Todd Solondz’s new film, Storytelling, begins with a raw shot of Selma Blair, bleached blonde and streaked pink, screaming at the moment of orgasm. Where his previous films, Welcome to the Dollhouse (1996) and Happiness (1998), certainly pushed the envelope of sexuality in cinema, Storytelling looks like a new phase of adult content. On reflection, however, this turns out to be only partly true.
Storytelling consists of two parts: a prologue of sorts, called “Fiction,” followed by the longer “Non-Fiction.” Solondz stated in a press conference at the New York Film Festival that the structure was inspired by Full Metal Jacket‘s devastating one-two punch, although the script for Storytelling evolved into two separate stories rather than using the same characters in both.
In “Fiction,” college student Vi (Blair) sleeps with cerebral palsy-afflicted Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick, Kids), another student in her writing class. He’s a terrible writer, but she figures that his CP gives him “depth.” The relationship is in trouble when she evades listening to his latest draft by insincerely complimenting the first version. He responds, “The kinkiness isn’t there any more. You’ve become kind.”
The next day, after a disastrous class critique of his latest short story, during which VI does not come to his defense, Marcus accuses Vi of wanting to sleep with the professor. He may be right. Professor Scott (Robert Wisdom), a particularly harsh critic and Pulitzer-prizing winning author of a book called Sunday Lynching, is an intimidating figure. When Vi sees him at a bar sometime after class, she strikes up a conversation with him, contradicting everything she has said to Marcus. Thus revealed to us as a liar who doesn’t seem to have a will of her own, Vi sets herself up for further humiliation by asking Scott if she has potential as a writer. “No,” he replies flatly.
Inevitably, perhaps, she goes home with the professor, and a cruel, graphic seduction ensues, with a bold red square censoring—and calling attention to—what U.S. audiences are forbidden to see. (The film will be released uncensored elsewhere, but Solondz contractually required the right to make a statement about his willing self-censorship.) In someone else’s film, Vi might eventually empower herself or react with horror at what she’s done. Solondz, however, has her respond with an unexpected, bizarre spin on political correctness. At which point, the professor calls her out as a “spoiled suburban white girl with a Benetton rainbow complex.”
When Vi returns to writing class, she has composed a short story based on her experience with the professor. The experience hasn’t made her a brilliant writer, but the story does present the first instance in which she has been truthful about herself and her feelings. Her classmates rip the story apart, echoing well-known criticisms of Solondz’s other films. One girl accuses Vi of “using offensive language to cover the hollowness of [her] characters.” When she exclaims that her story “really happened,” the professor observes, “Once you start writing, it all becomes fiction.”
This degradation of the female protagonist recalls similar plotlines in some recent European films: in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1997) and Dancer in the Dark (2000), women are troublingly “redeemed” through abuse and death, and in Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s Rosetta (1999), the titular character suffers other consequences. But in “Fiction,” the idea gets the Solondz spin: after enduring a damaging experience and seemingly developing a creative means of coping, Vi tragically finds that no one can or will appreciate her newfound voice.
In “Nonfiction,” Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti) is a documentary filmmaker who “speaks” through other people’s voices. He begins as a classic Solondz loser, akin to Seymour Phillip Hoffman’s crank phone caller in Happiness. Toby calls a girl he knew in high school who wrote in his yearbook that she would love him forever. He appears to be looking for affection, or maybe it’s funding for his new project, an “intimate look” at suburban high school students, post-Columbine. (He’s also written a letter to Jacques Derrida, asking him to narrate.) For the film, Toby finds his key subject in Scooby (Mark Webber), a dim-witted, drug-addled senior from an affluent, Jewish, New Jersey family. “I’m not stupid. I watch TV,” Scooby asserts.
In this section, the movie alternates between the trials of documentary filmmaking and Scooby’s homelife. His parents, Marty and Fern (John Goodman and Julie Hagerty), insist that he apply for college, which he eventually agrees to do. “I can always drop out,” he reasons. Scooby’s younger brothers, Brady (Noah Fleiss) and Mikey (Jonathan Osser), are, respectively, a football jock and a precocious meddler who enjoys twisting logic (“If it wasn’t for Hitler, none of us would have been born”).
The most disturbing moments in “Nonfiction” come during the interaction between Mikey and Consuelo (Lupe Ontiveros), the family’s Salvadorian maid, whom Mikey accuses of being lazy. Consuelo and Professor Scott, notably, are the first prominent non-white characters in Solondz’s work; their positions in this film, as exploited and exploiter in predominantly white communities, do not make them “token” figures, but as contentious and difficult to read as any other character in the film.
Neither as brutal nor as darkly comic as “Fiction,” “Nonfiction” drags on a bit, as Scooby muddles through adolescence and Toby works on his documentary. In the editing room, he confronts a real dilemma and a common question for documentary makers: will he exploit his subject in order to make the project more appealing and entertaining? When Toby test-screens the film, the crowd responds favorably to what he has done, which is, after all, exploitative. And when Scooby hears this condescending laughter, he has an epiphany, seeing himself as the fool as others see him.
As a companion piece to “Fiction,” “Nonfiction” offers a muddled parallel between creating a short story and creating a documentary. The sections’ doubling motifs are more apparent, in Scooby’s and Vi’s moments of self-realization when they are heckled. But neither shows the character after his or her transformative experience, so the implied personal evolution is never visible. This absence may be more disturbing than the events that are shown in Storytelling.
Solondz’s continuing experimentation with narrative form—from the straight-ahead single protagonist’s trajectory in Welcome to the Dollhouse, to the ensemble cast’s interwoven experiences in Happiness, to the two-part division in Storytelling—is surely admirable, But the stories here suffer from the chosen format. The brief “Fiction” has a sharper impact; “Nonfiction,” however, draws out plot events—which are perhaps inherently less interesting than Solondz’s others—to the point that they become tedious. Solondz has been cruel before, but never dull. And that’s most shocking of all.