Life and Death in New Jersey: Todd Solondz on Palindromes

Todd Solondz, chronicler of hell in all its forms, discusses choice, change, and the illusion of free will.

by The Exile

Todd Solondz uses eight different actors to play the main role of Aviva in Palindromes

Todd Solondz uses eight different actors to play the main role of Aviva in Palindromes

A determined chronicler of hell in all its forms-whether teenage (Welcome to the Dollhouse), sexual (Happiness), or creative (Storytelling)-filmmaker Todd Solondz continues to unsettle with the abortion-themed drama, Palindromes. Here he discusses choice, change, and the illusion of free will.

The Exile: What was your starting point for the film?

Todd Solondz: I'd been reading about [Atlanta bomber and anti-abortion activist] Eric Rudolph, and it made me wonder how someone could commit such an atrocity. It also made me realize that to be an abortionist in America today is to be like a policeman or a fireman, to take on a heroic profession. One of the fundamental human truths is we all have to believe we're good people, it's a survival mechanism. So I thought about this 13-year-old girl who imagines that having a baby will supply the unconditional love she's not getting elsewhere, and we would feel great empathy for her. Then suddenly she's yelling, "Do it! Do it!" to a man who's pointing a rifle at a doctor. There's horror in that. I wanted those two opposing impulses, empathy and horror.

TE: Your films often blur the line between victim and victimizer.

TS: This young girl wants to get pregnant, so she is the aggressor. She becomes a predator and her older lover, Joe, is the prey. That's what's so unsettling. When she tells Mark Wiener that she knows he's not a paedophile because "paedophiles love children," it's shocking, of course, but it's not an endorsement of paedophiles. It's simply that, from her experience, that's how she found love.

TE: Some people have criticized your depiction of the Sunshine children as mocking the disabled.

TS: There's certainly a satirical thrust in those scenes-that's part of the friction, should I laugh or not?-but from the minute you see the children arrayed around the breakfast table, there's an underlying pathos, too. It harks back to Aviva's mother warning her that her own baby could be brain damaged. And I think that as long as we're not laughing at the expense of these characters then their dignity is preserved.

TE: Mark Wiener's speech at the end of the film claims we're all trapped in our own moral positions. Where do you stand on determinism?

TS: I'm a devout atheist, so I do subscribe to most of what Mark says. I just don't see things quite as grimly as he does. To me, if one can accept one's limitations this can be a freeing thing. Aviva at the end is still determined to be a mom and I do think there's beauty in her adherence to this need that defines her. Of course, if you're religious, you have to believe in free will; but for someone like myself, choice is an illusion, a vanity. We imagine we're invoking choice when in fact we can only act in accordance with who we are.

TE: You have said you don't like to make things easy for audiences.

TS: When I go to movies I want to be provoked, I want to be stimulated, to experience life from another angle. So I'm not going to pat you on the back and validate you and tell you you're fighting the good fight. If I say I'm pro-choice, liberals can say, OK, he's like me. (If anything, I'm anti-anti-choice.) I was very moved by Vera Drake, yet at the same time I wanted to scream, "Would it have been a sin for Vera to get paid for a job well done? Does she have to be sanctified?" Because when you do that the audience becomes martyrs, they bask in this narcissistic glow that prevents them from really exploring the issue. You're just feeding into their sense of complacency.

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