**½/**** Image B+ Sound B+
starring Selma Blair, Leo Fitzpatrick, Robert Wisdom, Paul Giamatti
written and directed by Todd Solondz
by Walter Chaw The line between love and misanthropy is thin and Todd Solondz is a cunning cartographer of that precarious divide. He sees political correctness as an insidious product of the kind of paternalistic racism that discards truth in favour of generally held truisms, a crutch for well-meaning racists who lack the wit to grasp that the basic misunderstanding of difference driving a desire to discriminate against minorities is identical to that which drives a desire to protect minorities. Solondz's films are confrontational in the extreme, full frontal assaults on the hypocrisy that fuels most relationships and stark dissections of the politics of cruelty.
Unfortunately, in his third film, Storytelling, Solondz dilutes the focus of his ire with a few broadsides at Sam Mendes and his American Beauty (Mendes apparently derided Solondz's Happiness for talking down to its characters), and a somewhat unfocused slam or homage to a similar alleged condescension in Chris Smith's documentary American Movie. (Solondz goes so far as to enlist that film's Mike Schank as a documentary filmmaker's cameraman; the doc in question is called "American Scooby.")
Essentially what Solondz attempts with Storytelling is an attack on critics of his aggressively confrontational approach to fiction while simultaneously trying to anticipate and deflate future criticism of the same. And though Solondz's counter-attack/apologia is trenchantly written and laudably thought-provoking, his rages are by now familiar (and better served by the scope and savagery of Happiness), and his defensiveness is ironically the most unbecoming element of a film that counts among its targets racism, disability, classism, homosexuality, and higher education.
Storytelling is split into two parts, each introduced with a title card. The first is dubbed "Fiction" and runs about twenty-five minutes, the second is naturally "Non-fiction" and is just over an hour long. Despite its brevity or because of it, "Fiction" is the stronger of the two pieces; Solondz crams issues of misogyny, race, and Ivory Tower pretension into its tight arc and transfers the embedded hypocrisies of both onto the process of literary criticism as it manifests itself in college writing courses. An easy target to be sure, the all-white, nearly all-Caucasian woman writer's seminar in Storytelling is presided over by an African-American Pulitzer Prize-winning author (Mr. Scott, played by Robert Wisdom) who isn't quite as mean as Harlan Ellison, though he tries.
"Non-fiction" returns to more familiar Todd Solondz territory with a middle-class Jersey Jewish family ruled by John Goodman's suburban menace and Julie Hagerty's cult of Spielbergian victimhood. In a brilliant moment, their eldest son, wastoid Scooby (Mark Webber), offers: "So, what you're saying is that if it wasn't for Hitler, I wouldn't have been born." Solondz is on firm ground with statements like these, erupting as they do in the midst of familiar familial settings. Less compelling is a secondary plot involving a dorky documentary filmmaker (Paul Giamatti) intent on crafting a deconstructivist piece on the disintegration of the traditional middle-class.
Making Scooby a star in the same way Mark Borchardt gained a measure of dubious celebrity through American Movie, "Non-fiction" deflates its potential for classist vitriol with Solondz's fourth-wall breaking introduction of a film editor (Franka Potente). It's a device that successfully comments on the criticisms of Solondz's work (particularly the "condescending to your characters" dig) but offers little in the way of real insight into why Solondz feels the need to say he's sorry in the first place.
Still, the instinct to apologize for what shames us is perhaps the most damaging of our personal demons. Solondz is the bamboo splinter beneath the fingernail of that shame--his manifesto lies in the decision to confront the ultimate causes behind our embarrassment with fetishism, our horror at the recognition of racial difference (suggested by George Bush Sr.'s boldly insane, "I don't see colour"), and our inability to treat people with physical disabilities as anything other than children or objects of pity. More complicated, Solondz suggests that the one element that unifies all of humanity across biology and sociology is not a bleeding hearted "love," but rather the almost limitless capacity for cruelty. Through a brilliantly acerbic series of events, the loathsome child Mikey (Jonathan Osser) hijacks control of his parentage and the fate of embattled housekeeper Consuelo (Lupe Ontiveros), ultimately facilitating his own demise at the hand of the servant-class's raging ire. It's the O.J. trial in a nutshell, from gentrified equivocation to a grassroots eruption burning down its own house.
Alas, too much of Storytelling moves away from Solondz's social critique, casting its audience as that of intellectual lector in contemplation of the auteur's professional injuries. Although Solondz garners a fair measure of respect for his ardour for exposing the sanctimony of our daily interactions, Storytelling's very existence exposes a fundamental degree of hypocrisy. A film designed to be the fiery response to critics of his combative style is his most pandering (in the first section Solondz uses a red square to obscure a violent (but consensual) sex act, a flaccid pre-emptive strike against the MPAA) and, in the end, his most fearful and apologetic.
Though I believe the critic's role to be a vital one in the fostering and appreciation of art, it ought to remain separate from the creative process. Solondz's mistake is not taking his critics to heart, but fashioning a film that responds directly to his negative criticism. The last irony of Storytelling is that its desperation to justify itself proves Solondz's critics right: beneath that carefully fostered, no-bullshit dogma beats the heart of an artist uncertain enough about his role as chronicler and artist, and faithless enough in the truth of his own vision, that he needs to devote two short films to his defense. Until now, the literate fury of Solondz's films spoke for itself.
by Bill Chambers Storytelling. Available on DVD from New Line, the film should pick up some cult momentum on home video, especially now that you can view it as originally intended; unfortunately, the Storytelling disc is another Todd Solondz special, meaning no extras save for a trailer. Four versions of the film cohabit a dual-layer platter: 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen editions of the unrated and R-rated Storytelling, plus two full-frame (unmatted) editions of the same. (This was accomplished through seamless branching technology--there aren't actually four separate 87-minute movies compressed onto a single platter.) The image is up to New Line's usual high standards, with only some light artifacting around the letters of the opening credits; there's a long close-up of John Goodman late in the picture that's so detailed you can count his pores. Darker scenes--particularly in the first segment ("Fiction")--are lacking in crispness, however. There is little to distinguish the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix from the Dolby Surround track, except that music sounds a tad fuller in the former; be sure to turn on the captions for Belle & Sebastian's closing credits track, whose facile lyrics serve as Cliff's Notes for Storytelling. I also recommend watching the unrated cut, because without the red box the sex scene makes a stronger political statement than one against the MPAA. Originally published: July 13, 2002.