Todd Solondz says that when he was growing up in a kosher home in Livingston, N.J., "I did well at school, I didn't get in trouble, I was a good boy."
Since winning the top prize at the Sundance Film Festival for his excruciating 1996 comedy, "Welcome to the Dollhouse" -- about a geeky, four-eyed, preteen who strikingly resembles Solondz -- the filmmaker has been anything but. "Dollhouse," originally titled "Faggots and Retards," is a kind of anti-"Wonder Years" that dispels myths about childhood sexuality.
His award-winning 1998 film "Happiness," which features an obscene phone caller and a nice suburban dad who is a pedophile, was so scandalous, the studio that financed the movie elected not to distribute it.
If Solondz had to switch to an unlisted telephone number after the release of "Happiness," he may have to move to Alaska in the aftermath of his latest film, "Storytelling," now in theaters. Divided into two unrelated segments, the bleak comedy confronts taboos about racism and the Holocaust as it "explores how storytelling can be a source of redemption and also a source of exploitativeness," Solondz told The Journal.
An African American creative writing teacher humiliates a white female student (Selma Blair) in the classroom and in bed. A Holocaust refugee's daughter (Julie Hagerty) mouths platitudes about the Shoah, prompting her son to retort, "So you're saying if it wasn't for Hitler, none of us would have been born?" (He is promptly banished from the dinner table.) The same Jewish mother solicits tzedakah for a Jewish charity while ignoring the suffering of her Salvadoran maid. When the question is asked, "What does it mean to be a Jew?" it's clear she has no idea.
Independent filmmakers have agreed that shock sells, as evidenced by the success of Larry Clark's sexually provocative "Kids" and Michael Cuesta's 2001 pedophilia-themed drama, "L.I.E." But Solondz, who turned down studio deals to make his 1989 indie debut, "Fear, Anxiety and Depression," insists he isn't out to shock anyone. By taking on sacred cows like the Holocaust, he says he is being cruel to be kind. "I think sometimes there is a kind of awe and reverence that one has to question when talking about the Holocaust," says the cerebral, 42-year-old Manhattan filmmaker, who has been known to wear Keds and oversized glasses. "If one looks at it as something otherworldly, then one is failing to grasp the fact that it was very sadly not otherwordly but very real. There is a danger of unwittingly exploiting the tragedy in ways that tend to trivialize it, if one doesn't see it in a proper context. And certainly, the family in the movie doesn't have strong moral bearings on how to understand or explain the significance and meaning of this black cloud that does in fact hover over post-World War II Jewish history."
That black cloud hovered over the Solondz' New Jersey split-level, where his mother was haunted by memories of fleeing Nazi-occupied Antwerp as a child. "The Holocaust was very much brought home to me, to the extent that we had relatives who survived or didn't survive," recalls the director, suggesting a source of his unsettling worldview. "I was taught early on that whether or not I regarded myself as Jewish, Hitler certainly would have determined that I was a Jew."
Solondz, who says he is now an atheist, attended an Orthodox yeshiva for a time during elementary school, then a Conservative religious school to prepare for his bar mitzvah. In the seventh grade, his parents enrolled him in an elite, all-boys prep school, which eventually inspired "Dollhouse." "At 11, I was writing stories and playlets. At 12, I was no longer reading or writing, just counting off days ... interested [only] in survival," he wrote in the introduction to his screenplay. Yet Solondz suggests he was an outcast for a different reason than the film's anti-heroine, Dawn Wiener (a.k.a. "Wienerdog"). "There were only two Jews in my class, and [unlike me] they fit in with the country club set -- they were sort of like, 'The Garden of the Finzi-Continis' Jews," he says, citing Vittorio De Sica's Nazi-era film about a privileged Italian family.
Solondz went on to attend Yale and New York University's film school. After "Fear, Anxiety and Depression" bombed, he fled Hollywood and applied to the Peace Corps as "a kind of tzedakah." He surmises he was rejected, in part, because the interviewer did not appreciate his sense of humor. Undaunted, he taught English to Russian immigrants for two years before writing "Dollhouse" to redeem himself as a filmmaker.
He says that in his own mind, the Wieners of "Dollhouse" and the Jordans of "Happiness" were Jewish, "which gave me a level of familiarity as a jumping-off point from which to explore their psyches." He adds that "Storytelling" is the first time he's created an overtly Jewish family; he named them Livingston, after his hometown, in part, because they represent a kind of suburban Jew he found there. "One thing that interests me is the way that some Jews perceive assimilation as a way to raise their social standing," says Solondz, who imagines the Livingstons as "nee Leventhal." He notes how the fictional parents nag their slacker son to get into a good college, adding, "That's emblematic of how the Jewish value placed on education can be confused with the acquisition of status and material success."
Solondz isn't above some self-criticism in "Storytelling"; his alter ego is a nebbishy failed filmmaker (Paul Giamatti) who redeems himself by exploiting his documentary subjects, the Livingstons. He says he's surprised that more people haven't complained about "Storytelling." "Of course, it's early, so there's still hope," he adds with a laugh. "I can only tell you that at a screening someone once asked, 'Do you hate blacks, Latinos and Jews?' All I can say is if I do, I'm somewhat egalitarian."