May 15, 2005|There's a lot to say on the subject of Todd Solondz, but it's probably best to just let him speak for himself. Articulate, thoughtful (over the telephone and in his work), he reminds me the most of Errol Morris in that his unmistakable eccentricity is matched by a desire unquenchable to find truth in unconventional places. Solondz agreed to an interview upon the release of his fifth feature, Palindromes (he asks folks not to track down his directorial debut, Fear, Anxiety & Depression, which my editor, Bill, describes as something like a satire of Solondz films), another picture garnering an extreme amount of political fallout following the similarly-tumultuous receptions to his Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness, and Storytelling. I was pleased to chat with Mr. Solondz about living life misunderstood.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: Why the "culture war"?
TODD SOLONDZ: Geez, that's a good question. I don't know the answer, in fact I'm guessing by how and what you write that you might have a better perspective on it than I do. But certainly I think that it's a good story, isn't it, on top of everything else. It's a very convenient handle for the media to exacerbate certain tensions that of course the administration is happy to aggravate in its choices and so forth, but I couldn't begin... I'm hardly expert at this.
Polarization is what I'm getting at.
Divide and conquer notwithstanding all the talk of unity, if one can remember that word being bandied about around inauguration time. It was good for the inauguration but hasn't come into play too often since.
We have trouble living up to our finer intentions--antagonism is easier.
The funny thing is just how--and I hadn't realized this until I finished Palindromes--just how reflective it was of this blue/red divide. It wasn't something I was entirely conscious of as I was writing it...
It is something, though, that is intrinsic to your work: the bully/victim dynamic.
Yes, I suppose I'm responsive to that and to the signals that are out there, but to dip into the political pool wasn't my intention.
Why did Heather Matarazzo decline to play Dawn Wiener again?
I begged her, I begged her, and all I can tell you is that she's an actress and didn't want to be so identified with this character again that first brought her to fame.
Ellen Barkin, on the other hand, sounds as though she'd do anything to work with you again.
Look, what can I say to such a compliment? I had no idea that we would have such a good collaboration--I offered her the part, she took it, very simple and straightforward and she's been nothing but generous since then in helping to get the movie out there.
Tell me about love and cruelty. Is it your idea that the capacity for both is bottomless in the human experience?
It's true what you say. I think that children, particularly children on the cusp of adolescence, can throw into relief the reality of what we as adults are able to camouflage, to banish into subterfuge certain realities of human nature. Yes, we are equally capable of kindness as we are of savagery, and I think that my movies are not comforting in that they want to talk about both the kindness and the savagery--the truths of certain extremes of behaviour. I'm not out to say, "Oh, we're terrible people," or something like that, but look, on the other hand you read the paper everyday and there's another atrocity. Every day it's hard to see a celebration of mankind as anything but as kind of an obscene narcissism.
So your characters become microcosm, then, for the same division in society as they are in your films?
Maybe so--just as the movie is reflective of a kind of polarization in society, the movies that I make themselves elicit a polarized response. It's a tension, and it can be a heated one, between those who are able to access and engage what I'm about against others who feel locked out or impose certain meanings on me in order to not have to engage with what I'm getting at.
Compare yourself, if you can, with Errol Morris.
I'm a great admirer of Errol Morris! I'm pleased that you can see a connection between us. Let me respond by you taking in my movie this Mama Sunshine character and certainly there's a satirical thrust, there's a lot of laughter, but the laughter has to ring hollow at some point when you recognize that there's no higher virtue than what she does. No higher form of motherhood, if you will, than to take in all these abandoned, unwanted, discarded children with these various disabilities into a sanctuary, a kind of paradise of love and affection for them. I gave her this speech to give her a little gravitas that says that there's nothing that she won't do to protect these children so that even if you're not on board with her sort of, some would call it fanatical, religion, you at the least can't scoff at the virtue of her mission. I think it's that kind of complexity, if I am in fact successful in creating it, that might remind of Errol Morris' character studies.
Do you trace the discomfort your films inspire to the audience being forced to recognize their own prejudices?
The thing is that I don't know. I can't even begin to defend myself because there's not much point, people will say what they will say--but even among people who like what I do there's a somewhat divided response between the half from Dollhouse, say, that will say how funny the movie was and the other half that will say, "How can you laugh when it's so sad and painful?" But it's really both concurrently, isn't it? It's intertwined.
The breakfast table sequence from Palindromes...
Yes, there is of course a certain level of frivolity, levity, but there's this certain level of pathos, I think, in that any one of these children could be Aviva's child. All of the disabilities, brain damage, missing a limb or what have you that her mother warns her about with underage pregnancies and births, they're all represented there, so there is this terrible poignancy there, I think. When the Sunshine Singers are singing and dancing, I was moved by the pride and joy they took from these performances--this profound delight. And yet at the same time there's a feeling of "My God, what are they doing?" even in me--and there's the friction, the rub, that makes it difficult for any audience to know whether they should laugh, should they not laugh, and if they're laughing, are they laughing at the right things? Or if you're moved, why are you moved? Are you moved because of their profound joy or are you moved because you're patronizing to the disabled? This is emblematic, I think, of the dynamic in which my movies operate: they're all fraught with this terrible ambiguity.
You speak as though you have no say in the reception of these scenes.
To an extent it's how I feel that if I'm to strike at the truth, a certain truth of human nature to which I aspire, and if I come close to hitting that mark, then that ambiguity comes hand-in-hand. All I intend is to tell the truth as I see it about aspects of human nature. There are no absolutes in our relationships with others and if you're ever presented with a situation in a movie that seems like it's cut and dried and not laden with endless layers of complexity, then I think that someone is lying.
The charge of exploitation...
I think it's a facile and reductive way to read it. I think there's a certain condescension on their parts, I mean, should these children be disenfranchised in such a way as to prohibit them from performing? Or is the problem just that I've filmed them doing so in the same way that others have filmed able-bodied children performing? Would it be okay if none of them had disabilities? One of them? Is it obscene somehow--somehow unacceptable? And I would argue why should they be disenfranchised? Why should they be excluded from performance, some musical production? I defy anyone to point out to me a way that the children are in any way exploited for this film--certainly I can't help but that no matter what I do, I will offend someone, but I feel indebted to maintain some sort of fidelity to the truths that I see.
|Ellen Barkin and Jennifer Jason Leigh in Palindromes|
The problem is with representation, I think. Can you speak to the connection to Tod Browning's Freaks?
Of course, it's a beautiful film. The freaks are those who are not freaks, so to speak, it subverts the meaning there, and of course M does the same thing with the townspeople and Peter Lorre. And yet, when I was working on this film, I assembled this cast and the children really with it just in mind that these were children and not disabled children per se. It wasn't until afterwards, in the assembly of the picture, that that connection to Freaks occurred to me. I had thought of Night of the Hunter, of course, and The Wizard of Oz. I love Freaks but it didn't occur to me even though it's the most obvious connection in hindsight because, I think, that I never did look at them as, ironically, freaks.
Is it redundant to ask you what the toll of American sanctimony has wrought on our culture? To the extent that sanctimony is our culture?
Well, well, you won't get me to add more fuel to the sanctimony fire. (long pause) There's so much moral superiority at play in the attacks that I get, but again, I would argue that there is a moral ground, a moral centre to what I do. Without which, I don't think any of my movies would function properly. But I don't know exactly how to answer this question about sanctimony--of course one always cringes a little bit at any hiccup of a sense of sanctimony, but I can only say that I am responsive to signals that I get out there from the world and it's all transformed through my filter, or what have you, into something that I hope takes on something of meaning or value to others. But look, I'm looking for an audience with an open mind, which is not a vacant mind--and also a liberal mind is not always an open one, either. And my movies do prod and poke or what have you in deliberate ways to get at certain things, to arouse one from complacency. I don't say this out of smugness, I'm not out to convert someone from one point of view to another, one political conviction to another--I don't have that arrogance to presume to be able to do that--but rather to get the audience to in some sense examine the moral dimension and consequences of their convictions.
You've spoken about a scene from Fahrenheit 9/11 where Paul Wolfowitz is caught on film wetting his comb as an example of what you don't like to see in pictures.
Yes, not the scene so much as the way that it's used in the picture--a cheap shot to take a human moment, you know, we've all combed our hair, and then to twist it into something that's meant to mock and to destroy this man's character. I'm not defending the man, I'm just saying that this sort of technique in film is just really ugly and appeals to the worst aspects of our character. Generally, though, what I don't like in movies is the same as anyone, I think. I don't like to see something that doesn't engage me. If it doesn't stimulate me or move me in any way, then it's hard. I have nothing against them, I just have no use for them.
There's a feeling of real melancholy to Palindromes.
I've always described this as the saddest of all my comedies in part because for all the political and moral charge of film, it is at heart a tender tale of a young girl on a quest for love. What it means to be thirteen, to be a mom, sure, but ultimately it's a seeking for love, a quest for the sublime. Sex is something that she has no interest in, for her it's coming into communion with the imperative of her life--that even if she cannot biologically become a mom, she may become a Mama Sunshine. That need is so defining of her, and through that, I see the move as so incredibly hopeful--all of that ambition embodied in her tenacity through to the end.
Will you cop to being influenced by classical literature? Maybe a little "Eve of St. Agnes"?
(laughs) Oh, I don't know... I grew up in a really low-middle-brow pop cultural environment, you know, it wasn't until I got much older and went off to college that I got exposed to some of the more sophisticated highbrow works. The white elephant in the room is very much the television set that I was for such a long time hooked into as a child. I'd outgrown it, I think, by early adolescence, but certainly to be a kid growing up, spending school nights and entire weekends just watching television cannot but have some effect. What that effect is, is somewhat of a mystery. I don't know, I can't account for my references--I've mentioned Huckleberry Finn, and Night of the Hunter, Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, and then Gulliver's Travels. I don't know. I leave it to others.
What's the state of modern film criticism?
Like film direction, it's been democratized to the point of obsolescence. Just as there are not many filmmakers left who do anything of great interest, there are not many film critics who write anything of great interest. I would say, though, that maybe this has always been true.
Has the criticism made you defensive?
I'm a sensitive guy, I think it the meanness of some of the criticism inevitably has, but more so with this picture I think you see that I've sort of embraced this idea that I can't help what people think of me or of my movies and that I can only worry about my own work. Look, I'm human, when people say horrible things about you--tell you that you're a low, vile, mean person--it doesn't make you feel good. If you cut me, I bleed. But I stabilize, and I don't jump out of windows. I take the good with the bad. That's the thing, there's a good amount of counterbalancing to all that negativity. At the end of the day, I can't dwell on any of this--I have to trust it to cancel itself out, I have my own work to think about and that's just too much of a distraction.