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'Storytelling' tells something, but it ain't stories

Photo courtesy of New Line Cinema

Selma Blair plays Vi in the first part of Solondz's "Storytelling." The movie opens today.

By Jessica Suarez
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Friday Feb. 22, 2002


Todd Solondz, the writer and director of "Storytelling," has a gift for creating films that make his audiences squirm. His two previous films, "Welcome to the Dollhouse" and "Happiness," were almost painful to watch, emotionally draining in a way that killed conversation. Solondz brought out the grim quirks of adolescence and adulthood in a way that was painful to watch, but refreshing for its unflinching honesty. With "Storytelling," however, it seems like Solondz has run out of original ideas.

The film is divided into two distinct, unrelated parts, titled "Fiction" and "Nonfiction." This labeling is a bit deceiving, since both stories are actually fiction.

In "Fiction," Vi (Selma Blair) gets dumped by her boyfriend (who has cerebral palsy) after she doesn't defend one of his short stories against criticism from their creative fiction professor. She looks for a sexual experience to make herself feel better, but finds that the experience makes her feel much, much worse.

"Nonfiction," the funnier of the two parts, is about an unsuccessful and untalented filmmaker following around a directionless high school kid for his first documentary.

The biggest problem with "Storytelling" isn't the acting or even the basic stories themselves. The problem is that, rather than telling stories, Solondz uses his film to air his complaints about filmmaking. A more apt title for this movie might have been "Point-making" or even just "Complaining." The Motion Picture Association of America asked Solondz to change some nudity in the first story in order to get an "R" rating. Instead of cutting or reshooting, Solondz placed a giant orange block over the action.

Solondz uses the second part of the film to criticize the makers of the film "American Movie." Solondz even uses one of the subjects of "American Movie" in his film to further cement the reference. "American Movie," a documentary about a filmmaker trying to do his first film, made audiences often laugh at the subjects of the documentary.

Solondz's criticisms are somewhat justified. The makers of "American Movie" have received plenty of heat for their treatment of their subjects. They made a documentary knowing the audience would derive most of its enjoyment by laughing at the lives of its characters. It's exploitive, and it's mean. But Solondz's ending, which is meant to drive this point home, is shallow and unfulfilling. Of course, the endings to his other films were unfulfilling too, but the ending to "Nonfiction" is an impossible-to-believe non sequitur.

His anti-MPAA statement from the first part of the film seems a little less justified. The MPAA gives out ratings based on a film's content. If they deem the content to be too risquŽ for an R movie, then they give it an NC-17. This isn't censorship. This is what they do.

Even Solondz's self-criticism becomes boring. The critiques from the fiction class in "Fiction" are comprised of many of the criticisms Solondz has heard himself. This self-analysis of his filmmaking is somewhat admirable, but mostly just boring. By criticizing himself before anyone else can, Solondz isn't trying to explore his own motives so much as prove that he's one step ahead of his critics. It's just not that interesting.

Not that some parts aren't entertaining. During the fiction-writing workshop, someone compares the character in the boy's story to, "Faulkner, but East Coast and disabled." "Nonfiction's" high school kid, Toby (Paul Giamatti), and his family are at times hilarious as the typical middle-class suburban New Jersey family.

Solondz's other two films did a wonderful job of mixing perverse humor and resignation. "Storytelling," however, seems to be less about storytelling and more about taking cheap shots at everyone - his critics, his audiences, other filmmakers and himself. It is honest, it is unflinching, but somehow, it's just very unsatisfying.


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