Todd Solondz on growing up, or not

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Simon Abrams

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It’s weirdly fitting that my recent phone interview with Todd Solondz began with a disappointing revelation and ended with an uplifting joke at my expense. Solondz, the writer and director of simultaneously provocative and deeply immersive black comedies like Happiness and Storytelling, has a new film out this week called Dark Horse. And for me, watching Solondz’s latest film was a pretty traumatizing experience.

Dark Horse follows a character named Abe (Jordan Gelber), a spoiled, thirty-something arrested adolescent who still lives with his parents (Mia Farrow and Chirstopher Walken). Abe’s nightmarish self-absorption and inability to start a life away from home makes him pretty identifiable. He’s a self-fashioned big fish in a small pond who can't wait to leave his past behind him.

Part of the reason Dark Horse moved me as deeply as it did is because I actually came of age in Abe’s world. He’s shown eating with his father’s secretary Marie (Donna Murphy) at the Scobee Dinner in Douglaston, Queens, a mainstay of my childhood. (In real life, the Scobee Diner has been closed for a year and a half now.) And the building where Abe works with his father is an office building in Roslyn, Long Island, the village where my grandmother lives.

But as Solondz told me, Dark Horse isn’t specifically about the limbo-like border area between Queens and Long Island where I grew up. In fact, the film was apparently supposed to be shot in Solondz’s native New Jersey: “We could only get a tax break in New York,” he said.

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Solondz said that Abe’s “pathological” mentality was almost universal and is common to “any prosperous, secular Western country. In Japan, they have a word called, ‘otaku.’ Years ago, I visited Tokyo and they explained that usually it happens to a male. He lives in his room with his video games and DVDs and so forth and is absorbed by that all day. He never leaves his room and his mom will come and leave a tray [of food] in the morning and come pick it up after breakfast, and then leave another tray. And he would never actually leave his room. It’s actually an even more pathological condition.”

Abe’s dangerous naiveté is also what makes him such a complex character. All of Abe’s habits are “pathologically” related, from his obsessively maintained action-figure collection to his prickly affection for his parents to his dual relationships with the domineering Marie and the sickly Miranda (Selma Blair).

“For me,” Solondz said, “what I found compelling is the way that that is guy in this 30s is still living in his junior high school bedroom and is still clinging to his youth and that sense of hope that defines youth. And there’s something poignant and even painful about that. The music, which is supposed to be a kind of 'American Idol'-inspired soundtrack: that is both a counterpoint and underscoring of his plight.”

I asked Solondz to expand a little on what that kind of youthful optimism entails, and if it’s the direct cause of Abe’s delusional sense of agnosticism. (It seems like a higher power is out to get him throughout the film, but, then again, Dark Horse is largely set in Abe’s head.)

Solondz’s reply was typically scathing, if still fairly ambiguous: “[Abe] is trapped and it is a secular form of Judaism in that it’s just another product, just another Hebrew-lettered Coca Cola sign, just another collectible to prop himself up. When people collect, there’s a point where they’re no longer own the collection, the collection owns them. He’s kind of an Exhibit A of that.”

“There’s a reversal to all of this,” he said. “The more he boasts, the more he exposes his own sense of insecurity, his own neediness, his own desperation to overcome his condition. Is it cowardice, is it bravery or is it a kind of self-prophetic gesture of failure when he proposes to Selma in the first place? Is it love or is it despair? What makes him compelling to me is that he isn’t static.

“He isn’t trying to escape his condition, he’s trying to attach himself with Miranda and he struggles to grow up. And as you know, it doesn’t matter your age, your chronological age. It takes a long time for many people, if ever, to grow up. And in the end, it’s too late for him, even as he finds it within himself to accept her for who she is.”

That fatalistic irony comes from what Solondz’s critics typically dismiss as sheer misanthropy on his part. But Solondz’s idiosyncratic style of tragicomic caricaturing is never as one-dimensional as that implies.

“For me, what’s compelling isn’t how much of him changes or grows, because I think much of him is swallowed up in his own pathology,” Solondz said. “But for me, it’s important that audience members’ understanding of [Abe] changes. Here’s a character that’s very off-putting, very obnoxious and it’s a challenge to the audience: To what extent can we extend our sympathies to this person? And yet, I do.”

“I find that there’s something very poignant about seeing him walk silently to his bedroom while his parents are watching ‘Seinfeld,’” Solondz told me. “And the more we understand his inner life, his emotional pain that he struggles with, that to me is what makes him compelling. It’s getting beyond the comic surface of his abrasiveness.”

That “abrasiveness” is almost like a Solondzian signature at this point however, to the point that it’s difficult to see anyone being moved by Dark Horse who isn’t already susceptible to the particular charms of Solondz’s jarring sensibility.

Our interview concluded with Solondz congratulating me for having survived my adolescence. I would have considered that to be a putdown coming from almost anyone else. But from Solondz, I believe, it’s a serious commendation.