"People call me a provocateur," filmmaker Todd Solondz said. "I'd say that's fair."
Peering out from his oversized thick green glasses, dressed in rose-colored pants, a nubbly gray sweater and yellow sneakers, Solondz looks the part of independent cinema's presiding nerd incendiary. But in an interview to promote his new film, "Palindromes" -- which skewers hypocrisy in both camps of the abortion debate -- he insists his films do not shock for shock's sake.
"There is a kind of prodding, a needling to wake people up from their complacency and smugness," he said unemotionally. "As a filmmaker you need to do certain radical things to achieve that."
Considered perhaps more radical than fellow filmmaking iconoclasts Neil LaBute and John Waters, Solondz's grim satires have featured mocking and mordant takes on subjects such as pedophilia and sadistic interracial sex.
His excruciating 1996 comedy, "Welcome to the Dollhouse" -- about a geeky four-eyed preteen who strikingly resembles Solondz -- (originally titled, "Faggots and Retards") was a kind of anti-"Wonder Years" that dispelled myths about childhood sexuality. His award-winning 1998 film, "Happiness," which included a nice suburban dad with a predilection for little boys, was so scandalous, the studio that financed the movie elected not to distribute it.
In 2001's "Storytelling," a New Jersey Holocaust refugee's daughter mouths platitudes about the Shoah and solicits tzedakah while ignoring the plight of her Salvadoran maid. When the housekeeper gasses the family to death, it is in part punishment for "trivializing and exploiting the tragedy of the Holocaust," Solondz said.
His new film, "Palindromes," revisits the Jersey suburbs to pit Jewish liberal parents against born-again Christians (and a pedophile) in the great American abortion debate. Stuck in the middle is 13-year-old Aviva, who is played by eight different actors and who gets herself pregnant because "babies are love." When her appalled mother (Ellen Barkin) forces her to have an abortion, she runs away and finds refuge with Mama Sunshine (Debra Monk), a perky fundamentalist Christian whose home is a sanctuary for disabled children -- and murderous right-to-lifers.
Solondz, 45, whose nasal accent belies his own New Jersey roots, was raised in a kosher home but is now an atheist. He believes the film is neither anti-abortion nor for abortion rights.
"I wanted to look at the moral consequences and ramifications of what it means to take on one of these labels," he said.
On the one hand, Barkin's character seems to be "a sensible, progressive parent," he said. "If she were given a form she would check off 'anti-war,' 'pro-gun control,' 'pro-gay rights' and all the correct liberal causes. And, yet, when confronted with this terrible reality of her pregnant 13-year-old daughter, she is pro-choice so long as she does the choosing."
Mama Sunshine, meanwhile, virtuously takes in abandoned children while helping to kill abortion doctors.
Aviva is suspended between a "pro-choice family that gives her no choice and a pro-life family that kills," Solondz said.
"Palindromes" begins with the Jewish funeral of "Dollhouse's" heroine, Dawn Weiner, Aviva's cousin, who has committed suicide. Solondz said he wasn't happy about killing Weiner off; he had hoped to explore her adventures as a young woman but was thwarted when Heather Matarazzo, the actress who had portrayed Dawn, declined to resume the role.
Thus he turned to another source for inspiration for his latest film: the television news and in particular, the controversy over abortion. "This is the only country in the world where people bomb clinics and assassinate abortionists," the director said.
Solondz was especially struck by a story about a Southern community that rallied around such an assassin.
"I began pondering what it means to perpetuate such an atrocity; what goes through one's mind, and then I realized it's profoundly human to think that one is basically a good person, fighting the good fight," he said. "Narcissism and self-deception are our survival mechanisms, so I think this movie is very responsive to what's going on out there."
While Solondz's new film has received mixed reviews, the filmmaker especially bristles at the charge, by one critic, that "Palindromes" has "no artistic interest beyond the limitless ugliness of humanity."
"Life is so much more cruel than anything I could put in my movies," said the director. "Just in terms of reading the newspaper every day, there are atrocities that people and governments commit that make it impossible for me in good conscience to celebrate the wonderfulness of mankind."
Solondz's pet peeve is the typical Hollywood film that features attractive protagonists behaving heroically.
"That kind of movie allows viewers to feel better about themselves," said cinema's nerd provocateur. "You will never get that from any of my films."
"Palindromes" opens today in Los Angeles.