“You know, people are always putting New Jersey down. None of my friends can believe I live here. But that’s because they don’t get it: I’m living in a state of irony.” –Helen Jordan (Lara Flynn Boyle), Happiness
My official induction into freelancing, and therefore my official induction into being paid to write, came earlier in this decade when a friend of mine took a position as a senior editor at Vice. He’d written some travel pieces for the magazine and so was tasked with acquiring some more. He reached out to me to write stories about New Jersey, my home. I took to this eagerly because writing for Vice still conferred some glamor and credibility at the time and my options were kind of limited generally. I managed to give him two pieces of fairly standard reportage on locations very close to me: Free Acres, a Georgist commune in my hometown; and the Mall at Short Hills, a luxury cathedral. And that was it.
Truthfully, pitching such stories was difficult for me. First there were my limitations in this kind of journalism and my lack of resources to follow-up on some of the more interesting ideas I had. (These I would overcome later, I think.) But mostly I was limited by my belief that, on the whole, there was not much that made New Jersey very distinct as a region; and anything that was interesting about New Jersey was covered long before by Weird New Jersey. Indeed, the strange proliferation of urban legend and cryptozoology in the state is a direct product of the fact that New Jersey is crushingly boring. It is a manmade wasteland of cookie-cutter housing in manicured cul-de-sacs sprouting amid endless highway. One half of the state leeches off of New York City, the other half leeches off of Philadelphia. Many must pass through it so that they may get somewhere conceivably better; seldom do they find anything notable, and when they do it is hardly ever good.
This would be news to a very loud section of New Jerseyans, north and south, who routinely insist on the opposite of my conclusion. These are people who summer annually at the beach shore. They argue incessantly as to whether the sandwich meat they are eating is called “Taylor ham” or “pork roll” when any rational observer can see that the product is labeled “Taylor pork roll” and is, as far as sandwich meats go, of limited functionality. They attach a special reverence to Bruce Springsteen that is somewhat ironic but mostly not, extending up to Born in the USA and resuming with The Rising, but almost always excluding Nebraska. They, especially those New Jerseyans around my age, have watched Clerks at least twice.
Kevin Smith’s debut film premiered 25 years ago this October. It was filmed at a real convenience store and neighboring independent video store in Leonardo, NJ, with a cast of unprofessional locals and a production budget of $27,575. Of the plot little can be said other than it resembles Waiting for Godot. There is virtually no action, just a ream of realistically directionless dialogue. So real was the dialogue, in fact, that the MPAA slapped the film with its useless “NC-17” rating before Alan Dershowitz successfully appealed the decision and it was given the cherished “R” without cuts. A shrewd move that helped encourage its cult in the under-17 set. People of a certain age, and in a certain place, remember a certain canon of cultural works conveyed by word-of-mouth and stored in clunky rectangular cartridges to be played through bulky machines that no one claimed to know how to install but, through some magic, still got installed. They varied in quality and tone but sometimes shared (young) cast members and themes of youthful suburban ennui where pizza, loitering, rock music, and/or video stores figured in significantly: Empire Records, Dazed and Confused, Clueless, Doom Generation, Scream, and The Craft were among this echelon. But the narrative tabula rasa of Clerks (and its place in the now-sordid Miramax lore) gave it some preeminence.
This preeminence was felt with special attachment in the state of its filming. Young New Jerseyans who watched the film saw a mirror in which their version of themselves was reflected back at them with truth and clarity few could match. Its characters spoke as they spoke, acted as they acted, and had the same ambivalent connection to its setting as they did. Yes, nothing of note happened in the film, save a casual encounter with a dead customer and a tipped-over casket, each retold secondhand. But the film was not boring, it was about boredom, which took on a special intensity within a certain legal border along the eastern coast of the United States. Smith would build on this theme in his subsequent films Mallrats and Chasing Amy, also set, if not filmed, in New Jersey. Hence, young New Jerseyans would lay claim to this boredom and the eloquence Smith claimed it produced, if only because no young person in any other state ever would.
I was not exempt from this reaction, but it never properly settled. In fact, it was aggressively unsettled by a subsequent film.
Todd Solondz’s breakout feature Welcome to the Dollhouse premiered a year after Clerks. Like Clerks, it takes place in suburban New Jersey, and was filmed in West Caldwell. It centers on Dawn Wiener, a middle school student cursed with acute social awkwardness. With her thick glasses, remedial fashion sense, extreme shyness, and crippling naïveté, she is the frequent target of her classmates and an irritant within her family, possessing neither the intelligence of her arrogant older brother or the prettiness and charm of her spoiled younger sister. Toward her, her parents are inattentive, impatient, and incompetent.
Dawn’s problems are manifold but not alien: she’s stuck between childhood and adolescence, refusing to take down her clubhouse (“The Special People’s Club”) to make room for her parents’ anniversary party; her budding sexuality is directed at a much older high school student; and she’s fraught by a need to be accepted by her peers. In every attempt to assert herself in these matters, she is met with complete public humiliation. Her attitude is surly when it is not clueless. She hates her sister and practically wills her to be kidnapped. She rejects her only real friend. Her most intimate connection is with a similarly abject student who spends much of the film threatening to rape her. By the conclusion, Dawn is on a bus to Disney World, more isolated than ever.
Welcome to the Dollhouse was initially marketed as a black suburban comedy, a predecessor to the likes of Election (oddly enough based on a novel set in New Jersey), but as a coming-of-age story it hits some painfully realistic beats. Solondz, with the help of Heather Matarazzo as Dawn, captured the runt’s unceasing hunger for validation and acceptance, especially by the most acceptable; the tendency for the bullied and their bullies to come from the same social rung and to form strong, complex bonds; and the vacuity of adult authority, maturity, and wisdom. Solondz’s suburbs, far from the slacker communal spaces of Kevin Smith, are microcosms of mutual psychic cannibalism. Cruelty breeds more cruelty and vulnerability breeds loneliness.
I usually recommend Welcome to the Dollhouse with little reservation for these qualities, but caution those who wish to explore further that everything after that is a low-diving rollercoaster ride of depravity and misery. The good graces Solondz wrought out of Dollhouse were upended with 1998’s Happiness, which returned to New Jersey but widened the scope to include a compulsive obscene phone caller (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and a pedophiliac psychiatrist and family man (Dylan Baker). Happiness earned acclaim from Roger Ebert, but was rejected by Sundance, dropped by its original distributor, and given an NC-17 rating. Solondz continued with Storytelling (including storyline about a closeted football player played by James Van Der Beek that was entirely removed from the film), Palindromes (which reveals Dawn Weiner committed suicide and features a commune of pro-life terrorists caring for disabled children), and Life During Wartime (revisiting the characters of Happiness but with a completely different cast; for example, Philip Seymour Hoffman was replaced by Michael K. Williams). This is all fair warning. 
It would be easy to pigeonhole Solondz as a kind of transgressive artist. There is support for that. Solondz is unflinching in the deviance and hopelessness he fills with his stories, and he pays insufficient mind to trauma. But in truth, transgression is a hollow effect that doesn’t fit here. There are artists who are more intentionally eager to shock: Michael Haneke and Gaspar Noé at the high end, Eli Roth at the low end. But their work tends to go no deeper than the surface cruelty. Most films just have to follow a logical end that sometimes leads to extreme outcomes. Such a work of art is only transgressive insofar as the viewer convinces him or herself that he or she feels transgressed against. It is not unconnected to the work, but it is not up to the work or its makers to say how it is connected. If Solondz was a shock artist there would be no reason to view his films. Indeed, as they are not, we must watch them somewhat closely, hard though that may be. Solondz can dish out the nihilism, Randall Colburn attests, but beneath that veneer is a committed humanist:
It’s there, in his deep dives into the minds of the unlovable and unforgivable, that Solondz’s well of empathy begins to overflow. Where other filmmakers strain to give us protagonists that are immediately identifiable, Solondz tends to confront us with someone who, for most of the audience, is an ill-fitting subversion of a stereotype we didn’t know we had. While he’ll often spend the next 90 minutes raining abuse upon those characters, he’ll never once seek to judge them. Nor will he ask for an audience’s sympathy. Solondz simply wants his characters to exist, to be given a space in which to breathe. It’s there that humanity is allowed to blossom.
Contrast a film like Dollhouse or Happiness against a film of the same decade like American Beauty. The latter film was wildly popular for its (now very dated) visual style and its depiction of the suburbs as a cauldron of disenchantment and repression. The pressures of conformity and the false security of economic stability stifle the natural urge for liberation. The older generation — Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening — pursue self-fulfilling, if morally questionable, catharsis; the younger generation — Thora Birch, Mena Suvari, the plastic bag guy — navigate their own urges and needs, conscious that they don’t necessarily want to repeat their elders’ mistakes. Its most salient conclusion seems to be that the longer you keep yourself in the closet, the more homicidal you become. It’s a very Boomer-centric film that encapsulates the progressive’s simplistic worldview of repression vs. liberation.
Solondz’s characters have no qualms with conformity; they either blend easily into it or actively seek it out. His characters, rather, are weighed down by shame and inadequacy, and a feeling of apartness from the greater population so extreme that it approaches brutal self-knowledge. When Dylan Barker’s Bill is arrested for molestation, he tearfully confesses to his son that he did it, he enjoyed it, and he would do it again. When his son asks “Would you ever fuck me?” he replies, “No, I’d jerk off instead.” These characters seek connection and lose it; the ask for forgiveness and are refused it; they lose trust and never get it back; they cause lasting harm just as they breathe air. Solondz is a professed atheist (and was raised Jewish), but at times the empathy and humanism of his films can rise to a mercy of an ancient, far less compromising Christian moral sense not widely recognized in America. He is fixated with the lives of the wretched, the broken, and the losers; he is truthful and unsentimental about their flaws. He takes them seriously, in other words, refusing to abstract them into simplistic teachable ideas or sentient platitudes. These are people who live with us, in New Jersey.
“I did grow up in New Jersey,” Solondz said in an interview, “although I suppose if I grew up in the suburbs of Ohio the experience wouldn’t have been so different … I don’t see the suburbs as just this dreadful place, and to say that’s how I portray them in my films is little facile. It’s easy to go and dis the suburbs. It’s more interesting, I think, to try and see how seductive they are, to understand their appeal.”
In the end, I am proven right: New Jersey is not a distinct place. Kevin Smith’s New Jersey is utopian in the strictest sense: it does not exist. Or it is in the process of not existing: malls and video stores (the one from Clerks included) are rapidly closing; the communal bonds they engendered are disintegrating in a haze of whippit fumes. Solondz’s New Jersey, on the other hand, endures and will endure — encompassing all of us in our various capacities as sinners, as outcasts, as strivers for something better who come nowhere near to attaining it. We call this place “New Jersey” because our reasoning capacity gives us no other name. Anyone who denies this is deluded, or from Utah.
1 I’m aware I am leaving out later films, especially Wiener-Dog, which resurrects Dawn Wiener (played by Greta Gerwig) in a less bleak timeline, and that I’m just generally overlooking his fascinating experimental process in favor of a moral overview.