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The enemy is within: "Life During Wartime"

LifeDuringWartime2Story Personally speaking, the recent films of Todd Solondz make me feel dumb. It is always apparent that they have been deeply thought through, with a dense matrix of themes that form in some sense a code waiting to be cracked, And yet as much as I enjoy the challenge, they often remain teasingly out-of-reach. I know they are saying something, I am just not sure what.

"Life During Wartime," which had its North American premiere Monday night, is Solondz's most accessible film in years. In creating a sequel to 1998's "Happiness" but recasting all the roles, he has pulled off the feat of a film that stands on its own while also deriving a richer meaning from its references back to the older film. It's as if the new film exists entirely in quotation marks, and yet within that space still manages to make meaning of its own. The effect is remarkable, making the entire film hum with a high-tension energy.

Somehow the film's essential strangeness, its sense of things being not quite right, works to its advantage here more than in some of Solondz's other films. Ostensibly the story of three sisters -- one too selfish, one too selfless and the other looking for something stable to hold onto -- the film becomes a treatise on the nature of forgiveness, while always remaining attentive to the idea that, as one character says, "sometimes its better not to understand." Or, as Charlotte Rampling notes during her brief, startlingly hard-hearted appearance, "The enemy is within."

"Life During Wartime" picked up the screenwriting prize just days ago at the Venice Film Festival, and perhaps to heighten the enigma of the meaning behind his film, Solondz was not in attendance at the screening Monday due to a teaching assignment in Singapore. Onstage following the screening were producers Christine Walker and Elizabeth Redleaf and performers Ally Sheedy, Michael Lerner and Rich Pecci. Asked about Solondz's tactic of recasting the roles in the film, Sheedy responded, "It's really difficult to understand what Todd's thinking is ever."

For the record, the title of the film is not taken from the Talking Heads song of the same name, but rather there is a song in the film with music by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Solondz with lines like "I made a mistake, just like Vietnam."

Photo: "Life During Wartime"
Credit: Toronto International Film Festival

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Heard of a van that is loaded with weapons
packed up and ready to go
Heard of some gravesites, out by the highway
a place where nobody knows
The sound of gunfire, off in the distance
I'm getting used to it now
Lived in a brownstone, lived in the ghetto
I've lived all over this town

This ain't no party, this ain't no disco
this ain't no fooling around
No time for dancing, or lovey dovey
I ain't got time for that now

Transmit the message, to the receiver
hope for an answer some day
I got three passports, couple of visas
don't even know my real name
High on a hillside, trucks are loading
everything's ready to roll
I sleep in the daytime, I work in the nightime
I might not ever get home

This ain't no party, this ain't no disco
this ain't no fooling around
This ain't no mudd club, or C. B. G. B.
I ain't got time for that now

Heard about Houston? Heard about Detroit?
Heard about Pittsburgh, PA?
You oughta know not to stand by the window
somebody might see you up there
I got some groceries, some peanut butter
to last a couple of days
But I ain't got no speakers
ain't got no headphones
ain't got no records to play

Why stay in college? Why go to night school?
Gonna be different this time?
Can't write a letter, can't send a postcard
I can't write nothing at all
This ain't no party, this ain't no disco
this ain't no fooling around
I'd love you hold you, I'd like to kiss you
I ain't got no time for that now

Trouble in transit, got through the roadblock
we blended in with the crowd
We got computers, we're tapping phone lines
I know that ain't allowed
We dress like students, we dress like housewives
or in a suit and a tie
I changed my hairstyle so many times now
don't know what I look like!
You make me shiver, I feel so tender
we make a pretty good team
Don't get exhausted, I'll do some driving
you ought to get you some sleep
Get you instructions, follow directions
then you should change your address
Maybe tomorrow, maybe the next day
whatever you think is best
Burned all my notebooks, what good are notebooks?
They won't help me survive
My chest is aching, burns like a furnace
the burning keeps me alive
Try to stay healthy, physical fitness
don't want to catch no disease
Try to be careful, don't take no chances
you better watch what you say


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