Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Dirty Black Summer

There are two kinds of movies I go to see: first, there're the latest releases of my favorite directors and secondly, there's everything else. Right now my favorite working filmmakers are Todd Solondz, Steve McQueen, Claire Denis, Luc & Jean-Pierre Dardenne, and Harmony Korine; and my favorite director is David Fincher.

When I go to see a new movie by one of my favorite filmmakers my response is wholly esoteric. I view the film through the lens of auteur criticism. I place the film within the context of the director's entire oeuvre. I project what I believe is the director's identity somewhere, engulfing what is most vital and worthwhile in the work. And then, I look for what's most pertinent and topical current society, and what's most pertinent and topical to my own current state of being in life in general.

Todd Solondz has not only been my favorite filmmaker for the longest--14 years counting back to a vhs of Welcome to the Dollhouse (1996, Todd Solondz) I copped while still in high school--but, I've also found every film he's completed to date to be a masterpiece. 1998 was a watershed year for the development of my critical taste in films because it's the year I saw my first Woody Allen movie in a theatre, and quickly built on this fancy by seeking out other movies released theatrically at the time that amounted to what I found to be classy adult highbrow melodrama like, Your Friends & Neighbors (1998, Neil LaBute) and The Last Days of Disco (1998, Whit Stillman). These types of films are still the closest model to what I am aiming to make with my own films.

Todd Solondz is the new Woody Allen. Of course, despite the fact that Woody Allen is still alive and making movies. The new Woody Allen movie was actually playing in the same theatre last week when I went to go see Dark Horse (2011, Solondz).


Palindromes (2005, Solondz) marks a shift in Todd Solondz trajectory. It provides a coda for his first three films in the way its multi-actored-single-protagonist device turns the movie into a surrealist work. Before Palindromes, Solondz would puncture the prosaic world of his Jersey misanthropes with a single surreal shocker scene. I like to think of the first three Solondz movies as, to appropriate the label thrown at Woody Allen, "his early funny ones." I find Solondz to have matured after Palindromes, which is why Dark Horse came as no disappointment.

To get the Woody Allen comparisons over and done with, one final note about the parents of Abe (Jordan Gelber) is that the actors portraying them are both remnants from an earlier time in Allen's career. Christopher Walken is practically a Solondz prototype playing Annie Hall's brother in Annie Hall (1977, Woody Allen) and Mia Farrow starred in 12 films directed by Allen.

Abe's parents are the most adorable, cuddly, even stylish 65+ year olds I can think of. Farrow's glasses and pastel accented outfits are youthful in a way that didn't seem ironically ridiculous.

Something that recurs throughout the films of Solondz is the dilemma whereby his characters are incapable of attaining happiness, yet in ways that don't seem to be worthy of our genuine empathy. Solondz shows us how feeble we are and makes us feel guilty over having the nerve to express feelings of forlorn emptiness.

Dark Horse is also Solondz first foray into genuine surrealism. Not here and there, but as a whole Dark Horse places the viewer in unknowable states of subjectivism throughout the narrative. Who's view are we seeing this through? Is part of this imagined or a dream? Is all of it?

Surrealism has never had a more adequate form to support. Solondz is still in New Jersey and still concerned with an upper-middle class Jewish family. One of the most glaring tonal contrasts comes from Abe's chirpy demeanor in the face of his comically pathetic future. He's even challenged a few times by this when characters ask if it's ironic or not.

Dark Horse is intimate and engaging with the tiny little corner of the world it depicts. Among the details that stimulate audience conceptions are Abe's yellow Hummer, just like the one in Bad Boys II (2003, Michael Bay); his rhinestoned necklace with his name on it; his oversized brightly-colored jerseys and polos; his nerd layer, where seasons 1-9 of The Simpsons on dvd are on display; the innocuously braindead brand of twee bubblegum he jams out en route to his various errands; and of course the Lionel auction he's bidding on on ebay.

Hollywood is ruled by a conspiracy that commands its films to have sympathetic characters, a protagonist the audience empathizes with, a clear goal with obstacles that the protagonist pursues while experiencing some significant character change afterward, an uplifting ending, etc... However, Dark Horse avoids most of these obnoxious edicts by having Abe suffer the ultimate of tragic endings, accomplishing nothing, suffering for no fault of his own necessarily, and finally unable to do anything about it. But this provokes other questions like, "what could he have done different, really?"

The performances are so soft, as is the direction and writing. Solondz has huge balls to make these kinds of movies that would seem to be a huge red flag to any producer. Luckily, this played for a week here in Austin and I've never felt so enamored by something so seemingly slight.

--Dregs

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