Screenplay : Todd Solondz
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2001
Stars : Selma Blair (Vi), Leo Fitzpatrick (Marcus), Robert Wisdom (Mr. Scott), John Goodman (Marty Livingston), Julie Hagerty (Fern Livingston), Paul Giamatti (Toby Oxman), Mark Webber (Scooby Livingston), Jonathan Osser (Mikey Livingston), Noah Fleiss (Brady Livingston), Lupe Ontiveros (Consuelo), Mike Schank (Mike), Franka Potente (Toby's Editor)
Prior to Storytelling, Todd Solondz had only written and directed two feature films, 1995's Welcome to the Dollhouse and 1998's Happiness, both of which were at the center of critical and cultural controversy owing to Solondz's darkly comic willingness to creatively explore taboo topics. Adolescent sadism, pedophilia, sexual hang-ups--all of these are central to Solondz' vision of suburban America, and he has taken his share of critical lashings along with much praise. Vilified in some quarters, he is heralded in others, which alone is good evidence that he's doing something right.
In some ways, then, Storytelling is a step back for Solondz because it is a defensive maneuver, a film that continues to address many of the same themes found in his previous films, but is now saddled with a secondary level of meaning aimed at those who have criticized his work. In effect, Storytelling is Solondz's self-reflexive metacinematic answer to critics who have gone after his films. It's not hard to see why he had the urge to do this, but it makes one wish he had resisted it by having more faith in the strength of his art and letting his films speak for themselves, rather than using one like a marionette puppet to address his own career.
Storytelling is divided into two segments, each of which features a Solondz surrogate who struggles with how to convey life through a form of storytelling. In a nutshell, the film is about how we narrativize our lives and how there is a fine, fine line between what we conventionally label "fiction" and "nonfiction."
The first segment, "Fiction," takes up roughly a third of the film and focuses on a college student named Vi (Selma Blair), who is in a creative writing class taught by a cruel Pulitzer-Prize-winning author named Mr. Scott (Robert Wisdom). When Vi's boyfriend, Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick), an aspiring, but severely untalented writer with cerebral palsy dumps her, she deals with her sadness by engaging in a lurid one-night stand with Mr. Scott, who is clearly a practiced sexual predator who preys on the student bodies that come through his classroom. Mr. Scott, who is African-American, enjoys rough, demeaning sex with a hard-edged racist slant, and when Vi turns the encounter into a story for class, she is accused of being "mean-spirited," "racist," "misogynistic," "callow," "unbelievable," "cliched," "disgusting"--basically everything of which Solondz has been accused. Thus, when Vi cries out in exasperation, "But it happened!," one cannot ignore the shrieking sound of Solondz's own voice just underneath.
In the second segment, "Nonfiction," which is considerably longer, Solondz disappears inside Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti), a failed actor who is trying to make a career as a documentary filmmaker. We are introduced to Oxman in a classic Solondz scenario, in which he calls up a girl from high school with whom he has not spoken in years and engages in an embarrassingly awkward conversation full of long pauses and lots of talk about nothing.
The focus of this segment, however, is on the subject of Oxman's documentary, a dull-eyed high school slacker named Scooby Livingston (Mark Webber) who has no aim in life except a vague idea about wanting to be a talk-show host. Scooby lives with his upper-class Jewish family in the New Jersey suburbs. His father (John Goodman) is hot-tempered and demanding, while his mother (Julie Haggerty) is the kind of woman who, if not somewhat vacant to begin with, has been ground down to that point by constantly playing intermediary and peace-maker in dysfunctional family matters. Scooby's two brothers, high-school-age Brady (Noah Fleiss) and elementary-age Mikey (Jonathan Osser), are both more conventionally "normal" than Scooby, which makes him seem that much more out of place.
In "Nonfiction," we can sense Solondz addressing his own career even more clearly than in the first segment, as the direct references to making films about unconventional subjects without exploiting them is the crux of the divide between those who appreciate Solondz's work and those who despise it. Oxman struggles with capturing Scooby's life on film without turning it into a joke, although his editor (Franka Potente) derides him for making a boring movie in the process.
Oxman swears up and down that he "loves" his subjects, although a test screening of the film shows that viewers react to it as a comedy, not a loving exploration of a social outsider. Of course, the fact is, as depicted by Solondz, Scooby is a joke without a thought in his head, and it's hard to feel sorry for him when he realizes that that's how others see him. Solondz underscores the trickery here by including Mike Schank, one of the subjects of Chris Smith's 1999 documentary American Movie, who surely knows firsthand how being honest on film can risk turning you into a subject for ridicule (Oxman also calls his film American Scooby, a none-too-subtle reference to Smith's documentary).
"Nonfiction" is at its most captivating, though, when Solondz isn't focusing on his self-centered metacinematic commentary, but rather when he's observing the intricacies of behavior in the Livingston household. Particularly, there is constant rapport between little Mikey and the Livingston's live-in maid, an Argentinean woman named Consuelo (Lupe Ontiveros). Mikey tries to be nice to Consuelo, who the other members of the family treat as invisible, but his conversations with her are bone-chilling in the way they lay bare how Mikey's privileged upbringing has warped his sensibilities. What's so scary is that Mikey seems to be genuinely trying to connect with Consuelo on some level, but he is so out of touch with any life other than his own that he can only talk down to her. Jonathan Osser's performance is the best in the film--slightly caricatured, but still believable, he is downright creepy with his blank-happy stare and maddeningly even voice.
So, what to make of Storytelling? It has its powerful moments, as well as its darkly funny ones. It is challenging and uncompromised, and Solondz makes his point and punches it home. The only problem is that the point he's making is self-conscious in a way that undermines what's good in the film. Some have accused him of being bitter, and it's hard not to agree when this is only his third feature and already he's using his art to lash out directly at those who disagree with his perspective. Yet, considering the critical batterings he has taken in some circles, it's not surprising that he would seize such an opportunity, and one can only hope that he has gotten it out of his system and will move forward with his next film.
|Aspect Ratio||1.85:1 / 1.33:1|
|Distributor||New Line Home Entertainment|
|Release Date||July 16, 2002|
| 1.85:1 (Anamorphic) / 1.33:1 (Full Frame)|
A single disc offers the viewer a choice of watching the film in either its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 or in 1.33:1 open-matte. The anamorphic widescreen transfer boasts excellent color and fine detail throughout. The opening credits are presented in intensely vivid colors, some of which are not very complementary and will give your set-up a workout. Artifacts are nonexistent and black levels are solid.
This single disc also uses seamless branching to offer you the option of viewing either the unrated version (as seen in European theaters) or the R-rated version of the film (as seen in U.S. theaters). As many by now know, the only difference between these two versions is the sex scene between Vi and Mr. Scott, which the MPAA thought was too graphic for an R-rating. Refusing to cut the scene, Solondz instead put a giant red square on the screen to cover the coupling, which might as well be a big red middle finger raised at the MPAA. While New Line should not have further demonized the NC-17 rating by forcing Solondz to deliver an R-rated movie during its theatrical release, they should be applauded for at least making the uncensored version available on DVD.
| English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, Dolby 2.0 Surround |
As the film is largely dialogue-driven with very few sound effects and little in the way of nondiegetic music, there is not much difference between the Dolby Digital 5.1-channel and Dolby 2.0-channel surround mixes. The offbeat, somewhat unnerving music that plays over the opening credits (it is a little bit like warped carnival music) sounds more spacious in the 5.1-channel mix, but there is not much difference otherwise.
| Original Theatrical Trailer|
Presented in anamorphic widescreen.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick