By Daniel Kraus

With this month’s release of the controversial film Storytelling, filmmaker Todd Solondz is back under the microscope again, as is his trademark style of deadpan nastiness. His splash debut film Welcome to the Dollhouse was a hellish high school nightmare without a virtuous character in sight, and the title of his follow-up feature, Happiness, neatly sums up everything Solondz is known for. Unlike characters in most films, Solondz’s characters do not grow warmer and more comfortable to us as the story goes on. Instead, they go the other way—getting increasingly perverse and unattractive.

The press loves an audacious "first film" and that is probably why Solondz disowned his actual freshman film and continues to leave it off of his resume. The movie in question is 1989’s Fear, Anxiety, and Depression which, while quite inferior to Dollhouse, is riddled with the themes that currently obsess Solondz. The film also sheds some light on the mentality of Solondz himself.

This is partly because the reclusive, awkward filmmaker STARS in Fear as Ira Ellis, a geeky, whiny, struggling playwright who grapples with life, love, and career in late 1980’s New York. With his scrawny physique, huge glasses, mop of curly hair, and high-pitched mumble, Solondz comes off like a much darker Woody Allen.

The similarities to Woody are so prevalent, in fact, that one wonders if the film was intended as an homage of sorts. Fear prides itself on its New York locales and in-jokes, and the story revolves around one eccentric New Yorker (Ira) and his circle of hip, artist friends who, by the end, find themselves swapping relationships. The main difference is that Woody’s films deal mainly with middle-aged couples experiencing a re-awakening or crisis of some sort, while Solondz’s films focus on the much less interesting 20-something struggles to "make it", "hit it big", and, of course, "get laid."

As an actor, Solondz’s comic timing is pretty good, but he has none of Woody’s charm and quickly begins to annoy with his grating, one-note performance. Interestingly, though, Solondz has little of Woody’s egotism, and instead of casting himself opposite a beautiful bombshell, his Ira is matched by the equally unattractive Sharon, a vapid fry cook who’s not all there, mentally speaking.

For a semi-major release, the fact that Fear is saddled with two highly unattractive romantic leads is pretty shocking. More than anything, Fear zeroes in on the beginning of Solondz’s weird brand of narcissistic nihilism. Fear makes it clear that the first despicable person Solondz identified with—before wannabe-rapist Brandon McCarthy from Dollhouse or father/pedophile Bill Maplewood from Happiness—was Todd Solondz. By casting an unattractive, unsuccessful, angry person (himself) in the lead role, Solondz proved that, even early on, he knew the commercial value of "ugliness."

What he rightly recognized as his own "ugliness" was defiantly projected onto a larger-than-life 35mm film screen. Within the film, Ira’s nerdy face is blown-up even LARGER on a huge TV screen at a nightclub. "Here is the face of everything uncomfortable," he seemed to be saying, "and I’m not going to let you look away from it."

It wasn’t just his face that Solondz utilized so viciously and effectively. Fear has multiple references to AIDS, cancer, and drug addiction. There are, count ‘em, three suicide attempts in the film, including death by hanging, razor blades, and pill popping (the last one darkly hilarious when the medics pull the entire BOTTLE of pills from the woman’s throat). One of Ira’s girlfriends is even raped, but Ira doesn’t notice because he’s too busy daydreaming about fame. Solondz boldly attempts to meld these sordid topics with Woody-style neurotic comedy. And while it is too dark to be funny, it is too audacious to be disregarded.

In the film, Ira’s primary dilemma is finding the balance between writing that "truly great work of art" and just letting all his seething anger and sexual repression spill out onto the page. When he finally does the latter, he achieves the former. This exactly mirrors Solondz’s career thus far; his works of "art" are the results of his unadulterated neuroses.

In Fear, Solondz’s attempts at humor fail. His later films simply let the darkness weave its own sort of inherent sick humor. But Fear, his only true comedy, is weakened by repeated efforts to "be funny." Most striking are the several musical numbers, including "I’m a Neat Kind of Guy," sung by Solondz himself. This weirdly catchy tune plays over shots of Ira attempting to woo a vomiting performance artist named Junk, taking her on a magical trip of New York. Unlike Woody’s New York, however, Ira and Junk’s musical journey unfolds over a landscape of burned-out buildings, dumpster-crowded alleys, and seedy gay dance clubs.

The musical sequences produce the exact reaction you imagine they would—slack-jawed disbelief. Are we really watching this? Did he really sing this? Who in the hell let him shoot this? In a way, these musical numbers are more shocking than anything hidden behind the red "censored" bar in Storytelling could ever be.

Like most filmmakers, Solondz had an awkward adolescence—made even more awkward by its incidental, almost tragic placement within the gaudy, pretentious, punk art scene in late 1980’s New York. But everything that would distinguish his work later on was already in place, including nerdy, symmetrical shot compositions, fine dialogue, good acting, complex characters, and an irresistible compulsion to take every taboo subject he could get his hands on and squeeze them into 120 minutes. As a film, not so good. As a snapshot of the artist as a young man, priceless.