Every once in a green moon comes a review that’s so perfectly stated that it would be superfluous for me to bother writing my own, or add to it beyond a few supplementaries. This was the case of Roger Ebert’s review of Palindromes back in 2005. It was the year I started blogging, and ten years later I’m revisiting the review for two reasons. The first is that I never did a proper homage to Roger Ebert when he died two years ago. I often disagreed with his reviews but loved reading them regardless. Palindromes is one I agree with in every sentence; I consider it an Ebert classic.
The second reason ties in to the current climate. Presidential campaigns are under way and partisans are grinding their axes. In discussing the abortion issue with someone recently, I was reminded of Palindromes, and how the abortion debate is a bit different from others. Both sides ultimately beg the question in the others’ eyes. The pro-life position rests on the foundation that once 23 chromosomes are joined to the other 23, you have an entity that is accorded the same rights as one outside the womb. The whole point of the pro-choice position is that given messy real-world problems, and women’s rights issues, it’s more responsible to extend the boundary line, and allow for the killing of unborn fetuses as a lesser of evils. Both sides operate in a framework that the other isn’t willing to grant.
This is a reason I no longer beat up on anti-abortionists. I’m more than willing to debate issues like Islam, free speech, the drug war, racism, and the collapse of the middle class. These conversations can be rewarding (if heated), and people can be moved to change. In debating abortion, the conversation is usually over before it begins. And I have to admit that railroading pro-lifers leaves me feeling a bit hollow. There are enough of them, including intelligent women, who operate out of a genuine compassion that pro-choicers like myself can be blind to in our own framework of compassion.
So on that note, I reproduce a large portion of Roger Ebert’s review of Palindromes below, and encourage everyone to read it and watch the film. I’m as pro-choice as they come, but I don’t believe my position is unassailable or that anti-abortionists are the only hypocrites. Let Ebert’s review serve as a delayed homage to a great critic, and also as a check on our own values (whichever side of the fence we’re on) as we follow the presidential campaigns.
Todd Solondz’s Palindromes is a brave and challenging film for which there may not be much of an audience. That is not a fault of the film, which does not want to be liked and only casually hopes to be understood. What it wants is to provoke. You do not emerge untouched from a Solondz film. You may hate it, but you have seen it, and in a strange way it has seen you.
Palindromes contains characters in favor of abortion and characters opposed to it, and finds fault with all of them. The film has no heroes without flaws and no villains without virtues, and that is true no matter who you think the heroes and villains are. To ambiguity it adds perplexity by providing us with a central character named Aviva, a girl of about 12 played by eight different actors, two of them adults, one a boy, one a 6-year-old girl. She is not always called Aviva.
The point, I think, is to begin with the fact of a girl becoming pregnant at a too-early age and then show us how that situation might play out in different kinds of families with different kinds of girls. The method by which Aviva becomes pregnant is illegal in all cases, since she is underage, but there is a vast difference between a scenario in which Aviva persuades the reluctant son of family friends to experiment with sex, and another where she runs away from home and meets a truck driver.
Perhaps Solondz is suggesting that our response to Aviva’s pregnancy depends on the circumstances. He doesn’t take an obvious position on anything in the movie, but simply presents it and leaves us to sort it out. We probably can’t. Palindromes is like life: We know what we consider to be good and bad, but we can’t always be sure how to apply our beliefs in the messy real world.
Consider an early scene in the film where one of the Avivas gets pregnant and wants to have the child. Her mother (Ellen Barkin) argues that this will destroy her life; an abortion will allow her to continue her education and grow up to be a normal adolescent, rather than being a mother at 13. The mother goes on to make a long list of possible birth defects that might occur in an underage pregnancy.
Later in the film, we meet the “Sunshine Family,” a household full of adopted children with birth defects: One with Down Syndrome, one born without arms, etc. It occurs to us that these are the hypothetical children Barkin did not want her daughter to bear. The children are happy and seem pleased to be alive. Yes, but does Solondz consider the adoptive parents of the Sunshine Family to be good and moral people? Not precisely, not after we find Father Sunshine conspiring to bring about a murder.
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 — some good, some bad, some misguided, some well-intentioned but disastrous.
We look for a clue in the movie’s title. A “palindrome” is a word which is spelled the same way forward and backward: Aviva, for example, or madam or racecar. 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 look at a movie like this, and I consider what courage it took to make it. Solondz from the beginning has made a career out of refusing to cater to broad safe tastes. He shows us transgressive or evil characters, invites us to identify with their pathos, then shows us that despite our sympathy they’re rotten anyway. You walk out of one of his films feeling like you’ve just failed a class in ethics, and wondering if in this baffling world anyone ever passes.