Jul 13, 2014
Long after his childhood years when he seriously contemplated being a rabbi and long before he became the greatest cryptic cinematic social critic of the American Jewish bourgeoisie, New Jersey bred cinematic satirist Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Dark Horse) attempted to be a sort of more repellently neurotic, hyper hysterical, and melodramatically lovelorn Woody Allen. Indeed, Solondz’s first feature Fear, Anxiety & Depression (1989) starred the severely sardonic and curiously cynical auteur as a lovelorn loser and would-be-playwright who absurdly writes Samuel Beckett in a feeble attempt at a possible collaboration. Solondz ultimately abandoned his first feature, yet it is quite arguably the director’s most personal, intimate, and ‘sentimental’ work to date, as a self-reflexive work of patently pessimistic metacinema. Unfortunately, the film lacks the critically keen political incorrectness, especially of the Judaic bourgeois and ‘Americanism’ that has come to define his work. Like cinematic quasi-father-figure Woody Allen, Solondz is a frail, weak, whiny, and uniquely ugly four-eyed neurotic Jewish dork with a deleterious soft spot for shiksas (indeed, it should be no surprise that one of the director’s favorite writers is Philip Roth), or so one learns while watching his strikingly self-debasing, if not rather uneven, cinematic debut Fear, Anxiety & Depression. Thankfully, Solondz’s cinematic persona is quite different from Allen in many respects, namely that he is less paranoid (there are no phantom anti-Semites in his film) and egomaniacal and is not plagued by airs of superiority, not to mention the fact that he seems to lack a taste for degenerate jazz (in fact, the director created his own goofy Daniel Johnston-esque soundtrack for the film). Indeed, as a sullen yet satirical celluloid molestation of classic Allen works like Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979), the film not only depicts the patently pathetic protagonist’s loser love life, but also makes a mockery of various NYC/East Village art scenes/subcultures, including the Club Kids, degenerate kosher capitalist hack painters like Julian Schnabel, no wave, the no-talent juvenile pseudo-iconoclasts of the Cinema of Transgression, and the cocksuckers of Christopher Street. An equal-opportunity hater, Solondz depicts all these groups/movements as more or less equally untalented, pretentious, bombastic, shallow, trivial, senseless and only deserving of scorn and ridicule. Indeed, Fear, Anxiety & Depression may be the only film ever made where a Hebraic geek ultimately comes out looking more sympathetic than a hot punk chick. In short, Solondz's first feature is a lost cult film in desperate need of some sort of cult following.
30-year-old aspiring playwright Ira Ellis (Todd Solondz) is such a weak and pathetic looking dork that he seems like he might suffer a heart attack if he merely sneezes. During the first couple minutes of Fear, Anxiety & Depression, Ira writes a letter to Irish avant-garde playwright Samuel Beckett reading: “The reason I’m writing to you is two-fold: 1. To inform you of my particular respect for your work and the uncanny kinship I feel it shares with mine. 2. To see if you would like to read my most recently completed play DESPAIR and then, perhaps, meet to discuss perhaps a potential collaboration.” Like Beckett’s writing, Ira’s life is plagued by unending tragicomedy and gallows humor, albeit of the Judaic as opposed to paddy sort. On the advice of his pretentious yet marginally talented painter friend Jack (played by Max Cantor, who previously appeared in Dirty Dancing (1987) and died in 1991 at the age of 32 from a heroin addiction while writing an article on drug addiction for The Village Voice), who remarks, “You’re an artist and if you want to be an artist, you have to suffer. All great artists suffer, starve, and live miserable lives and you, Ira, will yet be a great artist,” Ira decides to quit his blue collar job and dedicate his life to that of an artist by living with constant fear, anxiety, and depression. Subsequently, Ira’s play Despair is a huge flop, not least of all because it features a guy dressed like an angel incessantly stating, “Life…Life…Life…Death…Death…Death…,” while a group of cloaked men with goofy masks stand under nooses and act as an exceedingly grating chorus. While Jack tells Ira his play is a great “post-Beckettian” work, he tells his aspiring actress girlfriend Janice (Alexandra Gersten) that his friend’s play is totally unoriginal, with the title being “right out of Nabokov.”
Of course, Ira’s play receives horrendous reviews by the press, with one reviewer absurdly writing, “The homophobic Mr. Ellis has attempted to supplement his own abnormal neurosis into a work of art. What a mistake.” Even Ira’s parents disapprove of the play as they feel it features a false portrayal of his upbringing and they ultimately ‘cut-off’ their son so he no longer has free time to work on his art, with his father telling him that he might be able to write another play one day if he becomes successful after working for decades at a string factory. To add insult to injury, Ira soon learns that his dullard schoolboy ‘friend’ Donny (Stanley Tucci) is now a critically and monetarily successful playwright who is constantly compared to his hero Beckett. Of course, Ira’s life is no less calamitous, as his exceedingly whiney and seemingly half-retarded girlfriend Sharon (played by Jill Wisoff, who later composed music for Solondz’s 1995 cult hit Welcome to the Dollhouse) is a clingy ex-pill-popper who the aspiring playwright has been trying to break-up with for some time, but every time he tries, she attempts to commit suicide. Meanwhile, Ira becomes obsessed with a degenerate half-braindead punk-goth ‘club kid’/’performance artist’ named ‘Junk’ (Jane Hamper)—a walking and talking art school cliché—who grew up in the suburbs yet says moronic things like, “living in suburbia was such a degrading experience, I mean, like I had to wear a dress” and who proudly states, “Maybe I’m junk….but at least I’m not trash like you” and “I don’t do junk, I am junk.” Junk is an unwitting fag hag that is suspicious that Ira might be gay because virtually every single one of her boyfriends in the past were gay, except for one with whom she “used to share syringes." When Ira sets up a date with Junk at the 1988 New York Gay Film Festival at Bleecker St. Cinema, she naturally does not show up. Of course, Ira’s night only gets worse when he ex-girlfriend Sharon attempts to commit suicide by downing various pills with Jack Daniels, but he brings her to Beth Israel Medical Center in time, so unfortunately she survives and continues to nag him with histrionic threats of self-slaughter. While Ira manages to start a quasi-romance with Junk, the pathetic playwright’s ‘Jack’ soon steals her away from him. Luckily, Ira manages to get with Jack’s ex-girlfriend Janice, who he has always had a thing for, but that does not last long. Meanwhile’s Ira’s successful ‘friend’ Donny agrees to help him become a revered playwright, though he warns him regarding the art world, “They are not into truth, they are not into art, they are not into beauty…it’s all self-promotion and bourgeois protection.” To Ira’s surprise, Donny is now dating his ex-girlfriend Sharon, who is now a successful mime. While Ira attempts to get Sharon back, telling her he never realized how “beautiful” she is, his once-desperate ex ultimately turns him down. In the end, Ira goes back to working his blue collar window installing job and falls out of a window, though he finally receives a reply from Samuel Beckett, who writes, “Dear Ira, keep on writing.”
Luckily, after Fear, Anxiety & Depression, director Todd Solondz continued writing, as all his subsequent works are undoubtedly superior to his debut film, yet it still has its merits as a reasonably mirthful piece of naked neuroticism with camp elements that makes for a marvelous mockery of the rotten Big Apple and its superlatively overrated and always degenerate art subcultures. In many ways, the film features Solondz at a more innocent and less unhinged point in his career when he had yet to become completely enamored with the spoiled and increasingly dumber Jewish bourgeoisie, American Zionism, multiculturalism, pedophilia, black-on-white rape, and other assorted untouchable but increasingly pertinent subjects that no gentile could get away with cinematically portraying. Indeed, Solondz has become like the bad bastard prodigal son of tragic Austrian Jewish philosopher Otto Weininger and Woody Allen, as a man who has more or less cinematically depicted virtually every deranged Judaic pathology known to man, hence why his films have become less than popular and more absurd and esoteric over the years. Interestingly, the auteur once stated of his work, “My movies aren't for everyone, especially people who like them.” Of course, it is quite apparent while watching Fear, Anxiety & Depression that the film, as a highly personal auteur piece, was made for the director himself, thus making it all the more ironic that Solondz ultimately abandoned the work. Indeed, I think it was wise for Solondz to give up the Allen routine early on in the game and stay completely behind the camera, as, I for one, can only handle looking at Hebrews that resemble caricatures for National Socialist propagandist Julius Streicher’s tabloid magazine Der Stürmer for so long before feeling like I am trapped in some sort of autistic Freudian pandemonium. Indeed, Fear, Anxiety & Depression is certainly a nauseatingly neurotic Hebraic nightmare of sorts, but it is also a Solondz flick and of course that makes all the difference.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 3:16 AM
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