dir. Solondz
Opens Fri Feb 8
Cinema 21

I remember seeing director Todd Solondz being interviewed on Dave Letterman after his film Happiness came out. Dave was so repulsed by the movie, that you could see the physical manifestations of anger towards poor little freaky Todd. He said, in a condescending tone, that Todd had picked "a very interesting topic" for his film--referring to Happiness' bevy of prickly subjects, including pedophilia. Dave also said he didn't finish watching it. I remember thinking, "Sorry, Dave, that life isn't all dumb jokes, pet tricks, musical guests, and conversations where people blow smoke up each other's asses." Life isn't The Wedding Planner. If you want to see pieces of real life, see Solondz' new film, Storytelling.

Storytelling is more closely aligned with the depraved portrait of humanity presented in Happiness, rather than the charming, ultimately positive story of Welcome to the Dollhouse. Part cute and part disturbing but, like Solondz' other films, it's largely about alienation. Storytelling is broken into smaller films; the first, titled "Fiction," and the second, "Nonfiction." The stories are unrelated, other than they both make you question how you define fiction and non-fiction, and how the truth inevitably becomes twisted once you write it down on paper, retell it in a story, or shoot it for film. What Solondz seems to be saying is that there is no absolute truth in fiction or non-fiction, just fragments of both--and most likely, fragments of Solondz' own experiences that are relayed through his films.

In Fiction, a gorgeous college girl, Vi (Selma Blair), is dating Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick), who has cerebral palsy. The two are in a fiction-writing class together, taught by an African American man, Mr. Scott (Robert Wisdom), the author of several books on the oppression of blacks. He is stone-faced, direct, and unabashedly criticizes the work of his students. Because of Mr. Scott's scathing nature, Marcus' feelings get hurt, and a rift grows between himself and Vi. This rift leads to a disaster, which cripples Vi's self-esteem, but fuels her ability to write fiction. Self-referential and more, Solendz shows how good fiction blooms from personal tragedy.

Nonfiction tells the story of a completely apathetic and confused high school student, Scooby, whose only vague ambition is to be a television talk-show host. A shoe salesman calling himself a filmmaker, Toby Oxman, comes to Scooby's school in hopes of making a documentary about "the pressures of high school." He meets Scooby in the bathroom and, quickly, the thrust of the film changes to documenting Scooby and his rich, dysfunctional Jewish family. Though fearful of being exploited, Toby feigns integrity, and becomes a family friend, standing by them through tragedy. The destructive dynamics of the family are shown, but not commented upon by the filmmaker. He does, however, illuminate negative dynamics of the real-life documentary. Solondz expertly catalogues the displacement of a high schooler, and shows the audience how Scooby's fragile ego can be preserved or destroyed by the actions of self-serving adults. Most importantly, it shows how easily he could be saved if just one adult would try to understand him, or treat him like an autonomous human being, instead of trying to impose their agendas on him.

Both "Fiction" and "Nonfiction" are depressing and often difficult to watch, with their depictions of insecurities breeding selfishness and evil. While Welcome to the Dollhouse ends with most of the protagonist's life tragedies solved, the films of Storytelling don't end happily. Todd Solondz gives us reality; people are sick, depressing, and uncomfortable. But at the very least, our tragedies are interesting.