Friday night, I took in only my second public screening of the NYFF, Todd Solondz’s Palindromes. The film wasn’t my favorite in the festival, but I thought it was a thought provoking and powerfully political statement by an artist that continually challenges me. That’s why I was startled to read A.O. Scott’s review in the NY Times this weekend. I am not usually one to read a review of a film before I write about it myself, but a friend who hadn’t seen the film quoted liberally from the NY Times review in explaining why she would never want to see the movie. It sometimes shakes me up, the power of the NY Times. It is not so much that I disagree with their reviews; sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. I admire the critics anyway and even when I disagree with them about a specific movie, I find much to agree with in their writings. Regardless of what is written in the NY Times, I go see the films I want to see and make up my own mind. I see criticism as a dialogue, the statement of a sensibility reacting to a work of art, against which my own opinions and sensibilities reverberate. I blog about films because I want to think about and organize my own thoughts, to add my voice to the conversation (however small that voice may be.)
I am sure if you polled the critics at the NY Times, they would tell you that their job is that of any good critic; a gatekeeper role that contextualizes work within the broader history of all film, one that judges worth and artistic validity based on the individual sensibilities of the critic. The role of the review is to act as a critical guide and statement, not a commercial mandate. But a commerical mandate is certainly how a NY Times review functions. A good review can launch a career or a film, a bad one, your movie is dead (sometimes with good reason). Of course, this rule only applies to small, independent and foreign films. And this is what cuts so deeply about a review like the Palindromes review. Shark Tale is going to win or lose in the marketplace based less on reviews, more on marketing and the way in which the film resonates with ticket buyers. A film like Palindromes, whose commercial potential is limited and whose distribution is rolled out based on market by market performance, really gets hurt by a bad review.
That is not to say that I expect any critic to praise a film (or criticize one) based upon the estimated impact that review will have in the marketplace. Sometimes though, you get the idea that the NY Times critics realize the full extent of their power and use their critical clout to advocate for films and performances they love. I have absolutely no problem with this at all. I believe that any critic hopes to launch a film they love into a different level of commercial and cultural acceptance, and that the broader culture will dismiss work they feel is dismissible. I know I do. What is most troubling is not the critic; it is power granted by the consumer. That is to say, for many, seeing a film is not an aesthetic decision, it is a commercial one. For most people, being entertained by a movie, in and of itself, is enough. It doesn’t particularly matter what other films the director has made, it doesn’t matter where the film rates in relationship to a wider canon of film. The commercial goal of most film-goers is the same as it is on a trip to a discount store or to a restaurant; they want value for their dollar, and they want their expectations to be met by the experience of consumption. In America, most of those expectations are driven by genre conventions and star power, and so it is that star driven genre pictures almost always make money regardless of quality. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard a friend or family member tell me that they plan on seeing something like Along Came A Spider , and when confronted as to why they could possibly be bothered to go see the latest hack thriller, they invariably reply that “I like those movies.” Fair enough.
But New York City is, for the most part, a different animal. This is a city with a profoundly vital film culture. Even in Los Angeles, the center of the film industry, the film culture is less diverse, less integrated into the urban environment. Almost everyone in New York City goes to the movies, and most go with a great frequency. Of course, unless you are the most dedicated of film-goers, you can never see everything that is released. Instead, you are forced to choose. And so, in making the choice, often between competing small, independent films, most people rely on the critic to help them make an informed decision. There is no feeling much worse than being burned by a movie; picking a film, hating it, and regretting the decision to not have chosen another, worthier movie. And so, in order to make that informed choice, to avoid the disappointment, consumers rely on critics and word of mouth to frame their decisions.
So, let me contribute my own voice to the problem.
Palindromes, the latest film from provocateur extraordinaire Todd Solondz, is, at its heart, an essential political statement in an overwhelmingly political year for movies. Of course, most political films have focused on the international role of America (see every documentary released in the last six months) or the impact of American culture and political action in the global community (Jean- Luc Godard’s exceptional Notre Musique). While the headlines (and movies) continue to be dominated by the consequences of using American power overseas, there is a cultural crisis boiling beneath the surface, the deep divisions in the political environment merely an extension of the hypocrisy inherent in our so-called national values. Solondz exposes the rift between our declarations of morality and the reality of our behavior like no other filmmaker can, by exposing the cruelty and superficiality at the heart of our façade of concern and charity. In Solondz’s moral universe, a universe uniquely in tune with the tragic-comic reality of American society, every act of kindness has a heart of darkness.
Palindromes is the story of Aviva, a 14 year old girl from suburban New Jersey who, after confronting the suicide of her cousin (Welcome To The Dollhouse‘s protagonist Dawn Weiner), decides that in order to avoid rejection and pain in her own life, she should have a baby. After being impregnated by a porn loving, teenage friend of the family, Aviva is coerced into aborting her pregnancy by her concerned mother (Ellen Barkin). After Aviva decides to run away from home and seek a new father for the child she desires, she encounters a pedophile truck driver named Bob (Stephen Adly Guirgis) before being rescued by from a sojurn in the woods by a young boy named Peter Paul who delivers Aviva to the salvation of the Sunshine family, a born-again Christian family of disabled children raised by Momma Sunshine. To give away many more details would spoil much of the film, but Aviva must reunite with Bob, participate in the murder of an abortion doctor, and suffer a police shootout before finding her way back home.
Like every film he has made, Palindromes begs the question of Solondz’s own stance toward his characters, his feelings toward the political statements he makes with his stories, and what his central argument about the powerful issues he raises actually is. And like every other Solondz film, there really is no question at all. Solondz may be cheeky and ambiguous in his discussions of his work, and his attempts to outline his quest for narrative balance and respect for his characters in interviews may seem evasive, but I believe the work itself leaves little doubt. Todd Solondz is outraged at the hypocrisy in American life, at the pieties and self-righteousness of a culture that continues to punish, humiliate, and victimize those that try to live by its promises and rules. To say, as A.O. Scott wrote, that
“Lurking in this ghastly tale of Aviva’s intentional pregnancy, her unwanted abortion and her temporary adoption by an extended family of evangelical Christians are some provocative ideas about motherhood and the fragmentation of American moral life. But the expression of these ideas radiates a sour contempt for every human connection and emotion”
is to completely invert Solondz’s point. I don’t believe Solondz has a sour contempt for human connection, rather, that he is exposing the contemptuous behavior that runs under the surface of our social interaction. Behind the smiles and politiesse of daily life, maybe we don’t like each other very much. That is to say, there is much of American life predicated on contempt. Certainly not all of it. And so, Palindromes is absolutely specific in which aspects of our culture are deserving of an honest discussion. It’s just that Solondz, ever the prankster, chooses to frame the discussion in the syntax of the fairytale.
The structure and visual makeup of the film belongs to fable and fairytale, sort of a cross between the Brothers Grimm-styled exploration of teenage sexuality in François Ozon’s Criminal Lovers and the moral critique of America’s punitive soul in Lars von Trier’s Dancer In the Dark and Dogville. In addition to the fairy tale/bedtime story motifs in the narrative and visuals, Solondz also makes the decision to cast his protagonist with eight different actresses portraying different moments in Aviva’s experience, a device that becomes less distracting and more meaningful as you begin to understand the psychological and political makeup of each of Solondz’s narrative segments. In her most innocent state, she is portrayed by a child. In her sexual realities, she is played by an actual teenage girl. In her wanderings through the forrest, Aviva becomes an asexual nymph-like innocent. In her encounter with the Sunshine family, she becomes a “Gulliver-like” (Solondz’s own words) African American woman. In her return to the suburbs as an experienced woman-child, she is played by an older actress. The portrayals all make sense and are uniformly good, and ultimately these devices allow Solondz the narrative leverage and disbelief required to make his points about family values simultaneously credible and incredible. This creates a powerful mixture, one that juxtaposes the sexualization of children in our culture against the longing and desire of these objectified children to be loved unconditionally. It pits the dominance of ‘family values’ morality and anti-choice rhetoric against the misunderstood desire for motherhood in a child. It seems only natural that the consequence of our rigid interpretations of ‘family’ would instill a young girl with the singular belief in the power of her own maternal desires. Of course, the world doesn’t function very well on rhetoric alone, and Solondz has the courage to expose the hypocrites with the same savagery that they use to victimize those that seek rational choices in an increasingly irrational society. We shouldn’t be avoiding Solondz and his darkly comic critiques, we should be viewing them, thinking about them, and talking about them. These are the movies Americans should be seeing and discussing.
But maybe that’s just me. I guess you’ll have to see it for yourself.