LIFE DURING WARTIME a film by Todd Solondz
The first shot of Life During Wartime has Joy(Shirley Henderson) quietly weeping, as she sits across from her boyfriend Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams) in a restaurant booth done in upholstery inspired by strychnine hallucinations. Framed in a peculiarly awkward way by crooked bangs and virgin eyebrows that appear never to have been tweezed, her lovely face will not remain still, but continues blubbering. The upholstery and her tears taken together is alienating– passively aggressive and demanding–and yet whatever your emotional response, the scene has an unsettling quality, as though you have been manually probed and your fraudulence has been exposed. What do you care more about–why she cries, or her bad hair? How Michael Kenneth Williams got that awesome scar across his face? What was the very bad thing he did? Why do you want to know exactly–so that you can then spit in his face too?
There is no point in denying what you stand accused of, for the faster you set your tongue clucking at the lameness of these characters, the faster you realize how stuck you are, essentially, in the same misery. The impossibility of forgiveness and the continuing cycle of transgression is philosophically rich. It is one thing to critique the shallow mores of post-post-Woody-Allen America, with cleverness and outrageously on-target satire. But the project of this film is more ambitious, less comical, and darker. The sentient viewer is more deeply implicated, and the stakes are higher…the word “War” has not entered the film’s title frivolously: it plays its own role of haunting the proceedings by reminding us of the ultimate consequences of clinging to the joyless satisfactions of retribution.
“Life During Wartime” is a challenging experience, in the way previous Solondz films have been: refusing comfortable illusions of a pleasing entertainment. It is a web of inversions and repetitions, of outrageous admissions and crushing deceits. Much of the time you are either forced to retreat emotionally or relent, but inhabiting this cinema is never easy, where perhaps the only crime worse than serial pedophilia is sentimentality. Naturally, this film has provoked one of the most churlish reviews I’ve ever seen, by Marshall Fine in the Huffington Post(who sanctimonously claims to have tolerated, even enjoyed, Solondz’ other films); as well as a comparison to R.W. Fassbinder by J. Hoberman in the Village Voice. I’m with J –this film brought to mind for me Fassbinder’s heartbreaking I Only Want You To Love Me(1976), which explores wrenchingly cold family life in post -postwar Germany.
Because it is necessary for any “genuine” artist to begin with irony–if only to go beyond it–and eschew the grandiose in this anti-culture we inhabit, the comparison to the Promethean Fassbinder may seem unclear, yet Solondz is the only American filmmaker today seriously critiquing the uniquely American form of moral corruption embedded in its insistently bland conventionalism, and exposing the banal righteousness of the culture of punishment, the punitive impulse that drives Americans to view victims as “the good people”(Solondz’ words) and perpetrators as always and forever bad and deserving of social deletion.
Hypocrisy is only beginning of this corruption: the project of Life During Wartime is to explore the territory of forgiveness and investigate the harboring of spite. Both spite and forgiveness depend upon a relationship to the past, and a constant repetition of the offense that generated suffering. The formal genious of “Wartime” is how the sequence of scenes, and the cast of characters are haunted both literally and figuratively, by their former incarnations (Happiness, 1995). The surprise of Timmy cumming in Happiness is transposed into the surprise of his committing the first sin…which is an inverted form of the sin(pedophilia) of his father. The pedophile father, Bill, is now incarnated by Ciaran Hinds, whose broken rock of a face is spellbinding and grave. The scandal-haunted Paul Reubens plays Andy, the ghost of Joy’s boyfriend. Along with Shirley Henderson, these actors bring a new sense of gravitas to their redux roles. This film could be appreciated entirely through its performances, for it gives the actors what it gives the audience, a brilliantly crafted wordplay that realizes a tragic dimension.
Coming of age in such a world as this, a world that demands war, enmity and anger, means a right of passage that inverts the prayerful bar mitzvah ritual. Set in the midst of emotional devastation created by selfishness, cruelty, and banality, the boy Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder), on the cusp of puberty, does what any normal boychild would do when his mother shows signs of interest in a man: derails the relationship by any means necessary, in this case, he falsely accuses the innocent and tender-hearted Harvey (Michael Lerner) of pedophilia. Timmy is naturally close to the concept of a pedophile; his father was incarcerated for serial boy rape, and so his mother Trish (Allison Janney) has warned him, in language inappropriately vague, that he should respond to any man’s touching him with a loud, rousing scream. Trish, hopelessly philistine and obtuse, freaks out, and Lerner is X’d from her affections. His heart is broken. As for Timmy, an innocent boy’s first experience of sin is a surprise. Nothing has really prepared him for the freakish pain of realizing his responsibility in creating another’s suffering. It sets him running backward in a romantic escape scene from his bar mitzvah party: he is a man today, but last week–when IT happened–he was only a boy! It is a failed excuse. Today he is a man, and there is no turning back.
Our insistence on spiteful reactivity has created continual war, out of the quandary of the Middle East and the infection of 9/11. One of the most striking images from the film is a shot of Helen (Ally Sheedy) spewing a cruel rant at her sister Joy, poised in front of a giant photographic blow up of an Israeli tank bearing down on an unarmed lone Palestinian. Solondz inserts his knife in the neck with lines like, “We [the Floridian Jews] only voted for Bush because of Israel, but we really thought he was an idiot.” The political analysis is tense but oblique. This intentionally remote “war” exists offstage, in the realm of the moral and ethical, where it acts as a carapace of suffering that holds its set of characters exercising demons in the Florida sunshine within an unseen but everpresent darkness.