Had the Voice photo shoot with director Todd Solondz been just a few days later, maybe we’d have posed him with a wide piece of red duct tape over his mouth, inked with bold black marker: LIFE. Like the Schiavo protesters, Solondz aims to provoke and certainly imagines himself a champion of the voiceless. His latest satire, Palindromes (opening April 13; see J. Hoberman’s review), with its lacerated liberals and complicated Christians, looks to agitate all sides of the culture-of-life debate. Oddly enough, though, amid the prime-time weirdness of the Terri Schiavo right-to-die grotesquerie, this abortion-issue morality Scud by a filmmaker who claims “there’s nothing in my movies that you don’t see every day on the news” seems almost tame. The fracas at the Florida hospice adds a nice wrinkle to his palindrome metaphor, though. That is, we may end much as we began, but those seeking control over the mechanisms of life will get you coming and going.
Here in the Tribeca studio, 45-year-old Solondz poses amiably, smiling between takes and chatting in his precisely enunciated nasal drawl. When facing the camera, however, he stares mirthlessly through oversize green-rimmed glasses. He claims to dislike his winsome smile, but one also imagines that a grin would give his critics more ammo for their fave charge, that he creates his unfortunate characters simply to mock them.
To a pageant of sad antiheroes, which now includes several pedophiles, a pornographic crank yanker, a murderous maid, and iconic seventh-grade zero Dawn Wiener, Solondz now adds Dawn’s laconic cousin Aviva, a 13-year-old obsessed with having a baby. Aviva, played throughout the picaresque Palindromes by eight different actors of various ages, genders, and body types, does manage to get pregnant. But after her mother (Ellen Barkin) insists on an abortion, Aviva runs off with a trucker who subsequently ditches her. After a Night of the Hunter river drift, our little Huck Finn winds up in a loving Christian home—where the Sunshine Singers, kids with various disabilities, perform right-to-life pop while their doting caregivers plot to murder abortion providers.
Solondz the writer is arguably a master of saccharine suburban cadence, the acid adolescent slur, the codes of conformist cruelty. In 1998’s Happiness, pedophile father Dylan Baker addresses his son with outrageous candor, but in measured tones, as though a solemn meter makes anything appropriate. Of this icky paternal confession, however, Solondz adds, “It’s morally questionable what that character does. But I understand it. And I feel for the suffering of that moment.” That’s the director’s usual cant. Some theorize that he must write his scathing screenplays in a bitter trance, then conjure this analytic empathy out of later remorse. “They call me loathsome, cynical, misanthropic,” acknowledges Solondz. He says that some have seen his choice to open Palindromes with Dawn Wiener’s funeral as an example of this. But, he protests, “It wasn’t that I took vindictive delight or some sort of vindictive sadism. I wanted her to go on. I begged that actor as I have begged no other actor. But she [Heather Matarazzo] refused to play that role again.” He adds, “People say, ‘You know you’ve succeeded when people hate your work. But I . . . I . . . I prefer that they don’t. It gives me no pleasure. People say, ‘Why do you make movies about such ugly characters?’ and I say I don’t see them that way.”
There’s no denying the ugliness of his scenarios, however. And even supporters of his flaying of America’s innocence fetish must still wonder why Solondz casts so many kids as sexual victims. “I’ve done my research, and it is complicated,” he says. “Look, I knew that no studio—no one connected with a studio—would be able to distribute this film, because it’s not worth the flack they’ll get from some quarters. And it’s not just the conservative Christians.”
He’s ready just in case, referencing kindred spirits from the mid ’90s, Harmful to Minors author Judith Levine and Jennifer Montgomery, director of 1995’s Art for Teachers of Children. In terms of sexual mores, he contrasts the U.S. with Tokyo: “We live in a culture of hysteria. It’s another world entirely there, where middle-class girls are commonly paid escorts. And while this may not exactly be something everyone is saying is a wonderful thing, it’s certainly not something where people shudder in revulsion.”
When working with child actors, Solondz says he doesn’t feel it’s his place to explain sexual nuances, but asserts, “If I had a kid that was clamoring to act, I would much prefer him act in one of my movies, which I feel do accord a certain dignity—rather than involve them in shilling for the Gap or detergent, where they’re just being used to sell a consumer good. That to me is an obscenity.”
Of Palindromes‘ pedophile trucker, Solondz says, “I have no sympathy for someone raping children. But that’s Aviva’s innocence. There she is with this trucker [playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis]. That’s the comedy and horror. For me that’s what it’s about, impulses that force one to say, ‘What am I responding to?’ If I’m laughing, ‘What am I laughing at?’ ”
In the case of Palindromes, check yourself or you could be laughing at a girl with no arms, a blind albino kid, or any other Sunshine Singer blithely belting, “Every child has a right to be born!” On this matter, the director is emphatic: “I knew just how much pride they took in these performances. And yet, you do step back and say, ‘Oh my God! What are they singing?’ People have discomfort. Like, you can’t have this kind of frivolity or fun when you’ve got kids with disabilities. It’s a no-no. But why?” Unfortunately, his game seems off when it comes to writing these “freedom toast”-eating Christians. But Solondz insists he doesn’t mock. Not even when the matriarch exclaims to his largest Aviva, “You look like you could use a home-cooked meal.” “That’s not a disability issue,” says Solondz. “You’re dealing with a ‘woman of weight.’ I can see how people would be sensitive to that. But there’s a line to me. You can see this Gulliver figure—but to Mama Sunshine it’s just another child who’s hungry and tired. In fact she does need it.
“Coming from a liberal Northeastern sector, it’s very easy to reduce people to cutouts,” he continues, “but the Sunshines are a real family. It’s a kind of paradise.” The Livingston, New Jersey, native is curious about how red-state pro-lifers might respond to Palindromes but acknowledges, “Festival audiences are usually about 101 percent liberal.” Following a pattern of keeping his own audience in the satirical crosshairs, he grants the Ellen Barkin character less sympathy. Says Solondz, “She’s a secular liberal mother, anti-war, pro-gay rights. And yet when she’s confronted with this nightmare of her daughter coming home pregnant, she doesn’t handle it correctly.
“If I had grown up in Kansas or one of these places,” he says, “I don’t think I’d be on this side of the coin.” Solondz bridles at sanctimonious festival fare. Regarding Vera Drake, he muses, “I mean, would it have been a sin for her to be paid for a job well-done? It’s saying we’re all martyrs for the cause.” For his part, Solondz says, “I’m not out to say humanity is bad. I’m just not out to tell you how great you are.”