Some directors burst out of the gate with fully formed visions and debuts that set Sundance aflame. Others take longer to firm up their perspectives and filmmaking identity. (And, of course, many, many others don’t get going at all.) “Your Early Work” is an occasional feature in which we’ll take a look at an established auteur’s first movie and how it fits in with or foreshadows the ones he or she made down the line.
First up, Todd Solondz, whose new film “Life During Wartime” opened on Friday.
“Fear, Anxiety & Depression” (1989)
Directed by Todd Solondz
These days, it’s almost inconceivable to picture Todd Solondz, the premiere ’90s maestro of deadpan misery, putting himself front and center on screen. For Solondz to subject himself to the same unflinching (if non-judgmental) gaze he’s centered on countless characters, not to mention the humiliations, awkwardness and despair which make up their day-to-day, would seem to require a sense of self-loathing that would make any resulting feature intolerable.
But back when he was getting started, Solondz did star in his own 1985 short “Schatt’s Last Shot,” appeared as a musician in another by Cédric Klapisch called “In Transit,” and had a cameo in Jonathan Demme’s “Married to the Mob.” And in 1989, he played the lead role in his first film, “Fear, Anxiety & Depression.” as Ira Ellis, a would-be serious playwright barely scraping by in downtown New York. The unpleasantness of his experiences with the studio while making the film so soured him on the process that he quit filmmaking for years, finally coaxed back by a friend who helped finance 1995’s “Welcome to the Dollhouse.”
“Fear, Anxiety & Depression” isn’t a disaster so much as it’s a cultural oddity. If it weren’t for Solondz’ involvement, it’d come across as an unremarkable late ’80s indie made by someone really into Woody Allen. But not only does Solondz appear in almost every scene, he also dabbles in moments of physical comedy and wrote the lyrics for plot song “A Neat Kind of Guy.” It makes watching the movie a unique experience, akin to finding photos of your goth cousin from her ponytailed student council days.
The film opens with Ira writing a letter to his idol Samuel Beckett (who would pass away later that year) to accompany a copy of his own play “Despair,” expressing his admiration for Beckett’s work and desire to someday collaborate. “Although I do not think that I, personally, am waiting for Godot, I do have some very good friends who are,” he muses. Those friends include aspiring painter Jack (Max Cantor), who disparages everyone else behind their backs while feeling certain his work is destined for the Whitney Biennial, his aspiring actress/waitress girlfriend Sylvia (Anne De Salvo) and Sharon (Jill Wisoff), who doesn’t aspire to anything except being Ira’s girlfriend.
There’s no doubting Ira’s ambitions, but his aptitude is another matter. He sinks all of his money into a production of “Despair” that reveals the play to be a befuddling avant garde shambles involving a Greek chorus and someone running back and forth between platforms shouting “Life! Life! Life! Death! Death! Death!”
Ira’s parents, who are supporting him financially, try to be encouraging, but would prefer he move home and join the family business. His romantic outlook’s no better — he becomes enamored of a cynical performance artist named Junk (Jane Hamper, working variations on a punk “Bride of Frankenstein” look) who has no interest in him, and gets entangled with Sylvia when Jack leaves her, but only wants to shake off the needy, girlish Sharon, who actually loves him.
Solondz, with his frizzy halo of hair and nasal affect, isn’t a natural screen presence — he looks pained all the time, whether his character’s situation calls for it or not. But the main problem with “Fear, Anxiety & Depression” isn’t his performance, it’s the overall focus of the film, which, as a downtown satire, is wan and obvious. There’s a reason Solondz headed to the suburbs after this — there, his films were freed from the burdens of skewering a specific time and place and became more universal. At their best, they’re meditations on humanity at its most unvarnished, most vulnerable and most cruel.
This isn’t to say there aren’t a few flickers of that promise in “Fear, Anxiety & Depression.” In Junk and Jack there are shades of Lara Flynn Boyle’s reptilian, self-obsessed, successful author in “Happiness” (played by Ally Sheedy in “Life During Wartime”). But it’s really the sad-sack Sharon who provides the film’s main (and darkest) laughs and any lingering resonance.
On a date — in one of a few musical interludes! — Sharon reveals to an inattentive Ira that she was molested as a child, was once a pill-popper and is on the verge of getting evicted, while he pays no mind. She gets mugged on the subway platform as Ira, not noticing in the foreground, ponders how suffering only makes you a better artist.
She downs pills and whiskey and has to be rushed to the hospital, slurring and clutching a stuffed animal, as Ira tries to get her drink some water. And when it seems she’s finally, really gotten his attention and his devotion, he runs into Junk on the street and never makes it to visit her in the hospital.
That Sharon gets the closest thing the film has to a happy ending is seriously tempered by the fact that it comes courtesy of Donny (Stanley Tucci, memorable in an early role), a classmate of Ira’s who’s effortlessly stumbled into financial and artistic triumphs. As his latest acquisition, she seems doomed to be toyed with and then discarded — except you can’t really wish her back with Ira, since he hardly treated her any better. Some people are just doomed to be taken advantage of, it seems. Now that’s the Todd Solondz we all know and love.