| March 1, 2002

Todd Solondz’ latest, Storytelling, is a diptych, two short films that can stand alone but when placed next to each other, create additional layers of meaning. The two short films that comprise Storytelling are appropriately entitled “Fiction” and “Non-Fiction.” Sadly, this is about as clever as it gets.
Though not his first film, 1995’s Welcome to the Dollhouse put Solondz on the map with its biting and painful look at adolescence and family relationships. The film created an uncomfortable but impressive tension for the audience in its contrast of tone and content. You couldn’t help but laugh sometimes, but when you really stopped to think about what was happening on the screen, it was tragic, and you were just a little dirtier for having laughed. At its heart though, the audience never lost sympathy for the young female protagonist.
This kind of familial examination and stylistic approach to content continued in the much-expanded world of Solondz’ 1998 film Happiness. But on that outing, his willingness to push the audience’s discomfort even farther created a darker and more controversial work that, at its worst, seemed to be embracing shock value in a decidedly non-camp way. No John Waters here, even though both directors have explored the realm of cinematic taboo. The film was difficult and sprawling, and he lost some of the folks who had embraced the small world of Welcome to the Dollhouse.
At first glance, it seems Solondz has returned to a narrower focus with Storytelling, but taken as a whole, this is still a fairly sprawling work, just this time out he has constructed two smaller worlds that are narratively-unrelated but thematically-connected.
The first and shorter of the two, “Fiction,” has the precision of a short story. A college student (Selma Blair) has a sexual encounter with her creative writing professor (Robert Wisdom), conclusively destroying her relationship with a disabled peer (Leo Fitzpatrick). The encounter raises questions about coercion and consent as we see her attempt to construct and then revise an identity for herself.
“Fiction” creates a situation (really, not much more than an expanded event) that circles back in on itself and is bookended much in the way of short stories (or short short stories). There’s no time wasted on characterizations because the characters aren’t important. What’s important is the situation itself and the ideas Solondz wants us (not the characters) to consider. “Fiction” is clean and efficient if a bit didactic and unemotional. The only element that feels out of place is Solondz’ self-conscious censorship of the actual sexual encounter, which has little to do with the situation or thin narrative and rather to do with his evident anger at the Ratings Board and nervous distributors.
“Non-Fiction” owes more to that anger and in-your-face kind of reaction than to the precision of “Fiction.” Ignoring the ironies (or post modern something-or-other) of a fictional film called “Non-Fiction” that’s about a documentarian (Paul Giamatti) making a film about teen angst in the suburbs and supposedly saying something about our notions of “Truth,” this second and longer film of the diptych seems promising, attempting to explore the ways in which people manipulate events and other people towards their own goals, and that the way we see ourselves is not necessarily the way others see us. As in the first film, an issue of identity. But in execution, the film seems to be more about how the world misunderstands Todd Solondz.
This becomes even more apparent when you step back and look at the two films as a whole. The classroom of “Fiction” now seems less about students struggling with feedback on their stories and more about Solondz thumbing his nose at critics. Suddenly I realize why the film seems vaguely familiar. It could have been written by that sophomore in the back of my classroom who has either completely misunderstood the critique of his work or even the goal of critiques or is angry that he hasn’t simply been praised. His revenge? To submit a final project that is an extended diatribe about everyone else’s inability to see his genius or everyone else’s incorrect assessment of his creativity. You know the kind, he almost whines that no one gets how tough it is just to be him.
The X-Files once did an episode that skewered its critics by having Scully, Mulder and their cases described by their colleagues and superiors in all the ways that detractors of the series had described Duchovny, Anderson and the plot lines. What made the episode enjoyable to watch was that it never lost its sense of humor. The creators were acknowledging that it’s just TV — “we’re not saving the world here” — even though the characters in fact believe they are saving the world, every week. Storytelling is shrill in contrast, maybe because Solondz seems to be taking it all (his critics and his abilities) just a little too seriously.
I was a big fan of Welcome to the Dollhouse, and while I understand and appreciate a filmmaker’s need to grow into new forms of expression, Happiness at times reminds me more of traditional pornography shot choices (no pun intended) than traditional (albeit mainstream) filmmaking style. Maybe that’s not too surprising in an era where MTV regularly “explores” the link between pornography and rock music; when reality TV now places infrared cameras in people’s bedrooms; when porn queen Tracy Lords has a prime-time series on the SciFi Channel. I fear Solondz is on his way to becoming the United States’ version of Lars Von Trier, Catherine Breillat or Patrice Chéreau, who assume that achieving “natural” sexual verisimilitude” in their films requires the actors not to act but to actually engage in filmed sexual contact. The lines between pornography and independent film have never been more blurred than in these past few years, though there have been predecessors through the decades, especially in the 80s and 90s. The difference then was that the filmmakers working in this murky borderland were pornography directors trying to break into mainstream film. The difference now is that we have mainstream directors trying to break into pornography. To paraphrase a line from Stephen Frears’s Sammy and Rosie Get Laid: “I didn’t realize you were so downwardly mobile.”

About the Author:

Josef Steiff Joe Steiff would gladly spend his days and nights watching movies and TV with a little writing on the side. Oh, and teach at Columbia College in Chicago. And maybe play Mass Effect. But sleep gets in the way. He's made a few films. edited Popular Culture and Philosophy volumes on Battlestar Galactica, Anime, Manga and Sherlock Holmes for Open Court Books, wrote The Complete Idiot's Guide to Independent Filmmaking and is a co-author of Storytelling Across Worlds: Transmedia for Creatives and Producers.
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