Thursday, September 3, 2009

Palindromes (2004, Todd Solondz)



Todd Solondz is a man of deftly disguised humanity. Sympathetic characters for whom we do not merely relate but empathize are virtually extinct. The alternatives offered by "alternative" channels or faux independent subsidiaries of media conglomerates (like the distributors of this picture) are typically vapid soulless stand-ins for the author's egomania. When sketching a myriad of characters with the intent of satire, cheap and distancing stereotypes replace reality. Were Todd Solondz interested in belly laughs he might be Mike Judge, or if an urbanite, Harmony Korine. Comfortable and superior revulsion from movie weirdos like nerds and Mexicans has undergone a hipstercratic air, epitomized by the success of Napoleon Dynamite. Todd Solondz all but demands some degree of identification with his odd tragicomic characters on the fringe of society, and implicates us in their mistakes through understanding. With the worst behaved of his characters, including one or two in Palindromes, they can be awful to the point of uneasy pity when also this tragic and pathetic. Between Korine's verite and Judge's cartoon features Solondz seems to have genuinely taken influence from David Lynch with some skill, and a major exception: his dramas sometime become relativist black holes the space in which provokes moral quandary. That provocation is not easy to raise entertainingly. He shares with great satirists a natural ear for banalities taken for granted every day and the fallout when problems too big to be rationalized away force their way into daily routine. Instead of the hipster ironist method of dispassionately faking profundity for glibness.

The harrowing story of thirteen year old Aviva, played by a variety of actresses older and younger, is that of a runaway girl pregnant on purpose and despite the conceit of multiple actresses is truer to life than the conceits and occasionally actually funny. The film's centerpiece is Aviva's stay at an orphanage of, as Solondz originally titled Welcome to the Dollhouse, faggots and retards. These unwanted children saved mostly from abortion by the benign devout Christian "Mama Sunshine" have Solondz's greatest admiration in their innocence. Aviva is portrayed during this lengthy fugue by Sharon Wilkins, a fat black woman. At no time are any of these regular easy targets, the kind who populate phony comedies and dramas made by white suburbanites about "outsiders," exploited for their dignity just as poorly as they would be in a future Larry The Cable Guy installment. By comparison, the yuppie household Aviva runs away from is brimming with repressed privilege taken for granted by comparison to the rainbow collection of children's house in the woods which takes her in. Aviva's mother, played by Angela Pietropinto, has an amazing scene giving the quintessentially reasonable upper middle class argument for abortion to her baby obsessed daughter. Her previous lack of involvement with Aviva fostered the disastrous casual suburban sex with a dead eyed neighbor boy, and every step of the scandal is leaden with the snobbery.

The family may be Jewish, like Solondz's memorably dysfunctional family in Storytelling if only for some dueling religious contrast with the strong Christian environment of the orphanage. There's equal opportunity for moralizing in the end, although the fact remains that Aviva's biological will is stronger than an open-minded household can handle. Mama Sunshine's closest friends are secretly ordering a hit on the abortionist who happens to have operated on Aviva, with the employment of an adult who sexually took advantage of her after running away from home. The bliss of ignorance Mama Sunshine creates for the children protects her as well. Aviva's endorsement of the crime and misplaced affection for this John whom she hooked complicates audience sympathies as she continues to reach out helplessly to him and the he reeks of guilt for what he's done. I'm inclined to guess Solondz made Palindromes as an anti-abortion statement about the universal desire for motherhood, no matter how many actresses pay that yearning. Their variety is in the end a gimmick and far from the central philosophical grappling. Whatever his thoughts, Solondz has continued to demonstrate an understanding of views opposite his own and the perfect alchemy of cringing with contemplation.

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