I have generally tried to stay away from Todd Solondz’s films, for much the same reason that I haven’t seen anything by Lars von Trier. I prefer to get my depression from the news.
I finally caved and watched Palindromes the other day. I have been intrigued by the 2004 film ever since friends reported seeing angry viewers stream out of a showing at a theatre in Durham, NC. Knowing of Solondz’s fondness for themes of sexual violence and perversity, I was not surprised by the unfavorable reaction. Following the quasi-success of Todd Haynes’s kaleidoscopic Bob Dylan biopic, I’m Not There – which some critics alleged was patterned after Palindromes – my interest only grew.
The film turns out to be a searing attack on sanctimony of all kinds, left and right. Having been made and released during the high tide of the Bush presidency, it might have been interpreted simply as an indictment of the Moral Majority and its sexual politics. Certainly, it condemns right-wing extremism through its portrayal of Christian conservatives who plot the murder of an abortion doctor.
But what is far more provocative is its exploration of abortion itself – a theme that is infrequently touched upon in film, and even less so in television. Films like Juno have treated the topic gingerly, presenting the choice to continue a pregnancy as a noble deed. The reality that many women choose not to have a child, for personal, medical or financial reasons, is virtually never represented on the screen.
Solondz’s response to this reality is, perhaps predictably, not to create a sympathetic portrayal of woman exercising her right to choose not to be a mother, in the face of resistance from a misunderstanding community. Quite the opposite. The film begins with Aviva, the main character, as a four year old reacting to the suicide of her cousin Dawn Weiner (the protagonist of Solondz’s indie hit Welcome to the Dollhouse). Aviva tells her mother Joyce that she wants to have lots of babies when she grows up, so she will always have someone to love and to love her. Ellen Barkin stands out as Aviva’s self-absorbed, manipulative mom, who is nonetheless heartened by the adorable things her daughter has to say about reproduction.
In this first scene, Aviva is played by a young African American actress, despite the fact that the rest of her family is white. The character takes the form of a series of actresses (and one actor) in subsequent scenes, reflecting Aviva’s changing personality or, perhaps, the way she thinks that others see her. Whether skinny or chubby, black or white, young or old, her determination to have a child is unwavering.
At her first apparent chance, Aviva has about 20 seconds of awkward sex with the son of family friends. The result is pregnancy, much to the horror of her parents, since Aviva is only 13 at the time. Joyce decides that Aviva absolutely will terminate the pregnancy, despite Aviva’s quiet insistence that she wants to keep the child. “It’s mine,” she tells her mom, who is not listening.
One of the centerpieces of the film is Ellen Barkin’s cringe-inducing monologue, in which her character twists liberal homilies about self-fulfillment and choice into a grotesque form of materialism. Joyce outlines the pragmatic reasons for an abortion, listing all the fun things she’s going to get to do if she gets rid of the fetus (which is really “just a tumor,” if you think about it). She’ll get to have boyfriends. “I don’t want boyfriends!” Aviva says. What about college? Parties? A career? Nice cars? How could she not want these things?
Joyce then turns to a more insidious line of argument, describing how she got pregnant when Aviva was three or four, and Dad convinced her that it was financially unwise to have another child. Think of all the treats we were able to get you because “Henry,” Aviva’s would-be younger brother, was never born, she says.
As upper middle class New Jerseyans with a Volvo station wagon and a big house, the family seems to be in little danger of financial discomfort. Essentially, Joyce tries to bribe (and guilt) Aviva into ending the pregnancy by portraying her potential child as just a line on a budget – a tumor that could be cost-effectively excised before it grows into full-blown cancer. Aviva, of course, is the cancer in bloom. It is little wonder that she wants something to love, and to love her in return, in the icy and acquisitive atmosphere of her family home.
Solondz swerves very close to endorsing pro-life arguments about Roe v. Wade resulting in a legal holocaust, as it devalued life to the point that human cells or bodies are just property or assets. (Hence George W. Bush’s invocation of the Dred Scott decision in the 2004 presidential campaign.) It is possible that this is what the director believes, but he seems more interested in caricaturing liberal hypocrisy. After Mom fails in her campaign of manipulation, Dad comes along and asks to be let in to Aviva’s room for a talk. As he becomes increasingly agitated, his stock liberalisms sound more and more absurd; he nearly breaks down the door as he demands that a terrified Aviva be reasonable and talk it over with him like a mature adult. Neither he nor his wife is interested in dialogue, though reasoned discourse is their prized fig leaf. They only want to force Aviva to make what they see as the only acceptable and pragmatic choice. That way, they won’t have to deal with another mewling money pit coming into the world (and their home).
The film takes some awful and occasionally melodramatic turns from this point, which need not be recounted here. Suffice to say Aviva runs away from home some time later, now in the form of an obese African American adult. She happens upon a cheery clan of Christian ultra-conservatives, who adopt abused and disabled children and induct them into a fairly ludicrous gospel pop act. Blind, albino, limbless – these children find love and acceptance with the Sunshine family, encouraged to see themselves as capable and worthwhile. “Jesus made me this way,” one of their Backstreet Boys-esque songs says. “He doesn’t make mistakes.”
The scenes with Mama Sunshine and her brood have a surreal, dream-like quality. It is as if Aviva landed on the Island of Misfit Toys, except here it is the Island of Unaborted Babies. Some might say Solondz is exploiting the disabled individuals who play these roles, but I suspect he wants viewers to confront their own uneasiness with disability. The Sunshine children are not filmed in a lurid or sensationalized way; if anything, they represent a bright contrast to the brittle ideal of perfection (physical, financial, cultural) that Aviva’s profit-maximizing parents uphold.
The Sunshines, of course, have some dark secrets, and Aviva eventually makes it back home through a bizarre and violent series of events, morphing into yet another white form. Jennifer Jason Leigh portrays Aviva with her characteristic weariness and cynicism, creating a stark contrast between Leigh (a jaded adult in teenage clothes) and Barkin, who worries about whether her mothering is sufficient according to some kind of competitive metric. Aviva encounters her cousin Mark, Dawn’s brother, who appears to have been wrongfully accused of child abuse by a relative and is now shunned as a monster by his entire family – except for the empathetic Aviva.
Given his tragic experiences, it is not surprising that Mark is a fatalist, but he insists that society is not to blame. He was always this way; everyone is always the way they are, he says, and their basic nature never changes, like a palindrome that can be read backwards or forwards. He is an atheist and a pessimist, brushing away Aviva’s questions about the possibility of hope or the existence of God. If anything, one assumes that Mark’s perspective is the closest to Solondz’s own views. The director’s incredibly dim take on humans as vain, selfish, brutal creatures does not seem to comport with the merry, everyone-has-value belief system of the Sunshine family – and yet Mama Sunshine is one of the only characters to show compassion in the entire film. So what is he trying to say here?
Perhaps Solondz suggests that, whatever guise Aviva appeared in, she was always the same. Her yearning to love was no more going to change than Mark’s resentment of the world around him. At the risk of a false equivalency, the moral failings of Aviva’s own family and the Christian extremists were both violent and inhuman – in spite of the fact that both would claim they value human life in their own ways. Could it be that Solondz’s reputation as a bitter misanthrope masks a deeper humanism? Palindromes ridicules the hedonistic materialism of Aviva’s parents, which led them to disregard her desires and deny her the “choice” that her liberal mother supposedly believes in. It also blasts Christian conservatives who embrace “life,” but only on their own terms, and with glaring limitations. There seems to be hope in Aviva’s own capacity to love, although consider yourself warned – the last moment of the film threatens to smother this green shoot of optimism with bitter irony.