(Tired of seemingly all discussion of movies in this country anymore sliding towards poop fests and other kiddie fare? Me too, which is why I decided to dedicate my Netflix account to nothing but "grown-up" movies, and to write reviews here of each one I see. For a master list of all reviews, as well as the next movies on my "queue" list, click here.)
Written and Directed by Todd Solondz
In what might be one of the most illuminating interviews ever published with an underground artist, author and Believer correspondent Sigrid Nunez gets to talking with filmmaker Todd Solondz about the ways that people react to his movies, confessing that she's never heard of another director who gets simultaneously called mean, cruel, perverse, hateful, and misanthropic by some viewers, but tender, poetic, sweet, and spiritual by others, in many cases while describing the exact same movie. She asks Solondz if he knows why people have such extreme and opposite reactions to his work; he admits that it confuses him as well, and then confesses something I found very interesting --
"One thing I want to say: I donâ€™t like victim stories and I donâ€™t write them. For example, I never saw Dawn Wiener [the main character in Solondz's second film, Welcome to the Dollhouse] as a victim, or intended Dollhouse as a victim story. That is definitely a misunderstanding between me and a part of my audience. To be honest, I am often unsettled by the responses some people have had to my movies, and that includes many people who like them."
It's definitely a quote to keep in mind while watching the fourth film by this master of the uncomfortable, 2001's slender and (of course) controversial black comedy Storytelling; that Solondz has a complex relationship with the various, often dispicable characters on display here, and is trying to paint a complex portrait of them for your benefit, too. Taking an easy interpretation of the people who inhabit Solondz's films (which admittedly is a very tempting thing to do, no matter if you love them or hate them) defeats the entire point that Solondz is trying to make; that these aren't easy, pat characters, full of quirks that you're supposed to immediately be attracted to or repulsed from, but rather fully complicated humans just like every other human on the planet. And as such, these people deserve your time and attention, no matter what you think of their behavior or attitudes; and believe me, you're going to have some problems with these people's behavior and attitudes, no matter who you are.
Made three years after his giant breakout hit, 1998's Happiness, Storytelling is in actuality a series of two short vignettes, entitled appropriately enough "Fiction" and "Non-Fiction." And they're not evenly timed, either; "Fiction," the first, is barely half an hour in length, while "Non-Fiction" is over twice that. (In fact, Solondz has admitted in interviews that he did it that way on purpose, specifically modeled after the Stanley Kubrick Vietnam epic Full Metal Jacket.) And that's a shame, because "Fiction" is actually the more interesting of the two short stories, although seemingly comes and goes in the blink of an eye, or at least in the usual cinematographical terms. The story of earnest college undergraduate Vi (Selma Blair, in an astonishing portrayal you didn't think she had in her), "Fiction" is set at one of those infamous second-tier private liberal-arts colleges out in the midwest (the Stephens of the world, the Oberlins of the world), full almost exclusively of lily-white rich kids who have never even seen a black person with their own eyes, except for the occasional mechanic or busboy in the wealthy white suburb where they grew up.
This has all changed at their campus this year, though, because of luring in an "aggressively confrontational" Pulitzer winner who we only know as "Mr. Scott" ("The Wire"s Robert Wisdom, at his absolute creepiest), to be the school's very prickly writer-in-residence for a year. And thus is Vi taking his class this year, as is her horrifically earnest cerebral-palsy boyfriend Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick), as is a whole other series of squeaky-clean neo-leftist white kids, all of whom are simply thrilled to even be in the same room as the author of A Sunday Lynching, and are absolutely horrified by the idea of saying something...gasp, racist...in front of him. But Scott has a secret, as Vi finds out one night, after running into him alone at a sleazy bar right after a fight with Marcus; that in the bedroom, he rather enjoys having violent anal sex with all these lily-white undergraduate girls, while handcuffing them and forcing them to scream out horrifically offensive racist epitaphs in the middle of it all.
What "Fiction" is about, then, as with part 2 as well, is not so much plot-oriented as it is character-driven; about Vi's struggle to understand exactly what just happened to her, of how she should feel about it, of how she should react to it. And this, of course, is where it always gets complicated in Solondz's films, and what generates such heated opposite reactions to his work; because how should we feel about what just happened? One viewer out there, for example, might see Scott as a monster, a sexual hunter and psychopath who routinely exploits the star-struck nature of all the good-looking 19-year-olds around him; another viewer, however, might see him as simply a guy who's lived a lot of life and who is now fatally bored in this all-white second-tier collegetown, who simply has all this crazy sex just to see how far he can push these ultra-guilty-feeling entitled white kids around him. Was Vi really the victim of rape, as she posits in the short story she writes about the experience afterwards? Or was it her mostly at fault, as another woman in the class suggests during the story's critique session -- did Vi want the racist fantasy of "being taken" by an overpowering black man, but then felt guilty about it afterwards and so is trying to blame it on the person providing the fantasy?
And this maybe is what Solondz means when he says he's often unsettled by the reactions of his audiences, even the ones who like the films; because Solondz would argue that all these interpretations are wrong, that they actually need to be bundled together and considered as a whole whenever considering characters like this. Vi is both a victim and instigator, according to Solondz, Scott both a harmless intellectual with too much time on his hands as well as a legitimate sexual predator. Solondz loves these people precisely because they're so uniquely human; because they have such overwhelming weaknesses at times, because they deal with them the best way they know how, which often isn't very good at all. You don't exactly root for anyone in "Fiction," you don't exactly hate any of them either; you're instead fascinated with the screwed-up situations they all manage to get themselves into, and with the various failings they all have in dealing with the situations.
And this is even more on display in the second, longer part of the movie, entitled "Non-Fiction;" which like I said I didn't like as much, so won't be dwelling on as much here either. Ultimately it's the symbiotic story of failed artist Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti, nerdily brilliant as always), who has pretty much tried almost every creative endeavor at life now and has been just an abject failure at them all. He's now decided, in fact, that he's a documentary filmmaker, so runs some cards off at Kinko's and convinces a local high school to actually let him recruit subjects for a documentary and film various scenes there. It's through this that he meets the other half of the symbiotic story, dropout stoner Scooby Livingston (Mark Webber), who has absolutely no ambitions other than to "maybe one day be a talk-show host, like Conan O'Brien or something," which is why he agrees to be in the doc, in that he thinks it'll bring him more Hollywood connections. (And by the way, Conan O'Brien puts in an amazing cameo here during a Scooby dream sequence, which raises my respect for him even more.)
Without going into too much detail, "Non-Fiction" basically plays out in the same convoluted way as "Fiction" -- awkward situations that become worse and worse in nature, myopic characters who many times can't understand the inherent absurdist humor of their own environments. And it's as good as the first part as well, don't get me wrong; just that it takes on the now well-worn subject of Ennui In the Suburbs, a topic that's been so done to death in the popular culture now that I'm just automatically a little turned off anymore when coming across yet another project regarding it. It's definitely as intriguing as part 1 of the movie, and with an ending you're literally not going to believe Solondz actually got away with; I guess it's just my own personal bias against those kinds of stories that is coming out here.
In fact, I only had one big complaint about Storytelling, or at least did right after finishing the movie, which is that the endings of both parts seem rushed and forced, literally as if Solondz had lopped off act three of the traditional three-act structure. And we're so used to the three-act structure in novels and movies, of course, that something seems just jarringly out of place whenever someone fundamentally screws with it, like Solondz does here. After reflecting on it for a couple of days, though, I now realize how brilliant it was of Solondz to do this, because it fits right in with the theme of storytelling taking place throughout. That's why lovers of short fiction are lovers of that format to begin with, after all, because it doesn't have to conform to the traditional three-act structure of much longer projects; a short story can many times be nothing more than a literal little slice of life regarding intriguing characters, just a peek at one event from that life without ever quite knowing what came before or what's coming after. By including such abrupt endings to his own two stories, Solondz here is delivering an homage to the short-fiction writers of the world he obviously loves so much; and he seems to be saying that such vignette-style stories are perfectly appropriate in the film format too, if that's what you're in the mood for.
It's important before seeing a Solondz film to understand that this is no mere hype we're talking about; that no matter which movie of his you pick, it will be peopled with characters that some will find repulsive and disgusting, doing things that will mightily offend certain people out there. If you're able to look at these people, though, like Solondz wants you to -- in a larger scheme, as part of a whole, as part of humanity -- there are indeed great moments of beauty to be found as well, which of course is what leads to these films inspiring such violently opposite reactions in the first place. It's certainly not for everyone; but if you like challenging character-driven black comedies, ones that force you to think for hours or days afterwards about issues you really didn't want to think about, then Storytelling is for you.
Out of 10:
Best viewed: As part of an incredibly, incredibly awkward first date. Hey, if your relationship can survive seeing this on your first date, it can survive anything.
Next on my queue list: The Passion of Ayn Rand, the 1999 cable-television movie about the inner turmoils of the Objectivist movement during its height in the 1950s. Helen Mirren, Eric Stolz, Julie Delpy, Peter Fonda, produced by Showtime -- how can you go wrong, really? Well, maybe you can; we'll find out soon, I guess.