Give me a meaningful, carefully considered structural hook, and I’m in heaven. The memory mimicry of Memento, the allure of a good yarn in The Usual Suspects, the look-closer pleas of Atom Egoyan — all immensely satisfying.
In Palindromes, writer/director Todd Solondz has a wonderfully oddball conceit: Eight actors of widely disparate ages, races, body types, and dispositions — and even one boy — play 13-year-old Aviva Victor over the course of the movie. Aviva wants lots of babies, gets pregnant, is forced by her parents to have an abortion, and leaves home for heart-warming adventures with child molesters, religious fanatics, and kids with disabilities.
It’s obviously meant as a jarring, difficult film, but it’s curiously tame, the function of a concept in search of something to say. For all its audacity and envelope-pushing, Palindromes is frustratingly muted and elusive — and as a result nearly inert.
Is Solondz commenting on the mutability of identity, saying that we all contain multitudes? Or is he claiming that Aviva is something universal, that her experience encompasses wide-eyed black kids, barely pubescent seductresses, and Jennifer Jason Leigh? Or is he perhaps using abortion, teen pregnancy, and shifting performers as metaphors for the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the attendant loss of American virginity, and the problems with the single-shooter theory?
I dunno. I don’t really care.
My apathy is not a curt dismissal. Roger Ebert makes a good case for the movie as a “brave and challenging film for which there may not be much of an audience.” Inadvertently, he’s hit on the main problem: Palindromes is such an insular work that it repels the audience — not in terms of disgusting or offending us, but actively resisting our efforts. It was presumably made as a product for a large number of people, and it remains available for mass consumption on DVD, yet its maker has no apparent interest in meeting the audience halfway, or even trying to draw viewers into it.
As Solondz himself says, in a seriously understated way:
“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.”
It’s telling that the writer/director uses the phrase “flesh things out” in this context, because Palindromes is downright skeletal. The basic subject matter is certainly rich and ripe, but for all the oddities Solondz has filmed, precious little happens emotionally. And his tone is so deadpan that even bits that should be shocking — such as the semi-accidental shooting of a little girl — don’t register.
One could claim that the filmmaker is looking at the audience, seeing how it reacts and judging it. Ebert says as much in describing the Solondz oeuvre:
“You may hate it, but you have seen it, and in a strange way it has seen you.”
I don’t buy it. Most critically, what can we learn about our (nonexistent) reactions to the extreme situations and caricatures that Solondz presents, aside from noting his success at ensuring we don’t react? The writer/director’s failure to give his material emotional shape — his insistence on draining it of all feeling — does not constitute an artistic statement.
I certainly don’t expect the movie to come with a user’s manual, but I demand that the filmmaker make an effort to communicate — to offer some clues about how to approach it, a road sign here or there, a context in which to appraise it. Palindromes has an impassive surface, and it’s so blank that its text seemingly supports virtually any reading. Is it pro-choice? Is it pro-life? What does it all mean? “Yes,” Solondz might respond. “Exactly.”
Clearly, there’s a fine line between spoon-feeding viewers what you’d like them to take from a movie and, on the other hand, having something to say while helping audience members figure it out on their own or develop idiosyncratic interpretations. Solondz seems scared of crossing that line, so he stays as far away from it as possible.
But there are clearly ways of creating an open, multifaceted movie while still guiding the viewer. In A History of Violence, David Cronenberg uses cliché and contradiction to suggest and circumscribe meaning. Viewers can still read it as they please, but the range of possible valid interpretations is limited by the text and a consistent tonal tension.
Palindromes, on the other hand, merely feels vague and half-formed.
Yet it’s getting clearer that meaning is no longer a relevant issue with Solondz; a more interesting question is how he keeps getting his movies made. His Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness were striking efforts, promising existential provocations with a genuine empathy for society’s oddballs. But with Palindromes and Storytelling, the director has made two consecutive movies that use splashy tricks to no effect and without discernible purpose.
Todd Solondz now appears to be making movies for an audience of one: himself. And people are giving him money to do it. Bully for him.