What do you do when your 13 year-old daughter comes home pregnant and she wants to keep the baby?
No matter what your ideology, it is an almost impossible dilemma, a lose-lose proposition. And it is the central event in Todd Solondz’s new film “Palindromes.” The man who birthed “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” “Happiness,” and “Storytelling,” hasn’t lost his desire to provoke.
In a personal interview with The Crimson and a public question and answer session following a screening of his new film at the Harvard Film Archive, Solondz talked about the titular device behind his new film, what he is trying to get across, how TV shaped his sensability, and why director Mike Leigh wants everybody to be his martyrs.
In person, Solondz is stooped and balding with large-framed glasses that magnify his eyes to a bulgingly, distracting level. His slight nervous stutter, nebbish Jewishness, self-mocking, and ingratiating demeanor combine to resemble Woody Allen, an impression mostly confirmed throughout the conversation. Solondz is, in reality, the scion of a middle-class family. He grew up in suburban New Jersey and went to Yale and NYU film school. The only dissonance to the impression of a younger Woody is when an interviewer probes his work and its relationship to his personality; then, he starts resembling an older Woody with a dark secret he refuses to expose.
Solondz begins his film with the funeral of Dawn Weiner, the protagonist of “Dollhouse,” who has killed herself, because she couldn’t stand the nature of the world. The rest of the film traces the bizarre story of Dawn’s cousin, the palindromically named Aviva, as she wishes for “lots and lots of babies,” has sex with a horny family friend, and is forced into an abortion by her well-meaning mother (“Sea of Love” femme fatale Ellen Barkin in a strong return to the screen). After the operation, Aviva runs away and has a series of encounters with pedophiliac truckers, a right-wing Catholic enclave for discarded children, and an abortion doctor killer, who is then, himself, killed. And then she is returned to the welcoming bosom of her family, still wanting to be a mom. The end is the beginning.
A MAN, A PLAN...
“Palindromes” goes beyond the bounds of Solondz’s past tales of suburban dystopia, as its narrative sets up, according to Solondz, “a structure of a Jewish liberal secular family and a conservative Christian one; those are such poles apart that to throw into relief the moral dimensions of some of these convictions that we stand by and what it really means.”
Aviva “is suspended between the pro-choice family that gives no choice and the pro-life family that kills.” Solondz recognizes that “it’s certainly my most politically charged, I think morally complicated movie that I’ve made so far.”
Most attention-getting, however, is Solondz’s device of having the main character be played by seven actresses and one actor over eight segments, from an overweight African-American woman to a Caucasian red-head to “Single White Female” Jennifer Jason Leigh. During the ninth segment, all the actors appear.
“I know initially, audiences are going to be confused,” Solondz says. “Something you know in your sleep—Ellen [Barkin], black child, something’s wrong, wait she’s Latina, wait she’s a redhead. And at a certain point it kicks in, we’ve got one character and a certain amount of different performers.”
“In a sense, any one of us in the audience could play an episode in this young innocent’s life story,” Solondz continues. “The hope is that the cumulative effect of all these different shapes and sizes of Aviva would be greater in some sense than if I had but used one.”
In some ways, this experiment, combined with the circular nature of the story, does reiterate one of the central lessons of the story: no matter what the girl looks like, or what happens to her, as Solondz says “there is a part of ourselves that resists change, that stays the same.”
TV ALSO GOES IN CIRCLES
Interestingly, Solondz cites the primary media influence for his stories as his childhood watching of TV. Solondz was part of “the first serious TV generation.” When asked about his cinematic influences, Solondz says, “I can mention movies that I loved or was moved by growing up as a kid, but…the main force of all the stories, was not what I was reading or the occasional movie, but was television.”
As Solondz remembers, TV “was the medium that colored, characterized and fed me. If you want to call it nurturing; others might have other ways of describing it—nurtured, damaged, what have you.”