IU Cinema continued its mind-boggling (and seemingly endless?) series of visits by world-class film directors with an appearance by Todd Solondz (director of Happiness, Welcome to the Doll House, Palindromes) this week. I missed the afternoon interview, but we made it to the evening showing of his most recent film Dark Horse followed by a Q&A by Solondz.
Solondz is a little older than I’d thought (53) — turns out he was 36 when his breakthrough film Welcome to the Doll House was released. He grew up in New Jersey (and has an almost Gilbert Gottfried-esque accent), raised non-observant Jewish, but attended a Yeshiva school for a while as a kid, and then attended Yale as an undergrad. He was very engaging in the Q&A, thoughtful and generous in his responses.
A few observations/facts-
- I had been planning to ask him about the Seinfeld references in Dark Horse, but someone else beat me to it and Solondz confirmed that he viewed the film’s protagonist, Abe, as a “tragic George Constanza” figure. Abe is a Long Island Jewish schlub in his mid-30s who lives with his parents, played by Mia Farrow and Christopher Walken (!), who are continually watching Seinfeld reruns when Abe sullenly walks past them to his childhood bedroom. Fascinating fact: Sonoldz said that rights to any Seinfeld clips were totally unaffordable, and so Jerry Stiller and Estelle Harris (who play George Costanza’s parents) agreed to come in and record some new dialogue for Solondz. It had actually occurred to me that none of the dialogue rang a bell at all, but I’d assumed it was from episodes I’d missed or forgotten.
- Along similar lines, the scenes in Toys R Us were actually filmed in a Latin American alternate-universe big box store in, I think it was, the Dominican Republic. In an early scene, Abe marches into the store in high dudgeon to return a superhero toy that he says he discovered was scratched once he opened the package. (As part of his man-child schlub identity, he collects toys.) We see him in the parking lot with the letters of the big recognizable “Toys R Us” sign obscured but almost-visible on screen, which struck me immediately as a reference or else simply a parallel to the famous censored sex scene in Storytelling which Solondz released with a large red square blocking out the scene. Someone asked him about the sign and he said that, as with Seinfeld, they couldn’t afford or secure the rights to Toys R Us, which created a serious problem for the movie, since there was no practical way to create a duplicate non-proprietary version of the store. Finally through a Latin American contact they learned about this store in the Dominican Republic that would allow them to shoot there.
- And along similar lines once again, the movie has a very funny soundtrack that sounds like recent teen-pop/ top-40/ American Idol-esque songs that you can’t quite place; it turns out that they are all in effect would-be imitation American Idol-top 40 songs by unknown singers that Solondz found on demo tapes or something. As with the fake Seinfeld dialogue and the Dominican Toys R Us, this can be understood at once as thrifty/resourceful film-making, making a virtue of necessity, and also a slightly-disconcerting construction of a phony/imitation/shadow version of mainstream American entertainment reality. That is, in all these instances, the mainstream or recognizable “successful” pop culture item is at once cited and referenced and also effaced, like the Toys R Us sign. It creates something like a “under erasure” effect, e.g.
Toys R Us.
- Abe returning, or trying to return, the toy to Toys R Us is a running joke/thread throughout the movie– the motif recurs at the movie’s end when Abe, having come out of a two-months long coma, asks his girlfriend/fiance Miranda to take the receipt to return the toy. I’d recently listened to some of a recent Mark Moran interview podcast in which Solondz observes that each one of his movies has “done about half the box office of the one before it,” with Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995) the commercial peak ($4,569,019) and Dark Horse (2011) the low ($166,000 according to Box Office Mojo, e.g. almost unwatched). Having that comment in mind, the movie struck as as somewhat obsessed with its own status as a failed, low-performing, or unwanted commodity. The film’s phony Toys R Us looks very much like a generic mall cineplex theater– which of course is simply reality: you go to the mall and walk into the same kind of ugly big-box structure whether you want to buy a Barbie or go see the new Transformers movie, or buy that movie as a DVD. Abe has the collected Simpsons DVD collection on a shelf in his bedroom; Dark Horse struck me as clearly thinking about how it, or any “small”/independent movie, fits into this world in which a film is primarily valued according to its marketability as a consumable commodity or a monetizable income stream. Is Dark Horse the equivalent of a defective toy that a consumer does not want? Or, more positively, is it more like a prestigious niche-market item, one of those that Abe shops for on EBay, not for the mass consumer but desired by a more specialized audience? I asked Solondz about this in the Q&A, and although he said he hadn’t been thinking of this theme in the Toys R Us scene — he wasn’t “going meta” intentionally — he then riffed interestingly for a bit about his thoughts about the commodification of films; he mentioned that he was old enough to have grown up before the proliferation of VCRs and DVDs and that he still to this day “does not watch DVDs for fun” (which struck me as surprising for a filmmaker).
I recommend Dark Horse; I started to feel a little impatient with it in its first half, when it feels like a more conventional, albeit ironic, take on the Apatow “man-child” film genre, but then the movie goes off in various weird, less-realist (almost Mulholland Drive-esque) directions that make it much more interesting than it seems at first. Donna Murphy is brilliant as the dual-faceted Marie, who is alternately/either the frumpy secretary-administrator at the office where Abe works, or a vampy seductress/cougar.