Charting the Quest for Unconditional Love, Todd Solondz On His "Palindromes"
by Matthew Plouffe
With the release of "Palindromes," indie-icon Todd Solondz explores familiar terrain through a fresh and fascinating conceptual framework. Utilizing multiple actors in the same role, Solondz's particular attention to the question of stasis and the conundrum of moral decision-making nearly cements "Palindromes" as the season's most polarizing treat. Since its debut on the festival circuit, the film's pro-life/pro-choice subject matter has become fodder for pointed critical and political argument in red and blue states alike. But a chat with the filmmaker reveals why the dominant preliminary reaction may have missed the point altogether.
With his unique locution, Solondz sounds off on why humans haven't evolved morally, a film's actual capacity to affect audiences, and why "Palindromes" is at its core "a love story?"
indieWIRE: A lot has already been made of the pro-life/pro-choice themes in "Palindromes" and some have gone so far as to claim you position yourself on one side of the argument. What are your thoughts on that reaction?
Todd Solondz: The film is not dogmatic. I'm aware some people on the left see it as pro-life, some on the right see it as pro-choice. That's all somewhat reductive in terms of what the film is about. Take Ellen Barkin's character. Some people think she's a terrible mother, some people think she's a sensible one. I think she would call herself anti-war, pro-gay rights, pro-gun control, etc. But then real-life intervenes, and everything's thrown somewhat topsy-turvy. Her daughter's 13 years old, and she comes home pregnant. Not only is she pregnant, she wants to keep the baby. What do you do? It's an impossible dilemma and one that for many is a lose-lose position, but I think it provides a crucible for the moral fiber of her character.
I think [Barkin's character] fails to deal with this in an appropriate way, but I think she recognizes this in the end when she breaks down and asks, "Am I a terrible mother?" She's acknowledging her failures and therein lays her dignity. If there is a position I suppose someone could say it's anti-anti-choice, provided one even believes in the ability to choose, philosophically speaking. My aim isn't to comfort but to explore certain complexities that are inherent in all of this. I certainly wouldn't announce my position because if I did I'd make it easier on the audience, then they can relax and don't have to actually flesh things out for themselves. All of this is of course front and center, and yet the movie for me functions, somewhat ironically, as a very sensitive love story, a quest for a kind of unconditional love, for the sublime you could say. There is something beyond the sexual that beckons her. This need to have a baby, it's not the literalness of it.
iW: She says early on that she wants a child so that she will always have someone to love her?
TS: Yes, she says that, and it's not very well articulated, but it's one of those things that you cannot articulate easily. Some things, some needs that people have are unknowable. So while there may be certain bleak prospects on the one hand -- she can't be a biological mother -- there are other sorts of possibilities that can be fulfilled, possibly in a greater way...if she became a Mama Sunshine, perhaps. Taking in discarded children is a much higher form of motherhood than actually giving birth.
iW: So how do you see the Mama Sunshine character in relation to Barkin's mother?
TS: There's a lot of character balancing between Ellen Barkin and Mama Sunshine [played by Debra Monk]. I think at first there's a lot of frivolity and levity in the way we experience Mama Sunshine. But at a certain point, I gave her a certain gravitas. She does say "There's nothing I won't do to protect these children." And one cannot help but respect the integrity of her mission even if one does not prescribe to the religious or ideological conviction.
iW: The same could be said for Barkin's character?
TS: There is a certain kind of looking glass aspect to all of this.
iW: Would you say you are simultaneously interested in asking your audience to re-examine their own beliefs?
TS: In some sense. I mean, can film effect change? If it can it would have to happen in a very oblique, sly way in which the audience wouldn't be quite aware of it taking place. Take Michael Moore's movie, "Fahrenheit 9/11." It was designed very specifically to affect change, to alter, in fact, an election and history. One has to question: did it in fact alter anyone's convictions, did it change anyone, and if so did it change anyone in the direction it intended? Liberals tended to look at the movie for confirmation of their righteousness, and those on the conservative side saw him reading My Pet Goat and thought, "Well, he's deliberating; he's being thoughtful, not too rash."
iW: "Palindromes," like much of your work, seems engaged with the idea that people never change.
TS: Of course it's indisputable we change, but there is a part of ourselves that is immutable. There can be a kind of struggle. Some people are troubled by the age-old philosophical question presented here. Certainly, if you are religious you must believe in free will, otherwise you cannot make a leap of faith. Those of the atheistic turn of mind will look at things differently.
Obviously our genetic code, our life experience, the randomness of it all combines to present our lives in such a way that we imagine that we have a choice between Bush and Kerry. But of course it is the illusion, the vanity of the choice that we cannot but choose the one because we are so determined and shaped by our whole life experience. In fact, if one can embrace one's limitations it can be a very freeing thing and does not in any sense disallow the possibility of social improvement. Of course, the whole culture is hinged on this notion that self-improvement is the key to happiness and success and that the denial of this would be a kind of nihilistic, even cynical attitude. And yet, that's all provided one is someone who is capable of improvement.
Provided one is capable, one can improve. But as a species we certainly are no more advanced than we were 5,000 years ago, morally speaking. Read the newspaper every day. I can't see how we're an improved species. My movies can't compete with what's on TV. It's the age of 24/7 Terri Schiavo. What could be a greater obscenity or grotesquery? It's there in the paper every day, much harsher than anything I do.
iW: Then were you trying to literalize this sense of perpetuity by casting multiple actors of different ages and races in the same role?
TS: I can talk about it on so many different levels. It is of course a radical conceit but one that was, for me, very exciting. Certainly it ties into this notion of stasis vs. change. You have all these metamorphoses, and yet the character's a constant. The mother says, "You'll always be you" and there she is at the end with that same need. Anyone could have played an episode in this young innocent's life. I knew that there might be some disorientation or confusion, but I think audiences catch on. And the hope is that the cumulative effect of all these actresses is greater than had there been but one. I wouldn't have made the movie if there had been just one actress.
iW: Why Dawn Wiener's funeral to start it all?
TS: It was fitting in one sense that I was making a movie about birth to begin there, but it was a kind of demarcation for me. That was then. That was a different kind of movie, and this is going in a different direction. In the larger picture, everything I do -- I am limited by my life experience, I am limited by what I see in the world, my imagination. All of these things factor into my limitations as a filmmaker, and yet within those limitations there seems infinite possibility. It's just a question of trying to get at things from a different angle.
[Matthew Plouffe is a Reverse Shot staff writer.]