Fraught with Ambiguity

Todd Solondz is in a hotel in Los Angeles. His calls are fielded by the front desk operator, who has no idea who he is beyond his "guest" status. Had she known that Solondz is the director of Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), Happiness (1998) and Storytelling (2001), there might have been a hint of wariness in her voice. Hints of wariness are standard operating procedure in Solondz' world.

But maybe she relates to his films. Maybe she felt as much empathy for Dollhouse's tragically awkward Dawn Wiener (played by Heather Matarazzo) as Solondz did. Maybe Dylan Baker's tortured Bill Maplewood in Happiness helped her see some shred of humanity within a pedophile. Maybe Storytelling tore down her pre-conceptions of liberal arts colleges, teen homosexuality and suburban privilege.

Or perhaps she just found Dollhouse exploitative, Happiness perverse, and Storytelling bizarre and unwatchable. Regardless, as long as she is affected by Solondz' films -- better yet, if she changes as a result -- then Solondz feels that he's done his job correctly and created relevant cinematic art.

Solondz returns to theaters this week with Palindromes. At its heart, according to Solondz, it is the story of 13-year-old Aviva's quest for love. Audiences are going to be more affected by the film's narrative thrust: her pregnancy and coerced abortion, her odyssey that brings her to a group home in which right-to-life activists care for special-needs children (who record and perform as the Sunshine Singers) when not plotting to kill abortionists, and her encounter with the late Dawn Wiener's brother Marc, whose philosophy about free will and predestination allows him to cope with being pegged as a child molester and provides the film's most transcendent scene.

But Solondz also went out on a limb by casting seven different actresses (including Jennifer Jason Leigh), and one actor, to play Aviva. What seems like a gimmick slowly makes sense, as Solondz wants his audiences to care about Aviva, not to identify with the actress playing her (or relate her to Aviva's cousin, the Dawn Wiener character from Dollhouse, whose funeral opens the film). It may be Solondz' last chance to prove that, yes, he does care about his characters, and no, he is not a misanthrope toying with audience expectations. But he also deals with the issue of abortion in a way that has never been presented in a film before, a topic ripe for debate among the punditry should Palindromes be sufficiently illuminated by the spotlight of controversy.

Matthew Scott Kelemen: I recently watched Storytelling for the first time, and I hope you don't mind my saying it this way, but I think Palindromes is a much better film.

Todd Solondz: I'm glad that you like Palindromes!

I was confused [by the casting method] for the first 60 minutes, although I was intrigued. But the scene at Aviva's party when Marc Wiener expounds on free will versus predestination blew me away. I felt I was watching something that pushed the art forward and was very relevant. We have the right to choose, but our choices are predetermined. It's the first time I've seen something like this addressed in film in that way.

Well, good, thank you! I try to put things out there, articulate things that I don't see articulated.

I think that sequence is going to strike a chord in audiences, about something they are aware of but don't think about that much.

Oh, wow. Well, these things are unpredictable. I'm just appreciative that anyone can sit through and watch, and show up at these things. I don't take [open-minded audiences] for granted.

So how did you approach directing eight different individuals playing the same role? Did you have an idea of which part you wanted to shoot first in order to ...

It was actually about logistics. We actually shot the Sunshine sequence first because that was the one that was the most involved in terms of having so many children all at the same time. And from there I don't remember the exact order. I'd have to think about it. But as I say it was all dictated by logistics.

How did you create continuity or synchronicity between the actresses?

Well, what I was looking for a certain quality, a quality of innocence, of vulnerability -- that this was her constant. So with each performer who was playing this character, I tried to extract, to elicit as best I could, that quality of innocence and emphasize that, so there would be a kind of cohesion to connect them all. If you speak to Ellen Barkin, I'm sure she will tell you that whether she was speaking to the Latina, the redhead or Jennifer Jason Leigh, it was all as if it were the same person.

When you get to Jennifer Jason Leigh's scenes, suddenly it seems as if all of the other Avivas are have been taking their cue from her. You see this winsomeness that she infused in her characters often in her career.

That's great. She is one of the best actresses of our time.

In recent weeks, when I've brought up your name, I often hear 'Oh, he hates his characters.' When I was watching Palindromes, I felt I was seeing two layers. On one hand, I thought I was watching a very respectful portrayal of those kids. The other side was that people would fall back on conventional Todd Solondz criticisms: "God, this is another way of hating his characters."

Well, I can't really control these things, what people will say. I'm not a masochist. I don't Google myself! Unfortunately, there are those who will look at me in this way, and there is counterbalance with people who see something else. The movies are tricky, and they're fraught with ambiguity.

I think it is glib; I think that it is reductive to say I hate my characters. I couldn't possibly put all of the time and effort into the struggle of making these movies if I didn't feel for these characters. I am often asked by people ... sometimes they'll say "Why do you make films about such ugly characters, such ugly people?" And I always say I don't see them as ugly. I think it's more telling about the questioner than about me.

I think if people understood your take on sympathetic versus unsympathetic characters they'd look at the film a little differently.

You know it's very tricky. People see children with disabilities, and to see them in this kind of context, people don't know how to respond sometimes. And they say "How can you let them dance to these songs? It's offensive." And I say "Why should they be disenfranchised from these performances. Would it be okay if none of these children had disabilities, if they were just children? Or is it just because they have disabilities, because then who's prejudiced? Whose condescension are we talking about?

What came first, the idea of trying to tackle the concept of free will, or the actual, what I think you referred to as the film's MacGuffin [a device most often identified with the films of Alfred Hitchcock that pushes the story forward but is not intrinsically essential to the film]: the abortion story?

Well, you know, what came first, the chick or the egg? The process of writing is a creative one, not an intellectual one. It's a process of discovery. I'm not trying to be evasive or coy here. But certainly, there are certain things in the newspaper ... we live in a country where to be an abortionist is like being a fireman or policeman. It's a profession -- you put your life on the line. Regardless of one's political convictions or ideologies, of course, you have to respect that a doctor can make a good living doing all sorts of procedures other that perform abortions. This is certainly the only country in the world where clinics are bombed and abortionists are assassinated. It is a terribly volatile subject, but it's out there. It's in the media, newspapers, radio, etc. -- every day. So it's hard not to respond to that on the one hand.

And yet, the movie for me is an exploration of things that go beyond the so-called issues, which are, I accept, irreconcilable. All of this filtered through the consciousness of this young girl, because at heart, on the simplest, most fundamental level, it is really just a story of a young girl on a quest for love, to be 13 years old and to want a baby. It's not really about a baby. You imagine having a baby will provide a sense of unconditional love that one is not getting elsewhere. And all of this is thrust into motion with a dilemma: what do you do if your 13-year-old daughter comes home, and not only is she pregnant but she wants to keep the baby?

These slogans of pro-choice, pro-life -- they're Orwellian, of course, as if one is anti-choice and one is anti-life. If anything, the movie ... could be argued as an anti-anti-choice film. A young girl suspended between a pro-choice family that gives no choice, and pro-life family that kills. That choice ... you could argue, is one pro-choice? Am I pro-choice? Well, if one believes in the possibility of choice and the existence of free will -- which of course if you are of a religious bent, free will is a necessity in order to make a leap of faith. Its something that religion demands of you. If you are not, you may perceive things in a different light.

We can get real complex about this and say everybody's choice as to whether they want to have an abortion or not have an abortion, whether they want to support abortion or not support abortion -- due to genetics and environment, it was pre-destined that they would think that way.

Well, I don't want to think "pre-destined" because that almost implies that there is a certain kind of deity, that there is a kind of larger force at work in designing our lives. Rather, I might say that we are, um, as Marc Wiener says, we have our genetics and our life experience combined with randomness in such a way that the outcome can be nothing but what we ultimately believe ourselves to choose. That is to say, you may believe you are voting for Bush or Kerry. But it's not really a choice, it's the illusion, the vanity, of a choice. That in fact, one cannot but choose what one ultimately chooses.

I'm getting maybe a little thick there... ?

You're not. There's randomness, but if you believe that the universe all began at one point and is unfolding according to mathematical, mechanical principles -- then there is some argument for saying whatever happens does so according to some grand design, but we can't pretend to know that or fully understand it.

It's unknowable. Of course, it's all unknowable. Is there a grand design or is there not? But regardless, when we go to the movies, we have our biases, our prejudices that we have developed over the years.

Which is a kind of self-deception.

Certainly, we like to imagine certain things about ourselves. Everyone likes to believe that they're fighting the good fight.

Ellen Barkin's character would like to think so, in a liberal sense. In forcing Aviva to have an abortion, her true selfishness comes to the forefront. Aviva has no choice, her mother is more scared for herself.

And many will argue she is a liberal. She will check off that she's anti-war, pro-gay rights, pro-gun control, etc. But when thrust into this terrible crisis, it becomes a crucible, a test of her character, and how she will handle this. I think in the end when she breaks down and says "Am I a terrible mother?" what she's doing is acknowledging her failure to come through at a critical moment in the appropriate way. And I think therein lies her dignity... .

Look, the person who kills the abortionist, like the person who performs these abortions ... everyone thinks they're doing the right thing. Everyone thinks they're sacrificing one life to save a million unborn babies. Even Stalin, on his death bed, thought he was a good person. There's a kind of self-deception, a kind of narcissism. These are survival mechanisms.

I think it was interesting that the abortionist's family was the typical American pie family, or the only one that was conventional -- the only ideal family that was portrayed in the film.

That's a good point, thank you.

I think artistic ambiguity provokes thought in the audience. That seems to be what you go for.

Yes, it's true. I do prod and poke, and try to challenge the audience in some way. To re-assess, to re-evaluate -- reconsider one's preconceptions, one's myths about the world we live in and the way in which we engage in it.

Is Marc Wiener your alter-ego in the film. Is he a direct conduit to you?

I certainly have a great deal of affection for him, and I do agree with most of what he says there. However, I think he's a little bit bleaker than I am because I think he see this inability to change with a sense of doom. For me it's almost a freeing thing. If one can accept one's limitations That this can be a liberating thing.

Is abortion merely the film's MacGuffin?

Well, the movie is not a dogmatic film. I'm not out to advocate pro-choice anymore than I'm out to advocate pro-life. I have no interest in making such a film, but rather to explore some of the moral dimensions, the moral complexities of what this means and what this says about society.

There have been preview comments published that essentially said your last film shrunk your audience. Is that a concern of yours, does that ever cross your mind that you might have lost some people that liked your first two films?

Well, I can't please everyone all the time, and I never had a very big audience to begin with. I can only hope that the movie ... I do think it's reflective of certainly the polarization, the blue-red divide, that exists in the country, that people will be provoked.

We have definitely made a major shift into absolutism, and people wanting definite principles and answers with which to make their decisions about politics and social issues. The film seems to address this.

Yes, this is all true. We live in times in which obscenities are all around us. We [had] the Terry Schiavo story on the news 24/7, and the profound obscenities that emerge from certain kinds of ideological bullying. It's all reflected in some way. The movie is all fraught with ambiguity, and that's what makes it difficult or complicated. I don't want to tell the audience, in fact, I'm pro-choice, because if I say I'm pro-choice then the audience can relax and say "OK, it's a pro-choice movie, I know where you stand." And also if I say I'm pro-choice, no one who is pro-life will come see it. And the whole point is not so much about me. It's about you, about the audience, about how they engage when confronted with some of the consequences or complications of what this is all about.

In the production notes to Palindromes, you make a comment about how art has no meaning if it is not transformative. What does that mean to you, that art must be transformative? If you're going to strip the definition of art to its bare essential, it's an artificial representation of a physical thing or an idea. Why must it be transformative?

I think that it's not that it has to be representational, but the experience itself has to transform, in some sense, one's understanding of the experience that one is engaged in over the course of a film. If you go into it with a certain attitude and there is no evolution that takes place, if it doesn't engage and speak to you in a way that makes you see things in a slightly different light, then I think it must fail for you.

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