Intimation of Life

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

A fellow Midwestern critic who failed to make it into the jam-packed world premiere of Todd Solondz's Storytelling at Cannes caught me on the way out of the theater to ask what I thought. "It's really interesting--much more so than his last two" (Happiness and Welcome to the Dollhouse), I said. And then the punch line: "But I still think he's a terrorist."

This was last May, dear reader, back when it wasn't a near-criminal offense to speak lightly of terrorism--so I trust you'll forgive me. You see, I happen to care about what people think of me, I really do--and so, despite earlier evidence, does Todd Solondz. Granted, care may be the wrong word to describe the motivation of a filmmaker whose latest storytelling methods involve bullying his detractors into accepting that brutal misanthropy isn't the key element of his personal style so much as it is a cruel fact of life. The ironically titled Happiness depicted a world in which America is ill, suburbia is polluted, most men are psychos, some women are mean and pathetic, and all children are casualties (and the viewer is a sick fuck for laughing--or not laughing); Storytelling pulls back to reveal that the creators of such punishing art are not sadists, but realists. And victims, too--at least to the extent that some of us insist on mistaking his characters for...uh, terrorists.

In other words, Solondz has finally brought his critics into the frame, if only in an attempt to subject them to the same torture as everyone else. In "Fiction," the first chapter of the two-part Storytelling, a young creative-writing student (Selma Blair) suffers withering comments from her classmates for perpetuating black-male sexual stereotypes; her defense, wouldn't you know it, is that her character (like Solondz's?) is drawn from real life. Likewise, in "Nonfiction," the documentary-making protagonist (Paul Giamatti) shoots a film of near-Solondzesque cruelty about a high school loser (Mark Webber) and his family of suburban New Jersey cretins (John Goodman, Julie Hagerty, et al.), but isn't the least bit responsible for the very "real" tragedy that befalls them. Marked by what is perhaps the most audaciously incorrect deployment of racial and sexual caricature since The Birth of a Nation (please allow me to use one-tenth of Solondz's wicked hyperbole here), Storytelling is both despicable and compelling for its countless layers of reflexivity--the persecuted auteur creating retaliatory fiction about nonfiction in order to whine in the end about how it's only a movie.

Now, I'd rather not follow suit by retaliating against the storyteller. I mean, the vicious cycle of abuse really ought to end somewhere. It's funny: When I talked to Solondz in 1998 about Happiness, I was temporarily fixated on the notion of getting even. How pleasurably nasty it might be, I thought, to give the maker of the decade's meanest satire--a movie I truly loathed--a taste of his own medicine. But cruelty is easy--or so it seems to someone who wasn't teased quite as mercilessly in school as Solondz and his Dollhouse alter ego Dawn Wiener. So I opted to end our phone chat by wishing the downbeat director a little happiness at the L.A. premiere of his movie later that day. "I hope you have fun," I said. "Oh, yes, well," he replied, mustering the feeblest chuckle. "Me, too."

In Solondz's cinema, if not his life, misery is a given. Indeed, Storytelling's "Fiction" is barely five minutes old when the heroine's creative-writing instructor, the Pulitzer Prize-winning black author of A Sunday Morning Lynching (Robert Wisdom), publicly disses the autobiographical tale of her cerebral-palsied boyfriend Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick) as "a piece of shit." And so it goes: Marcus hatefully dumps the girl ("You're just like every other white cunt on campus"), who gets even with him by submitting to the teacher's violent sexual perversity in a scene that initially earned the movie an NC-17. (Contractually obliged to release an R, poor Solondz didn't exactly get even when he responded to the ratings board by slapping a crude red rectangle over the offending act. Some bullies do manage to have the last word.) The girl, of course, goes on to get even with her teacher--and he, in the end, gets even with her. "Why do people have to be so ugly, write about such ugly characters?" inquires a classmate. Leave it to Solondz, master of the preemptive strike, to beat his critics to the punch.

Still, that "ugliness" question is the one to ask--particularly if you're sufficiently prissy (the director's word, not mine) to believe that truth in art isn't always enough. One of the naysayers in "Nonfiction" is the documentarian's editor (Franka Potente), who screens a rough cut of his "sociological study in the wake of Columbine" and complains, "It seems glib and facile to just make fun of how idiotic these people are." The filmmaker's retort: "I'm not making fun--I'm showing it as it really is." Maybe so, but it seems telling that the most crucial fact about his subjects is revealed when he and his videographer (Mike Schank) are not around. Like every Solondz production, "Nonfiction" turns on the vengeful perpetuation of bad vibes: The suburban family's youngest and most obnoxious member (Jonathan Osser), seizing the opportunity to improve his standing, uses hypnosis (a metaphor for cinema?) to coerce his neglectful father (Goodman) into paying him more attention. And while Dad is under his spell, this little demon figures he might as well orchestrate a coup against the clan's "lazy" Salvadoran maid (Lupe Ontiveros), who was a little slow to wipe up his spilt grape juice after receiving some tough news about her own dysfunctional family.

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 out...er, 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.

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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