Last week, the film department at the University of Central Arkansas hosted cult filmmaker Todd Solondz, this semester's artist-in-residence. So, I decided to take a trip to my alma mater to see what words of wisdom this writer/director/teacher had to offer, and maybe get an autograph or two. It's always a bit strange walking back into your old school. A specific saying comes to mind: "The more things change the more they stay the same."
As I entered the hauntingly familiar hallways of Stanley Russ, the UCA building that houses the film department, memories sparked through my mind: to the left was the classroom where I taught several semesters of screenwriting; to the right was the spot where I had made the idiotic decision not to ask Werner Herzog to autograph my dual language VHS copy of his 1979 film "Nosferatu"; farther down the kid-crowded corridor is the lecture hall where I had the honor to introduce a screening of "Blackkklansman" with Academy Award-winning writer Kevin Willmott in attendance.
As I turn a corner, I bump into film professor Mark Thiedeman, who people might recall found some success with his LGBT-centric films. Thiedeman was responsible for bringing Solondz to the school.
"Solondz's films are character-driven movies that are very much rooted in a specific environment -- the New Jersey suburbs of his childhood," Thiedeman told me. "He provides a great model for our students, encouraging work that is focused on personal, human experience that also takes advantage of the richness of place, something that speaks to regional filmmakers engaged with a local story world."
Solondz was scheduled to teach two classes, one was a screenwriting class, the other a course focused on how to go from short films to indie features. And later that night was to be a screening of his breakout feature, "Welcome to the Dollhouse" (1995), followed by a Q&A.
I made my way upstairs to the offices, just to see who all was left from the Old Guard, and catch up with the professors that I hadn't seen in a while. After chit-chatting for a bit, I made my way to the first class, which was taking place in what was formerly the "grad lounge." Raggedy well-indented couches where I had spent many a night had been replaced with a nice conference table and overly comfortable chairs. And as I was just getting lost in my thoughts, there he was. Todd Solondz, thinning gray hair, thick Tiffany blue glasses, a lime green striped bowling shirt, and a strong New Jersey accent. He reminded me a lot of Bernie Sanders.
What was supposed to be a lecture about screenwriting quickly evolved into a freeform conversation, with a roomful of students prodding Solondz's mind for anything and everything about indie filmmaking. The conversation started on the topic of dogs, as Solondz's last film, "Wiener-Dog" (2016), starred a dachshund.
Solondz, in an almost trademark pessimistic tone of voice, warned students to never work with dogs, and decried that dachshunds are stupid creatures that cannot act. The wry sense of humor that he has in his films certainly showed in his two classes, but among the jokes and witty anecdotes, the writer/director had quite a few kernels of wisdom. He talked a lot about his writing process, where once you have an idea, once your creative motor starts going, write it all down, no matter how bad it is. After you have it on the page, then, like a sculptor, you can start shaving away the badness and start finding the truth of your script.
After his workshops were over, I walked up to him for a quick conversation. I asked him what he thought the students were going to get out of his lectures. And he answered with a bluntness that can be found in all the characters that he writes. He said that he didn't know if anything that he said today had any worth to it, but maybe something he said would resonate with someone and help them with their careers.
I also asked him about his own work, which has garnered quite a bit of controversy over time as the subject matter of his films comedically focus on a lot of taboos such as rape, racism, sexual frustrations, pedophilia and incest. He even has one film, "Storytelling" (2001), that was deemed too graphic by the studio, so they put a giant red censor box over the film's graphic sex scene.
It's the only movie to ever receive such a distinction.
I asked him if he was afraid of "cancel culture." He said that he wasn't, though it is becoming more difficult over time to get his movies made. It's even hard just to get high definition releases of his older films.
After our brief conversation, I made sure to ask him for an autograph. I pulled out my DVD copy of "Dollhouse." Getting this autograph meant quite a bit to me, because I procured this specific disc at my best friend's funeral, who passed away in 2012. This friend actually introduced me to Solondz's work way back in high school. And his films such as "Happiness" and "Palindromes" shaped my sense of awkwardly dark humor.
Again, I found myself lost in a nostalgic fog but I think Solondz's visit to the campus was successful. Students seemed inspired, and I assume they learned enough to make them better filmmakers. Thiedeman agrees.
"Our time with Mr. Solondz was an incredible opportunity," he says. "He spoke honestly and frankly about the experience of making movies, all the difficulties and glories that are built into the process, and he encouraged our students to trust themselves as artists, to be bold and unafraid, and to believe in the power of personal filmmaking. His insights were funny, emotional and generous. I can't thank him enough for his openness and kindness throughout the day."