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The Stories he could tell: Rhonda Lieberman on Todd Solondz. (Film).

WALTER BENJAMIN SAID it's the winners whose histories are told, but Todd Solondz's latest film proves it's the losers. In two parts ("Fiction" and "Non-Fiction"), Storytelling--which premiered at Cannes last May and just opened in New York and Los Angeles--shows people ruined by the very stories they hope will redeem them.

Like The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm's classic study of the self-interested swap meet implicit in all narrative exchanges, Storytelling explores how we tell our story to console or vindicate ourselves--only to see it used for entirely different purposes. Easy to read as a response to critics who have dissed Solondz's work as mean-spirited and/or cynical, Storytelling takes on those who fret about the artist's worthy intentions, and contends that all stories exploit their subjects--intentionally or not. With a song in my heart, I met with the Jersey-bred Yalie behind this world of predators, saps, and sappy predators.

Awkwardly balancing his tray as he traversed Dean & Deluca, Solondz evoked his brainchild Dawn Wiener's excruciating passage through the Welcome to the Dollhouse lunchroom. Grayish and fortyish, he still exuded pallid middle-school nerd vibes, yet I was starstruck. This, I told myself, is the Shakespeare of suburban creeps. I'd just reseen Dollhouse (1995)--which is genius--and his equally fab albeit borderline cynical Happiness (1998). I'd read a pile of his pedagogical spiel about how victim and predator coexist inside us all. Loath to ply him with more pointy-headed questions, I retardedly put aside my copious notes and decided to wing it, just see what he was like (yes, I know...). I thought he was cool and I wanted him to like me!

In "Non-Fiction," a clueless documentary filmmaker succeeds, despite his good intentions, because he nevertheless screws over his subjects. The schleppy Toby (Paul Giamatti) sets out to redeem his loserly life by lensing today's high-school student and the traumatic college admissions process. He wins the trust of his semiverbal slacker "star," Scooby (Mark Webber)--who sees this as the first step toward his dream job of TV talk-show host--and access to the teen's cushy suburban family. As Scooby's mom, the not Semitic-looking Julie Hagerty is amusingly Jewed-out with a honking Star of David necklace and a metallic Aleph-Bet glittering on her blouse; (the also not Jewish-looking) John Goodman is the underachiever's exasperated dad; a jock brother, Scooby's shiny, happy foil. The youngest kid, Mikey (Jonathan Osser), is a weenie who unwittingly betrays their long-suffering housekeeper (Lupe Ontiveros) the way Toby's camera unwittingly shtups the family. When Consuelo tells the sheltered tot why she's been cryi ng, the dad fire her for "these stories you've been telling him about your troubles ... murder, rape--it's not appropriate." Her sordid but true tale costs her her livelihood, and she takes revenge.

Toby's project proceeds with sly winks at the profound challenges of portraying the shallow. In one hilarious close-up (in the film-within-the-film), Scooby's "normal" dad critiques the drippy, alienated documentarian, waving barbecue tongs at him: "Stop trying to impose your misery on others! Life was tough on you--well, boo hoo!" (Solordz explicated this passage while eating his vegetables: "Well, I'm with him. I sympathize with Scooby's father--it's the audience there that I'm not very sympathetic to, an audience who's not ver sympathetic, as not all audiences are. You have to question: Why is someone laughing, why is someone not, and what is the nature of that laughter?") Impatient to see his debut, Scooby sneaks into a test screening to find the audience howling as he haplessly confides to the camera "My Dad doesn't really get it. I could be the next Oprah ... I'd like to be famous. It doesn't have to be TV. It could be movies. I'd be willing to direct ..." He sees the radical unspecialness of his fantas y of being special and painfully realizes that sharing his story has made him a clown rather than a star. ("So tell me about you ...," Solondz cordially continued.) When Scooby runs into the filmmaker at the scene of a different storytelling-wrought trauma, the director says he's sorry. The now wiser teen, mistakenly thinking Toby is apologizing for his cinema-inflicted rude awakening, says, "Don't be--movie's a hit."

I delight in Solondz's signature nastiness, but afterward I couldn't decide if the film was brilliant, slimy, both? Does it matter? All but the dumbest authors struggle over being "nice" or being real, and if there was a whiff of disingenuousness in letting the Filmmaker off the hook (via the unwitting exploiter Toby), then Truth reeked from that self-serving gesture as well. Later I pressed the point about Toby's "innocence": What if we'd seen him as not only a loser but a bitter, calculating loser who uses the family to redeem himself? Solondz practically quoted the press kit: "That's right. The casting was key. I wanted to find someone who would generate sympathy so there wouldn't be any confusion, that he was some huckster." I soon realized this irony-free rap would be as rewarding to engage as a dial tone. His anodyne sympathy for his cinematic victims--I mean, characters--evoked a high priest eulogizing human sacrifices to overcompensate for getting ya-yas frying them.

This puzzled me, since Storytelling particularly mocks auteurs who disavow their aggression. When Toby shows his work-in-progress to his butch German-accented editor/bullshit detectress, he insists, "But I like these people. I love them!" "No, you don't," she busts him. Their sessions provide a wily metacommentary on Solondz's challenges in treating his "material." When Toby frets that his film won't be "entertaining" enough, she admonishes him not to be "facile": "You're being superior to these people. Why are you making this if you can't treat your subject with appropriate gravity?" He then does so, with mawkish voice-overs (one gag twits the "spiritual" parts of American Beauty as the filmmaker ponders a lamppost), but nevertheless succeeds in revealing the stupid, ugly truths of his subjects.

Addled by cognitive dissonance that the Care Bear before me had created such hilariously scathing cinema, and worn down by his "on message"-ness (delivered in teacherly tones, with an undercurrent of Yiddish singsong detectable to the trained ear), I got bored. I internally writhed. Oh, for greener days when Ava Gardner tippled and dished away to Rex Reed! Welcome to the butt-covering twenty-first century ... (or did his brain really work like that?).

Since the "Non-Fiction" family is explicitly Jewish, I thought I'd check out his attitude toward the Tribe. Shiksa actress Julie Hagerty is comically incongruous, mouthing mitzvah and zayde like foreign words and working the phone for the temple dinner dance. Goodman reacts hysterically when Scooby makes the true but insufficiently pious remark that if it weren't for Hitler, the family would never have ended up in America and therefore wouldn't exist. Disarmed that I'd picked up somewhere that he was raised in a kosher home ("That's not something I'd publicize"), Solondz did share that he went to yeshiva for part of elementary school and was then observant enough to wear prayer fringes, but when I asked him to tell me about his bar mitzvah, he Withheld.

"Fiction" skewers victim-lit scribblers who exploit themselves. Set in a college writing class ca. 1985, the first part of Storytelling opens as the passion wanes between a pink-tinted blonde, Vi (Selma Blair), and her cerebral-palsied classmate/lover, Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick): "The pleasure isn't there anymore," the fledgling CP writer glumly observes. "The kinkiness is gone. You've become kind." In fact, every character in Storytelling is "kind"--and deluded--except the black Pulitzer Prize winner (Robert Wisdom) stuck teaching on this third-rate campus, disillusion incarnate as he suffers through sappy, empowering prose: "From now on CP stood for cerebral person. He was a cerebral person!" the CP scribbler crows in the final flourishes of his in-class reading.

Not quite enlightening his students by assessing their work as "crap," the pedagogue takes action. Objectified as the Black Man, he returns the favor by exploiting his female students sexually. His "victims" are so blinded by their fear of being racist, they can't see they're being used. Freshly dumped by Marcus ("I thought he was different," she wails. "He has OP!"), the distraught blonde's hookup with the prof in a divey bar is not unduly sentimental: "Do you think I have any talent?" she blubbers.

"No."

"I have so much respect for you," she replies like a zombie. Their walk to his apartment, side by side in the street light, is creepily anomic. When she finds bondage pix of a smarty-pants classmate on his commode, she privately coaches herself: "Don't be a racist, don't be a racist..." With her confused complicity, the writing prof violates her both physically (from behind) and verbally: "Say 'Nigger fuck me hard'" --forcing the bad N-word into her mouth. Their encounter is literally obscene: As tension (and pedagogue) mount, a large "Soviet-style" red rectangle pops onscreen to conceal them, bringing welcome comic relief (but in fact it was Solondz's clever solution to finesse the ratings board and keep control over cuts).

When his "Fiction" student writes up her private "lesson" (incoherently blaming herself, a "whore," for being used) and reads her self-pitying tale to the class, they are appalled by its racist, sexist cliches and find the story unrealistic, implausible. As they scold her for such "mean-spirited," "affected" ecriture--" By using taboo language you were trying to shock us about the emptiness of your characters" -- we recognize a hilarious parody of Solondz's critics.

Midway into what would turn into a one-sided (the wrong one) gut-spillfest, the auteur and I shared a moment of self-aware complicity about our "transaction": two sophisticates, no strangers to Malcolm's take on the Interview (a situation rigged in my favor, unless...). It was him giving me press spiel, me very bored. I finally said to heck with it and decided to just have lunch. In short, my pent-up will to blab overflowed and he wound up interviewing me: my sordid bildungsroman as a young aesthete in the suburbs, my class consciousness awakened by other people's nicer homes, my boundary-free Jewish family, and, of course, I didn't skip over my analysis...

Yes, I "shared" with this connoisseur of awkwardness and horribleness. He would understand the wretchedness of it all, all right. I had utterly inscribed myself into a Solondzesque loser narrative. And I did it myself! I played journalistic bottom to the nebbishy auteur of narrative-as-exploitation (and Janet Malcolm is one of my favorite writers!?).

That, my friends, is why you shouldn't meet your idols. I was trolling for realness from an indie darling doing press, his conversational sneeze guard rendered all the more unsettling by his solicitous air, meaningful eye contact, and the vulnerability I related to in his work. Ibk. His publicist called the next day. "Todd was concerned you didn't ask many questions."

"Of course, I could ask more ..." (if I thought he'd answer them). "They always occur to you afterward." (I felt like Columbo.) "Are you concerned?"

"We were wondering if there's enough for a piece."

"There is a piece there. It's self-reflexive, very inscribed into the issues raised by Storytelling."

"Sounds very 'postmodern.'" (What a dork.)

"Right."
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Publication:Artforum International
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2002
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