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Midnight movies offer challenges

TORONTO -- I went to be interviewed for Stuart Samuels' new documentary, "Midnight Movies," and it started me thinking. His film will be about the transgressive movies that started appearing in the 1970s -- titles like "Eraserhead," "El Topo" and "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." He wanted to know who went to see them, and why, and what it all meant, and his questions started me thinking.

Midnight movies need not, of course, play at midnight, but I know what he means. As a social pastime they've been threatened by home video, although they survive in big cities and near campuses. But midnight movies as a liberated genre survive and prosper, for example at this year's Toronto Film Festival. Consider Todd Solondz's "Palindromes," which some audiences will embrace passionately while others are left puzzled or angry.

His movie, which I saw at Telluride and which is creating a stir in Toronto, is about a 12-year-old girl who wants to get pregnant -- and succeeds, while remaining in more or less complete ignorance of sex. Her mother (Ellen Barkin) argues strongly for an abortion. She encounters the pro-life Sunshine Family, which provides her with a haven. But it's not as simple as that. The father of the Sunshine Family is an activist who plans to kill an abortionist. And as for the girl -- well, this isn't a tidy narrative that arrives at a comfortable conclusion, but instead it's a series of versions of her story with different outcomes. The character is played by several actresses, some young teenagers, one (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in her 40s, another (Sharon Williams) a tall, large black woman in her 20s.

"In all of the actresses playing the role," Solondz told me here Tuesday, "I was looking for fragility, innocence, vulnerability. By showing the character played by several actresses in several possible scenarios, I think I was suggesting that we do not change. We're palindromes; instead of developing, we fold in on ourselves. We can lose weight, gain weight, get older, even have a sex change, and still the inner core remains constant. I see that as somewhat liberating."

The device of using several actors in several possible versions of the story is bold and original, and yet I heard grumbles from some audience members after the screening I attended. One man uttered those words immediately identifying the speaker as a case of arrested development: "I go to the movies to be entertained." We all go to the movies to be entertained, but some of us do not require to be entertained within narrow, predictable limits. To be challenged by an audacious concept like Solondz's is, for me, entertaining.

Still, in the real world, Todd Solondz and his films ("Welcome To The Dollhouse," "Happiness," "Storytelling" and now "Palindromes") are transgressive, offensive, opaque and maddening. They are about strange people having odd, sometimes distasteful experiences, often in the privacy of their secret lives.

"I don't set out to deliberately disturb the peace," he told me, "but what gives me a certain charge is not appealing to some audiences, and to the people who finance movies. Most movies have handsome and heroic protagonists, and we feel better about ourselves after seeing them. My movies, you'd be disappointed if you expected to walk out with that."

What, for example, is the message of "Palindromes"? Is it pro-choice or pro-life? With Solondz, you don't get a simple answer. Because he leans toward pro-choice, he said, he wanted to give a break to the pro-life Sunshine Family. That leads to a connection we may not notice the first time around. When Barkin's character recommends abortion to her daughter, she lists the birth defects that are more common among very young mothers. When we see the adopted children of the Sunshine Family, we realize each one is an example of one of the defects she mentioned. The Sunshine Family consists of children the girl's mother would have aborted.

All well and good, until we balance that against the sad or even horrifying experiences the 12-year-old undergoes in getting pregnant, sometimes at the hands of ignorant older boys, once as the victim of a truck driver. Even then Solondz refuses to categorize. Is the truck driver a pedophile? In a moment of chilling insight, the girl herself tells him, "You're not a pedophile, because pedophiles love children."

Will "Palindromes" find an audience? Yes, because Solondz has informed us with his previous films how his universe works and who lives in it. That's why he's always the hottest ticket at a festival. Will it gross millions? Unlikely.

Consider the experience of Alexander Payne, another director at this year's festival. He made the challenging, off-putting "Citizen Ruth" (1996), starring Laura Dern as a glue-sniffing loser who gets pregnant and becomes the object of a tug-of-war between pro-life and pro-choice groups that are equally nasty. A lot of people disliked that one because it didn't tell them how they should feel. No matter what their position, it didn't congratulate them and attack the other side, but argued that there was much to be said against both sides. That made for a fascinating movie that most people found deeply unsatisfying, unless they were evolved enough to appreciate its refusal to simplify. This year Payne is at Toronto with "Sideways," a warm human comedy about two buddies. I loved it. But it's a safe movie, right down the middle, without ambiguities.

Another film at Toronto this year is "The Woodsman," written and directed by Nicole Kassell and starring Kevin Bacon as a pedophile who is released from prison after 12 years, moves to an apartment near a playground, notices the children -- and also notices a pedophile who may be a danger to them. So, for that matter, might he be; the movie doesn't make it easy for us.

Bacon told me he wasn't exactly looking to play such a character, especially after the dark side of his great performance in Clint Eastwood's "Mystic River." But he read the screenplay and was drawn in by curiosity about the man, his weakness, his dilemma. So was I when I saw the film. I leaned forward with attention, observing small moments that might be clues to the strength or weakness of this man, and the direction of his intentions.

What intrigued him, Bacon said, was that the character gets into a grownup sexual relationship with a woman co-worker (played by Kyra Sedgwick, his real-life wife). "I could work out how he could be a pedophile and how he might be dealing with that," he said, "but how did that fit with adult sexuality? I didn't know, and to play the character I had to find out."

Movies like these are why people at film festivals are always talking, talking, talking. What should they think about them, and why? What have they learned about human nature from movie characters set free from the rigid requirements of genre? Some directors choose to work outside the safe area favored by that man who goes to the movies to be entertained. No wonder they end up making Midnight Movies. I've always thought the most interesting people stay up late.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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