Monday, May 09, 2005

Palindromes (Todd Solondz)

Todd Solondz has repeatedly stated in interviews that he doesn't know who his audience is. This is a fitting response considering that his audience (of which I consider myself part) has to constantly ask itself why it's responding to Solondz's films, and if it's responding for the right reasons. Accused of being a misanthrope and of taking cheap shots at his characters, Solondz, in my opinion, is instead the strangest humanist the cinema has produced, provoking his largely well-educated, liberal audience into confronting their own prejudices, self-hatreds, and privileges and forcing them to confront the fact that they may just be full of shit, full of hatred for the same people they profess to care about, and full of an inability to accept the messiness of life. Sometimes Solondz does take cheap shots at his characters, but I'm just beginning to grasp the implications of these cheap shots five films into his career and how they cumulatively conspire to damn the audience and filmmaker for laughing at other peoples' misfortunes. Solondz's entire career is not only a critique of his audience (whoever that may be), but also an auto-critique and a strained attempt to connect with, accept, and love other people. Solondz's films exist in a weird universe of their own, a universe where one minute you're laughing at someone who is down, the next asking yourself why you're laughing, the next feeling deeply for that person, the next laughing again, the next hating yourself, the next coming to some realization of your own limitations and weaknesses, and hopefully, coming out of that experience a little more enlightened. Solondz, like all great artists, has the ability to make us better people. Still, his work is so open to reductive readings, like the creep in the theater Saturday who laughed heartily when a girl was shot in the head, that it presents problems. If you're an asshole going into a Solondz film, you will be even more of an asshole leaving it. But, so what? All worthwile leaps forward are problematic and messy, and "Palindromes" is a great leap forward for Solondz, both artistically and technically. Structurally, Solondz has consistently challenged himself with each film, barring his first feature, "Fear, Anxiety & Depression," a naive Woody Allen rip-off with a couple decent jokes that Solondz has since disowned. "Welcome to the Dollhouse," for all its strengths, was a static, three-act structure that owed most of its success to the acting and writing. Each subsequent film has been an advance structurally, and it's only fitting that "Palindromes" opens with the funeral of his most popular character. "Happiness" was a nauseous, hilarious epic of unease, with a large ensemble cast and a fluid point of view. "Storytelling," for all its flaws, was an exciting attempt to present two separate, thematically related films, one short, one longer, as one distinct feature and had a lot to say about the ethical problems inherent in the creative process. "Palindromes" ups the ante by having several different actors of varying ages, races, body types, and genders playing the lead character. This technique has been dissected in various reviews for its symbolic importance, but I don't give a shit about symbolism. I think it's just a successful attempt to play with the possibilities of film, a visual medium that is still full of exciting, largely unused possibilities. And, though this film opens with twenty of the most self-loathing minutes in all of film, Solondz takes it in surprisingly troubling, wonderful directions that turn it into the most compassionate work in his filmography. A major breakthrough, and hopefully, an important film for the canon. If not, it will still be an important film in my life.

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