Todd Solondz’s last film, Happiness, was not exactly of the kind described by the familiar disjunction, “You either loved it or you hated it.” Though many people hated it, I can’t imagine that anyone loved it. Those who check out my review of it elsewhere on the website (under “Reviews” as it happens) will be reminded that I admired it, though with reservations. Its vision of love and sex was too dark to have been quite true, and the margin between the truth and Mr Solondz’s nihilistic vision suggested that behind his obvious wit and talent there lurked the spirit of the fat boy in Pickwick Papers who only wanted to make our flesh crawl. His new film, Storytelling, is even more accomplished technically, as well as being wittier and funnier, but once again the sense of moral and spiritual desolation behind its entertaining puppetry is something that you would have to be very arty, very high brow indeed to be able to claim to love.
This is especially true of the first of its two independent halves. Labeled “Fiction,” this is set in a university among the students of a “writing” class, and you can hardly even begin to appreciate it without knowing something about the kind of posing and, well, storytelling that goes into the makeup of the contemporary academic mind and sensibility. The film begins with students Vi (Selma Blair) and Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick) in a sexual embrace in which Vi is in the dominant position. No sooner do the two of them reach a shuddering climax, however, than Marcus, who suffers from a mild but disfiguring case of cerebral palsy, asks if he can read Vi his story. Again. She is evasive. She is obviously bored of the story, if not of him, and Marcus tries a little emotional blackmail; something we gather is not uncommon in this relationship: “You’re tired of me,” he says, “You hardly sweat anymore when we have sex… The kinkiness is gone… You’ve become kind.”
This is a nice bit of double-bluff. At some level, Marcus knows that his leverage over Vi depends not just on her pity but on the necessary fiction that the relationship is not based on pity, so that his accusation that she has become kind must be disproved by whatever means he chooses or the relationship must founder. Then we cut to the classroom. Marcus has just finished reading out his story, which ends with his fictional handicapped hero’s announcement that the love of his fictional girlfriend is so ennobling that it has at last made him forget his handicap. Invited to comment, all the class are polite about the story in exactly the way that we can imagine Vi — who is naturally cast in the role of the fictional girlfriend — has been. All, that is, except for Catherine (Aleksa Palladino), who ventures a criticism of the conventional and clichéic sentiment and then swiftly retreats from it. “But that’s just my opinion. What do I know?”
Now it is the turn of the teacher, Mr Scott (Robert Wisdom), the only black person in the room, who says: “Catherine’s right; it’s a piece of s***,” and goes on to criticize the story savagely. Outside the classroom, Marcus is in tears, but it is Vi, whom he can manipulate, that he is angry with, not Mr Scott, whom he cannot. Why didn’t she tell him the story was bad? he asks. The charge of her having turned kind appears to have been borne out. And the worst of it from poor Vi’s point of view is that this completely unfair conclusion happens to be true. She can think of nothing to say but to abuse Mr Scott, but Marcus has an answer to that too. He says he knows that she wants to sleep with the teacher, just like all the other white girls and breaks off the relationship.
Depressed, Vi announces to her roommate that she is going out, she doesn’t know where. “To a bar. To get laid.” At the bar, however, whom should she encounter but the still-scowling, still savage Mr. Scott. Of course, at once she turns flirtatious towards this man she has just been abusing in an attempt to placate her manipulative boyfriend. But Mr. Scott shows her that he is even more merciless than Marcus when it comes to manipulating her and exploiting for sexual purposes the fictions that she and the rest of the guilt-ridden, ideologically-indoctrinated white girls on campus live by. It is an unforgettable lesson in the hypocrisies of our time to any who have eyes to see and ears to hear. Fortunately for Mr Solondz, most campus ideologues will have neither.
The second, longer half of the film is called “Nonfiction” and concerns a down-at-heels (he works in a shoe-store) documentary film-maker called Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti) who signs up a well-to-do suburban family in New Jersey to be the subject of a documentary on the pressures on high school kids today. But where “Fiction” was a razor-sharp satire, “Nonfiction” quickly becomes a burlesque in the style of Happiness, the family as appallingly over-the-top as the family in the earlier film, and the ending — if such a thing is possible — even more ghastly and nihilistic. Also as in Happiness, it is very funny, and it toys with us by hinting that it is about to become what it is ostentatiously not, namely a version of or a comment on the Columbine massacre. Thus when there is an actual massacre, though not the one we were expecting, it is all the more shocking.
“Fiction” presents us with a case of truth being overwhelmed by fiction, where “Nonfiction” shows us a fiction (Toby’s tired, media-engendered conceit of teenage “stress”) being overwhelmed by truth. Or at least that is its intention. As it turns out, the alleged truth — like that of Happiness again — is less persuasive than the fiction, which is hilariously and at the same time horrifyingly well-observed and mercilessly exposed. Here, for example, is the scene in which “Mikey” (Jonathan Osser), the family’s spoilt ten-year-old, having spilled some grape juice in the kitchen in the middle of the night, pads down to the maid’s quarters to get her to clean it up. He finds the maid, a Salvadoran called Consuelo (Lupe Ontiveros), weeping. In response to his query, she tells him that her grandson has been executed. “He was on death row, and then they executed him.”
“How did they execute him?” asks Mikey curiously.
“Poison gas,” says Consuelo.
“Maybe it’s for the best,” says Mikey sagely. “If he did something bad. . . well, bad people should be killed. . .Why was he on death row?”
“For rape and murder.”
Mikey pauses to take this in. “What is rape exactly?” he asks.
Consuelo answers: “It’s when you love someone and they don’t love you and you do something about it.”
Mikey ponders this for a moment. “Sometimes I feel like my parents don’t love me.”
“Well then,” says Consuelo, “when you get older you can do something about it.”
“Consuelo,” says Mikey. “I spilled some grape juice.”
In its context, this dialogue, with its cross-currents of racial, sexual and class tensions, is even more chilling than it sounds taken out of it, but somewhere at the back of one’s mind one suspects that that definition of rape is not intended ironically. At any rate, it is not hard to believe that the man who wrote it is in his own way even more heartless than little Mikey.