Essay by Daniel Frankel
In Jeffrey Eugenidies' novel "The Marriage Plot", Madeleine, a 1980's student of Semiotics at Brown University is casually asked what the book she is reading is about. She looks up from the book in question (Derrida's "Of Grammatology") and informs the friendly questioner " that the idea of a book being 'about' something was exactly what this book was against, and that, if it was 'about' anything, then it was about the need to stop thinking of books as being about things."
Todd Haynes, an alumnus of the arts semiotics program at Brown and a contemporary of the fictional Madeline, would likely say the same thing about his films. As he fractures his stories, shifts his narrative foci, and pays homage to a variety of genres, the "about" plays second fiddle to Haynes, the true star of his films (though he's only placed himself in front of the camera in bit parts. The glamour and the darkness of his writing and direction shone through in his post-graduation short, Superstar: the Karen Carpenter Story (1988), where Barbies and Kens act out the rise and fall of super-sweet pop star. Superstar functions as a music criticism much like his later films Velvet Goldmine and I'm Not There, though Haynes' fascination with celebrity permeates throughout his entire filmography. That celebrity can manifest itself in new-age health gurus, envied homemakers, or in the most obvious form of pop star. All of his characters are extensions of his dolls that hide behind a pristine veneer. No one is as they seem in Haynes' work but in almost all of his films, the music will guide the audience to make sense of his distorted truths.
Much like his contemporary Haynes, Todd Solondz could not succinctly describe the "plot" of his films. While Solondz's work remains more grounded, setting all of his films in his homeland of suburban Jersey, his characters could not be more disparate from one another: sexual offenders, thieves, deviants, and more of society's scorned. While viewers are always tempted to find Solondz within all of his tortured characters, he insists that his inspiration is no more introspective than any other director Yet, Solondz never treats his "dolls" as ugly or evil, nor does he laugh at them. If Haynes' films are to be looked at through the prism of pop stardom, Solondz relies on deconstructing television tropes.
Solondz's Dollhouse initially was a more realist response to the youth culture depicted in the wonder years of TV, and notably The Wonder Years. Happiness and Life During Wartime draw more on The Brady Bunch and Leave it to Beaver to reveal the underbelly of Americana. Solondz often takes type-cast actors known for their television appearances - Happiness and Life During Wartime alone feature Pee-Wee Herman, Allison Janney, Camryn Manheim, Louise Lasser, Lara Flynn Boyle, among others.
Neither Todd is a stranger to controversy either. Superstar heavily featured unlicensed use of Carpenter's music and her estate won a copyright infringement case that forced removal of the film from public distribution. Haynes' first feature-length film, Poison, came under attack by Reverend Donald Wildmon due to NEA funding a film that featured alleged "explicit porno scenes of homosexuals involved in anal sex", despite the fact that no such images exist in the film that Wildmon refused to see. While Solondz had fewer legal entanglements, his run-ins with the MPAA forced him to release Happiness and his 2004 film Palindromes unrated. His 2001 effort Storytelling was stamped with an R-rating given that an alarming, red box would censor the actors engaging in a interracial sex scene. These controversies helped bring attention to films that may have flown under the radar and allowed these auteurs to continue to work outside of the studio system.
Both Todds contributions to the modern landscape of American independent cinema are innumerable, but their concurrent careers as writer-directors diverge at the intersection of New Geek Cinema and New Queer Cinema. While it's impossible to label their films as they vacillate between classifications and genres, it's easy to force connections between their parallel paths. They've shared cinematographers and producers. Some might say that Haynes' I'm Not There casting apes Solondz' revolutionary choice to divide the main role of Aviva in Palindromes among 8 actors of various ages, sizes, sexes, and races. Both are hyper-aware of each other's work yet they are never derivative or referential of each others work. They're just both named Todd.
(Todd Solondz, 1995) · Welcome to Dawn's dollhouse. Her locker is ridden with graffiti and slurs that allude to a laundry list of nicknames. She hates Disney World, decapitates her sister's Barbie dolls, and is still outfitted by her oblivious mother. Yet in this hilarious, tragic tribute to the marginalized middle-schooler, Dawn finds the will to persevere and love throughout all of the hate and torment she faces. The film is a Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance 1996.
runtime: 88 min format: 35mm
(Todd Haynes, 1991) · Produced on a shoestring budget, this triptych crosscuts between three seemingly unrelated narratives: Hero, Horror, and Homo. Drawing on the writings of existentialist Jean Genet, Poison subverts heteronormative and cinematic norms through a variety of genres: rockumentary, 100's sci-fi horror, and prison romance. Winner of the 1991 Sundance Film Festival's Grand Jury Prize, Poison is a toxic puzzle of revulsion, sensuality, and audacity.
runtime: 85 min format: 35mm
(Todd Solondz, 1998) · Three Chekhovian sisters live in the ultimate state of irony: New Jersey. A failed folk-singer, a sexless soccer mom, and a self-admittedly shallow poet form the trio who can only connect to their friends and neighbors through their unspoken desires for happiness. Their happiness stems from dirty secrets and dark fantasies, yet all of the characters remain sympathetic in this deeply disturbing, hilarious, and moving portrait of the American family.
runtime: 134 min format: 35mm
(Todd Haynes, 1995) · Carol White, played by Julianne Moore, is an affluent housewife debilitated by everyday toxins, who goes on a quest to improve her health. She leaves behind suffocating suburbia in favor of a New Age safe haven in New Mexico, but is she really allergic to everything, or is she only allergic to herself? "Safe" examines what security in every sense of the world means, as it renders the audience just as complacent and hopeless as its lost heroine.
runtime: 119 min format: 35mm
(Todd Haynes, 1998) · What ever happened to Brian Slade, the Bowie-like rock god who was assassinated on-stage? Years later, a journalist seeks to unravel Slade's past through a series of interviews with the faded star's loved ones. Imagine the skeletal structure of Citizen Kane transplanted amidst the 70's glam rock scene, and you'll get this homage to a bygone era of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll. Haynes blends pop history with fantasy to dazzlingly surreal results.
runtime: 124 min format: 35mm
(Todd Haynes, 2002) · Cathy leads a picture-perfect life until she finds her husband with another man. She then forms a forbidden friendship with her Black landscaper. Her life begins to change as rapidly as the Connecticut Fall foliage around her. This homage to Douglas Sirk proves that they do make movies like they used to. With a devastatingly nuanced performance by Julianne Moore and a flawless recreation of Sirk's mise en scene, it is pretty close to heavenly.
runtime: 107 min format: DCP
(Todd Solondz, 2009) · This semi-sequel to Happiness picks up 10 years from where we center off. Timmy, last seen as a child, is now on the brink of manhood preparing for his Bar Mitzvah. The movie asks if adulthood means we should forgive our loved ones for unforgivable acts. Should we bother addressing the root causes of our discontents? Solondz retains the spirit of "Happiness" without copying its tone - the characters feel fresh and familiar, comforting yet harrowing.
runtime: 98 min format: 35mm
(Todd Haynes, 2007) · Inspired by the music and the many lives of Bob Dylan, this musical mosaic captures the essence of Robert Zimmerman without relying upon existing biopic conventions. Six different actors portray different facets or phases of Dylan's life, running the gamut from Cate Blanchett to Richard Gere. A recipient of Bob Dylan's rare stamp of approval, the film "I'm Not There", like the man himself, is enigmatic, difficult, elusive, and highly rewarding.
runtime: 135 min format: 35mm