Review by Adam Blair

Written and directed by Todd Solondz

With Selma Blair, Leo Fitzpatrick, Robert Wisdom ("Fiction"); Paul Giamatti, John Goodman, Julie Hagerty, Mark Webber, Jonathan Osser and Lupe Ontiveros ("Nonfiction")

Rated R; 89 minutes (2001)

I'm tempted to say that Todd Solondz' Storytelling is critic-proof. Not in the way Harry Potter was destined/designed to rake in the golden galleons no matter what the nation's critics thought of the actual film, but in a cleverer and even more sinister way.

Storytelling's theme is that the act of telling a story, and of interpreting it, is in and of itself either impossible or ridiculous. So even though the stories told (there are two unrelated sections, "Fiction" and "Nonfiction") are repellent, containing "characters" without a single redeeming quality - and few recognizably human traits - one feels like a fool for criticizing them, or the film itself. One even feels like a fool reacting to them, though that didn't stop the disgust from welling up while I watched the film.

Throughout Storytelling, Solondz (who also directed the bleakly funny Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness, which I didn't see but which sounds similarly sick), picks apart the processes and conventions of creating stories - both the ones writers and filmmakers use, and those people use in their everyday lives.

In "Fiction," the first and shorter of the two sections, Vi (Selma Blair), a graduate student taking a creative writing course, is involved with fellow student Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick), who has cerebral palsy. After Marcus' short story - apparently a fictionalized account of their relationship - is ripped apart during one seminar, Marcus breaks up with Vi for not supporting him during the critique session. She then embarks on a particularly ill-advised one-night stand with the course's professor, Mr. Scott (Robert Wisdom), a charismatic black author with a penchant for rough, degrading sex with his students. Vi attempts to get back at the professor by writing a story about the experience, but it, too, gets a thumbs-down from the students - for being racist, misogynistic, confusing, etc.

It sounds like a predictable, banal graduate-student short story, and that's how Solondz directs it as well. At first glance it feels a bit like satire - the way that people say exactly the opposite of what they're thinking, and the squirming embarrassment in the writing seminar scenes, have the ring of just slightly stretched truth. But other scenes play more like theater of the absurd. Vi's pickup of the professor in a local bar is so underwritten - for a writer he's not exactly eloquent - that it's like an outline of this archetypal event rather than a specific scene between two people.

Solondz also uses filmmaking's conventions to play with our expectations. When Vi and the professor do have sex, he superimposes a big red rectangle over the middle third of the screen. In interviews Solondz has said he used this device rather than cutting the scene altogether (or cutting enough of the graphic elements) in order to qualify for an R rating rather than an NC-17, which would have effectively killed whatever commercial chances Storytelling had. He made the usual good points in interviews - the MPAA review board is far more terrified of sex than of violence, there are different standards for big-budget Hollywood movies than independents, etc.

However valid his reasons, Solondz' solution only adds to the sense that we, the audience, are being manipulated, as indeed we are. We are cued to understand that it's an "X-rated" scene - but it's also the central fact of this "story," and we are not allowed to see what "happens" with our own eyes (and make our own judgments). Does Vi deserve to be brutalized? Does she enjoy it? Is she sickened by it? Exactly how stupid/shallow is she?

These would all be legitimate questions in a conventional story, but again Solondz pulls the rug out. The students in the graduate writing seminar - the audience - misunderstand Vi's story, applying their own prejudices and rejecting the real human pain underneath it. And we realize that we're simply watching a story too. One reason Solondz makes the story so basic is so we can see how we would react if one little detail changed. For example, when Vi goes to Scott's apartment, she sees nude, S&M snapshots of his other student conquests before she has sex with him. (She whispers to herself "Don't be racist. Don't be racist.") So she's aware of how badly this could go. How would we feel about her if she didn't know ahead of time exactly what a sicko the professor was?

I'm going into this level of detail because it seems to be the point of the film. Scott basically announces the theme near the end of "Fiction": "Once you start writing, it all becomes fiction."

Well, if fiction is poisoned, how about "Nonfiction"? The second segment concerns itself with a would-be documentary filmmaker (Paul Giamatti, sweaty and desperate) who decides to focus on a suburban teen as the subject for his project. He picks Scooby Livingston (Mark Webber), a walking catalog of hot-button teen "issues": drug user, ambitionless, fascinated with guns, passively homosexual, full of empty dreams of becoming a TV "personality" like Conan O'Brien but with no clue how to achieve even that hollow victory.

Scooby's parents and siblings are caricatures, with good actors John Goodman and Julie Hagerty used for their most obvious traits (his physical size and blustering voice, her oversized eyes and questioning whine). Jonathan Osser as Scooby's younger brother - supposedly the "good" child in the family - is in actuality the creepiest creation of Solondz' weird imagination. Veteran actress Lupe Ontiveros, as the Livingston's overworked maid, comes the closest to creating a coherent human character - until Solondz decrees that she take revenge on the selfish, materialistic family that has fired her, turning her pain into cartoony caricature as well.

Throughout "Nonfiction," Solondz gives us a number of surrogate audiences for the unfolding events. I would call those events tragic but, as in "Fiction," I have a sneaking suspicion that everybody deserves what they get - but there I go making actual judgments about characters who are hardly even one-dimensional.

In any case, Giamatti and his editor (Franka Potente) view the footage in various stages of completion. And near the end, Giamatti screens a rough cut of the documentary for an invited audience of downtown hipster types. They laugh hysterically at the suburban stupidity and crass materialism of the Livingstons - though it's not terribly funny stuff.

Again, Solondz plays with our own reactions. If we laughed too, we would be as heartlessly "sophisticated" as the audience in the movie. If we don't laugh, we can look down on them as well. Both interpretations are equally valid.

Of course, Solondz is hardly the first filmmaker to play with an audience's expectations, or to implicate their voyeurism in darker emotions. Kubrick's Clockwork Orange certainly comes to mind, as does much of Hitchcock's best work. One of my favorite moments in Hitchcock's Psycho is after the infamous shower scene. Norman Bates has put Marion Crane's body into her car and pushed it to the edge of the swamp, to bury the evidence of "Mother's" crime. The car sinks, burbling and guggling. Then it stops, its back half still conspicuously out of the water, and in a few chilling reaction shots Anthony Perkins - who has been nervously chewing candy - stops too. The audience holds its breath. We want the car to sink, and it finally does after a few more agonizing seconds. It never fails to get either a laugh or a sigh of relief from the audience. We want evidence of the crime to be buried - not only because Perkins has created a sympathetic monster but because we want the story to go on.

Storytelling is undeniably a powerful piece of filmmaking. It's disturbing, and it's also unpleasant. Is it worth it? Is Solondz just playing intellectual games? Does he hate his audience? Does he hate himself? I don't know the answer to these questions, but I guess it's to his credit that I'm even asking them.

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