The first rule of screenwriting is never (ever) write phone calls into your movie. They’re often boring, never visual, and annoyingly overused.
Thankfully, Todd Solondz ’81 likes breaking rules.
He writes and films phone calls ruthlessly, brilliantly. They appear in his works in order to expose how people lie when they don’t have to see and be seen. His phone calls are no less than existential screens.
In “Storytelling,” his latest provocation, Solondz meanly employs a still camera. With it he captures the painful, exposed retelling of a documentary filmmaker’s (the marvelous Paul Giamatti) embarrassed autobiography. But before we accuse him of sadism, it must be said that this character clearly stands in for Solondz-the-director.
At best, Solondz is a mere masochist.
“Storytelling” is a very personal film. And like most artistic autobiographies, it should really only be seen in the context of his entire oeuvre.
His is, admittedly, a complicated corpus of work, littered with pathetic, horrible, lovable people with wonderfully flawed fates.
Solondz’s previous works, “Happiness” and “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” are fantastic (and surprisingly ethical) meditations on human failings. While “Storytelling” lacks the charismatic cruelty and biting wit of his other films, it is no less important to an understanding of this masterful director’s art.
Divided into two sections, “Fiction” and “Non-Fiction,” Solondz’s new film purports to examine the problematic truths at play in, well, storytelling. Storytelling as craft, storytelling as art, storytelling as lies, storytelling as catharsis.
In the “Fiction” piece, by far the superior of the two, the beautiful and underused Selma Blair plays Vi, a sexy and sullen student. She is sleeping with (or dating? Who can really tell the difference anymore?) Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick), a bitter and whiny victim of cerebral palsy.
Fitzpatrick’s performance — awkward, physical, nuanced — happily silences those naysayers who found his raw performance as Telly in Larry Clark’s “Kids” a one-time accident of genius. Chloe Sevigny went from that brilliant underground work to mainstream success; I’m betting he will too.
The two young adults are in a creative writing class. The students’ works and responses are peppered with saccharine self-satisfaction and embarrassingly self-revelatory observations. Solondz is a Yale graduate — he hasn’t forgotten a thing. Pretension has never been so perfectly captured.
After Vi and Marcus’ love affair ends, she goes home with the teacher of the creative writing class (Robert Wisdom). He’s a Pulitzer Prize winner, a dry and cruel critic of his students’ work, and a black man.
Their sex scene is not nearly as shocking as Solondz probably hoped (Wisdom’s character orders Vi to shout racial epithets as they screw), and it is not because getting an R-rating required Solondz to place a screen over the couple. Rather, tokenism comes to mind: I don’t find the scene all that provocative precisely because black characters are usually treated as foils for all the little white girls of cinema.
The message of “Fiction” is quite simple, really. The pleasure is in the process, not the message. Solondz and his characters pose an epistemic question: can there be truth once it has been written down?
In “Non-Fiction,” a segment about a documentary filmmaker and his young male teenage subject, Solondz rehashes typical ethical debates about realism in cinema. This realism, many critics have argued, is forever elusive. Even the most seemingly objective documentary has a point of view and an ideology; some things were left in, some were edited out.
But what Solondz adds to the debate on the possibilities of truth in documentary is an attack on contemporary confessional cinema. His parody of “American Beauty” is hysterical and dead-on. Admit it: weren’t the musings of that Oscar-winning film about as profound as Jack Handy’s “Deep Thoughts”?
As in all of Solondz’s films the story is slightly wild, the ensemble acting very strong, and the dialogue forgettable but engaging and witty. But “Storytelling” should be on your must-see list for another reason.
It is an excellent example of a critical film. That is, Solondz is specifically, self-consciously responding to responses to his previous works. After “Happiness” and “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” he was criticized for exploiting his characters, the very same complaints launched against the writers in “Storytelling.” He has also been praised for his autobiographical influences — here too, that inspiration is called into ethical and aesthetic question.
Critics have responded strangely to “Storytelling.” The Village Voice called it “the leanest and meanest of Solondz’s misanthropic comedies,” while salon.com just considered it another piece of crap from “the worst trend of American indie filmmaking over the last 10 years.”
They miss the point entirely.
If this is indeed a critical film — a film designed specifically to respond to Solondz’s own critics, to poke fun at their observations and simultaneously acknowledge the ethical stakes of fiction-weaving — then it can never be anything other than what it is.
Most criticism is never as good as the film about which it is written — at best, it’s a passable imitation of art. And here too, Solondz’s commentary does not surpass the original.
“Storytelling” is a fine, enjoyable work. But that’s not what’s important: it’s a smart film and a rare chance to watch a truly talented director talk back to his audience.