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Wednesday, June 15, 2005

A thinking man's provocateur

Controversy follows Todd Solondz like rats behind the Pied Piper; no other filmmaker in America is quite so happy to offend -- with the possible exception of a reinvigorated John Waters -- while also being so sure of his reasons for doing so.

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Todd Solondz

His first film after NYU film school was "Fear, Anxiety, and Depression" (1989). It was so so butchered by Fox that Solondz retired to teach English to Russian immigrants for five years. He came back with "Welcome to the Dollhouse," which won Best Picture at Sundance in 1996, and Solondz has only grown sharper since.

"Happiness," a distressingly funny study in perversion and loneliness, was dropped by Universal in 1998, but ended up on scads of critics' top-10 lists. "Storytelling" (2001) continued to bust taboos, and was rewarded (in the United States) with a big red box censoring a rough sex scene.

In person, the director is friendly and talkative -- though his claim that "The Sound of Music" was what got him into filmmaking is more than a bit disturbing.

"Palindromes" and "Vera Drake" take vastly different approaches to the same issue.

I love Mike Leigh and his work, but at a certain point I just wanted to scream: Would it be a sin for her to be paid for her job? It's hard to imagine many pro-lifers going to see the movie. But that's going to be a challenge for me as well. That's why I never say that I'm pro-choice, because if I say that, no one who's pro-life will come see the movie. I try to strike some sort of balance between the secular liberal and conservative Christian [viewpoints]. While there is a certain satirical thrust to the conservative "Sunshine" world, it's certainly much harsher on the liberal world, from which this young girl escapes.

It's not about what my agenda is, but rather to get the audience to re-evaluate their own positions, to explore the moral dimension of what it means to say "I'm pro-choice" or "pro-life." These are extremes, of course, because you have the pro-choice that gives no choice, and the pro-life that kills. I don't really believe that movies change people -- at least not in the way they imagine they do. I don't want to be in the position of patting anyone on the back, and saying, "Yes, you think the right way, you vote the right way." I bridle at any kind of complacency. You know, so if I say I'm pro-choice, then all the pro-choice people in the audience -- and I think people who go to see my movies (chuckles) tend to be of a more liberal persuasion -- can relax.

Your films are anti-relaxing!

Exactly! I like to provoke, in a good way. It's easy enough to put up slogans. As I've gotten older, the material's become a little more politically and morally charged than it initially was.

"Palindromes" seemed a little less satirical, and a little more earnest than your earlier work.

I would say that out of all my comedies -- which I've always characterized as sad comedies -- this is the saddest one that I've made. On the simplest level, it's a very heartbreaking story about this young girl who's on a quest for love. Because what is this 13-year-old really looking for when she says she wants to have a baby? When you're not getting the love you need from family and friends, it's displaced. It's a fable of sorts.

But right away you subvert that by changing the actors in the lead role. Was that an idea that you had early on?

Yes, for a number of reasons. For me, I could have made life easier and just cast one girl. But in part because I'd already done "Welcome to the Dollhouse" [which had an 11-year-old girl in the lead], I wanted to go off in a different direction. And this idea of having different people [in the lead] made it feel fresh and exciting for me. The hope was that the cumulative effect of all these Avivas would have kind of a universalizing effect, that any one of us could connect with this character, who is an innocent.

But beyond that, there's the title itself. A palindrome is a word that folds in on itself, so that the beginning and end mirror each other. They're the same. So metaphorically speaking, there's a palindromic part of ourselves that remains the same, that resists change. So for all the metamorphoses that take place over the film for Aviva -- big, small, black, white, what have you -- she remains the same. For me, the inability to change, though, to accept one's limitations and flaws, can be a liberating thing. The film plays on this conflict of stasis vs. change, and that's illustrated by all these people playing Aviva.

What is with the recurring obsession in your films with pedophilia?

I don't know about "obsession." (Laughs.) I was resisting it at first in this film, but what made it work for me is that the girl is the predator, and [Earl] is the prey -- she wants to get pregnant. But, of course, if you live in the States today, there is a real hysteria right now. It's hard to explore rationally what this is all about, when it's such a hot-button thing. People have a difficult time even talking about it, even though it's on the news every day. But it's always moralistic and didactic, or sensationalist, in a kind of titillating way!

So it's out there. I'm not bringing it to the world; I'm more the recipient, like we all are, of these waves of hysteria, and I try to examine what this says about who we are.

A lot of critics in the States don't seem to get your work. What do you think the disconnect is?

You know, some people just loathe what I do, and I accept that. Others embrace it beyond what I would have imagined. I can't account for it. My work is so fraught with ambiguity, all of it, that it's hard to know sometimes where I stand. Am I laughing at [these people]? From my point of view, if I'm laughing at the expense of these characters, then that's an obscenity. And yet it's not clear to others. But children with disabilities -- what kind of joke could that possibly be? And yet people will accuse me of this.

There's always kind of a double-edge. A perfect example is when these kids, the Sunshine Singers, are performing these songs. It was very moving for me, because I know what pride and joy these kids take in these songs. But at the same time I think, oh my God, but what are they singing? So there's this friction: Do I laugh; what am I laughing at? But I see the audiences, sometimes they're laughing in places I don't feel is appropriate. Which is why I say my movies aren't for everyone, especially people who like them.

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