Register Monday | June 17 | 2019

Top Spot for <i>Palindromes</i>

Todd Solondz Shows Us the Best Way to Suffer

Why must we suffer for art? I'm not referring to living in squalor before being discovered, or living with psychotic parents in order to be inspired. No, I'm talking about the rat-infested, rundown, run-by-crackhead venues we must patronize in order to discover what's new, difficult and fringe: poetry readings held in bookstores the size and smell of Arby's bathrooms; experimental theatre performed in abandoned Catholic schools covered in Latin Kings graffiti; rock-and-funk bands playing at bars that smell like formaldehyde and only serve El Presidente; or indie films screened at movie theatres known as "art houses."

Art houses. Blech. In Cincinnati, in the eighties, a cinema called The Movies showed stuff like Henry V and Akira, and the stickiness of the floors made me feel like a mouse caught in a glue trap. In Boston, in the nineties, I saw Naked at the Coolidge Corner Cinema. Rarely are a film and the theatre it's being shown in so similarly dystopian. (Apparently, they've fixed up the place since I was last there.)

Solondz's humour is what my mother would call "tasteless." Inherently unfunny actions (murder, rape, pedophilia, abortion) are performed by vacant, clownish actors (Ellen Barkin, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jane Adams, Heather Matarrazo) and the resulting irony is as painful as it is funny.

Before Landmark Theatres opened the gloriously designed and perfectly managed Sunshine in the Lower East Side, New Yorkers in southern Manhattan had to suffer the Angelika to see any first-run indie film. The Angelika Film Center is on my list-along with Reno, Ankara and Calcutta-of the worst places on earth. The lobby is always chaotic, and, even after ten years, the staff has yet to figure out how to efficiently herd ticket holders. The tiny, overheated theatres are all in the basement, about ten feet above the subway, and trains rumble underneath your chair, always at the most inopportune times. The sightlines are terrible: the theatres weren't built on inclines, and there are wide middle aisles where the best seats should be. The bathrooms are often a mess, too. I usually refuse to see movies if they are only playing at the Angelika. I'd rather wait for the video than suffer that den of iniquity-and I never wait for the video. Nevertheless, I've seen a number of great films there- Shakespeare in Love, The Straight Story, Bear Cub-and some movies that would have been bad by themselves, but were made worse by the Angelika-like Gummo and Life Is Beautiful.

I was willing to endure the Angelika to see Palindromes, Todd Solondz's latest festival of misanthropy, however. The impetus for seeing a Todd Solondz movie is the same for riding a rickety wooden roller coaster or taking semi-poisonous mushrooms. You don't do any of these things to feel good; you do them to feel uncomfortable and disconcerted, and then you laugh because you suffered so deliberately, and because it's all so appalling. In Welcome to the Dollhouse, an ugly girl tries desperately to seduce a hot rebel, yet she's oblivious to her lack of sex appeal. In Happiness, a pedophile stuffs a tuna-fish sandwich with sleeping pills to drug his son's twelve-year-old friend, and it's played as a physical comedy moment. At the end of the movie, a dog licks up the pedophile's son's semen and then kisses the boy's mother. In Palindromes, a group of damaged children (blind, retarded, limbless, etc.) perform Christian pop songs while dancing like members of S Club 7.

Horrible.

Hilarious.

Solondz's humour is what my mother would call "tasteless." Inherently unfunny actions (murder, rape, pedophilia, abortion) are performed by vacant, clownish actors (Ellen Barkin, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jane Adams, Heather Matarrazo) and the resulting irony is as painful as it is funny. It's not that abortion is funny. But naming your fetus Henrietta, aborting it, and then renaming yourself Henrietta-now, that's funny.

I laughed through much of Palindromes, which is Solondz's most profound film, if not his most skillfully crafted. The movie will probably be remembered primarily for its casting gimmick. The main character, a thirteen-year-old girl named Aviva, is played by seven different people, two of whom are black, one of whom is a boy, and only four of whom could remotely pass for thirteen. The switcheroos happen at the beginning of each new chapter: the screen fades to black, a chapter heading comes up, and, bang, Aviva is a 300-pound black woman. (By the way, that large woman, Sharon Wilkins, is the best of the lot. Though she's five times the size and more than twice the age of the other Avivas, she's the most believable teenager.) Solondz loves sight gags, whether it's changing the actors, showing awkward teen sex or making limbless children sing "Nobody Jesus But You."

[Full disclosure: My best friend, Curtis Moore, co-wrote the Christian pop numbers in Palindromes. I saw the movie with Curtis, and during the songs, I threw popcorn at him and said, "You're going to hell for this. You know that, don't you?"]

The point of all of this is that no matter what you do, you're still the same person. Life is a palindrome. I know this not because I'm a great film critic, but rather because Dawn's brother Mark shows up at the end of the movie and tells Aviva that no matter what you do, you're still the same person.

The plot is age-old: A young girl gets in trouble, runs away from home, has adventures and then returns, wiser and older. The film opens with the funeral of Dawn Wiener, the heroine of Welcome to the Dollhouse. She has left behind a cousin who fears that she and Dawn share the same fate-to end out unloved, confused and suicidal. Aviva's mother, played by Ellen Barkin, insists that Aviva will be fine. It should be noted that Barkin, a victim of Botox, is incapable of showing emotion except by crying. It's medically enhanced vapidity. Therefore, when Aviva gets pregnant, there is a strange humour to the way her mother insists that she have an abortion.

Of course, there are complications during the procedure, and, shortly afterwards, Aviva runs away. She hooks up with a truck driver, who dumps her at a gas station, and she ends up being taken in by a couple that hoards damaged children, who in turn sing for Jesus. These Bible-thumpers aren't quite as they seem, and one horrible thing leads to another. Aviva's story is told without a moral; she doesn't survive because she is virtuous, or because anyone is virtuous. She survives by luck and plot device.

The point of all of this is that no matter what you do, you're still the same person. Life is a palindrome. I know this not because I'm a great film critic, but rather because Dawn's brother Mark shows up at the end of the movie and tells Aviva that no matter what you do, you're still the same person. (At this point, Aviva is being played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, looking exactly like Holly Hunter in 13. Coincidence? Maybe). If the point of this profound, and profoundly depressing, movie is that there's no point to what Aviva has gone through, that she is the same person she was before Dawn's funeral, then truly we have suffered for Solondz's film-an aesthetic exercise in the pointlessness of life, art, and narrative.

Ted Gideonse has written about the arts (and other stuff) for Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Salon and the Advocate. He lives in Brooklyn and keeps a blog, the Gideonse Bible. Bring Me the Axe appears every other Friday.