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Storytelling (Todd Solondz) 2002

    The ultimate putdown for a Todd Solondz film is offered up in Storytelling, his latest film. Marcus, a college student with cerebral palsy (convincingly played by an actor without it) rasps at Vi, his girlfriend, "The kink is gone. You've become kind." Kindness is something that is rare in Solondz's films and is usually rewarded with extreme abuse when it does surface. The girlfriend in question (Selma Blair) is no exception. In the first section of this two section film, entitled "Fiction", Blair's character undergoes sexual humiliation, and then uses that humiliation in order to tell her story to her shocked classmates. The film's theme, which is exploitation for the sake of art, is laid down here. Vi exploits herself and the lives of those around her, disregarding the feelings of the intended audience, to make a confrontational and powerful short story. When Marcus does the same (he writes a story in which his cerebral palsy makes him a cerebral person), in a story that tries to take into account his audience's response, his fails miserably, ending up with a trite, contrived mess. This first section of the film lasts about thirty minutes, and manages to deftly say something worth saying. Art cannot compromise in order to become more acceptable. While retaining the feel of a Solondz film (Vi's chipped nail polish is the strongest image on display), the segment deftly weaves a defense for Solondz's own work, without descending into preachiness. The segment's most irksome moment, in which a red box is placed over a sex scene (similarly to von Trier's US version of The Idiots), was done in response to the MPAA, so one is willing to forgive.

    The film's much longer second half, entitled "Nonfiction", is more problematic, however. The first segment's concise, incisive storytelling gives way to a looser, rambling mess that lacks a real dramatic center. This segment of the film, with its skewering of a suburban family's values and ambitions, feels closer to Solondz's first two films than "Fiction" does, but pales in comparison. The biggest problem here is the addition of Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti) a struggling self-appointed documentary filmmaker that decides to create a portrait of the aimlessness of today's youth (that morphs into an expose of the college entrance process once he realizes the high school he approaches is unwilling to cooperate). The theme here is the exploitation of others (as opposed to the exploitation of self in "Fiction"), and is on display through the family's housekeeper, the young boy that hypnotizes his father to do his bidding, and the obvious exploitation of the filmmaker. The film seems to grow too many thematic branches, especially in comparison to the succinct first segment. Many of the filmmaker's scenes are terribly obvious and condescending. In one scene, Franka Potente accuses Toby of feeling superior to his subject. Clearly, Solondz is rallying a defense for his body of work, but I feel that it becomes self-defensive to a fault. Happiness and Welcome to the Dollhouse need no defense. They are works of art, and defend themselves against detractors. That Solondz feels otherwise here, makes me question his motives. Furthermore, by making a film that does the job of the director and the viewer, effectively cutting the needs of the viewer out of the equation. He seems so convinced that we will be offended and outraged by the film that he truncates our chance to respond to the material. I am more offended by his lack of faith in his audience than by anything on display here. Nonetheless, the film manages to remain an admirable failure. The strengths of the first segment make it impossible not to recommend. The second half still has some funny moments (even if the comedy is broader and lazier), and there is a great soundtrack by Belle and Sebastian. Hopefully, next time out Solondz will worry less about what we think, and will get back to telling us what he thinks.

***

September, 2001

Jeremy Heilman