Sunday, February 5, 2012

Nothing matters

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2005)

Towards the end of Todd Solondz’s Palindromes, a character sets out at some length what we must take to be the film’s underlying philosophy. Talking to the film’s protagonist Aviva, a teenage girl who’s gone through substantial travails in search of some notion of fulfillment and self-definition, he tells her that no one ever changes, people always end up where they started out, we’re all “robots programmed arbitrarily by nature’s genetic code,” and then if there were any chance of overcoming that, he cites the planet’s depleting resources to explain why it’s not worth it anyway. A couple of scenes later, a song with the refrain “This is the way that Jesus made us” plays over the closing credits. And the audience presumably leaves on something less than a high.


What is one to make of a filmmaker of such a depressing worldview? Many of us would presumably cite ourselves to disprove his thesis – I like to think I’ve gone a long way from where I started, and no one believes that Scott Fitzgerald was right about the absence of second lives in American (or other) lives. Still, whenever I go back home to Wales, I’m struck by the lack of dramatic change in most people, and I’m getting edgy at the thought that I may have exhausted my own capacity for reinvention. Even in the privileged West, true upward mobility may be a gift reserved for a minority. It’s a crucial ideological concept though. US politicians regularly use appeals to the “American dream” and the preeminence of individual opportunity to put a gloss on profoundly anti-democratic policies. Mainstream films usually happily go along. So there’s clearly a place for a filmmaker to speak for the disenfranchised.

But Solondz is no romantic champion of the downtrodden. Cursed with hypersensitivity to the tackiness and contrivances of normal human interaction, his films virtually bleed distaste for everyone in them; they’re about as joyless as it gets. Here’s Solondz on being a director: "I'm just unfortunate that I have this job I hate, I suppose. I keep thinking I've got to find a new career and maybe I will. But for now, this is all I've got. I haven't found a good alternative yet."

Palindromes, his first film in four years, is built around a brave aesthetic concept – the central character, a 12 year old girl named Aviva, is played by eight different actors who vary quite widely in appearance – two of the eight are black, and one is Jennifer Jason Leigh. Early on, Aviva gets pregnant by another teenager; she’s enamored of the idea of having a child and wants to keep it, but her mother (Ellen Barkin) pushes her into an abortion. Aviva runs away from home, landing in the house of “Mama Sunshine,” a born-again Christian who fills her home with disadvantaged children, and whose husband plots the murder of abortion doctors.

Celebrating Empathy

The odd approach to casting is less jarring than it sounds – transitions are marked by chapter headings, and Solondz succeeds in conveying a consistent sense of the character (although this partly only reflects her lack of complexity). In the interviews I’ve read, he’s not particularly articulate on what underlies this strategy; in Eye magazine he said it was largely a function of past frustration at seeing more good actors at auditions than he could ever cast. By its nature, the device might be designed to convey Aviva’s inner complexity, and the universality of her experiences. But this is obviously largely negated by the theme of resignation I described in the opening paragraph.

Abortion is a prominent concept in the film but it’s hard to know for sure where Solondz stands in that debate; probably he’s pro choice without being passionate about it. Paraphrasing her interview with Solondz, Kim Linekin said in Eye: “The fact that Solondz’s mind is so open – none of his films judge his characters, no matter how reprehensibly they behave – has left him open to the criticism that he celebrates depravity. He actually celebrates empathy, and his films can be disorienting as they test our limits of it.”

But this strikes me as a distinction without a difference. Solondz’ depictions of “empathy” – relationships between a teenage girl and a child molester, or across the religious and cultural divide – are invariably fragile and impermanent. And his depictions of families are distanced and faintly (if not openly) disgusted. In Palindromes, there seems to be no question that Mama Sunshine has rescued the kids from miserable lives, and the use of children with real disabilities makes the inclusiveness and goodwill palpable. But Solondz plays the whole thing for laughs, depicting the kids as gooey, indoctrinated puppets who perform gruesomely tacky Christian pop songs (“Why should children with disabilities not be included in satire and comedy and musical numbers?” asks Solondz, in one of his typically displaced self-justifications). The logic seems to be that Solondz’s “empathy” in using the kids in the first place gives him a blank cheque to treat them as he pleases; and if we don’t like it, it’s a sign of our own limited parameters.

It’s A Good Thing

In Solondz’s world there’s barely any good or bad – there are just people and their genes. A palindrome of course is a word or phrase that reads the same backwards as forwards; Aviva’s name is a palindrome and so are those of several other characters. It’s a nice symbol for a world in hopeless stasis, and at the end of Palindromes it’s not clear how much Aviva has retained from her experiences. In the Eye interview, Solondz casts this realization “as a kind of liberation. To be able to embrace who we are, for all our flaws, is a good thing.” But as I noted, nothing about the movie projects a sense of liberation or serenity. And yet Solondz apparently largely financed the film himself, using up his life savings. He’s that committed to his message of negation.

It’s hard not to admire such a nutty kind of prophet. But ultimately it’s an awfully narrow thematic canvas. Consequently, I don’t find that Solondz’ films stick in my mind very much afterwards. I recall a few of the more squirmy highpoints of Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness, but of his most recent film Storytelling – a story consisting of two self-contained chapters – I couldn’t remember a single thing about the second story until I looked it up. My notes at the time say that the film’s constructions and oppositions were interesting in a formal kind of way, but seemed never-endingly shallow. I wrote that it was extremely entertaining moment to moment because it was so glib, but never yielded much of a point. And a year or so later, it was all gone.

One of Solondz’ quotes – about it being an illusion that we can do or be anything – reminded me of something Prince Charles was recently caught to utter. Of course, the Prince was pilloried for being reactionary and complacent. In Solondz’ case one can only speculate on the underlying neuroses, but the effect is much the same – of an entertaining sideshow, one that may even carry some constitutional upside, but which for all its superficial modernity is snooty and conservative, and just doesn’t seem to be what we need right now.

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