When I first came to this country, I was continually astonished at how nice Americans were. Notwithstanding the largely undeserved reputation of the English for politesse, you'd have to go a long way to find a Brit who would meet your eye in a public place, let alone smile, ask after your health, or invite you to dinner when you'd just met. And despite the reflexive sneers of my countrymen about the superficiality of American bonhomie, when I dug beneath the niceness what I almost always found was . . . more niceness. Dig deeper, says Todd Solondz, and you'll find more of it, and more, as well as bottomless optimism, innocence—and some other, not-so-nice stuff.
The idea that beneath our unfailing pleasantness lurks a nation of thugs, rapists, and murderers of the body and spirit is hardly new to the American artistic imagination, though unlike most other exponents of American noir, Solondz is a complex, ambivalent nihilist who doesn't picture the world in dualities of good versus evil, liberal versus conservative. If he belongs to a camp, it has a membership of one: the anxious outsider obsessed with physical unattractiveness and rejected by the cruel fraternity that passes for normal. With the possible exception of Neil LaBute, I can't think of a filmmaker who can divide an audience as efficiently as Solondz. His warped inquiries into suburban domesticity, in Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happinessand Storytelling, inspire admiration and disgust in equal measure. (I prefer not to think about his first feature, Fear, Anxiety and Depression, less because it is awful, though it is, than because as a very green and overeager novice critic, I used it to anoint Solondz heir to the throne of Woody Allen.)
In his bracing new film Palindromes, niceness is not, as it is in most attacks on petit-bourgeois mores, code for hypocrisy, but a sincerely intended and largely unconscious cover for the most unspeakable forms of domination. Solondz has always insisted that he is not a political filmmaker, and whether you agree with him or not will depend on the size of the pin political. Unless I'm mistaken, Palindromesdraws at least part of its inspiration from two recent documentaries that go to the heart of America's culture wars, in the cracks of which Solondz likes to thrash around as he takes apart media-fed pieties abut sexual abuse, pornography, abortion and religion. A spinoff of Welcome to the Dollhouse, Palindromesis a Voltairean road movie all but derailed by a fussy and confusing central conceit in which, over the course of her journey through the American heartland, the beleaguered heroine is played by seven young actors of assorted sizes, colors and even genders. With its Ozzie and Harrietwardrobe and set design and its episodic structure framed by birth announcements in baby pinks and blues, Palindromesannounces itself as pure parody of 1950s television entertainment. But it's not that simple. Solondz always sides with the Candides of this world, and young Aviva, a cousin in more ways than one to Welcome to the Dollhouse's Dawn Wiener, is no exception. An innocent in search of happiness, Aviva wants to have a baby because "that way I'll always have someone to love." But when she manages to get herself knocked up, under excruciating circumstances played for laughter and embarrassment, her overpoweringly empathic modern mom (a very good Ellen Barkin) turns petty dictator and whisks her off to the local abortion clinic, whose entrance is blockaded by the usual sobbing pro-lifers.
Shifting shape as she goes, Aviva runs away and hits the highway in search of a new father for the child she still longs for. After having ugly sex with a tortured trucker, she stumbles into a fundamentalist Christian household surely modeled on the one in Jonathan Karsh's 2003 documentary My Flesh and Blood, about a California woman who compulsively adopts special-needs children, the more disabled and disfigured the better. Wonderfully played in Palindromesby Debra Monk, Mama Sunshine is a bottomless well of kindness, sensitivity and self-sacrifice. For all her dumpy homeliness and pro-life evangelism, she's a mirror image to Aviva's solicitous liberal mother and, as it turns out, every bit as controlling. Solondz will not allow us the luxury of dismissing Mama Sunshine as a liar or a cynic, but he has grasped what Karsh and his mostly approving reviewers have not—that this woman's overwhelming kindness is as insidious and predatory, as ravenously needy, as it is genuine.
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Solondz has often been accused of cruelty toward his characters, social rejects who range from the homely to the downright hideous. He denies the charge, but if his identification with the scorned and downtrodden is unmistakable, there's also a giggly sadism in the way, for example, he stuffs a very large African-American incarnation of Aviva into a skimpy tank top, followed by an absurdly virginal pink jumper with a Peter Pan collar, or stages the scenes in Mama Sunshine's house—the insanely cheery dinner-table chat, a Christian-rock song-and-dance sequence performed by amputees and mentally disabled kids. Solondz likes nothing better than toying with audience unease, and in Palindromes, as in his other movies, it's never clear whether he's trying to get a Brechtian rise out of beauty-obsessed American audiences or simply turning his own experience—he has complained in interviews about strangers making fun of his runtish looks—into a franchise no less exploitative than the cruelties he visits on his Avivas. Nor is it apparent why he has chosen to portray her in palindromic multiples, each more unattractive than the last, right up to Jennifer Jason Leigh, who plays her as a haggard neurotic.
What is absolutely clear, notwithstanding a mischievously ambiguous ending and Solondz's oft-repeated claim that he leaves the drawing of conclusions to his audience, is the triumph of Solondz's bleak fatalism over his heroine's ingenuously American insistence on the possibility of happiness. Aviva's name, like that of several of the other characters, is another palindrome, spelled the same way backward and forward, and when she runs away from Mama Sunshine, it's all the way back home to her own mama, where she runs into a full-court homage to Capturing the Friedmans. Dawn's brother Mark Wiener (played by Welcome to the Dollhouse's Matthew Faber, a dead ringer for Solondz and, curiously, for the young Arnold Friedman) has been accused of child molestation, and the liberals around him all assume he's guilty. Except for Solondz, who gives him the benefit of the doubt and puts into Mark's mouth the credo that runs like a dark streak through all his movies. "No one ever changes," says Mark sadly. "There's no free will. We're all robots. Genes and randomness, that's all there is." Have a nice day, America.
PALINDROMES WAS WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY TODD SOLONDZ; PRODUCED BY DERRICK TSENG AND MIKE RYAN. NOW PLAYING AT EDWARDS UNIVERSITY, IRVINE.