For the record, Solondz says he was “never particularly interested in pedophilia to begin with.” But like a moth to the flame, he is interested in extremes, and pushing the boundaries of areas of human behavior that are confidently demarcated by the culture. “It’s easy to say ‘Yes, I love mankind,’ but are you going to make exceptions?” he asks. “What are our limits, and how does that make us richer, or not, if we are able to embrace all of this about who we are?” This is not an easily plumbed area for popular entertainment, of course. And in Life During Wartime, pedophilia is conflated with terrorism. He talks about his films as if he too were surprised at their gruesomeness. Even while he says, “Look, my job is to manipulate an audience without my audience feeling like they’re being manipulated,” he’ll describe how he couldn’t watch the borderline rape scene in Storytelling while it was being filmed.
As the poet laureate of the put-upon, the outmaneuvered, and the earnestly delusional, he’s prone to self-deprecating defiance. “There are a lot of people who hate me, I know,” he says. But you don’t get the idea that he feels he can do much about that. He’s aware that indie culture no longer needs him in the same way. “His work is just as important and interesting as it was ten years ago,” says James Schamus, the head of Focus Features, whose previous company distributed Happiness. “It’s just not the next big thing.”
What is new in Life During Wartime is the introduction of forgiveness: Can Solondz allow his characters to forgive one another for evil behavior? He denies that the arrival of Elroy has anything to do with his newfound sensitivity. But the answer is tangled, of course. As it always is for him. “After I had screened Happiness at a festival early on, there was a college kid—who was a little bit drunk, I must assume—who approached me and said, ‘Man, that scene where that kid gets raped, that was hilarious,’ ” says Solondz. “And I knew I was in trouble. That was not the response that I was looking for, which is why I said afterward that my movies aren’t for everyone, especially people who like them.”