Fear, Anxiety and Wiener-Dogs: Chasing the Bluebird of Happiness in the Films of Todd Solondz

Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke) in Todd Solondz's Wiener-Dog.

Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke) in Todd Solondz’s Wiener-Dog.

If happy little bluebirds fly
Beyond the rainbow,
Why, oh, why can’t I?

-‘Over the Rainbow’, as sung by Judy Garland (married five times, drinking problem, electroshock therapy for depression, dead from a drug overdose at 47)

Joyless suburban families. Mercilessly bullied schoolgirls. Strict Jewish parents. A panoply of paedophiles. Welcome to the Land of Todd. Unrequited gay crushes, cynical authority figures, unappreciated house servants, spoilt middle-class brats, college-obsessed nerds, bullying battleaxe teachers, unattainable ice queens, moody teenagers who tell their parents to “shut the fuck up”, desperate divorcees too old to marry again, suicide victims, phone perverts, crystal meth addicts, unappreciated children, failed writers, failed musicians, failed careers, failed lovers, failed marriages, failed families, failed everyone  the films of writer and director Todd Solondz are populated by the bowel-movements of our emotional lives, all the daily habits and reactions that we brush away and hide from public view, the rawness of the way people behave to each other when there’s no-one else watching. It is a world seldom seen in the sanitised, idealistic mainstream film-diet of effortless heroes, oh-so-popular protagonists, flawless beauty and always-reciprocated love.

For the best part of over twenty years now, Solondz has forged an uncompromising niche in American cinema with his refreshingly unflinching and unrelenting satire of modern middle America. Along the way he has almost nonchalantly explored some of the darker seams of human emotional behaviour, his films traipsing merrily into the “no-go areas” of social acceptability and flashing their genitals at the supposedly moral mores of affluent first-world life. And yet they often also provide us with intense flashes of human drama, genuinely affecting moments of poignancy, emotionally-resonating characters and some of the most delicious black humour since Kubrick.

Solondz’s scripts are linked to each other as much by their themes as by their recurring characters and situations: they are all explorations of despair and taboo, searches for meaning and reason, and above all, quests for the elusive state of “Happiness”. They centre around people who have been immersed in shallowness and insincerity for so long they are no longer sure of anything or anyone. And they occur in Suburbia, the mythical Land of Plenty foretold by the prophecies of modern commercial America, where Happiness is the hardest of all the feelings to find.

“In my family there are only winners and losers.”

If the disease of the past was hardship, poverty and sin, then the malaise of the present is ennui, emptiness and emotional unfulfilment. Solondz’s films pull the curtains away from Suburbia’s superficial comfort, mocking the façade of anodyne materialistic bliss that diverts attention from the flawed and emotionally ailing creatures that inhabit it. “Abe, I know life has been unfair to you because it has given you every possible advantage so your feelings of inadequacy are endless and unrelenting,” the drifting man-child protagonist of Dark Horse (2011) is told, as he restlessly upsets the comfortable, predictable and isolated life his parents have created for him. Without the immediate pressures of poverty to drown them out, the sounds of people’s emotional lives become deafening; they then obsess over the minutiae of each other’s behaviour as there is nothing else to fixate one.

When the absence of Happiness can no longer be blamed on economic pressures the characters are forced to confront the fact that it is they themselves who deny each other joy and fulfilment. If Happiness is hard to find it is because everybody is forced to chase other people’s definitions of what should make them whole: the jobs they’re supposed to do, the people they’re supposed to have relationships with, the way they should behave, the direction their lives should take. In the middle-class hell of Storytelling (2001), teenage dreamer Scooby is definitely doing his exams and definitely going to college whether he likes it or not: “Don’t screw around with me, you know what I’m talking about. You’re taking those SATs. You’re taking those SATs or your CD collection’s history. You’re taking those SATs and you’re going to college. You’re taking those SATs if I have to strap your ass to a chair, but buddy, you’re taking them!” his irate father yells at him, inches away from his face.

Suburbanite satires like Dark Horse, Storytelling, and Solondz’s breakout film Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995) attempt to reconcile the cold logical requirements of the modern first world with the emotional vulnerabilities of the people stuck inside it. Solondz’s characters are aliens in an unforgivingly secular and rational world, all thrown about at the whim of uncontrollable forces all around them and yet all seeking the same thing spiritual solace, a meaning above the material, a purpose beyond the cruel programme of school, college, career, popularity, prosperity and death, and most of all the ever-elusive state of Happiness. This produces the greatest absurdity at the heart of Suburbia: that a society of people seeking the same thing can form a society of people that denies them exactly that.

The smallness of these worlds, and the ripples their conflicts create is a recurring feature of Solondz’s films; hardly an encounter happens that doesn’t have subsidiary effects on almost all the other characters in the film. This leads to another conundrum: to be alone is to be unhappy, but to be ensconced in a life full of people is to have your own pursuit of Happiness dashed by the reverberations of everyone else’s flaws. “People should just face their problems head on,” says Abe in Dark Horse. “Face the truth: We’re all horrible people… humanity’s a fucking cesspool…. And if there‘s any kindness or generosity, it only comes after being well fed  or having ‘good sex’ or knowing that you weren’t wiped out like all the other suckers on Wall Street.”

The most powerful realisation of this send-up of Suburbia is the bleak prospect that, in our society, this is as good as it gets. This is supposed to be the dream: affluent neighbourhoods, stable incomes, luxurious homes richly filled with the war-trophies of materialism, predictably married with children, college looming for the older ones, hired help around the house and the freedom to devote oneself to obsessing over the little things. That the Nirvana at the end of the capitalist dream simply turns out to be well-furnished misery leads one to the bleak conclusion that you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t Happiness is no more present here in the sanitised limbo of middle-class life than in the wretched lives of the people who have yet to attain it, and who suffer to keep Suburbia saintly, as seen in the conversation between 11-year-old Mikey and his family‘s overworked maid in Storytelling:

“But, Consuelo, even though your poor, don’t you have any hobbies or interests or anything?”

“No, Mikey.”

“But like, what do you like to do when you’re not working?”

“I’m always working.”

“But when you’re not. Like now. What do you like to do?”

“This is work.”

“But it’s not like real work. This is just babysitting.”

(Consuelo stares hard at him in silence)

“You know, your job’s really not so bad, if you think about it. You should smile more often.”

“Dad… What does ‘cum’ mean?”

In the obviously ironically-titled Happiness (1998), an ensemble of faulty people cluelessly attempt to navigate the bleak ocean of existence in search of the film’s title, in equal measure hurting and being hurt by others, simultaneously being as offensive as they are vulnerable. Office loser Allen longs for the sexual affections of his indifferent and unattainable neighbour, while himself being dead to the tender advances of his less attractive neighbour Katrina; he consoles himself by making perverted phone calls to unsuspecting women instead. Mild-mannered Dr Maplewood lives in stable but sterile suburban bliss, but secretly fantasizes about shooting sprees and masturbates to pre-teen magazines. Joy naively hopes the smooth-talking but womanising Russian immigrant she teaches English to will bring her the comfort she seeks after her last suitor committed suicide. All manner of taboos are broached along the way, but are made presentable thanks to the accuracy of the satire and the irresistibility of the pitch-dark humour.

It’s worth setting out from the beginning that Solondz isn’t simply out to gratuitously shock his audience: instead he is a filmmaker who merely operates without the usual commercial taste-filter that screens out the ugly, the unusual, the unpopular, the unmentionable and the embarrassing from the films that make it to the outside world. Like a kind of inverse censor he restores the indecency endemic to human life, making his films strangely realer than most of what you see in the cinema.

Solondz’s method of challenging taboo is simply to present it, unashamedly and openly, and allow the reasoning of the audience to impart their own sense of absurdity to it. Taboos are recognised to be ridiculous if everyone has knowledge of them (in many cases, first-hand); they cease to be scandalous unmentionables and simply become open secrets that everyone knows about but pretends not to.

Like lowering yourself into a hot bath we become acclimatised to the taboo surprisingly quickly once we are immersed in it; from then on we recognise the absurdity of concealing these issues in everyday life. We read of cases of grooming and paedophilia everyday, but do we understand what a paedophile is? Why is discussing abortion a taboo even when we live in a country where it is legalised? Should a character’s crystal meth habit be hidden, even when there’s a growing addiction problem in America? Should we be uncomfortable with depictions of suicide, sexual perversion, drug taking, gay blowjobs and old people having sex, when they all occur every day?

The use of dark humour and pathos allow this exploration of taboo to not overwhelm the viewer. Solondz of course isn’t the only director to use humour to explore edgy subjects, but the black, unfortunate comedy lends his underdog characters a particular pathos that is hard to come by in more serious films. “How many more times can I be born again?!” wails Al in Palindromes (2004), who is in a sexual relationship with a 12-year-old girl who wants to have a baby while on his way to murder an abortionist at the behest of his fanatically Christian friends. Despite his being guilty of one of our society’s most despicable crimes, Al’s portrayal as a lost, nervous and bewildered soul invites our empathy and invites reanalysis. Like all Solondz’s monsters he is not portrayed as sinister, but just as an imperfect, malfunctioning human.

These characters are of course utterly wrong, destructive, anti-social and immoral, but not without stories of their own. Solondz assures us that understanding someone is not the same as letting them off the hook: “People can’t help it if they’re monsters,” says the convicted paedophile, freshly released from prison, in Life During Wartime (2009). “They can’t be forgiven either,” replies the woman blamed by her children for the suicide of their father.

If we are shocked at Solondz’s dirty creatures, it is because we realise that we all know of these taboos but have never seen them dissected on screen before. In the rush for ticket sales and marketing, and with a reliance on the ever-prurient minds of the lucrative young male market, decades of mainstream films have simply dwelled on the core Christian taboos in their most basic, robotic forms mainly sex (in all its forms) and nudity (mostly female), maybe with some violence thrown in  in an effort to cheaply shock and shallowly titillate, and without any deeper exploration.

But today’s society can no longer be stirred or shaken by the sight of an uncovered vagina. The token sex scenes and HD nudity used to stir up repeat viewings on today’s screens are at best trite attempts at artistic profundity, at worst cheap notoriety; all are boring non-statements in the age of streamable hardcore porn. But the scene in Happiness where a father sits down and attempts to explain his paedophiliac urges to his young son drops our jaws to the floor, and all without full-frontal. Emotional taboo is still risqué.   

Then there are the taboo people. The obese, the disabled, people with Down syndrome, people with speech impediments, cerebral palsy sufferers, albinos, child cancer patients, Hepatitis cases all present and correct, and in the foreground of Solondz films. Of course, mainstream art’s response to these very real people is to omit them entirely, maintaining radio silence on the people deemed too embarrassing or too pathetic to view (after all, in the first world, empathy is such an awfully exhausting endeavour). Yet for all the black humour these aren’t Tod Browning’s Freaks but Todd Solondz’s angels, allowed to collect an emotional depth of their own, instead of the polite pity they are usually fobbed off with. The married couple with Down syndrome in his latest film Wiener-Dog (2016) might cop a couple of jokes along the way, but the fact that such a couple can be portrayed in a film at all, let alone actually as functioning, autonomous people with their own emotional understanding, blows away any guilt you might have over chuckling at the moment when the DS wife, on being told she may keep the wiener-dog she’s enjoyed playing with, exclaims “I always wanted… a leash!”.

Solondz earns himself R-rated certificates not from the odd swearword or the briefest glimpse of nipple, but from examining a whole host of topics which are inexplicably deemed taboo despite their prevalence in the modern consciousness. Add to this Hollywood’s Pavlovian aversion to any storyline that doesn’t involve gimmicks, predictability or beautiful people and you have a host of characters who are bizarre and grotesque, but also familiar and, ironically, quite normal.

“Yeah well, Mikey? Listen up ‘cos here’s a lesson: Life’s… Not… Fair.”

“Why do people have to be so ugly? You write about such ugly characters, it’s perverted. I know you all think I’m being prissy but I don’t care, I was brought up in a certain way and this is mean-spirited,” says a member of Vi’s literary class in Storytelling, in a tongue-in-cheek reference to Solondz’s own work and the moral outrage and stuffy criticism that often accompanies it. Ugly his characters are, but therein lies their resonance with the clearly ugly and unfair world of seemingly happy couples getting divorced, sexual infatuation not being reciprocated, paedophiles being arrested, naïve women being taken advantage of, fat people being rejected, depressed  people killing themselves, rape victims not being believed.

Satire can’t be too happy, or else it loses its power. Satire operates out of a feeling of empathy at some level, an outrage at the unjust, a moral concern that is negated if all the characters skip off into the sunset whistling. Solondz’s characters are emotionally pummelled without respite, stuck in the eternal torment of false middle-America, a Bosch-landscape of emotionally atrophied families, yoga classes, chronic loneliness, ballet lessons, neurotic angst and four-wheel drive SUVs, a kind of Hell With Bespoke Furniture. That we can laugh at them is not because we are callous, but because we realise the ridiculousness of this shallow and insincere society that we have made for ourselves.

But what of Happiness? With lives of constant torment, the rare moments of solace Solondz’s characters find shine on in the memory: the bullied schoolgirl Dawn finding her first kiss with her former tormentor Brandon in Dollhouse, Dark Horse’s life-wasting under-achiever Abe getting a call back from a girl he is interested in, runaway Aviva finding friendship among the other spurned children at Mama Sunshines’s in Palindromes, the emotionally isolated little boy Remi playing with blissful abandon with his new pet in Wiener-Dog (the titular animal being surely the very embodiment of such moments of solace).

These rare breathers are glimpses of the scarce Happiness that Solondz’s characters yearn for. But, mercilessly true to life, these moments are few and fleeting; the verisimilitude of Solondz’s films stems from their acknowledgement of fate’s inexhaustible capacity to obliterate Happiness, to consistently disappoint, destroy, disillusion and generally ruin the fun.

The conclusion is that Happiness is ultimately unattainable, and that any successful discovery of it will be quickly punished with the worst fate, like a kind of karmic snakes-and-ladders game. It is a futile endeavour, but one we all feel compelled to chase; we do not know exactly what Happiness is or what it looks like, but we know what it isn’t the empty materialism of the suburbs, sad orgasms, the wasteland of insincerity that make up human interactions in the first world, short-lived and anti-climactic desires, the infinite supply of failures and disappointments that characterise a modern life where you are constantly tested and graded for acceptability.

Whether this depiction of the world, expounded over the director’s entire oeuvre, is wholly accurate is up for debate. Treading the same path so determinedly, the director runs the risk of falling into the same trap that soap operas do that is, presenting a world so reliably unfair, with the characters always being doomed every which way, that the audience senses the fantasy and becomes detached. It would be a great shame if Solondz’s films were simply to become Melrose Place with paedo jokes.

With the same themes and settings, indeed many of the same characters appearing in each of his films there is perhaps also a little merit in the criticism of sameness in Solondz’s work; it calls to mind Nabokov’s famous put-down of Dostoevsky and “his monotonous dealings with people suffering with pre-Freudian complexes, the way he has of wallowing in the tragic adventures of human indignity”. Ironically, this is also the director’s strength, and the source of our fascination with his work. The best rebuttal therefore, is probably to recognise his films as a necessary part of the cinematic ecosystem processing the untouchable waste, and turning mulch into nutrients again so that the environment as a whole can remain healthy and sane.

About Joe Morby

Joe Morby is a freelance writer living in Berkshire, England. He usually writes boring political articles, but will get round to writing a novel one of these days.

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