Life During Wartime: Criterion Collection
July 26, 2011
With his misanthropic comedy Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), Todd Solondz announced himself as an independent filmmaker with a unique vision of American culture. His film, and subsequent efforts since, explore the trials and tribulations of people living in suburbia but exist on the margins of society: freaks, geeks and pariahs. He often tempers his bleak worldview with compassion for his characters and an oddball sense of humor. He soon followed his debut film with Happiness (1998), which tackled all kinds of taboo topics to much acclaim. Life During Wartime (2009) is that film’s cinematic doppelganger, a sequel of sorts, featuring many of the same characters only played by completely different actors and with the setting changed from New Jersey to Florida. The end result is an audacious experiment that reinforces Solondz’s maverick status.
Joy (Henderson) is an emotionally fragile little mouse of person who enjoys working with ex-convicts. She is celebrating an anniversary with her drug addict, ex-gang member husband over the most uncomfortable dinner date ever committed to film. Harvey (Lerner) is a divorced man with a son and is seeing Joy’s sister, Trish (Janney). The couple hit it off by sharing a dream of being buried in Israel when they die. Trish’s youngest son Timmy is a little boy working on an essay about what it means to be a man for his Bar Mitzvah. William (Hinds) is a pedophile recently released from prison in New Jersey and he takes a bus to Florida in an attempt reconnect with his oldest son and perhaps start a new life. When he’s not stalking his family, he meets a married woman (Rampling) at a bar. She hates herself and is misanthropic about life in general but has sex with him anyway. Andy (Reubens) is the ghost of Joy’s ex-boyfriend or may represent her guilt and remorse over their failed relationship. Helen (Sheedy) is the black sheep of her family but still keeps in touch with Joy. She’s a successful screenwriter and lives in an ultra-modern mansion.
Solondz has certainly cornered the market on giving a voice to social outcasts, flawed characters who often hate who they are – damaged people trying to find their way in the world. He doesn’t judge them and attempts to find something admirable amongst their flaws. Life During Wartime feels like the bastard offspring of Ingmar Bergman and John Waters with a dash of Daniel Clowes for good measure. Solondz shoots his film with the same solemn formal camerawork as Bergman but with Waters’ outlandish characters and Clowes’ deadpan sense of humor. It’s an odd mix and certainly not everyone’s cup of tea.
“Ask Todd” has Solondz answer several questions submitted by fans on Criterion’s website. He talks about why he picked filmmaking over other artistic endeavors and explains the genesis of Life During Wartime. He never planned to make a sequel to Happiness but a few years ago began thinking about the characters in that film. Solondz touches upon the casting choices he made and why he picked the ones he did for this film. He talks about working with child actors on the difficult subject matter of the film. He also talks about the significance of gumdrops in the film and also mentions some of his influences, chief among them television.
“Actors’ Reflections” features several cast members talking about working on the film. Ciaran Hinds gives his impressions of what he thinks Solondz was trying to say with this film. Michael Kenneth Williams knew nothing about Solondz or his films before acting in Life During Wartime and said that the director didn’t initially see him in the role. Shirley Henderson and Ally Sheedy talk about their respective characters and how they identified with them.
There is an interview with the film’s director of photography Ed Lachman. He talks about the film, provides commentary for six selected scenes and answers five questions. He was familiar with Solondz’s work and found that hew as very compassionate towards his characters. Lachman provides examples of the look Solondz wanted. He also talks about how he got into filmmaking. Initially, he was into fine art and has subsequently imposed those ideas in his own work.
Finally, there is a trailer for the film.