAUGH: …is in the movie. Who else did you like? Who else – what other performances, Beth?
ACCOMANDO: Well, I mean, I thought it was interesting the change from in “Happiness” the pedophile’s played by Dylan Baker, who’s this very kind of William H. Macy kind of looking – Well, he is – I mean, he’s…
WRIGHT: Yeah, yeah.
ACCOMANDO: …this very kind of square-jaw, very typical All-American…
MARKS: He makes William Macy look like Stallone, you know.
ACCOMANDO: Yeah, but in that film it was his kind of very unremarkableness and his ordinariness and his kind of All-American lookingness that made it so, I guess, I don’t know if you want to say uncomfortable or disturbing that he turns out to be the pedophile. And it’s that notion of, you know, when someone like that gets arrested people say like, oh, but he seemed like such a nice guy. But in this film, the character’s played by Ciarán Hands (sic), who has – who gives…
MARKS: (phonetically) Kieran.
ACCOMANDO: Ciarán, has a different kind of spin on that character and he seems – he seems a little more menacing and he seems – so I thought it was an interesting change in terms of the actors, in terms of not really finding someone who was the same to – in terms of tone and…
MARKS: But is this the way he would be if he had spent years as a pedophile and hardened – you know, doing hard time in prison?
ACCOMANDO: Could be.
MARKS: I mean, is that what Solondz was trying to say?
WRIGHT: Well, I think that’s sort of the idea. I mean, the idea is that these are all the same people…
WRIGHT: …actors notwithstanding. The idea is that it’s the same people trying to pick up their lives ten years later. You know who – who I was – I mean, Allison Janney’s always great, too. She’s fun to see, and is it…
MARKS: I disagree with that. I think she – I am so tired of her schtick and this movie, it’s just one after another. It’s the same old, same old. She…
WRIGHT: Is it Michael Lerner, though? Who – who’s the…
CAVANAUGH: Yes. Michael Lerner as her lover.
MARKS: Michael Lerner.
WRIGHT: Michael Lerner and you love seeing him in anything and I guarantee you he never thought he was going to be having a sex scene at this stage of his career.
CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you all a question, though. There seems to be a theme in this movie about forgiveness and when someone can qualify for forgiveness and when someone grants forgiveness. Did that interest any of you watching this movie?
MARKS: I saw it in the production notes and, honest to God, I don’t see it in the movie.
ACCOMANDO: Oh, no, it’s in the movie. You may not like it, but it’s definitely in the movie. I mean, they raise a…
MARKS: But it’s – I don’t like the way it’s woven into the film.
ACCOMANDO: Okay, but it’s there.
MARKS: It’s so heavy-handed.
ACCOMANDO: But it’s definitely there.
ACCOMANDO: But, I mean, I think it does raise interesting questions about forgiveness because if you start with forgiveness just on the simple level of, oh, like if I slapped you across the face, would you forgive me? Well, yeah, you know, no big deal. And then the son, the kid who’s writing his bar mitzvah speech, you know, he says, well, like what about terrorists and what about pedophiles? And so it does start to raise questions about, you know, what do you really mean by forgiveness and how much do you forgive and do…
WRIGHT: And how much can you forgive?
ACCOMANDO: Yeah, how much can you forgive and does forgiveness mean condoning what somebody’s done or condemning it and still forgiving it? So, I mean, I think it does raise interesting questions.
MARKS: Did you really believe that Allison Janney would come home after that date and describe in lurid, graphic detail how she – how aroused she was to a 12-year-old son? Oh, come on.
WRIGHT: But that’s Todd Solondz’s world.
ACCOMANDO: That’s part of – Yeah, that’s…
MARKS: You know something? Then pull us into it and not – don’t do it in a way that’s so obvious and it just – it doesn’t work. It didn’t click. There was nothing real about that.
WRIGHT: I – At the same time, I mean, that’s what he does. He creates these worlds where people do crazy stuff like that.
ACCOMANDO: Oh, yeah. And especially in terms of dealing with things like sex and – and things that would normally be kind of taboo subjects. I mean, if you go back to “Happiness,” there’s the scene where Dylan Baker and his son talk about what it is that he’s done and that was pretty graphic and explicit and I think it worked well. I mean…
MARKS: “L.I.E.” and “Twelve and Holding,” they’ve made great films about pedophilia that are very, very funny…
ACCOMANDO: “Mysterious Skin” is better.
MARKS: Well, and that, too.
MARKS: Anything, yeah, those three are much better than anything Todd Solondz’s done.
CAVANAUGH: Well, you can move into Todd Solondz’s world and see if you like it. “Life During Wartime” is currently playing at Landmark’s Ken Cinema. It’s also currently On Demand.
WRIGHT: I would suggest actually, just to jump in, that if you are going to see it, see the first one – See “Happiness” first because…
MARKS: Yeah, you would almost have to.
WRIGHT: …because part of…
ACCOMANDO: Yeah, it does…
WRIGHT: …a big part of this movie is what he’s trying to do ten years later with the same characters…
WRIGHT: …and the same actors.
CAVANAUGH: Good suggestion.
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