By Alan Scherstuhl
By Amy Nicholson
By Charles Taylor
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Brian Feinzimer
By CAROLINA DEL BUSTO
By AMY NICHOLSON
By Amy Nicholson
—Dr. Pangloss, Candide
—Mark Wiener, Palindromes
For a decade now, Todd Solondz has been welcoming moviegoers into the dollhouse of his predilections and perversities, whose windows are the looking glass of the downtrodden, the deviant and the otherwise discontented and where, no matter how much time we spend, we never feel entirely at ease. Reliably, in the course of any Solondz film, there comes a moment (usually several) when the audience bristles with discomfort, thinking it was supposed to laugh at something, then thinking twice and swallowing its collective guffaw. It's a wonderful, anxious sound, and in Solondz's Palindromes, which I take to be the most urgent and uncompromising film of his short career, it occurs when the movie's shape-shifting teenage heroine, Aviva (the cousin of Welcome to the Dollhouse's Mark and Dawn Wiener), arrives at the home of the Sunshine family—a Mia Farrow-ish brood of adopted disabled children tended to by a kindly earth-mother type who also happens to be a Christian fundamentalist.
By Solondz's own admission, it's a scenario many in the audience enter into "waiting for the other shoe to drop," for some lurid revelation to rupture Mama Sunshine's façade of Christian goodness. But here Solondz denies his audience that self-congratulatory satisfaction, as he does throughout this fractured kaleidoscope of George Bush's America. Though he gives us many reasons to laugh with (and at) the Sunshines, he never suggests that their sweetness is less than genuine, and only late in the day does he reveal a creepy dimension to their acts of charity, and even then he does so in a way other than what we expect.
Put simply, Solondz has long refused to toe any convenient ideological lines, which may be the thing that most rankles those of his detractors—particularly those who consider themselves liberals—who might otherwise be favorably disposed toward the work of a literate New York (by way of New Jersey) Jewish intellectual filmmaker. Like two of the other most interesting directors at work today, Denmark's Lars von Trier and Austria's Michael Haneke, Solondz shows us humanity at its most compassionate andmost repugnant, often at one and the same time. And by doing so, he routinely exposes himself to accusations of sadism, cruelty and outright misanthropy.
Solondz wouldn't have it any other way. But "There's a meaningful distinction between being cruel and exploring cruelty," he tells me when I ask him about the divided reaction his films inevitably engender. "We all have different life experiences that inform us of the nature of who we are and the world around us, and I do think some people have been exposed to greater degrees of human unpleasantness than others. The irony is that, in all my scripts, I'm always softening things—the initial drafts are always much harsher. Sometimes, I may have to sharpen things where I feel I haven't dug deeply enough, but I always find that, in life, the cruelty is so much more acute, and you can never really transcribe it. Because no one would believe it. What happens in life is too much. You have to make it accessible."
It's late last month, and Solondz and I are having breakfast in the dining room of the Four Seasons Hotel, where, between gripes about the quality of the fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice, Solondz recounts the personal anecdote that, he says, best encapsulates his view of the world. "Years ago when I was teaching immigrants, one of my students was a Russian woman who was around 65 years old—a total babushka, everyone's favorite grandmother. She would bring little cakes and goodies to class every day, and everyone just loved her. One day, the subject of homosexuality and AIDS came up, and she said, 'But they should die because they are homosexual.' And she meant it from the bottom of her heart.
"By the same token," Solondz continues, "young people in college or just out of college go backpacking, they want to see the 'real world,' meet 'real people' and experience 'real life.' And they go into South America or Asia or Africa, and these families take them in, and they're so generous, so wonderful, etc. But all you have to do is say, 'I am gay' or 'I am Jew,' and then it's like death. All of a sudden, the savagery comes out. And what I'm getting at in the films is this kind of reconciliation, that something you may love is at the same time married to something at which you shudder in revulsion and horror."
In Palindromes, that reconciliation occurs between the benign America of Norman Rockwell and Garrison Keillor and the seething cultural divisions of our red-vs.-blue times, where an abortion clinic can be found nestled inconspicuously among the shops of a suburban strip mall, and the doctors who work there risk being shot for sport. Yet while Solondz readily admits that Palindromesis his most political film—he calls it "an anti-anti-choice movie, and that's presuming that, philosophically speaking, one even has such a thing as choice"—its depiction of the abortion wars is but one way by which Solondz addresses a troubling culture constructed around notions of erasure and self-reinvention.
"Everyone wants to hear how they can improve, how much better we can be and so forth, and I'm not going to dispute that," he says. "Certainly, we can improve ourselves. We can learn to be more respectful, more polite, et cetera. But the thing that's painful for people to hear is when Mark Wiener says that there's a part of ourselves that doesn't change. It's like on all these reality-TV shows when, at the end of the half-hour, the people say, 'I've learned so much, I've totally changed.' And I look at them, and they seem as deficient at the end as they did at the beginning. Of course, the acquisition of experience does shape you in ways that you can't fully digest and appreciate at the time, but it's also important to acknowledge one's limitations, as opposed to going on TheSwanand having your face reconstructed. It's very painful to see the lengths that people go to in this particular culture to feel that they can accept themselves. There's this illusion that one changes if one's exterior changes. And if you want to believe that, fine. But it isan illusion."
And so it may be that Palindromes' Aviva, like Dawn Wiener before her, is ultimately just a lost little girl looking for love in all the wrong places and finding that it exists in perilously short supply. "There's certainly no shortage of talk about love," Solondz says. "But of course, the movies are responsive to that. It's a very damaged place, the country we live in. Its values are incredibly perverse. In virtually every other part of the world, one's identity is so tied into family and community, whereas we live in this place where, for all the talk of family values, we remain fixated by this notion of going off and untying the bonds and fulfilling one's self. And there's a price to be paid for that. I think there's no place in the world where one can experience isolation and loneliness more profoundly."
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