Todd Solondz: Mad world

Todd Solondz doesn't do 'normal'. His films zero in on society's misfits, and as such, enrage as much as they delight. With his latest, 'Palindromes', the director tells Jonathan Romney that he's expecting to upset even his die-hard fans...
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The Independent Culture

Even if tomorrow he were to direct Meet the Parents 3 or a sweet high-school romcom, there's little likelihood of Todd Solondz ever becoming a well-liked American film-maker. There's something inescapably abrasive about Solondz's worldview that rubs people up the wrong way, no matter how much critical approval he wins. I once sat next to an American journalist at a festival premiere of a Solondz film; even as the opening credits rolled, my neighbour cradled his head and moaned, "God, I hate this guy. God, I hate him so much."

Even if tomorrow he were to direct Meet the Parents 3 or a sweet high-school romcom, there's little likelihood of Todd Solondz ever becoming a well-liked American film-maker. There's something inescapably abrasive about Solondz's worldview that rubs people up the wrong way, no matter how much critical approval he wins. I once sat next to an American journalist at a festival premiere of a Solondz film; even as the opening credits rolled, my neighbour cradled his head and moaned, "God, I hate this guy. God, I hate him so much."

No doubt that's as it should be, for Solondz specialises in making his viewers squirm. His acidic moral comedies do not make pleasant viewing, because they are not about pleasant people or a pleasant society. His first successful film, Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), was about a gawky teenage girl growing up - like Solondz himself - in the New Jersey suburbs, and relentlessly humiliated by everyone around her. Its follow-up, Happiness (1998), portrayed a gallery of misfits, all behaving wretchedly towards each other. Its most notorious figure, a paedophile dentist who is also a proud suburban father, may have been the most alarmingly spectacular aspect of the film's will to disturb, but even he was just one among an embittered crowd of loners, narcissists and emotional sado-masochists.

Some people loathed Happiness because they felt Solondz was, behind the dispassionate comedy, moralising: one critic called it "a masturbatory fantasy about how miserable all the phonies around Solondz must be". But many more people must have hated the film because they felt that the mirror Solondz was holding up to society was not distorting, but all too accurate. "I'm not interested," he says, "in showing people as simply virtuous or noble, it's people's flaws that for me are revelatory about human behaviour. I find myself incapable of celebrating the wonderfulness of humanity, but it's not that I'm trying to indict and say that we're terrible either. If I can get at certain truths about who we are, that is a goal I have."

Solondz's new film Palindromes is certain to make him more enemies, but it also confirms that he is one of the most audacious and thoughtful of current American film-makers. Palindromes is the story of 12-year-old Aviva, who dreams of having a baby. When she becomes pregnant, her middle-class, liberal mother (Ellen Barkin) insists she has an abortion. Aviva subsequently heads out in search of her destiny. What makes her picaresque tale so disconcerting is that the heroine is played by seven different actors - four teenage girls, a six-year-old girl, one 12-year-old boy, and two adults: Jennifer Jason Leigh and an exceptionally large black woman named Sharon Wilkins. The idea, says Solondz, was to block off any possibility of reassuring identification with a protagonist that we can root for. "My fear was that it would be simply alienating. The aim was that it would be more affecting, the cumulative effect of all these people having played this role." All the Avivas, he explains, have different functions: Sharon Wilkins, he says, "is really Gulliver surrounded by the Lilliputians", and when we reach Jennifer Jason Leigh at the end of the film, "you feel you can read off Jennifer's face that she's lived a life, although she's still 12 years old."

On one level, Palindromes is a characteristic Solondz panorama of human vanity and callousness, but it's also a political film, addressing both the Christian Right and contemporary American attitudes to abortion (including homicidal attitudes to abortionists). At one point, Aviva takes refuge with Mama Sunshine, a fundamentalist Auntie Em figure who presides over an adopted family of disabled children, all singing, dancing, happy-clappy God-botherers. What's so unsettling about their presentation is that you come to realise that Solondz might for once not be lampooning these people, but presenting their squeaky-clean world as a genuine oasis of tenderness.

"It's a paradise of sorts, in the sense of love and sharing - all you could want for a child is there. But because we have certain prejudices, or because people are suspicious of me, and because there's always beckoning a satirical thrust regardless of where I am, people are going to think it's a source of mockery and ridicule - an easy enough target if you come from the East Coast." The last thing he wanted to do, Solondz says, was to confirm the presuppositions of the hip liberal constituency that he acknowledges as his core audience. "With this movie in particular, which is my most politically charged, I'm curious to see how the heartlands, so to speak, will respond. I tried, because I have my own prejudices, to err in favour of the conservative Christian family, so that it wouldn't be entirely clear what my stance was. If conservative Christians saw the film, they'd say it was Ellen Barkin's family that was more shocking."

Solondz insists he's interested not in converting to any point of view, but in confronting us with the limitations of our beliefs - which is clearly what makes him a moralist in the proper, testing, Swiftian sense. Film, he says, rarely converts, but only tends to confirm. He gives the example of the footage of George W Bush in a Texas schoolroom, continuing to read a children's story when told of the World Trade Centre attacks - an image used by Michael Moore in Fahrenheit 9/11 to demonstrate the President's idiocy. "For people on the other side of the spectrum," says Solondz, "the scene of him reading My Pet Goat could show him not being impetuous - he's deliberating, thinking how to deal with this crisis. So we're bringing our assumptions with us to the film. I'm trying to expose those prejudices and force one at least to - 'reconsider' might be too much - but just to examine the ramifications, the moral dimension of what it means to take a position."

Solondz doesn't exempt himself from his caustic scrutiny. The second half of his last film, the portmanteau Storytelling (2001), featured an anxious, inept documentary film-maker wracked with panic that his work might be nothing more than glibly exploitative - an accusation levelled against Solondz more than once. When he first screened Happiness, he remembers, "It was excruciating, people said horrible things about it."

Solondz, now in his mid-forties, was born in New Jersey, in a Jewish home that was kosher but not especially religious. He insists there's no truth in the widespread rumour that he once intended to be a rabbi, although he did go through a strong phase of religiousness at around seven years old: "When you're a kid you just absorb it like a sponge. If I had grown up in a fundamentalist home, I would have been out there handing out pamphlets. I would have gone the whole hog." Solondz studied film at NYU, making student shorts that, by all accounts, have a somewhat self-lacerating thrust: one is said to feature Solondz strutting around New York in a leather suit and hip haircut, although that's not enough to stop passersby shouting "Nerd!" at him. Many people have been suspicious of Solondz's cultivatedly geeky self-presentation - preppy jumpers in a late-Seventies Talking Heads mode, plus huge Brains glasses (although he seems to have ditched them in the last couple of months). But in person, he comes across as uncomfortable rather than a styled bohemian faker, with his abrasive Jersey whine, and tendency to avoid eye contact, while monologuing at a point over your shoulder. You suspect he may not be the most clubbable of showbiz people.

Solondz's history conveys a picture of someone almost too anguished to do what he does. His first film, Fear, Anxiety and Depression (1989), is such a painful topic to him that he omits it from his official CV: "It's a kindness if you never view this first feature - it was ill-conceived and ill-begotten for many different reasons." He seems to have been so traumatised by the experience that, despite landing prestigious deals with two major studios, Solondz turned his back on film-making entirely and taught English to Russian immigrants, until friends persuaded him back behind the camera for Welcome to the Dollhouse.

More than once, rumours have abounded that Solondz has run out of ideas or is intending to abandon film for good. "Well, maybe I whine a bit too much," he admits. "I don't enjoy the process. Let me put it this way - the little bit of gratification I get from it is far outweighed by everything else. It's... I don't want to say 'agonising'. It's a job, I'm lucky I have it. I just cringe at the idea of the specialness of being a so-called artist. I hate the whole romanticisation of it. It's too easy to fall into the trap of narcissism - 'I'm an artist, you don't appreciate the agony.' It is difficult, but I don't know what to do instead." Some critics have accused Solondz of running a freakshow, displaying misfits both emotional and physical for our amusement and supposed moral edification. He insists he's only making films about the type of people that interest him: "I'm more taken by people that others may characterise as ugly or unattractive, I don't see them that way. I'm somewhat impervious to a lot of the conventional charms."

There's no doubt that Solondz has pioneered what could be called "nerd" or "loser" cinema, films that give space to outsiders, even celebrate imperfection. His dyspeptic interest in apparent social failures has left a path open for gentler, fonder comedies about self-hating pariahs: American Splendor, Sideways, Terry Zwigoff's Ghost World and Bad Santa. These films, in the triumphalist context of American cinema, are immensely (and somewhat subversively) cheering. "What can a movie do for one? It can provide a certain consolation to say, 'You are not alone'," Solondz says. But it's clearly not his inclination to console anyone, least of all himself. "You could also argue that self-loathing is just a kind of pathological narcissism." And you can bet that more than one review has accused Solondz of just that.

Solondz's cinema may be hotly debated, but visibility and bankability aren't the same. The hugely acclaimed Happiness caused ructions between its distributor October and their owner Universal Pictures, and finally grossed only $2.7m in the US. Storytelling made $912,000 after Solondz insisted, as an anti-censorship protest, on conspicuously superimposing modesty "stickers" over genitals in a sex scene. He's now invested his own money on Palindromes.

Times are currently hard for independent film-makers in America, he says. But it takes a satirist as mordantly perverse as Solondz to see benefits in life under the current administration. "The re-election of George W Bush is just the best thing for film-makers, insofar as it's the richest material. I may not have wanted to vote for him, but I did always feel that it would be good for my movies if he stayed in office."

'Palindromes' (15) is released on Friday