A few (delayed) observations on the new Todd Solondz film, Life During Wartime, in which we find most of the characters from his 1998 chef-d'Ĺ“uvre, Happiness, at a later point in their lives. Each of them is trying desperately in their own way to cope with, struggle against, or erase the past (one character is even literally haunted):

--It is apt to characterize the film, as Solondz has, as a "post-9/11 movie" and "more overtly political" than his others (though I wouldn't discount the political dimension of all his films). Though it's as unsparing as one would expect, it is more contemplative and melancholy, even tender. It does not, of course, telegraph Big Messages; Solondz is too aware of his own (and everyone's) fallibility to preach, though I'm sure some would accuse him of doing just that. Rather, it incises, with Solondz's usual ruefully comic precision, the hypocrisy of its characters, whether it's a successful poet/screenwriter sitting amid her obscene Hollywood Hills luxury and self-righteously lecturing her sister that "We're still a nation at war!" or the horrifyingly simplistic and contradictory ideas imparted to a young boy--who's confused about the principles of understanding and forgiveness he's studying for his Bar Mitzvah--by his elders, who explain to him that terrorism supposedly never has any cause or reason worth thinking about, it's just "evil."

--It makes more sense to me than ever that Solondz initially intended to be a rabbi. His films are the equivalent of the challenging-to-the-point-of-impossibility, deeply troubling moral questions that might be posed by a rabbi in order to deepen one's understanding of morality and the extreme difficulty of rational, genuine, sincere, and consistent application of moral principles--of being the "good person" that most of us assume we self-evidently are without bothering to rigorously investigate and define what we mean by "good" and truly hold ourselves accountable to that.

--For me Solondz is, in many key ways, the American Fassbinder. It's imperative to distinguish between an author/auteur's depiction of cruelty as the most common and insidious human weakness and the (false, in my opinion) assertion that the author/auteur is himself engaging in cruelty. Apparent misanthropy often comes from the most intense longing for a world in which people are stronger, kinder, and less hateful and hate-able. Solondz obviously prefers the worst, most abject sinners to the cheerfully judgmental ones who glibly use the horrible crimes of others, with all their attendant misery, merely to exempt themselves and hold themselves up as good, "normal," and blameless. He's made it clear that the reason his films frequently deal with pedophiles is not that he has any interest in that particular disorder, but because they're the most despised people, the hardest to consider human, the ones whose humanness is most easily rejected--because "most Americans would rather have Osama bin Laden at their dinner table than a pedophile."

--I have to wonder, without being able to know for certain, what Life During Wartime would mean to someone who hasn't seen Happiness. It's not a "sequel" at all, really; it picks up with most of the characters of Happiness and a couple from Welcome to the Dollhouse at very different points in their lives, and the themes are somewhat different, but the story is strongly connected to the characters' pasts, and it felt like some of the meanings of a few scenes and their interactions would be more meaningful if you'd already seen Happiness.

--I was deeply moved by it, and I would highly recommend it, but I don't know if I'd recommend it as anyone's introduction to Todd Solondz's films. It might be best to have at least experienced Happiness before Wartime.

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