Belated Thoughts on Themed Dining in Todd Solondz's "Life During Wartime"
Fine American dining also showed up recently in Life During Wartime (2009), the IFC produced film written and directed by Todd Solondz and marketed as a sequel of sorts to Solondz's era-defining classic Happiness (1998). As with most of Solondz's films, there is little room in Wartime for ambivalence--you either love it or hate it, a passion evoked less by the film's style and story than by the viewer's fundamental disposition toward life, and maybe even more specifically, toward American life. Even those who admire Solondz's films, myself included, have never really thought of him much as a "stylist." His films are usually like essays, interested in ideas and tone more than fancy cinematography or obtuse plot construction. Palindromes (2004), with its fluctuating actor-character relations, was the closest Solondz has come to out and out "look at me!" auteurism, and while there are many interesting aspects to that film, I've always thought his work is most powerful when rendered in the blank, detached irony that he helped pioneer in the sm/art cinema of the 90s.
If one wanted to make a case for a cinematic "eye" that goes beyond Solondz's acute ear for the sounds of emotional suffocation, that case would most likely rest on issues of mise-en-scene. Thus the fine dining of Life During Wartime. Two key sequences in the film use the bleak landscape of the corporate eatery as backdrop for a type of implicit humiliation, a reminder that even though so many of the people we pass each day are leading lives of quiet desperation, they (and thus we) do so on a stage that is fundamentally ridiculous.
The first sequence is positively lyrical. The long-suffering and ironically named "Joy" (Shirley Henderson, somehow making Jane Adams' original take on this character even more harrowing) wakes up in the middle of the night at her mother's condo in Florida. To the melancholy strains of Devendra Banhart, she wanders as a barefoot sleepwalker out of the house and onto a nearby golf course. An extreme long-shot of the seemingly entranced Joy walking in the light of a full moon might temporarily make us think Solondz has gone Romantic, but that illusion is quickly punctured as Joy moves over to the familiar parking grid of a U.S. strip-mall. Suddenly, Joy as the Ophelia of Orlando becomes just another of the decade's many shuffling zombies.
The next shot reveals her destination: a nameless yet familiar themed dining facility. As discussed previously, the themed diner has become an incredibly powerful chronotope within a certain taste formation. Next to Disneyland, it remains the single most familiar emblem of America's fatal obsession with staged authenticity and compulsory mirth. For a generation compelled to eat in these joints as children, and perhaps forced to work at them as teenagers and young adults, even driving by a Bennigans or a Chili's elicits an involuntary shudder, so wide is the gulf between the staging of "good times" and the stories of woe working and eating within (a vibe captured nicely, by the way, in Stewart O'Nan's novella from a couple years back, Last Night at the Lobster, the story of a Red Lobster franchise's last night of business, in the dead of winter, at a failing New England mall. Don't have a gun nearby).
Joy, lost in every possible way in her life, stands in the lobby between two potted ferns, plants positioned to give some organic green texture to the culinary killing fields of florescent-drenched Formica that lie before her. On the wall is a "Route 66" sign, the knick-knack of choice in those eat-o-ramas hoping to evoke the bygone promise of the American roadhouse, a time when you could still get in your car and eat hamburgers all the way to the west coast without hitting a single chain, or ending up in a manicured shopping environment in L.A. that looks just like the one you left in New Jersey. Next to this road sign for a highway that has long since turned to rubble is the mandatory electric guitar--now the universal consumer prop signifying some confusing collision of comfortable nostalgia and outlaw attitude. One can almost imagine the menu options that will confront Joy: Cheezy X-treme Jalapeno Poppers; The "Full House" Pick-Ur-Own Sandwich, Salad, and Soup Special; Rockin' Lobster Tails and the Megastuffer All-U-Can Eat Potato Bar.
What's interesting about this sequence is how the themed restaurant, having been so thoroughly derided within a certain taste culture (both culinary and sociological) over the past 20 years, can radiate its implicit horrors here without any real staging on Solondz's part. Once Joy arrives, there is a fairly trite comic exchange playing on the familiar device of the overly officious waitress engaged in the alien artifice of corporate protocol--but mainly Solondz allows Joy's forlorn waifdom to speak for itself. She ends up sitting alone with that dazed look that overcomes anyone who, through lack of any better eating and social options, finds themselves alone at a Denny's at four in the morning.
The second sequence is less developed but no less caustic. The impossibly frail and freckled "Timmy," having just "become a man" at his bar mitzvah, sets off with great purpose for a reckoning with his mom's boyfriend, a man he mistakenly believes is a pedophile. As Timmy walks back to the condo, we follow him through some gems of Floridian architecture.
And then, once again in long shot, Timmy passes by one of those Taco Bell/Pizza Hut abominations that have cropped up over the past decade. Here we see the future of fast-food at its most cynical--branded cuisines sharing a rooftop for no other reason than corporate expediency. Why build two shitty faux-adobe shacks and apply for two curb cuts from the city when the Pizza Bell Taco Hut (i.e. Pepsico) trucks can just pull up and deliver everything all at once? In the early 70s, America was horrifically thrilled at the prospect that Soylent Green "was people"--but even that sounds preferable to a future in which various forms of starch, meat, and corn syrup slide down a common sluice into your car, distinguished only by the vaguely ethnicized color scheme of the cardboard box. At least someone took the time to prepare Soylent Green and make it seem edible.
But that is not what this shot is ultimately about. Sure, the Taco Bell/Pizza Hut cohabitations are wondrously perverse statements on the increasingly unadorned functionality of functional eating--but in typically droll form, Solondz namechecks this culinary/architectural atrocity more as a pathetic backdrop for the story's high human drama. Imagine--you've just finished a sacred ceremony thousands of years old and you set out on your first mission "as a man." But you must embark on this new era of your life, not by striding into the wilderness in search of a spiritual epiphany, but instead by weaving your way through a series of spray-stucco lard franchises.
And again, the mise-en-scene radiates despair with little prodding on Solondz's part. One has to assume that anyone who actively makes the decision to watch Life During Wartime will respond with the appropriate mixture of smirking and sadness. Such is the implicit bond of the art house, the indie-plex, the IFC distribution platform. Is the world really as sad, ugly, and stupid as it seems? Yes, and I'd like to see it rendered even sadder, uglier, and stupider please.