Saturday, May 28, 2005

Movie Review

Todd Solondz's Palindromes: Hopeless Times Eight

The audience at Palindromes, the fourth feature written and directed by Todd Solondz, laughed pretty hard but only intermittently at the travails of poor little Aviva, a 13-year-old girl in suburban New Jersey dead-set on getting pregnant. That is to say, we were being awfully good sports, and not because one bleak thing after another happens to the helplessly sensitive, blobby protagonist--that's what's funny--but because Solondz has such an unsettled relationship to his own ironic bent that he constantly fumbles the craft of comedy. And if he's not having fun relating Aviva's determinedly depressive misadventures then what has he invited us into the theater for? (He certainly doesn't claim to have fun directing movies, a process he says is "always assaultive and nightmarish and horrible" in this 30 January 2002 Salon interview from around the time his previous feature Storytelling was released.)

Palindromes superficially resembles Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor's sporty, caustic Citizen Ruth (1996; click here for my chapter about it), in which the irredeemable central character, an aerosol-huffing young woman with a history of getting knocked up and giving her children away, is arrested on a drug charge and told confidentially by a judge that the court might go easy if she ends her current pregnancy. She's then taken up as a "cause" first by Christian anti-abortionists and then by feminist pro-abortionists. Both groups assume Ruth can be enlisted on their side, but Ruth is so very limited and self-centered she can barely grasp, or even focus on, what she represents to them. In the end only money speaks a language she understands. Payne and Taylor take a subject that everybody feels strongly about and daringly use it to dramatize their total skepticism about human motives. And it plays wickedly well because they're wizzes at comedy.

In Palindromes Solondz follows the same line, with variations, and gets maybe 10-20% of the laughs. He begins with Aviva's mother "lovingly" insisting she have an abortion, which ends in an emergency hysterectomy. Aviva then runs away from home and is taken in by a Christian anti-abortion couple named Sunshine who have adopted a variety of disabled and abused children whom they train to perform devout pop music routines for a fundamentalist entertainment circuit. It's not all sunshine, however; the father of the family conspires with a local doctor and a pedophiliac loner to murder surgeons who perform abortions. Dr. Fleisher, who presided over Aviva's botched procedure, is next on their list, and Aviva is eager to help. This criminal escapade miscarries and Aviva ends up back in her parents' house where they throw a welcome home party for her and she, apparently unaware of what happened to her in Dr. Fleisher's care, tries to get pregnant again. Her quest for motherhood thus takes intent-but-dim Aviva in a big circle, at the end of which she hasn't even discovered the plain anatomical fact about herself, much less whatever truths young people in movies are supposed to discover at the end of their journeys.

Solondz's situations are more extreme than Payne and Taylor's but his attitude can be opaque. Not when Aviva's mom Joyce (Ellen Barkin) is trying to convince her an abortion is the right "choice," which is a classic form of irony, showing a bald assertion of will inside the mother's attempts to nurture. And the combination of smiley optimism and murderous righteousness among the Sunshines is a standard (low-grade) form of topical satire. (This is the crudest aspect of the movie because it constructs allegory from an overbroad generalization: you can't say all fundamentalist Christians are hypocrites because other fundamentalist Christians are killers, i.e., they're not necessarily part of the same "family." It's simply too much to say that militating against abortion inevitably leads to such murders. Solondz shows the same prejudice as David O. Russell did with the adoptive fundamentalist Christian family in IHuckabees.)

What's opaque is Solondz's attitude toward Aviva herself. On the one hand she's the kind of hypersensitive child you fear for in life because she has a desperation for experience without the shrewdness or toughness to avoid the most obvious pitfalls in gaining it. (She's literally and figuratively the cousin of Dawn Wiener in Solondz's first feature Welcome to the Dollhouse (1996).) At the same time, however, Solondz makes Aviva nearly impossible to identify with, notably by casting seven actresses and one actor of different races, ages, and body types to play the role by turns. He unifies their performances by having them speak in the same hushed, whiny tone and carry themselves with the same downcast air, which only makes Aviva less open to us.

In addition, about half the actresses who play Aviva are overweight, one of them obese, and Solondz puts them in midriff tops and hip huggers, their soft bellies and rolls bulging. (Will Denton, the adolescent boy cast as "Huckleberry" Aviva, is the only conventionally pretty girl among them.) Solondz thus makes Aviva pitifully unself-aware, exposes her to the harsh world, but does not by these strokes make her sympathetic. The urge toward compassion is invoked but constantly defeated by the fact that Aviva has no admirable or enviable qualities, either obvious or innate, which makes her more grotesque. Solondz's protagonists are always bigger losers than even irony requires, as if he were afraid that a too-ready identification would prevent him from getting where he wants to go.

It is thus a problem that he doesn't seem to know where it is he wants to get to--he just knows what style he wants to arrive in. And yet, to be fair, the sense of experimentation is part of what makes him interesting. He's certainly aware of the discomfort he causes his audience; as John Goodman hollers at Paul Giamatti, the satiric documentary filmmaker in Storytelling, "Stop trying to impose your misery on others!" Like all ironists, Solondz believes that "his" misery is really everybody's misery. The problem for him isn't so much that American movie audiences don't much cotton to this way of telling stories as that he doesn't display enough mastery of it to consolidate a sizeable enough specialty audience (unlike Alexander Payne, for instance, or Wes Anderson, or perhaps Jared Hess).

It's interesting to think of Solondz as a potential American counterpart to the Spanish super-ironist Luis Buñuel. At times Buñuel did show signs of unironic ideological commitment. The spirit of Los Olvidados (1950), for instance, lies with the liberal superintendent of the juvenile-penal farm who wants to save young criminals by teaching them the value of work and showing his faith in them. And in The Exterminating Angel (1962) the anti-bourgeois comedy of his earlier surrealist masterpiece L'Âge d'or (1930) verges on a more explicitly Marxist disdain. But otherwise Buñuel displays what can seem like the ideal cool detachment for irony, which, more than any ideology, expresses universal dubiousness about human character and about the romantic projections we flatter ourselves with in art.

Viridiana (1961) is perhaps the purest expression of Buñuel's ironic outlook; in it he turns the crusading do-gooder of Los Olvidados into a postulant who loses her sense of vocation after her uncle dopes her coffee in a rape attempt he then can't bring himself to carry out. (In Los Olvidados we never see how the superintendent reacts after the well-intentioned boy is prevented from returning with the money entrusted to him.) Viridiana's uncle hangs himself with a jump rope and she, having come into his estate along with her cousin Jorge, brings beggars from the village to live decently on the inherited land by honest labor. When Viridiana and Jorge go into town, however, the beggars break into the manor house for a drunken debauch (during which they imitate the composition of Leonardo's Last Supper so that a woman can take their picture with "the camera her parents gave her," i.e., by lifting her skirts and flashing them). When Viridiana and Jorge return two of the men try to rape her, which Jorge prevents by bribing one rapist to murder the other.

The man who made Los Olvidados believes in working for reform. In Viridiana he more fully, and comically, acknowledges the immense hurdles to reform set up by human corruption. As anyone who has spent time with young children knows, we are born in need of correction. In Viridiana the housekeeper helps the uncle drug Viridiana; later her little girl insists on playing with the jump rope given to her by the master who has since hanged himself with it. Like mother, like daughter, like everybody else. No wonder the world is teeming with things in need of reform.

In a famous episode, Jorge sees a dog tied to the axle of a wagon trotting wearily down the road. Since the owner won't let the dog ride on the wagon Jorge buys him. (The carter advises Jorge to underfeed the dog so he'll be an eager hunter.) As Jorge continues down the road with the dog, a wagon passes in the opposite direction with a dog tied to its axle. It's possible to infer from this, as Pauline Kael, in her 15 February 1969 New Yorker review of Simon of the Desert (1965), claims the audience did, that Buñuel's point is the futility of trying to ameliorate suffering. But Kael left out the payoff to this vignette, when Jorge a moment later tells Viridiana he'd prefer the beggars did not live on the estate with them and advises, "Helping a few beggars does nothing for the thousands of others." Buñuel is not "saying" that good deeds are foolish but simply setting those good deeds in a world in which there's more evil than the best-intentioned people could ever get around to, in no small part because bad acts arise spontaneously, naturally from humans themselves. And yet charity arises naturally, too, even in someone like Jorge who is skeptical about Viridiana's generosity and optimism. (It arises naturally along with Buñuel's, and the audience's, dismay and harsh laughter at the incongruity between the world as most movies show it and the aspects of reality those movies exclude.)

Palindromes takes place in a similar world. The first problem, however, is that Solondz doesn't seem fully aware that irony doesn't represent reality; rather, it includes the facts of our misbegotten, fallible existence--our impure motives and lack of heroic qualities, the resistance to our plans of other people and of physical matter, and the seemingly fated bad outcomes--that romance narratives leave out. In this interview with FilmForce Solondz says he's not "out to shock," and insists his "movies are tame compared to real life, so it's not that it's shocking, it's just that I'm not playing into what an audience is maybe wanting." He's right to situate his work in opposition to what the audience wants, but his reference to "real life" is worrisome. "Real life" includes frustration, brutality, misery, and horror, of course, but they don't all happen to one person in the span of an hour and a half. To focus on them, as Solondz does, is to exclude in turn a wealth of contrasting facts and experiences, which is fine, but you need to know what you're doing and why. Confounding audience expectations with baleful material, as irony does, is a distortion intended as a corrective to what the ironist sees as the audience's degraded taste for romance. If Solondz isn't being dishonest in saying he doesn't want to shock us then he's terribly unself-aware of what he's up to as an ironic artist.

A further problem is that Solondz's handling of the comedy is so uncertain. This is clearest in the scenes of the Sunshine kids. Solondz has the kids announce their lines into a totally unresponsive atmosphere as if they were on a TV sitcom that refuses to coalesce around them. (There's an implicit, scathing laughtrack, as you might say there is in Simon of the Desert.) The deadpan awkwardness in this section of Palindromes functions ironically but Solondz is pinning the tail on the wrong donkeys.

As Viridiana shows, it's acceptable to depict children as corrupt. (Evelyn Waugh does it spectacularly well, twice, in A Handful of Dust.) But with one exception Solondz doesn't make the Sunshine kids corrupt, he simply congeals them in the aspic of their adoptive parents' religion and lower-middle-class taste. Although they're not ironic protagonists like Aviva, they're made to seem equally grotesque, which isn't too hard considering their disabilities. This isn't like Napoleon Dynamite in which you laugh at the dance moves of the gawky, ill-tempered, delusional protagonist because he embodies your own remembered adolescent awkwardness, petulance, and cluelessness. In this interview at About.com Solondz puts a preposterously self-glorifying spin on his use of the kids, saying that it would be to "disenfranchise" them if he didn't show their "delight in singing and dancing." Even assuming it's an unintentional side-effect, the singing-and-dancing Sunshine kids come across as symbolic freaks, bringing our aesthetic discomfort to bear against their adoptive parents.

Solondz struggles in Palindromes to find characters and forms for a broadly disenchanted outlook and he doesn't want to indulge in anything that might appeal too easily to the audience. Similarly, in Storytelling he boldly has the college kid with cerebral palsy and the African-American novelist use their minority status to intensify sex, which makes them far more individual than such characters usually are in American movies. (The way the kid knows his relationship is failing because his girlfriend has become "kind" is especially good.) Solondz also uses certain kinds of professional clumsiness intentionally, in the performance of the first little girl who plays Aviva, with her weirdly extending tongue, for instance. Struggling with form is also part of what made Buñuel so fascinating from the beginning to the end of his career.

But Buñuel's mastery includes a timeless ease with comedy. (In his seventies he made the leap to total disunity of plot with Phantom of Liberty (1974) and turned his usual anti-Catholic and anti-bourgeois antics into disarmingly nonchalant vaudeville.) If Solondz wants to go on experimenting he could use a surer comic touch. The "Nonfiction" section of Storytelling features his best work yet in this vein but also has the strangest fluctuations. Paul Giamatti is wonderfully, painfully adept networking on the phone with a girl he knew in high school, and his bathroom encounter with the stoned Mark Webber is priceless. (Giamatti, as the filmmaker who unconvincingly insists that he does like the human subjects of his movie, clearly stands in for Solondz trying to work out his conflicts.) But funny scenes alternate with overdeliberate little pictograms, of a suburban child's insensitivity to a Salvadoran immigrant housekeeper, for instance, who in her turn seems like a total victim in a Marxist sense, until she turns out to be a murderous psychopath, which zaps our political sympathy but leaves nothing in its place.

In Palindromes Solondz is most securely aware that his style of irony falls toward the comic rather than the tragic end of the scale in the scenes involving Stephen Adly-Guirgis as the pedophile Aviva travels with, particularly the scene in the diner in which he plans, while staring at his plate in despair, what he'll say when asked who Aviva is. There are also some choice gobliny moments with the courtly-horny little Peter Paul Sunshine (Alexander Brickel) who, because of his wayward urges, is the only Christian kid in the movie who seems like a human being.

Possibly the tone gets away from Solondz because storytelling, unfortunately, is not his forte. When you hear the creative-writing-class critiques that the college kids in the "Fiction" section of Storytelling offer of each other's stories it seems likely that Solondz gets paralyzed by trying to anticipate the potential interpretations of his movies. And he's not very good at interpreting his own work--he shoots and talks completely different movies. Take this comment from the About.com interview, for instance: "Nowhere else in the world does this happen and it's hard not to be responsive to it, to this fact that to be an abortionist--like to be a policeman or a fireman--is to take on a heroic profession. You put your life on the line." Heroic sentiments from a man whose four movies can't boast a single heroic figure (i.e., a person who has noble intentions and the unyielding determination and skill to carry them out), even among the secondary characters. (The only exception is when Dawn Wiener rescues her kidnaped sister--in her dreams.)

Solondz was an English major at Yale and in both his interviews and the critique sessions in Storytelling, in which criticism becomes inseparable from spotting offenses against political correctness, the damage is evident. He said to About.com that he follows his "impulses" in developing his stories, but if his scripts derive from impulses that isn't how the finished movies feel. (He told Salon that his actors don't improvise or even rehearse: "[I]t's pretty scripted.") This is perhaps the greatest barrier to his reaching a wide audience as Buñuel so improbably did; having started out as a surrealist seems to have liberated Buñuel permanently from too-programmatic storytelling. If Solondz can't own his penchant for sick-giggly stories enough to make them play onscreen, then he should probably move farther in the direction of his deliberateness and craft more conscious parables to reflect how he thinks he feels about life and art. They might be even less enjoyable, but they would at least be whole.

You can find this review and a lot besides at Blogcritics.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

The demographic keys to GOP ascendancy (via Kaus).

The KC is off to Asheville, North Carolina for a long weekend. (We hear it's "the Paris of the South.")
Quote of the Day:
"To love deeply in one direction makes us more loving in all others."
~ Madame Swetchine

Song of the Day:
Fleetwood Mac, "Never Forget"

Happy Birthday:
Lenny Kravitz
Stevie Nicks
Sally Ride
John Wayne

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Quote of the Day:
"There are two things that will be believed of any man whatsoever, and one of them is that he has taken to drink."
~ Booth Tarkington

Song of the Day:
Stacey Q., "Two of Hearts"

Happy Birthday:
Frank Capra
Perry Como
Tina Fey
Reggie Jackson
Pope John Paul II
Chow Yun-Fat

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Regarding the infamous runaway bride, I haven't seen this point made enough in response to all those calls for her to reimburse authorities for the money they spent searching for her:

What is unmentioned by the media, however, is the fact that until she made those [false statements to the New Mexico police] -- an act that occurred at the tail end of the police investigation -- Wilbanks had done nothing wrong in a legal sense.

The foregoing statement is not an expression of sympathy. As far as I am concerned, Wilbanks should be disowned by her parents, shunned by friends, and bitten by the family dog.
But she is a free human being. Except for the purpose of fraud or other crime, she has a legal right to disappear, to run out on a wedding. The alternative is to require people to inform authorities about their whereabouts and movements, as they were required to do in the Soviet Union.
And that's all I have to say about that.
Quote of the Day:
"It is hard to fight an enemy who has outposts in your head."
~ Sally Kempton

Song of the Day:
Blondie, "The Tide Is High"

Happy Birthday:
Enya
Dennis Hopper
Sugar Ray Leonard
Bill Paxon
Trent Reznor
Bob Saget

Monday, May 16, 2005

Quote of the Day:
"I can't listen to that much Wagner. I start getting the urge to conquer Poland."
~ Woody Allen

Song of the Day:
Janet Jackson, "Escapade"

Happy Birthday:
Pierce Brosnan
Henry Fonda
Janet Jackson
Liberace
Tori Spelling
Debra Winger
Congratulations to the Institute for Justice, which won a victory in today's Supreme Court decision striking down state laws against shipment of wine directly to consumers from out-of-state vinters.

Stephen Bainbridge has thoughts on the interesting 5-4 split.

Friday, May 13, 2005

The KC is off to Charleston (SC) for the weekend. It's uncharted territory for us, so send along your stuff-to-do recommendations if you have any. Same goes for Asheville, NC—we're headed there later in the month.
Quote of the Day:
"After one look at this planet any visitor from outer space would say 'I want to see the manager.'"
~ William S. Burroughs

Song of the Day:
The Jayhawks, "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me"

Happy Birthday:
Dennis Rodman
Ritchie Valens
Stevie Wonder

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Quote of the Day:
"A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song."
~ Chinese Proverb

Song of the Day:
The Lightning Seeds, "Change"

Happy Birthday:
Yogi Berra
Emilio Estevez
Tony Hawk
Katherine Hepburn
Florence Nightingale
Steve Winwood

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Quote of the Day:
"There is only one way to defeat the enemy, and that is to write as well as one can. The best argument is an undeniably good book."
~ Saul Bellow

Song of the Day:
Doris Troy, "Just One Look"

Happy Birthday:
Irving Berlin
Salvador Dali
Martha Graham

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Quote of the Day:
"It's easier to put on slippers than to carpet the whole world."
~ Al Franken

Song of the Day:
White Town, "Your Woman"

Happy Birthday:
Fred Astaire
Pat Summerall

Monday, May 09, 2005

Quote of the Day:
"Never continue in a job you don't enjoy. If you're happy in what you're doing, you'll like yourself, you'll have inner peace. And if you have that, along with physical health, you will have had more success than you could possibly have imagined."
~ Johnny Carson

Song of the Day:
Billy Joel, "Shameless"

Happy Birthday:
Candace Bergen
Albert Finney
David Gergen
Tony Gwynn
Billy Joel
Mike Wallace

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Read this article from the Washington Post on the furor over a sex-ed program in the public schools of Montgomery County, Maryland. The article makes the controversy sound fairly standard: conservative, fundamentalist parents objecting to the mere mention of homosexuality or condoms in the classroom ("It looks like we're in Kansas after all," sighs a liberal Montgomery mom. "Next, they'll be challenging evolution.") That's certainly the impression I got from the article.

This post by Eugene Volokh changed that impression. Here's an excerpt from a "Myths and Facts" handout that is part of the curriculum in question:

Myth: Homosexuality is a sin.

Facts: The Bible contains six passages which condemn homosexual behavior. The Bible also contains numerous passages condemning heterosexual behavior. Theologians and Biblical scholars continue to differ on many Biblical interpretations. They agree on one thing, however. Jesus said absolutely nothing at all about homosexuality. Among the many things deemed an abomination are adultery, incest, wearing clothing made from more than one kind of fiber, and earing shellfish, like shrimp and lobster.

Religion has often been misused to justify hatred and oppression. Less than a half a century ago, Baptist churches (among others) in this country defended racial segregation on the basis that it was condoned by the Bible. Early Christians were not hostile to homosexuals. Intolerance became the dominant attitude only after the Twelfth Century.... Fortunately, many within organized religions are beginning to address the homophobia of the church. The Nation Council of Churches of Christ, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Society of Friends (Quakers), and the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches support full civil rights for gay men and lesbians, as they do for everyone else.

Whoa. Suddenly I have a lot more sympathy for the fundamentalists. Whose bright idea was it for the Montgomery public schools to take sides in a pissing match about what is or isn't a sin according to the Bible?

As Eugene points out, "schools are not free to express views on how the Bible should be interpreted, what is or is not sin from the Biblical perspective, and which religious groups have good interpretations of the Bible and which have bad ones."

I think it's obvious that the above handout unacceptably undermines the right of conservative Christian parents to guide their children according to the kinds of Biblical interpretation the parents favor.

Moreover, it should anger parents who don't want their children learning that it matters one whit what the Bible says about anything. Apparently the authors of the curriculum believe the way to win the hearts and minds of the benighted fundamentalist children is to have schools teach that "Jesus says it's okay." That should be outrageous to more parents than just the fundamentalist ones.

Eugene has more. And here's a link to a federal judge's opinion putting a ten-day hold on implementation of the program. Money quote:

The Court is extremely troubled by the willingness of [the school system] to venture—or perhaps more correctly bound—into the crossroads of controversy where religion, morality and homosexuality converge. The Court does not understand why it is necessary, in attempting to achieve the goals of advocating tolerance and providing health related information, Defendants must offer up their opinion on such controversial topics as whether AIDS is God's judgment on homosexuals, and whether churches that condemn homosexuality are on theologically sound ground. As such, the Court is highly skeptical that [the curriculum] is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest, and finds that Plaintiff's Establishment Clause claim certainly merits future and further investigation.
Here's a better WP article on the controversy that focuses on the judge's decision rather than the religious-right-taking-over-Montgomery-County angle.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Lyric of the Day:
"And when they said, 'Come dancing,' my sister always did."
~ The Kinks, "Come Dancing"

Happy Birthday:
James Brown
Bing Crosby
Golda Meir
Sugar Ray Robinson
Frankie Valli

Sunday, May 01, 2005

In other "mainstream media is crap" news, here's a sports article from several weeks ago that I've been meaning to mention. Some of you may know that Gary Sheffield of the Yankees had a bit of a run-in with a fan at Fenway in mid-April. I, personally, don't think Sheff did much of anything wrong. Jon Heyman of Newsday disagrees, and called for a suspension.

Fine. We have a difference of opinion. What's ridiculous is Heyman's column from April 16. Check it out here. My favorite part:
Whether he drew blood or not, Sheffield should be suspended for actions unbecoming a big-league ballplayer. Sheffield's violent response was a stark overreaction to a fan's clumsiness.

This latest bit of ugliness started when Jason Varitek smoked a liner into the rightfield corner, and Sheffield played the ball so unaggressively it careened around the wall for many feet and several seconds, long enough to become a two-run triple for the slow-footed catcher. Just as Sheffield was finally reaching down to grab the rolling ball, a fan had the same idea.

The fan reached over the wall in an apparent attempt to gather the $9 baseball and nicked the $13-million-a-year Sheffield's face instead, sending the outfielder over the edge. That's when Sheffield finally decided to turn aggressive.
It's loaded with totally irrelevant stuff that's meant to do nothing more than bias the unsuspecting reader. Most egregious -- Sheffield's choice to play the ball "unaggresively," so "unaggressively" that the "slow-footed catcher" got a triple. What on earth does the way Sheff played the ball have anything to do with whether he deserves a suspension? If challenged, I'd bet Heyman would contend that he was just reporting the facts of the situation in the context of his opinion column. But that's total baloney. It's obvious that he means to plant the seed of criticism, in the same way that he portrays the poor fan as pursuing a mere $9 baseball in the midst of the $13-million-a-year Sheffield. As if the disparity between ball cost and Sheffield's salary somehow mitigates the fan's behavior...

Don't these people have editors?

Incidentally, Sheffield did not receive a suspension.
It apparently is minority week over at the New York Times. On the wedding announcements page, the four couples who are featured with pictures (excluding the lead couple in the Vows column) are all racial minorities (South Asian, Asian, Black, Hispanic). And, they're 100% racial minorities -- none of that mixed race stuff.

It is so blatant that it's absurd. In fact, it's so blatant that it's almost insulting. No, check that, it is insulting. Can't racial minorities be mixed in with white couples and mixed couples?