Todd Solondz does not hate everyone. It’s a common misconception that he does. His movies—the painfully honest adolescent exploration Welcome to the Dollhouse, the bleakly hilarious Happiness and the defiantly controversial Storytelling—do little to dispel rumors of his profound misanthropy. But if you sit down with Solondz, you’ll find an unexpectedly well mannered and well-spoken man, a movie-maker whose innate compassion underlies even his most bitter critiques.
Speaking from mexico, where his newest work, Palindromes, is playing the festival circuit, Solondz is surprisingly insightful about his own means and methods. Palindromes is perhaps Solondz’s most difficult film to date. It’s an unsettling parable that refuses to provide easy answers for one of the most deeply emotional topics of our time—abortion. As usual, Solondz is stuck fast in an embittered controversy over the film, as the press and public inevitably demand that the director defend his artistic choices.
“I wish I didn’t have to,” says Solondz quietly, “but that’s not novel to me. Certainly with Happiness and Storytelling, I had to do the same thing. I wish I could just put it out there. Unfortunately, I can’t.” Solondz punctuates this statement with a battle-weary sigh, but there must be something in this fight he finds redemptive.
Since 1995’s Welcome to the Dollhouse, which chronicled teenage humiliation with a discomforting realism, Solondz has persistently peeked beneath the cultural rug to take a long look at the grime that lies beneath. Over the past 10 years, he has been a loud, disaffected voice, refusing to kowtow to audience comfort or Hollywood happy endings. Solondz picks at the scabs of real-life complexity, peppering it with moments of surreal hilarity and strange, unexpected violence worthy of the Brothers Grimm.
“The movies I make are not friendly or polite. I don’t think movies have the obligation to be,” he says. “I think that’s for real life. In movies, I like to be provoked. Not in a cheap, sensationalistic way, but in the best way. I want to be moved in a way that forces me to reevaluate or reconsider my preconceptions. When you go to the movies, you’re asked to relate to a very attractive protagonist who says and does the right things and maybe even behaves heroically. So you walk out of the movie having made this identification and feeling so much better about yourself. There’s this great, fantastic, narcissistic high. But when you go to one of my movies, you’re not going to get that narcissistic high. I’m not there to pat you on the back. I bristle at any kind of complacency.”
Fear of complacency seems to be a large part of what fuels Solondz’s moviemaking. His insistent desire to explore what other directors might find intolerable is not what you’d expect from a shy boy from Newark, New Jersey, whose original goal was to be a rabbi.
“I didn’t think of filmmaking at all when I was a child,” admits Solondz. “I was very unconnected to anything in this world. I always had dreams of being in an artistic world, but my parents’ friends were all accountants and dentists. I didn’t see art-house films until college; I went to popular movies.”
Solondz dabbled in several artistic realms before finally settling into moviemaking. “I failed in so many other endeavors,” he laughs. “I’d wanted to be a musician, but I didn’t have the talent. I’d written tons of plays, but they were all terrible. I’d loved photography, but not the technology. When I went to film school and made some shorts, all of a sudden things seemed to click. But I was certainly no prodigy.”
His first outing was 1985’s Schatt’s Last Shot, a little-seen indie film that covered much of the usual Solondz ground, including adolescent alienation. That film was followed by 1989’s black comedy Fear, Anxiety and Depression. But it was 1995’s Welcome to the Dollhouse that would put his career into overdrive.
|Shayna Levine as Aviva and Stephen Adly Guirgis as Earl in Todd Solondz’s Palindromes (2005)|
For Solondz, the continuing evolution of his moviemaking has been both utterly thrilling and endlessly frustrating. “It’s not fun, but that’s not why you do it,” he says of directing. “Production is always a nightmare; it’s just built into the process. You have to put it all aside or you’d never make another movie if you dwelled on how awful it was the last time. You have 100 percent control when you write the script. Part of being a director is accepting the fact that you don’t have anything near absolute control.”
This constant desire for more control might explain how Solondz has managed to carve out such a distinctively recognizable style. His films are more often than not set within the rigid cultural confines of suburbia. “People always ask ‘Why are you going to set your film in the suburbs again?’ But most of the country is in the suburbs. The question really should be, ‘Why are you going to shoot in the city again?’ The city is a much more exotic place to the average American.”
Palindromes revisits this familiar landscape, its experimental narrative set amidst the bland environment of a no-name town that seems to encompass, in Solondz’s world, the entire eastern seaboard. His protagonist, 13-year-old Aviva (a single character played by several different actresses, including Jennifer Jason Leigh), travels through a landscape of highway rest stops, scattered woodlands and desolate middle-class neighborhoods. It is Solondz’s America, a place of moral hypocrisy and stubborn self-righteousness.
|Ellen Barkin and Hannah Freiman|
“Certainly one of the issues I was trying to explore is the abortion issue,” he says. “There were a couple of cases of abortion assassins, people who had murdered doctors or bombed clinics. I remember there was one in Atlanta, Georgia. After the murderer had been caught, the community was very sympathetic to him. I guess I was intrigued by the idea of getting under the skin of a very different way of thinking. I think it’s a profoundly human thing, that basically we all believe we’re good people. Even Stalin, on his deathbed, thought he was a good person. The person who murders the abortionist is, in his mind, saving a million unborn babies.
|Sharon Wilkins in Palindromes|
He believes that it is a kind of martyrdom. From that emerged the construct of the pro-choice family that gives no choice. With Palindromes, I was trying to throw into relief some of the difficulties of what it means to take these positions and how obscured all of this can be by the slogans.”
Solondz himself refuses to reveal his personal stand on the issue. “I don’t want to tell anyone my position on this because if I say I’m pro-choice, then the audience will breathe and laugh more easily. I don’t want the audience to relax. I want the film to needle you, to challenge preconceptions. Not so much to say that this would change anyone’s mind, but rather to force people to examine the moral consequences. Likewise, if I say I’m pro-choice, then no pro-lifers will come to see the movie.”
Happiness, like all of Solondz’s work, is infuriating, elating and absolutely unapologetic. “I’m not trying to make people feel bad,” he explains gently. “It’s hard for me to celebrate the glory of humanity when you pick up the newspaper and there’s another atrocity. On the one hand, you’ve got Mozart, and on the other, you’ve got Rwanda. Nevertheless, the goal is not to say ‘We’re terrible,’ but to expose certain truths. I think from exploring these things—this cruelty and savageness—you can see that the possibility of kindness and grace do exist as well.”
See? Todd Solondz really does love you. MM