February 12, 2002

Mr. Todd's wild ride


Directed by Todd Solondz

87 min., Rated R

New Line Productions

In 1996, Todd Solondz made a splash with the release of Welcome to the Dollhouse, a consciously miserable two hours about a nerdy adolescent girl tormented by her unloving family and schoolmates. Lauded by many critics as a keen new director with fresh insights and an offbeat voice, Solondz was inaugurated into directorial stardom, with great expectations for the future. Skepticism, however, has a way of sidling past high walls of glorified appraisals; and I, not in the least, upheld my reservations.

Concerning these doubts shared by a marginal few, it was never a matter of questioning Solondz's skills as director, which are not quite crucial to the kinds of films he has yet made, but as a satirist wielding the camera. His method of rooting out human indignity for ridicule was not by cleverness and wit; it was by plain sadistic bluntness shoved to our faces. In Dollhouse he manages to show a school bully making an appointment with his victim for date rape. So scalding were the effects that any reflexes toward satire on the cruelties of childhood seemed pointless.He seemed to be playing a tuba for a piece that required a piccolo.

Suspicions grew to a larger measure with his second feature, Happiness (an ironic title devoid of subtlety), the centerpiece of which portrayed a child seeking advice from his pedophile father on masturbation. The problem, one must rigidly address, did not derive from the daring and contrived subjects Solondz decidedly chose for his films; rather it was his inexorable aggression towards them, a brutality steered against characters already at the gallows. On top of that, he turned these humiliations into comic gestures designed to make the viewer look foolish for laughing at them.

"So what now?" we may irritably ask. Expect something more direct this time, as preposterous as that sounds, but with redeeming qualities in the new film Storytelling.

Carved into two episodic parts, the film begins with the heading, "Fiction," the first scene of which we see Vi (Selma Blair) getting an orgasm from her regular sex mate Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick), a college undergrad with cerebral palsy. Both of them attend the same writing seminar taught by a famed black professor whose novel Sunday Lynching won the Pulitzer Prize. This is Solondz getting into his standard mischief, familiar by now. But all of it doesn't add up to what he devises later on: he superimposes a bright red rectangle over a sex scene that was threatened with an NC-17 rating by the MPAA. Solondz has retorted that the motive behind the task was to expose censorship, and indeed, he whips his point across with an inflammatory force that was falsely dispatched against himself and his pathetic characters of past films.

Two other moments in "Fiction" stand out by similar tactics. After he's had his session in bed with Vi, Marcus pointedly remarks, "You're tired of me, I can tell. The kinkiness has gone. You've become kind." This rationalization from Solondz of portraying deformed characters - physically, mentally, or otherwise - is cute, but nonetheless bristled with sharp edges. In another scene, after Vi has read her short story detailing a traumatic rape, her classmates denounce it as sexist, racist, and misogynistic; one of them disapproves of her shock values that attempt to override the hollow characters in the story. The menace with which Solondz shoots back at his critics, like myself, in this scene rises once more above his blindfolded previous endeavors. In other words, it's better to get mad at something than nothing at all.

Solondz's venomous strikes do not end there; that's only half of it. In " Nonfiction," the longer, richer, and more accomplished of the two stories, he devotes his attention to many things that deserve to be parodied in our byzantine lifestyles, the most artificial of which takes place in the quiet, disillusioned spaces of suburbia. Scooby Livingston (Mark Webber) is one who doesn't like to fit into the cozy mold; a lazy, pot-smoking high school senior embarking on the challenge of college applications that he feels is worthless. As unmotivated as he is with anything, Scooby does have one ambition, which is to become a late-night talk show host like Conan O'Brien (who makes a brief cameo in the film).

The mechanism behind this story is the appearance of Toby Oxman, a struggling documentary filmmaker trying to find a story on the aftermath of the Columbine tragedy, while paying off the expenses through a shoe salesman's salary. Scooby meets the filmmaker at school and immediately takes the opportunity to be in the spotlight. With the consent of the parents, Marty (John Goodman) and Fern (Julie Hagerty), the camera soon starts following around Scooby at home and school, interviewing him and others who add nothing but absurdity to the project. The resulting film is titled, American Scooby. The irony of this bargain is that none of the unsettling aspects of the story seeps through this self-serious documentary.

The fleshy materials Solondz wants to handle himself. And they include a dinner conversation around the family table where Scooby's younger brother, Brady, mentions a Holocaust project that requires him to watch Schindler's List, the El Salvadorian maid whose grandson is executed for rape and murder, and Scooby's homosexuality that his father strictly refuses to believe and Brady constantly taunts. This is a minor list of incidents Solondz satirizes with deadpan humor, but in each case he is merciless; some are more repulsive than others (catch how Scooby gets into Princeton). Yet the excess of it all seems appropriate for someone whose last two films were completely deficient in finesse and wittiness.

Apparently Solondz made Storytelling as a reactionary film. Alerted by the fact that many people found his films to be "funny," he inserts a scene where the audience at the test screening of American Scooby inappropriately laugh at what is obviously not funny. As for those who had criticized him for being condescending to his characters, Toby Oxman answers by denying his editor's charge that he patronizes his subjects. "I love my subjects!" he persuasively replies. As single- minded Solondz tries to convince us, I found his latter argument implausible. When was the last time a storyteller or satirist loved their objects of scorn? If he purportedly loves them, then why put them through a stoning?

It may just be that he loves more the attention his characters draw. In spite of this, I am not hopeless that Solondz can succeed in his movies. His pessimistic temper, I think, has a potential to translate the most ambiguous and forbidden fruits of our age to a modern cultural lexicon. His audacity to tackle the puritanical codes of the MPAA can speak for itself. His next film will surely determine the course; let us hope it won't be another exercise with the pillory.