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Screens Two sides of the same coin

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The director of 'Happiness' and 'Welcome to the Dollhouse' talks about his appetite for human irony

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In Palindromes, these actresses play the many personalities of Aviva, as she matures from child to young adult.

Filmmaker Todd Solondz couldn't make an uncontroversial movie if he tried. His latest, Palindromes, plays with fun topics like abortion, hypocrisy in fundamentalist religions, and the disabled. It also casts a number of different actresses in the lead role, switching every reel or so without acknowledging the change.

Solondz spoke with the Current at the Sundance film festival, and I was very surprised to find him unusually polite, human, and even sweet. In a croaking, patient voice, he gave me his perspective on some issues that have dogged his career.

On censorship:

When I did Happiness for home video, they wanted me to cut it so we could get into Blockbuster, which owns like 70 percent of video stores. I wouldn't do that. I offered to put beeps and bars in it, and they didn't take me up on that. They should have, I think; consequently, you can only find that movie at an independent video store, not at Blockbuster, because I wouldn't cut the movie. So we lost a lot of money.

`Solondz did put a box over some of the action in his next film, Storytelling, that made it clear to viewers just what the ratings board was keeping them from seeing.`

The only thing I wanted to do `in Storytelling` that I couldn't is to use the word "censored." I couldn't use that word; it's the only word they censor you from using. If you notice on in-flight movies or TV, it'll say the movie was "altered" or "modified" or "edited," but they'll never use the word "censored." And they are not censors, strictly speaking, these ratings people. It's very complicated, because the studio system is complicit in the problem, all these forces that make it so that, in this country, movies that are serious adult films may not be seen by adults in the way that they can be seen elsewhere. So `including the box` becomes overtly political, I suppose. I embrace this, I would do it any time with any movie. I won't cut anything out to please anyone.

On the extreme cruelty in his work:

We all have an equal capacity for kindness, just as we have for cruelty. As adults, we like to believe that our capacity for cruelty evaporates with that period of life. But first of all, not everybody grows up, and then, of those who do, only the best of us are able to repress these baser instincts, or sublimate them into something good. I think we all have to recognize these things about ourselves, and it's the most painful thing, because nobody wants to look in the mirror and see what we're made of. Under certain circumstances and extremes, we find out things about ourselves we wish we never knew.

"Only the best of us are able to repress these baser instincts, or sublimate them into something good. I think we all have to recognize these things about ourselves, and it's the most painful thing."
- Todd Solondz

On making films that many viewers find inhuman:

People see me, I suppose, as somewhat bleak or pessimistic, and perhaps it's true that I'm not particularly optimistic. But I see optimism and pessimism as morally neutral. I don't see one as better than the other, and certainly everything is context-dependent. There are times when it's appropriate to be optimistic and certainly times when it's not. I think you'll live longer and healthier if you're optimistic, but I think you're going to be a little bit removed from certain realities.

The difficulty I think people have with my work is that it's "immoral, insensitive, misanthropic ..." The list goes on. I can argue that there is a moral center and a moral gravity to what I do, but the difficulty people have is that I don't make it explicit. There are no signposts. I don't tell people how to feel or what to think about the story, what's right and what's not. But for me, this is what makes it so compelling - it's not just an entertainment. I'm making demands of the audience, to question their relationship to what's going on onscreen. And for those who don't like it, they have a big arsenal to attack me. At the same time, if people look at it just as a joke - because they are ultimately comedies, though terribly sad and painful ones - if you look at it just as a joke, it's equally problematic. Which is why I've often said that my films aren't for everyone - especially people who like them.

On whether viewers and critics are too obsessed with finding sympathetic characters in films:

I don't think "obsessed," but it's only natural: One reads or watches movies because one gravitates toward people one can connect or sympathize with. And if one can't `find a sympathetic character`, it's a little bit more difficult to engage the audience. But there are other ways of engaging, whether it's on an intellectual level or - if you take Bill Maplewood in Happiness, certainly I could connect with the character, but sympathize, I don't know about that. I mean, what he did was unequivocably unforgivable. But I could still connect with him as a person. In `Storytelling` I find myself playing both sides of the coin, and my sympathies are always shifting. You have Vi and the teacher; when they're together, I'm her, then I'm him, back and forth. There's a kind of dance of sorts where you ask who is exploiting whom. He's on to her, and one of them is going to suffer and be exploited, and he's going to make sure it's not himself. I can't explain it, but I feel that I'm with each character as they have their moment. But that doesn't mean that I always agree with them or that I can't be critical of them or their behavior.

By John DeFore


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