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American Buñuel 

Todd Solondz talks about bad reviews, conservative Christians and why he parodied American Beauty

Todd Solondz, whose Palindromes opens theatrically this Friday, spoke with the Independent by telephone from New York last week.

Independent: Why eight Avivas?

Todd Solondz: When I made Welcome to the Dollhouse, all sorts of people would walk up to me--it could be a beautiful model, it could be a heavyset construction worker--and they would all say the same thing: "That was me. I was Dawn Weiner." And so what I've done [with Palindromes] is say, "OK, you can all play this young girl." It's not Dawn, but you can play her cousin.

Why did you decide that the Aviva in the "Mama Sunshine" sequence should be played by a large adult black woman?

Once I had a draft and I had to think about how I was going to cast it, I saw there was a kind of fable or fairytale or storybook aspect to it. Sharon Wilkins, in a sense, was my Gulliver surrounded by the Lilliputians there. Then when you got to Jennifer Jason Leigh, you had a woman of a certain age with a face that had lived a life. And of course the character has lived an entire life emotionally even though she's only 13 years old.

Have you been surprised by the reviews? There have been some very passionate favorable reviews but there have also been equally passionate--

--unfavorable, yes, hostile! Look, I understand that the movie is polarizing. My films have in some sense always divided people, even among people who like what I do. I can only say that I'm as proud of this as of anything I've done so far.

I'm surprised that some of the hostile critics even seem to distrust your motives, for example suggesting that you mock the children in Mama Sunshine's house.

I think the problem is that when it comes to children with disabilities, it's hard for some people to take them as just children. We divide them into children with disabilities and children without.

The scene that most moved me during production was when they're singing and dancing in their production numbers, because I was very moved by the pride and joy they took in these performances. They take a profound delight yet at the same time you step back and say, "Oh my god, what are they singing?"

So long as the joke is not at their expense, I think all is fair play. I defy anyone to point to how they are the butt of the comedy here.

People seem surprised at the sympathy you show to Mama Sunshine and her clan--though certainly not to the men plotting to kill abortion doctors.

Liberals can laugh all they want, but at some point it starts to ring hollow when you see what good takes place there. I'm much harsher with the liberals. I have my prejudices and biases, of course, so if I was to err I wanted to err in favor of the conservative Christians. I didn't want to make a dogmatic film--if I wanted to make such a statement I would have written an editorial.

Since last fall's election there's been a lot of talk about "red" and "blue" America. In Palindromes, Aviva travels between these two worlds. Were you conscious of this when you made the film two years ago?

Certainly that is built into the structure, but it wasn't until after I finished the movie that I realized that it was so reflective of the great divide, so to speak. In a larger sense, of course, it's the global divide between the secularists and the fundamentalists. I can't really credit myself for seeing the relevance of this when I wrote it.

Have you had an opportunity to see your film with more conservative audiences?

I've been to Birmingham, Omaha, Atlanta, and the problem is even in the conservative Christian parallel universe, there are islands of blue in the sea of red. Still, I had one evangelical interviewer who was very taken with the work. Certainly, it's very hard to gain access; this kind of work doesn't show up on the conservative radar. Because this work is undogmatic and fraught with ambiguity, it goes against the grain of absolutist tradition.

People have compared you to Luis Buñuel. Do you see yourself as someone out to shock the bourgeoisie?

I'm shocked that any of this is shocking. It's all on television. We live in the age of the Terri Schiavo Show. I don't think I can compete with reality. One of the great advantages of having so little money is that you can try things you could never do with a real budget.

In the second half of Storytelling, you parodied American Beauty with a film-within-the film called "American Scooby." Why did you go after that film?

Even though American Beauty is a monument to narcissism that I simply didn't respond to, I wouldn't have been so indiscreet as to parody the film if that film's director [Sam Mendes] hadn't been attacking me!

What was that about?

He was just speaking ill of my work to interviewers, so I felt I had license to do what I liked with his movie.

You came up a decade ago in the midst of an American indie boom. Many of those directors have settled comfortably in Hollywood, yet you've remained an outsider.

I don't really think about my status in the industry. It's hard enough to do what I do so if I'm going to do it, it has to have a certain value for me. That's the price I pay: little movies. But look--they've played around the world, so it's not like I feel I've gotten the short end of the stick. I feel very fortunate that I've been able to make these movies at all and get them out there.

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