Intimation of Life

It's a cruel world--really it is--in Todd Solondz's 'Storytelling'

Whew. In a context as brutally "real" as this, would it make the slightest difference for the critic to try to spread a little love? Todd, if you're listening: Storytelling is a work of genius, an uncompromising portrait of true pain and a masterful anticipation of anything that I or any other mere reviewer could ever conceive. Now do you feel better?


Those brave enough to venture even closer to the source of Solondz's fear, anxiety, and depression (it's a fine line between cultural psychology and simple masochism, let me tell you) would do well to check, Fear, Anxiety, and Depression; the writer-director's little-seen 1989 debut feature, which is hard but not impossible to find on tape. Accentuating the confessional side of this first act of raw storytelling, Solondz himself plays a self-consciously geeky New York playwright named Ira Ellis, whose morose Despair consists of two words--life and death--repeated onstage ad infinitum. As in Storytelling, the author's critics play a major role: A scathing (and, of course, pretentious) review of Despair in the Village Voice--read aloud by every Manhattanite from construction worker to schoolgirl--is enough to send poor Ira to the brink of suicide. And yet, displaying the callousness endemic to Solondzville (or anywhere?), the suffering artist hardly seems to care that his fawning ex-girlfriend Sharon (Jill Wisoff) has been preparing to bring down the curtain on her own despair.

More than enough pain to go around: The victims and perpetrators of 'Storytelling'
Fine Line Features
More than enough pain to go around: The victims and perpetrators of 'Storytelling'

Similar as it is to Solondz's other bleak diagnoses of human nature, Fear, Anxiety and Depression manifests signs of a different illness: Where Happiness and Storytelling are decidedly low-affect in personality, their visions of suburbia exceedingly cold and sterile, the urban Fear is alternately sullen and gregarious, at times even eager, if inadequate, to please. (I believe the clinical term is manic.) Indeed, the king of pain even croons "Neat Kind of Guy" in a romantic montage! Whether or not he grew ashamed of having exhibited such uninfectious cheer, Solondz long ago disowned the barely released film, claiming that its financiers had seized control of the cutting room. Which, like cruelty in general, is probably true, but also plenty convenient to the continuation of the storyteller's preferred plot. The creative-writing instructor in "Fiction" suggests that all effective tales contain a beginning, a middle, and an end; Solondz's increasingly protracted second act is the one in which the pitiful victim hits on a creative method to even the score, and hits it hard.

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