Remember when James Franco, holding forth at Village East Cinemas, described some of his former NYU colleagues as “shitheads”? It seems he’s not the only Tisch faculty member with complaints. During a q&a at Angelika Film Center following a screening of his new film Wiener-Dog, indie director Todd Solondz had some harsh words for the “evil empire” that cuts his paychecks.
The comments came as Solondz discussed a section of his film in which Danny DeVito plays David Schmerz, a sad-sack professor at a nameless New York university who’s on thin ice with his colleagues. He’s “a little too negative,” according to his boss, who warns Schmerz that he needs to schmooze with the new administration: “Shapiro’s out, Brenner’s gone, Weinstein’s gone, Horowitz and Mandel, gone.” You get the idea.
His students– especially the one who wants to “apply ’90s queer theory from a race perspective”– aren’t connecting with the Hollywood has-been, either. “He’s probably got, like, the box set to Curb Your Enthusiasm,” one of them cringes. At the same time, Schmerz’s new script, Celebrity Schmelebrity, is stuck at the bottom of his vacuous agent’s reading pile.
After Wiener-Dog‘s New York premiere at BAMcinemaFest, an audience member asked if the Schmerz character was based on NYU professor Arnie Baskin, and Solondz admitted he was an inspiration.
Friday at Angelika, Solondz said the Schmerz story was “not about film school or even NYU– it’s really about a poor soul who is on a quest for meaning and redemption.” At the same time, he admitted that “it was hard not to have the section somewhat informed [by teaching at NYU], but with a certain level of satire, philosophical dimension there.”
The film was “pretty tough on NYU professors,” the moderator noted.
“I don’t know,” said Solondz, who is also a Tisch graduate. “I mean look, it is an evil empire, NYU.” There was laughter from the crowd, which presumably included a few students. (Reminder: Bedford + Bowery is produced by NYU Journalism.) “I had the opportunity, by teaching there, I got to learn up close how the Tisch School of the Arts is managed with such remarkable incompetence and corruption.”
Still, Solondz digs his job, he said. “I love teaching, I love the students, I have some wonderful colleagues. And I always say I look at my young students, all young, hopeful and ambitious, and I say, I’m grateful I’m not you.”
Here, the director was referring to his belief that while it’s easier to get one’s work out there in the web series age, it’s “much more difficult to get a theatrical release and to find a market out there.” He noted, “It’s not like we live in France where each ticket, a portion of the ticket goes toward the subsidization of filmmakers. I think if Claire Denis, if she were an American citizen she probably would’ve had to do episodics of Sex and the City or something like that to survive.”
Still, Solondz continues to make features, and he drew stars like Greta Gerwig, Ellen Burstyn, and Zosia Mamet to Wiener-Dog. The q&a’s moderator wondered whether his academic job put any pressure on him to produce. “No, there’s no pressure,” Solondz said, seemingly surprised by the idea. “God, no. I’m sure they’re very happy that they have someone who teaches there and actually works.” It was unclear whether that was meant as a jab at other faculty members, but it was definitely met with laughter.
Finally, an audience member asked if a particular scene in the movie (spoiler alert), in which Schmerz outfits his titular wiener-dog with a suicide vest, was meant to reflect antipathy for NYU. “No,” Solondz responded. “Like I said, I love teaching there. The school itself is a little problematic, the way its managed and so forth. But I, no, look, perhaps I just like to bite the hand that feeds me. That’s really fun.”