Backwards and Forwards

Mister Sunshine: Writer-director Todd Solondz
Sony Pictures Classics

I've looked into the eyes of Todd Solondz and seen his soul--just like George Bush did with Putin, or Sen. Dr. Bill Frist did with the videotaped Terri Schiavo. Well, maybe it was Solondz's soul--or maybe it was just a smudge. Anyway, I did talk with the writer-director at length recently about his new cine-molotov Palindromes, a movie designed to rankle both sides of the what-is-life? debate. (Solondz will be in Minneapolis on April 27 to introduce a screening of the film at Walker Art Center.)

The purveyor of such suburban nightmare-comedies as Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness now brings us the story of Aviva, a 13-year-old girl who's dying to get knocked up. When she does get pregnant, though, her liberal mom has other plans--so young Aviva hits the road. After being screwed and abandoned by a trucker, our heroine (played throughout the film by eight different actors of various ages, genders, and body types) lands softly in Mama Sunshine's Christian home for children with disabilities--who perform pro-life pop songs as their caretakers plan to murder abortionists.

Solondz still has a good ear for saccharine polite-speak, though Palindromes plays less overtly for laughs than usual. Some critics are handing out raves and even "brave"s, while others would prefer that the auteur abort any future offerings. We talked about that--as well as sexuality, disability, and narcissism.

City Pages: With Palindromes, you're talking once again about the creepiness of the suburban dream. At the same time, you're also addressing the idea that has obviously taken hold of this country: that the child--or, more specifically, the unborn child--is in some ways the "perfect citizen."

Solondz: This movie is reflective of the world we live in. It would be a shame if people didn't access it because they think, "He's too mean." That's almost beside the point. An abortion movie like Vera Drake is so sanctified--saying we're all martyrs for the cause. It's narcissism.

CP: That said, you've embedded the abortion issue in yet another scenario involving the sexual victimization of children. Why do you keep coming back to that?

Solondz: We live in a culture of hysteria. To talk about sexuality and children is a hot-button thing, and people are just ready to jump down your throat when you have those two words in the same sentence. I have no sympathy for someone raping children. But that's Aviva's innocence. There she is with this trucker. That's the comedy and horror. For me that's what it's about: impulses that force one to ask, What am I responding to? If I'm laughing, what am I laughing at? Am I moved by this? It's about forcing one to reassess or reevaluate one's myths and so forth. There's nothing in my movies that you don't see every day of the week. It's just the way I'm coming at it.

CP: When you're working with child actors in touchy situations, is there ever the sense that it's going too far?

Solondz: You're getting into legal terrain here. I've done my research and it's complicated. Basically, I knew that no studio--no [company] connected with a studio--would be able to distribute this film, because it's not worth the flack they'll get from some quarters. And it's not just [the flack from] conservative Christians. I don't have kids. But if I had a kid who was clamoring to act, I would much prefer him to act in one of my movies--which I feel do accord a certain dignity--than involve him in shilling for the Gap or laundry detergent, where they're just being used to sell a consumer good. That to me is an obscenity.

CP: For this film, you used kids with disabilities.

Solondz: I never divided them into "kids with disabilities" and "kids without disabilities": They're children and they were approached that way. And you know, I'm seldom moved by things that happen on set, but when [the kids] performed those songs, I knew just how much pride and joy they took in their performances, and how they formed this kind of bond with each other. For an audience, the frivolity of the music is part of the friction. People have to say, "Wait--am I laughing at kids?" To me, it's sort of unfathomable how anyone can see this as mockery--as if you can't have this kind of frivolity or fun when you've got kids with disabilities. Why not?

CP: You seem in Palindromes to reserve your harshest critique for liberals. Some find it almost a pro-life movie.

Solondz: That was my fear. It's very easy to reduce people to cardboard cutouts, which is why I gave Mama Sunshine this speech where she says, "There's nothing I won't do to protect these children--so help me God." You have to respect those convictions. People can laugh and see this mad tea party of a breakfast [with the kids], which is sort of otherworldly in a sense. But at a certain point, the laughter must feel hollow, because this family is a real family with real love and affection. What could be more virtuous? It's the highest form of motherhood to take in the unwanted and abandoned. So you can laugh, but you're up against the fact that this family has its priorities in order. As I've said, I hope my audience has an open mind, not just a liberal mind.

CP: Meaning...?

Solondz: Well, Michael Moore makes Fahrenheit 9/11, and I wonder, "Did it change anyone's mind?" My point is, you have to acknowledge that you yourself have your own blinders. I'm sure if I had grown up in Kansas or one of these places, I wouldn't be on this side of the coin. p;

CP: You say you're trying to humanize the far right. But why? I mean, we could get in a car right now, drive a half-hour, and boom: They're humanized. People in this country think Dick Cheney is a great guy. They humanize the shit out of him.

Solondz: Okay, but the audience for festival films is usually about 101 percent liberal. And other films seem to exist to convince them they're right [to be liberal]. Look at Vera Drake. I mean, would it have been a sin for [Vera] to be paid for a job well done? In my movies, I'm not out to say humanity is bad. I'm just not out to tell you how great you are.

CP: Some critics really don't like what you do. I mean, they really hate it.

Solondz: There are a lot of brilliant people who write horrible things about me. They call me loathsome, cynical, misanthropic. I can't Google myself. It's too upsetting. We all have our peculiar baggage. I mean, this doesn't come out of nowhere, these characters in these movies. What's more reviled and loathed in society than a pedophile? They are the biggest pariahs. I'm maybe so contrary that my heart goes out to the most damaged. I see narcissism and self-deception as survival mechanisms. It's a profound need we have to feel good about ourselves. It's like Stalin on his deathbed--or Hitler or Idi Amin: In the end everyone thinks they're a good person.

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