Palindromes: Life and Choice in all Their Ugliness
Palindromes is an ambiguous social satire about a thirteen-year old who becomes pregnant, wants to keep her baby but is forced to abort it, and then runs away to join a pro-life family whose patriarch kills abortion doctors. It's open season on the pro-choice and pro-life crowds in equal measure, with no easy answers to unpleasant dilemmas, if there are any answers at all.
Roger Ebert tries putting a finger on the film's moral epicenter:
"The plot circles relentlessly, setting up moral situations and then pulling the moral ground out from under them. The movie is almost reckless in the way it refuses to provide us with a place to stand. It is all made of paradoxes. Pregnancy is pregnancy, rape is rape, abortion is abortion, murder is murder, and yet in the world of 'Palindromes' the facts and categories shift under the pressure of human motives...We look for a clue in the movie's title. A 'palindrome' is a word which is spelled the same way forward and backward...Is Solondz saying that it doesn't matter which side of the issue we enter from, it's all the same and we'll wind up where we started?"I think that's about right. We see that pro-choice isn't always about choice, pro-life isn't always about life, and when the girl (named Aviva) understands this, she ends up right back where she started -- with a friend teaching her the ugly facts of life that, believe it or not, come from the Bible:
"People always end up the way they started out. No one ever changes. They think they do, but they don't. Ultimately we're all just robots programmed arbitrarily by nature's genetic code. We hope or despair because of how we've been programmed. Genes and randomness, that's all there is and none of it matters." (Character Mark)I can't help but think the book of Ecclesiastes was in Solondz' mind when he wrote this. Consider:
"I saw everything done under the sun; all is vanity and chasing after wind... I thought the dead, who have already died, more fortunate than the living, who are still alive. But better than both is the one who has not yet been, and has not seen the evil done under the sun... The same fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil. As are the good, so are the sinners. There is an evil in everything under the sun, that the same fate comes to everyone." (Eccles. 1:14; 4:2-3; 9:2-3a)This pretty much sums up Solondz' world-view, cynically amoral and lacking direction. Certainty on either side of the moral dividing line is seen to be foolish, and people themselves are palindromes, never changing, even when they think they're progressing, just folding back on themselves. Of course, Ecclesiastes ends by offering more hope than Solondz (Eccles. 12:13-14), as noted by Tyler Williams. But the brief denouement (two verses) almost seems a throw-away in light of an entire book which continually rubs our faces in as much cynicism and purposelessness as that offered by the modern director.
I like the way Solondz balanced the opposing matriarchs of the story -- Aviva's secular mother, and Jesus-freak "Mama Sunshine". He confesses: "If I had to err, I wanted to err in favor of the Sunshines, their world being more foreign to me personally. I don't want to tell the audience my political stance, because this lets them off the hook." Yes: I ended up hating the liberal mother more than the fundamentalist (and like Solondz, I'm pro-choice). That's what I respect about Solondz, and why he's such a refreshing director. He "spits on lefty hipsters as eagerly as he smashes stained glass windows" (Kyle Smith, The New York Post) and of course none of us likes to look at ourselves this way.
Some reviewers think this is Solondz's weakest film to date, but I disagree. Welcome to the Dollhouse may be his most innovative, Happiness his most disturbing, Storytelling his most misanthropic, and Palindromes his most ambiguous. But through them all runs an unrelenting vision, equally compelling in all four, that forces us to make sense of life as we really know it: messy, grotesque, and full of hypocrisy.