The Beginning is the End is the Beginning...
Since becoming the independent film circle’s doomed poet in 1996, writer/director Todd Solondz has developed exactly three ideas in between four different movies. And they aren’t even good ideas: They’re flaccid, boring and simplistic; ideas that would barely arouse curiosity in a sophomore-level English paper. Amazingly, since they are conceptually simple, the ideas have fit perfectly into the titles of each Solondz films. The first idea covers his first two films: Life is ironically depressing. Hence, audiences get Solondz’s an ironically-titled film like Welcome to the Dollhouse, his debut that essentially subjected its main character Dawn Wiener to every junior-high indignity known to man. Not simply relying on pointing out a character’s ugliness or stupidity every minute on screen, he gladly exaggerated every moment for comic effect. Why simply humiliate Dawn, when we can let a bully force her to take a crap? There’s no forceful plot to speak of with Dollhouse: Life is difficult on Dawn and doesn’t change throughout the whole film. The film ends on a note of utter hopelessness. It’s no dollhouse, let me tell you. Why, Solondz even names the character Wiener. Perhaps I prefer art more nuanced. Nuance is certainly not what Solondz had in mind for his second ironically-titled film, Happiness, a film about depressing situations with depressing characters. The difference here is Solondz became so absorbed with his style that he no longer wanted to amuse but to shock. Side characters are passively murdered during strange sexual acts, a pedophile opens up to his son about “making love” to the boy’s sleepover companion, and a dog licks up some semen freshly discharged from a child who has just learned to masturbate. Whoa! That’s not only depressing but it’s also offensive. It can’t be literate and pretentious if I have Phillip Seymour Hoffman engaging in lewd phone sex, Solondz must have rationalized. Happiness puts a soft glow on the demons, trashes the saintly characters, and greets universal praise because his story is so “unflinching”. To me, this style was a cop-out. Solondz says life sucks and these people will be losers so he doesn’t have to develop an effective narrative or build his characters with some conclusion that differs somehow from his story’s starting point. That’s not art, that’s laziness.
I thought I was going to be proven right with the director’s downfall because Solondz’s next film seemed nothing more than abstract posturing from a self-hating “artist” who had found success off the worst of cultural exploitation. Storytelling was an “indictment” of the director’s own work. Broken up into the unevenly timed “Fiction” and Non-Fiction” segments, Solondz argued there was no difference between these two styles of storytelling because both were equally fraudulent. Frankly, I’ve heard deeper thoughts at Lawrence, KS coffee bars but that setting doesn’t the offer the thrill of watching Selma Blair take “it” in the butt or watching John Goodman getting hypnotized. I thought perhaps Solondz was apologizing for the foundational failure of his past two films. Perhaps he felt guilty that, despite their shoddy development and his inability to direct or write, his films were successful. I even felt this early on his new film Palindromes. This film, documenting the journey of a thirteen-year-old girl named Aviva seeking to “make babies”, wears its literary pretensions on its sleeve and shouts IMPORTANCE from its concept. A palindrome is a phrase describing a word that is the same spelled forward or backwards. Aviva is not just a palindrome, but the character played by a wide range of actresses, from a young white girl to a young black girl to an older, heavier black women to Jennifer Jason Leigh. All of whom talk in the same muted tone that a shy and confused thirteen-year-old would speak. Solondz’s one idea in this film suggests that, no matter what this character looks like or how this character acts, their pain is ALWAYS THE SAME. You know, LIKE A PALINDROME? Once the novelty of this stunt wears off, one begins to notice the sheer amateur abilities of the actresses Solondz has corralled to play Aviva, his inability to direct them at a competent level, and Leigh’s amazing desire to overact even when she’s mumbling through her lips.
Despite all of this pretentiousness, Palindromes ends its first act with some glimmer of hope. This is a spectacular considering the maddening nature of the film’s opening. The intro is Dawn Wiener’s funeral. That’s right: Solondz put you through all that horrible nastiness of Dollhouse just to kill her off. I was so mad I got red in the face. It had been nine years since I saw the film, but all of the material that made me angry in that film made me even angrier knowing that Solondz was going to rub my face in Wiener’s miserable existence all over again. As it turns out, Aviva is Dawn’s cousin and she’s worried about ending up like her doomed relative. She confides to her mother Joyce (Ellen Barkin) that having a child “would mean someone would always love you and there’d be no reason to die.” Aviva then goes on a mission to have a baby. While this sounds awfully nasty, he films this initial revelation in a serious manner nicely examining how children innocently try to process complicated and serious ideas. She becomes impregnated by parent’s friend son Judah. (played by Robert Agri and John Gemberling in different parts of the film. Don’t ask.) Mom and Dad are not happy upon this realization. Once again, Solondz shows some realism in portraying this distress. Mom is bewildered but rationally and instinctually knows Aviva can’t keep the child. She schedules an abortion even though she knows that an abortion early in her life remains a strong source of pain. The moments after the procedure also carries strong emotional resonance; Solondz paints tragic emotional consequences with blurry images and amplified sound. The idea of presenting an honest and painful rendition of abortion may be “shocking” to most of the liberal cine-philes who watch Solondz, but I was fairly impressed with his ability to balance such a strong composite with such a delicate subject.
Aviva runs away from home and finds herself in bed with Joe (Stephen Adley-Guirgis), a pedophilic truck driver. Solondz gets a little carried away with portraying the initial encounter, but I was just relieved that he wasn’t going to make this particular pederast some sort of likable guy. (I really got duped on this one as it turns out.) Aviva ends up at the home of Mama Sunshine (Debra Monk), a pro-life Christian who houses run-away children. Once again, I kind of admired Solondz for NOT doing something: He doesn’t portray Mama as some sort of cartoon but as a troubled woman who feels motivated to do some good based on her own bad experiences. I wondered a little about Solondz’s intentions with the Sunshine kids. It seemed like he might have been exploiting these mentally- and physically-challenged children but then I realized they were probably novice actors and Solondz can’t direct even experienced actors very well. No problem with that. Something seemed wrong with this. Palindromes seemed too restrained for a Solondz film. Why was he being so serious? It wasn’t good, but simply not bad. Then, Solondz took us to the dump where they throw out aborted fetuses and I began to feel the hammer drop.
At this point, Solondz not only improbably brings back Joe the Child-Fucking Truck Driver, but makes him an abortion-doctor assassin AND a redemptive character. The moment where they target the doctor who performed Aviva’s abortion is so painfully nauseating and overly unnecessary that you will fight the feeling not to leave the theater. Plus, we learn that his real name is Bob. (And “Bob” is a palindrome!) The film quickly unravels as it spirals towards the end. In one speech, Dawn Weiner’s brother successfully and willfully debunks and belittles any interesting idea the film might have developed while denouncing God and saying that humans never develop past childhood. If you suck as a child, you’ll suck forever. He notes that Aviva’s palindrome name is like the nature of life: It’s the same forward and backwards. Nothing changes. Even after going through this journey, Aviva will still be the same person in this film’s vision. Solondz has just taken this whole film and boiled it down to the basic idea that pretty much comprises all of his movies: There’s no point to life. Life sucks. Not only did Solondz actually go through the trouble of developing a potentially good film, he develops this Solondz-like surrogate character that paces the film through those same Solondz motions. It’s like Solondz showed up, took a dump in the punch bowl, and filmed it. Even better than this horrible speech: The coda takes the film back to dialogue from the beginning of the film and Aviva makes a concluding comment that prove she didn’t learn a damned thing. She’s back at the same place she started. You see, Palindromes is a palindrome itself! Goddammit!
And I just lost another two hours of my life getting my face rubbed in the filth of this cynical, child-molester loving hack. Todd Solondz, you win again!
I realized this was no different than any other film he’s done. No plot gets developed. Characters go through the motions of humiliation and personal defeat and the audience learns that life is an unmerciful beast that particularly likes persecuting the ugly, meek, and Jewish. Nobody wins and the characters are no better off at the end than they were when the film started. So really, every Solondz film is like a palindrome. And that’s exactly why all of them are boorish, inconsequential nonsense. Perhaps Solondz involving Dawn Wiener’s death with Palindromes is a good thing. His success started with that character. Now maybe it will end his career. That would be poetic justice.