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Frenzy Feature

Quite Contrary

Todd Solondz Isn’t Sick, He’s Sad

Lori Solondz
WORDS, NOT DEEDS: Filmmaker Todd Solondz espouses more hope than his films suggest.

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By Eric Allen Hatch | Posted 5/4/2005

Palindromes screens May 7 at the Charles Theatre at 10 p.m. The film opens May 13 at the Charles.

Despite reinventing the American dark comedy with 1995’s Welcome to the Dollhouse and 1998’s Happiness, Todd Solondz doesn’t like the term dark comedy, at least as applied to his work. He prefers “sad comedy.” However you describe his films, many people perceive them as so unrelentingly bleak that they feel comfortable, much to his chagrin, labeling him a misanthrope. What’s more, many of these same people are fans—which led Solondz, around the time of Storytelling (2001), to adopt a new mantra: “My films aren’t for everyone—especially not for the people that like them.”

Solondz’s latest feature, Palindromes, will surely give the director many new chances to defend his love for humanity. It tells the story of a 13-year-old named Aviva, a role played by eight different performers—most famously by Jennifer Jason Leigh, but also by seven other actors of widely varying ages, ethnicities, body shapes, and even genders.

Aviva is every bit as awkward as Dawn Wiener, aka Wiener Dog, the archetypal awkward preteen played by Heather Matrazzo in Welcome to the Dollhouse. Aviva is, in fact, Dawn’s cousin. She has an overwhelming desire to get pregnant, and, in conjunction with an equally awkward young man on a visit with family friends, accomplishes exactly that. Aviva’s mother, Joyce (Ellen Barkin), insists that Aviva get an abortion. Distraught after the procedure, Aviva runs away from home, where a fablelike journey lands her (after a tawdry motel tryst with a trucker) at the home of Mama and Bo Sunshine (Debra Monk and Walter Bobbie), a Bible-thumping couple who have not only raised a family of “special” orphans, but also organized the kids into a Christian pop band.

Despite the outlandish setup, Solondz insists that his films intermingle comedy and sadness in complex ways that have nothing to do with mockery. “Sometimes people laugh at places that I think are inappropriate,” Solondz says over the phone from New York. “I think they’re laughing at the expense of these characters. Much as they may enjoy what I do, it’s a little bit alarming, because . . . what I have in mind [is] certainly not cruelty for cruelty’s sake.”

Instead, Solondz says, “the comedy is inextricably tied in to the pathos. It’s really hard to separate the two, and one’s disposition will dictate one’s response. . . . Half the audience laughs, and the second half are angry at the first half: ‘How can you laugh? This is too sad, too painful.’ But for me, these two impulses are concurrently at work.”

For instance, when Aviva begins her stay at chez Sunshine, we are treated to several musical numbers from the Sunshine Singers, who simultaneously recall the Backstreet Boys, Star Search also-rans, and Jerry’s Kids, and whose inspirational songs just happen to strike a stridently pro-life tone. It’s nearly impossible not to laugh at this sequence, but once you do, an impulse arises to question whether or not you’re laughing at the children’s disabilities.

Solondz thinks otherwise—or at least hopes so. “First of all, I think it’s sheer delight in the music itself. [The performers] take such joy in what they do,” he says in his sincere, gentle voice. “And it’s also something of a subversion of what one can expect from any sort of singing group—that you can be any sort of physical type and still delight in this experience. But that, of course, is married to these words that they’re singing, which are unsettling, and in combination can provoke this laughter, or horror. Certainly as long as one is not laughing at the expense of these characters, it is all fair play.”

As with both Dollhouse and Happiness, a big part of Palindromes involves bad things happening to young people. But Solondz doesn’t see his latest work as a victim story—at least not in the way one might suspect.

Take the truck driver, Joe, aka Earl, aka Bob, played by Stephen Adly-Guirgis. “The flip here is that he is in fact the prey, and [Aviva] is the predator,” Solondz says. “She’s after him! She wants to get pregnant from him and falls in love with him. So he’s this guilt-ridden, tormented soul, but she’s very much the aggressor.”

Solondz doesn’t feel that telling sexually frank stories involving young characters crosses into the obscene. “Look, I don’t have children, but if I had a child and that child was clamoring to act, I certainly would allow my child to act in one of my movies, where I do think a certain dignity is accorded to the child,” he says. “Whereas I would never permit one of my children to act in a commercial for AT&T or the Gap or a detergent, where essentially they’re functioning as a shill to sell consumer goods. To me, that would be the obscenity.”

Even Solondz’s setting of his films within the banal suburban New Jersey sprawl he himself escaped isn’t meant as a dig. “Most people, in fact, live in the suburbs now,” he points out. “So the question isn’t, ‘Why shoot a movie in the suburbs?’ The question should be, ‘Why would you shoot them anywhere else if one is to get at something representative of the American psyche?’”

Solondz’s films can present such bleak landscapes and unforgiving narratives that it can be hard to look past the pessimistic veneer for the optimism within. But in Palindromes, at least, this optimism lurks just beneath the celluloid’s surface.

The title of the film denotes words that remain the same whether spelled forward or backward. Not coincidentally, the name of the film’s main character, Aviva, is one such word—as is the real name (Bob) of the trucker she seduces. So are “mom” and “dad,” Solondz points out. At the end of the film, the young man who impregnated Aviva announces he’s gone through a major transformation and has therefore changed his name to . . . Otto.

There’s far more than just wordplay at work here. The key to the characters’ palindromic nature can be found in a monologue delivered by Dawn Wiener’s brother Mark (Matthew Faber) from Welcome to the Dollhouse. Making an appearance in Palindromes, he rails against free will as an illusion at odds with our genetic programming. As much as we change on the outside—and convince ourselves we’ve changed on the inside—Mark maintains, we’ll really always be the same people deep down.

Solondz concurs with the bulk of Mark’s diatribe, although he reaches a different conclusion. “I certainly subscribe to much of what he says, [although] he’s a little bleaker than I am,” the director says. “Certainly, if you are a person of religious mind, you must believe in free will, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to have faith, to make that leap. On the other hand, if you are of an atheistic sort of mind, you can see choice as something of an illusion, as a kind of vanity. But I don’t see any doom in this. I think to accept one’s limitations can be freeing. One must always try and break through any sort of frozen sense of oneself. For all of one’s inability to change, there’s infinite possibility for variety within those limitations.”

At the film’s end, many of the characters in Palindromes are still trapped by their palindromic nature, destined to remain, through stagnant actions, unchanged both internally and within others’ perceptions. Despite his new name, Otto hasn’t really changed that much. And neither has Aviva, no matter how many lads and lassies may have played her over the course of 100 minutes. “While she may not become a biological mom,” Solondz says, “she may become a Mama Sunshine. That need [to be a mother] is so defining of her identity. It is what marks her as a palindrome, in fact.”

Still, it seems inevitable—and perhaps understandable, given the complex cocktail of laughter and pain Palindromes concocts—that certain people will still see cruelty in Solondz’s work. He acknowledges that interviewers espousing this view have sometimes gone into attack mode. That said, “[most] people tend to be very polite with me, and I think it’s important to be polite in real life. Whereas I think it’s important not to be polite when you’re making a movie.”

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