I suspect filmmaker Todd Solondz of being the sort of man who has difficulties with public transport. I imagine him staggering gray-faced off the bus with his sense of self almost erased by the stink and proximity of his fellow man; or hanging grim as a bat in the far corner of a subway car, his mind flickering with antipathy. Am I being unfair? Perhaps I am. But so many things in his movies -- their generalized disgust, their unpleasant clarity of tone, and (most of all) their looming, one-dimensional people -- remind me of a low-level panic attack. In his latest, Storytelling, we even suffer the apparition of a classic anxiety symptom: a floating red oblong in the center of our field of vision.
What the floating red oblong obscures, so I'm told, is actual penetrative sex between two consenting actors. You can hear it, you are fairly satisfied that it is going on, but you can't see it. The Motion Picture Association of America wanted Solondz to cut the scene altogether, but he mockingly self-censored instead, using what he has referred to in interviews as "a big Soviet-type red box." Who won this cultural face-off? Who cares? Penetration or no penetration, Storytelling will leave you as glumly unsatisfied as Solondz's previous work.
Let's trace the developmental arc of the Solondz opus. First, in 1995, there was Welcome to the Dollhouse, a story of teen alienation that arraigned suburbia and the nuclear family. An entire auditorium of high-school kids chanted, "Wienerdog! Wienerdog!" at an awkward, bespectacled girl. Solondz's next film, the memorably disgusting Happiness, shifted the goalposts. This was about lonely and abject adults: pedophiles, phone pests, ESL teachers, miserable fatsoes -- those who are condemned to be, in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, "their sweating selves; but worse." It's a film you only need to see once, if that: Like it or not, Happiness stays with you. Gouts of sperm are always leaping guiltily onto anonymous surfaces, where they get lapped up by dogs, which then lick people's faces. And who can forget the cheerful avidity, the bright-eyed, housewifely purposiveness of the child-raper as he paddles round his kitchen preparing the drugged hot chocolate? There was raw loathing in Happiness, but you couldn't tell whose it was; it spun out from no visible center. In place of judgment, Solondz deferred to the moral autism of the camera, to its bland, indifferent whir.
And now we have Storytelling divided into two unequal segments ("Fiction" and "Non-Fiction"). The film is full of unease about "truth" and "material" and "responsibility" and "the ugly side of life" -- a twittering of directorial conscience from the man who introduced sperm-licking dogs into our cultural life. The first section, "Fiction," has the zip and caustic economy of a good student short. Pretty Vi (Selma Blair) is dating Marcus, a boy with cerebral palsy. Side by side, they sit in that laboratory of idiocy, the creative-writing class. Marcus reads aloud a mawkish story about his disability and his redemptive love for Vi; the story is terrible, but his classmates are too wet and mendacious to tell him so. His lack of talent is soothed by wafting veils of nonsense. ("Really moving," they mutter, "really strong.") But Mr. Scott, the teacher, will have none of it. An unsmiling black man who won a Pulitzer for his novel Sunday Lynching, Mr. Scott comes down hard on Marcus: "Your story was a piece of shit," he says. Marcus is devastated, blames Vi for not being more honest with him, and splits up with her; Vi, meanwhile, having witnessed the symbolic castration of her boyfriend, finds herself attracted to the brutal Mr. Scott. Her awe of him is eroticized by liberal guilt -- the one perfunctory tenderness he offers her is "You have beautiful skin" -- and before you can say, "Nigger, fuck me hard!" (which is what he makes her say, again and again), the two of them are behind the floating red oblong.
Vi's encounter with Mr. Scott is rather shattering. And when she attempts to make sense of it by reading out a thinly disguised fictional account in class, her classmates ambush her. She is roughed up with the blunt instruments of jargon, accused of phallocentrism, misogyny, "Mandingo-style" racism. It's a damning little scene. It cured me, forever, of using the word fetishize. "Why do you have to write about such horrible people?" complains one girl. No one believes Vi (apart from Marcus). So much for fiction.
"Non-Fiction," the second segment, is considerably longer and murkier. Toby Oxman, a down-at-heel documentary filmmaker, weasels his way into the affluent Livingston family to make a film about the eldest son, Scooby. Brilliantly played by Mark Webber, Scooby is a bored suburban kid with his own special twists: He munches mushrooms, graciously submits to the homosexual overtures of a schoolmate, and listens to Elton John. He doesn't want to go to college, and he dreams of being Conan O'Brien's sidekick. You can see the curve of space in his eyes. The vile Oxman, gibbering with fake sincerity, sneeringly records Scooby's dream state for his film American Scooby, even as a series of improbable catastrophes (comas, malign hypnotism, hissing gas) wracks the Livingston family. "Do you even like your subjects?" his producer demands. "I LOVE my subjects!" bleats Oxman. And this dubious meditation on the art of truth is what complicates and bedevils "Non-Fiction." The whole thing is coiled in awareness, spring-loaded with self-reflexivity. Toby Oxman bears a more than passing resemblance (glasses, pallor, baldness) to Solondz, and Oxman's cameraman, Mike, is played by Mike Schank, a nonactor who appeared (as himself, wielding a camera) in the classic shoestring documentary American Movie. Vexed by such references and sourly contemplating itself through the different lenses of Oxman and Solondz, "Non-Fiction" is never allowed to achieve the level of honest, transformative artistry. Did its writer/director want it to? Probably not. But it might have been nice.
Solondz has been accused of many things, but one thing you can never accuse him of is subtlety. Marcus, the boy with cerebral palsy, stares at himself in the mirror -- the ruptured smile, the bent hand nestled birdlike against the chest -- and whispers bitterly: "Freak!" Somehow we fail to reel back from this flash of inner life. Similarly, in "Non-Fiction" nine-year-old Mikey Livingston enquires in piccolo tones of his lumpen brown housekeeper: "Consuelo, even though you're poor, don't you have any hobbies or interests?" It's hard to say what exactly this scene is. As drama it's overstated, off-key; as satire it's crass. Yet to say it defies category is to give it too much credit, because it actually falls quite neatly into the category of Bad Writing. Or does it? Isn't it possible that a horrifying little Republican like Mikey might say something like this -- that his appalling innocence, his radiant incomprehension, might produce such a question?
This is the bind Solondz puts us in. His writing rings true only if you are prepared to believe the worst, the boring worst, over and over again. And the worst, certainly, is what you anticipate from him. When little Mikey descends cautiously into Consuelo's basement den one night, calling her name because he has spilled some grape juice and wants her to clean it up, we expect him to find the old lady -- what? dead? shooting up? huffing dryly over gay porn? Surely some horror show awaits the child. (In fact -- silly us! -- Consuelo is doing none of these awful things. No, she's just crying, because her grandson Jesus has been taken off death row and executed.) Is Solondz even possessed of that basic creative necessity, that earth for one's neural wiring, a sense of humor? I've watched his films a number of times and I still couldn't tell you. Consider the following image from Happiness: As the pedophile drives into a residential area, en route to his next victim, the camera lingers on a "watch out for children" road sign. We stare at it for a good three seconds: "watch out for children." This is a joke in such inscrutably bad taste that it divides nature, it invites a total dissociation of sensibility that is almost -- given the split-level character of the pedophile's existence -- artistic. But not quite. Because as we all know, it doesn't take a genius to make a sick joke.
Let it be said that Todd Solondz is a powerful filmmaker; his films are actual experiences, grueling and disorienting. Pathologies speak through them. They are effective. It's just that you can achieve the same effects -- and cheaper and faster, too -- by walking into a lamppost: confusion, embarrassment, and the banal, persistent (until it's forgotten) novelty of pain.