A bitter old woman sitting on her garden bench believes she is about to die. In a vision, an angelic girl walks over to her – her younger self. Slowly, she is joined by clones, each making a different gesture. "I'm you if you'd married the love of your life," says one, wistfully. "I'm you if you'd laughed more," says another. "I'm you if you'd tipped waitresses," says another, poker-faced.
We're all going to be this cranky old person, sitting on a bench, thinking about all the lives we could have lived, the people we could have been. Todd Solondz's worlds are always unsettling because they show you how ugly and dark human existence is, and then dig you in the ribs and force you to laugh along.
His new film, Wiener-Dog, in which that scene takes place, is no different. Whether it's rape, incest or suicide, no subject is considered remotely taboo to Solondz. It's the reason he's utterly hated by many critics, why brands won't allow him to place their product in his films and why his R-rated sex scenes have been covered with a red box for censorship in the past. He's – falsely – called evil, exploitative and misanthropic, leaving no hope for his characters. Yet his brilliance has seen him become one of America's greatest living cult writer-directors.
When I go to meet him at the cinema he's sitting in a booth overlooking Piccadilly Circus in all its horrible glory. He's wearing bright blue plastic glasses. They're incredible. He's said in the past that strangers make comments about him in the street or have shouted insults when he gets on stage before a screening. Reviewers and viewers frequently brand Solondz a weirdo by making personal, sometimes cruel comments to explain his characters, who are almost always conventionally unattractive – freaks and dorks. "When I want to show the kind of meanness people are capable of, to make it believable I find I have to tone it down," he once said. "It's in real life that people are over the top."
Solondz grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey, an insulated existence he credits as his biggest influence. Consistently, his films satirise middle-class suburbia. "God, my family would be friends with either accountants or dentists or lawyers, and they weren't connected to anyone artistic, really," he drawls. He didn't want to be a filmmaker until university. "The only films I remember having a big impact when I was younger were Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. I loved them both and sang all the songs, and that was all I was exposed to."
Once he escaped his beige life and went to NYU film school – where he now teaches – to study, his creative education accelerated. "This was before VHS, and college campuses had film societies which showed movies every night of the week, so you could see a good Godard, followed by Henry Hathaway, followed by Maya Deren. It was always a fantasy, just the idea of living in New York. That's where I wanted to live – that was my Oz. So in that sense I was, and am, living out my dream."
Unfortunately, the experience of making his first feature, Fear, Anxiety, and Depression, in 1989 was enough to turn him away from filmmaking for years. "I'm asking you, as my friend, don't rent it, don't try to see it," he famously said. I told him I hadn't seen it on this basis and he seemed satisfied. Five years after its release an attorney friend urged him to make another film and offered to partially back it financially. The result was his 90s cult classic, the black comedy, Welcome to the Dollhouse.
Main character Dawn Wiener was the bullied, degraded, flawed and deeply irritating bespectacled 7th grader. Played by Heather Matarazzo, Wiener tried to survive school, getting picked on by her parents, hating her beautiful little sister and crushing on an older band guy. Wiener is every-preteen; we are her and so we laugh at her unrelenting misfortune.
"Everyone tells me they were Dawn Wiener," says Solondz when I tell him I am her. "Notably, even supermodel Cindy Crawford said she was Dawn. 'That was me!' she said. Whether or not they were the pariah Dawn is, people have that connection." He is reluctant, of course, to make a specific link between him and Wiener. "The more you can transform your own experience and understanding of things, the more you can make it accessible to others; it frees you from the literalness of what your life was like. My life was a different nightmare. I went to a private prep school at that age, and Dawn's school was not. This girl's life, I could make more accessible. But I can say, certainly, all of my movies are autobiographical in some way."
From Wiener to her bully, to awkward kids, perverts and sex pests in later films, no one shows the liminal and the shunned like Solondz. "Everyone always thinks they're an outsider," he says. "And even when you talk to the most popular kids from their high school class, they'll say that they felt outside in some way. Even if you go from feeling that you're the outsider to the insider, then you'll still feel like you're on the outside of the outside. It's human nature that, on the one hand, you're part of the planet, but also we all have our own point of view that is irreducibly our own." That's what makes outsiders such a fascinating subject to return to.
No one is more outside, more despised and condemned than the paedophile. His 1998 film Happiness features – besides Philip Seymour Hoffman ejaculating up a wall while prank sex-calling women from the telephone book – a married man who wants to sleep with little boys. We witness the lead up to the rape of his son's friend who's sleeping over at his house in scenes uncomfortable enough to genuinely turn stomachs. Sundance refused to accept the film, and Solondz had problems getting it properly distributed and advertised. "People would feel much more comfortable having...I don't know, Osama Bin Laden or some other terrorist what-have-you sitting at the table with them, than someone who touched children," Solondz says matter-of-factly, gazing out over Piccadilly. "Paedophilia is not taboo in the sense that it cannot be discussed. The problem is that unlike all these other movies with child molesters, I am not demonising them. We live in times of hysteria and it's reshaped the way we treat both children and adults. To me, the challenge was how could I make someone care for someone that we would all viscerally want to reject?"
It might have been hugely controversial, but critically, Happiness was a five-star success and retrospectively hailed a work of genius. Far from being a "sympathetic portrayal of a paedophile", as critics said, it simply tells the character's story in the same non-judgemental, blunt, black comic way as the innocent characters. "It's a tragic story because the paedophile father loves his son in the purist sense. The loss of that father, for that kid, is what makes it so moving and so horrible," says Solondz. The suggestion throughout the film is that this horror exists all around us in the mainstream. To think otherwise is naive.
As Solondz's career has developed he's employed increasingly unusual ways of storytelling. In Palindromes, a 13-year-old girl, Aviva, starts to sleep around because she desperately wants to have a baby. If that weren't testing enough for an audience, Aviva is played by eight different actors of different races, ages and genders.
With each film, the Solondz universe is being revealed; people in different families are interconnected, he develops storylines across titles and brings back entire groups of characters for spiritual sequels with a new batch of actors. A funeral was held for Dawn Wiener in Palindromes, only for her to return, played by Greta Gerwig, in new film Wiener-Dog, for example.
There was never a grand plan behind this, or a desire to make it a Tarantino-type world of imaginary brands and related characters. "It just evolved that way," he explains. "I didn't calculate anything. There are characters I've established, and then it can be handy and interesting to revisit what they can bring to other kinds of stories, and I like this. When Heather Matarazzo told me she never wanted to reprise the role of Dawn, it kind of freed me up. I like the idea of the different possibilities other actresses can bring to a character. It opens up all kinds of possibilities that don't exist in real life, since in real life you only have one life to live."
Just like the dying old lady, we have to pick one. "There's a poignancy and something touching about the way film can transform these possibilities of life into something real," he says. "And as Wiener-Dog demonstrates, we see the dog at the end taking on a new kind of life through art, through the transformative magic of what art can do." Creating means legacy. Solondz has two children of his own, and they haven't seen his films yet. "The thing that made me wince was when people found out I'd become a father, there was always a kind of congratulations, but married to the sense that now, at least, 'you're one of us', like now at once 'your life has meaning'. I didn't think I was lacking before, but that attitude creeps me out."
If there's one message to take from Wiener-dog it's that we're all going to die. I pack up my things and tell Solondz that I found it almost painfully depressing. "There's a shadow that hovers over all of these stories, and that's mortality," he says, standing up. "There's much to be cynical about, that's just our reality." I tell him I hate mortality. "I love that. That's a really good line," he smiles, as if it's going into his next bleak effort. I can only hope.
Wiener-Dog is released in UK cinemas August 12th
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