Todd Solondz's Palindromes, a bleakly idiosyncratic comedy about a girl who falls in with born-again Christians after her parents force an abortion on her, is easily the past year's most courageously original and provocative American film. So you would think that all viewers who cherish cinematic daring and freshness would be united in a chorus singing its praises. But no. As its debut appearances at last fall's Toronto and New York film festivals proved, Palindromes bids to be considered the most divisive movie to come along since Gus Van Sant's equally brilliant but otherwise very different Elephant split audiences two years ago. To some, the fact that some of Palindromes' presumed target audience--smart, film-savvy critics and viewers--has reacted to it with varying degrees of discomfort, incomprehension or hostility is a mark of its success, since any film with a sharp provocative edge courts rejection. I wish I could be so sanguine about that negativity, which prompts me to dark thoughts about the deteriorating state of American film culture and how even nominally sophisticated audiences seem less and less inclined to countenance films that challenge rather than coddle them.
One example. The girl at the center of Palindromes is played by eight different actors of vastly differing ages and types, including two African Americans, one boy (I couldn't detect him) and Jennifer Jason Leigh. One New York reviewer stated that audiences would never, ever be able to connect with the story due to this outlandish device, and that the film was therefore instantly dismissable.
Oh really? Did the writer miss the Criticism 101 class where they explain that art films are not primarily about the people on the screen--characters or actors--but about the director's vision, which might purposely bend humdrum movie conventions in all sorts of unexpected directions? Or is he right, and do all audiences now demand tight Hollywood-style character identification like a child clings to an accustomed blanket?
Actually, I think objections like the one noted above are sometimes canards, screens that hide more troubling sentiments which the offended critic or viewer may not want or be able to articulate. Still, we should recognize at the outset that offense is part of Solondz's game; not for its own sake, but because it's an inevitable product of a vision that sees our fair land--somewhat exaggeratedly but not unreasonably--as the United States of Dysfunction. Compared to the lonely, maladjusted losers who populate his films Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness and Storytelling, the shifty-eyed pervs of R. Crumb's skanky universe are a veritable Von Trapp family of harmonic wholesomeness.
Yet, while Solondz has previously invited our sympathies for, say, a suburban pedophile who preys on his son's Little League teammates, even that dubious protagonist (of Happiness) didn't raise the hackles that Palindromes has raised in some quarters. And why is that?
My guess is that the disturbances generated by this new film have to do with its specific achievement, which can be simply stated: To me, Palindromes is the best film yet about red-state/blue-state America.
Is that color-coded national division, which exercised pundits so strenuously during the last election, anything more than a glib cipher? The superficiality of some journalistic uses of it notwithstanding, I would say that it's a phenomenon of startling importance and no small perplexity, one that arguably will be shaping our politics and culture for decades to come (or until the Rapture, whichever arrives first).
According to this Rorschach of the American psyche, two separate tribes occupy the national landmass, working side by side and shopping at the same malls but otherwise as different as Apaches and astronauts: One group, concentrated mainly on the coasts, believes in the world that science and secularism have created; the other, who predominate in the heartland, see a wondrous universe overseen by and shortly returning to Jesus. Although intimately acquainted, the two tribes are not on speaking terms regarding the nature of reality; they stare across an abyss of understanding that, as it grows ever wider, poses the question of how long these contending forces will be able to jointly operate the same republic. Could there be a more intriguing or challenging subject for artists to investigate?
Yet since art films are quintessentially a blue-state cultural form, Solondz is shrewd enough not to imagine that a film like Palindromes can approach the subject in an ecumenical, even-handed manner. Rather, his metaphorical exploration takes the form of an odyssey that begins in familiar blue-state America, journeys into a red-state Heartland of Darkness (or Brightness, depending on your reading), then returns to the starting point. Like some latter-day Pilgrim's Progress or Gullliver's Travels, this symbolic excursion isn't meant to placate and flatter its target audience. On the contrary, rather than deriding Jesus-believing red-staters, the film deliberately sets out to prod and upset the pat assumptions of its own bluish constituency.
Set in archetypal Solondz country--suburban, Jewish New Jersey--the tale's opening ushers us into the funeral of Dawn Weiner, the put-upon heroine of his breakthough movie, Welcome to the Dollhouse. The ever-unhappy Dawn, it seems, has committed suicide, though not before being admitted to Rutgers. (Reportedly, Dollhouse actress Heather Matarazzo rebuffed Solondz's requests to reprise the role, and he has taken his revenge by killing off the character.) Dawn's lamentable end is a source of great worry to her young cousin Aviva (she who is played by eight actors), who wonders if she has a propensity for such misery.
Aviva's mom (Ellen Barkin) brightly assures her there's nothing to worry about. But Aviva seems determined to look after her own happiness, and she sees one sure source for it: a baby. Without much ado, she allows a porky cousin to pork her, and is soon throwing up in the toilet.
Her mom, of course, flips out at the news of her pregnancy. Aviva adamantly insists that she means to have the baby, but mom will have none of it, angrily pointing toward a future that includes college and boyfriends. Not surprisingly, the parental browbeating ultimately prevails. Mom drives Aviva through a grim Jerseyscape of Burger Kings and Pizza Huts, past imploring right-to-life demonstrators, and delivers her into the hands of an abortionist, the unhappily named Dr. Fleischer, who botches the operation in a way that renders Aviva incapable of ever having kids.
Solondz's provocations begin with his handling of this trickiest of issues separating our red and blue states of mind. The way he frames the story puts us emotionally on the side of admittedly immature and unrealistic Aviva against the "sane" but tyrannical pressures of her parents. Even more forcefully, though, the tale undercuts the primary rationale of abortion proponents, since Aviva's abortion has nothing to do with "freedom of choice" or control over her own body; on the contrary, it's a complete abrogation of those very things.
After the medical trauma, our sad heroine hits the highway and heads west. Bedded and then ditched by a mopey long-distance trucker, she soon finds herself boarding a small boat on a sylvan river, a dream-like touch that underscores the fairytale, Alice in Wonderland, Wizard of Oz nature of her odyssey. Awakening in a wood after the voyage, she finds herself face to face with a bespectacled little boy named Peter Paul (Alexander Brickel), who introduces her into his large "family": a group of variously handicapped kids who have been adopted by a born-again couple that includes a very striking hausfrau matriarch, the ever-cheery, always cooking Mama Sunshine (Debra Monk), who loves Jesus and hates abortion.
The depiction of Mama Sunshine and her evangelical enclave is surely the headiest, most fascinating thing about Palindromes. And here's why: Sitting around the dinner table, joking merrily with each other and describing their tragic pasts (one blind albino girl tells how her junkie mom tried to abort her with a coat hanger), these kids seem positively beatific, and the ethic of Christian love that has rescued them feels like the ultimate in human goodness and charity.
Will all audiences understand it this way? Apparently not. I've heard people who dislike the film--and perhaps here we reach the crux of disagreement--say they find these kids grotesque. But I don't think that's what Solondz intended. On the contrary, his most incisive provocation arguably lies precisely in showing us Christians like Mama Sunshine as they see themselves, secure in the love of Christ and trying to spread His light in the world.
Logically, the claims implicit in that self-image can be entirely true, yet the context in which they appear can also be more complex than they recognize. So it is here. In reviewing Solondz's Happiness, I said his work to that point seemed like an attitude (petulant, caustic) struggling toward a worldview. Well, here he has achieved at least a national version of a worldview, and it look like this: liberal, Jewish blue-state America is Purgatory. Pious, Christian red-state America is Heaven. But that's not all. The latter is also Hell. Because underneath Mama's Sunshine's basement steps, her husband and other born-again males are plotting to murder an abortion doctor named Fleischer, thereby rendering their "sanctity of life" rhetoric as hollow and hypocritical as the other side's "freedom of choice" pieties.
As for the religious implications of this schema, I can imagine sensitive Jews finding Solondz an offensive example of Jewish self-loathing. But I would say that the self-loathing is entirely personal or, if you will, ecumenical. It's his brilliance that's tied to his ethnicity, making him a self-lacerating Jewish-American comic philosopher in the tradition of Phillip Roth, Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen. Palindromes, which challenges those of us on the blue side of the fence to extend our moral imaginations to the other side, is his most daring and acute film to date, a leap out of self-concern toward engagement with the strange nation we find ourselves inhabiting in the opening moments of the 21st century.