catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 16 :: 2007.09.07 — 2007.09.21


Story [is] telling

In 2001, from what some refer to as the armpit of America, New Jersey, a freshly disturbing filmmaker brought to the forefront of the independent market a bold style of storytelling in his film Storytelling. It, or should I say he, is abrasive, bold, controversial. Todd Solondz, a lanky man of keen mind from Newark, never ceases to astonish the complacent mind. He doesn’t push the envelope. Rather he shreds and burns it, making it unrecognizably novel. It is not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’ he will offend. But the offense, in my estimation, is immensely necessary.  Solondz forces us to retrace our steps, to audit the personal and social values to which we claim we adhere. In a way, as Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers suggests, he is indicting the suburban culture with hypocrisy. We can either choose to engage it or attempt to submerge it. But like a stubborn Cheerio, it’ll always make its way back up.

It was in 1989 that Solondz revealed his debut work, in hindsight such a fitting title to his overarching body of work, Fear, Anxiety and Depression. His next gem was the 1995 cult morsel Welcome to the Dollhouse which took home the Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Then it was his 1998 piece, the amazingly disturbing Happiness. In 2001, Storytelling emerged followed by Palindromes in 2004. Life During Wartime, his current project due out sometime next year, is in production and features an all-star cast that will most assuredly astonish. 

Storytelling is divided into two stories entitled “Fiction” and “Non-Fiction”. The first story, “Fiction” shares the story of Vi (Selma Blair), a student at a rinky-dink New Jersey college. What she and the other players in our tale share is that they’re in the same writing class where both their writing and their person is ripped to shreds. The class is led by an author named Gary Scott (Robert Wisdom). As Vi meanders through this journey, she bottoms out leaned up against a wall with her professor in what is one of the most controversial moments in the movie. Though Solondz declares the scene “a great victory” against the MPAA and the notion of censorship (it features a big red box over the act) it is most certainly a challenging scene to consume. Disgraced by the incident she decides to write about her story as a rape and reads it in class, where the story is received merely as a ploy by a “spoiled suburban white girl”.

The second portion of the film titled “Non-Fiction” is the story of Toby (Paul Giamatti), a documentarian who is really a shoe salesman. Toby’s trying to capture adolescent angst and finds the Livingstons a perfect specimen. His subject is Scooby Livingston, a New Jersey high school pothead with unique sexual indifferences. Scooby targets all with scathing antagonism. He incites Dad (John Goodman) and Mom (Julie Hagerty) with offensive attributions to Hitler, noting that if not for the ancestral escape from Nazism, none of them would have been born, ultimately crediting Hitler for their family lineage. Brothers Brady (Noah Fleiss) and Mikey (Jonathan Osser) along with maid Consuelo, who in the valley of a deep sorrow is urged to clean up a spill, all embody a unique cross-section of American suburbia.

In all of his work, Solondz conducts a cinematic pat-down of suburban, upper-middle class culture. Important to note is that he is a product of his critiques, not just a critic. This is his take. Though his work is often challenging to absorb, the discomfort that he evokes is certainly a hotplate of potential for us to engage real and troubling issues. Rather than questioning his work’s legitimiacy, I hope that we’ll find some way to respond. In dealing with themes such as abortion, statutory rape, child molestation, sexual abuse, pedophilia, addiction, etc. Solondz is asking questions that don’t want to be asked but most certainly should be. So for those who live in this suburban landscape, how should we respond? In brief, we should be asking ourselves why he is pursuing such questions and we are not. Are we so content in our neighborhood cliques, book clubs, churches, and community centers? I say let it rain.

Storytelling, as noted by Peter Travers, is “a fearlessly funny movie whose laughs draw blood, a bracingly provocative movie that won’t apologize for its bad temper.” In the current Hollywood market of remakes and seemingly endless sequels, Solondz exudes the masterful ability to manipulate emotion, like a maestro. It’s as if with every edit and creative element of mise-en-scene he produces, he is with syncopating rigor taking us up and down and all around. He won’t let you sit complacent. Chicago-Sun Times film critic Roger Ebert put it this way: “Because his timing is so precise and his ear for dialogue so good, he sometimes tricks us into laughing before we have time to think, gee, we shouldn’t be laughing at that.” It is my hope that instead of being robust with defensive accusations and quick cast-offs that we should be introspective of ourselves, our neighborhoods, our families, and schools. It’s hard, I know. We should at least ask ourselves if there is any merit to these claims. I think any brief look onto the front pages and bottom-line tickers would suggest that there absolutely is. Sure, discomfort is scary. We feel out of control and we’ll do anything to get it back. Please don’t misread me; I’m not suggesting it’s easy, but at what point do we engage these issues—or rather ourselves?

If you take your litter-pick of recent suburban pieces like Tom Perrotta and Todd Field’s Little Children, Richard Linklater’s Suburbia, or Alan Ball and Sam Mendes’ American Beauty, Solondz breaks every mold. His films are like outcasts, like many of his characters. But then again, what constitutes an outcast? For the studio system and for us his movies are riskily risqué. His unabashedly bold willingness to face the subject matter that is too taboo for our culture is his most endearing quality. I’m not suggesting that we like it but I am suggesting that if you choose to not like it—him—then do so intelligently, informed and reflective of the issues at hand. 

Certainly there are just some cinematic artists who inherently offend. John Waters and Stanley Kubrick come to mind, among others. I’m sure everyone has someone that gets under their skin. No matter whom you have at the top of your list, meet Todd Solondz. The question I want to ask for those who take issue is what exactly is the offense? Does this process not aid our development and help us figure out what we really value and why? Regardless of whatever residual elements of hyperbolic storytelling one may think he employs, it cannot be ignored that such atrocities aren’t far fetched, they’re actually relatively common. I’d argue that they’re more common than we’d like to give credit and it’s this avoidance, not necessarily our inability but our unwillingness to engage in meaningful discourse with such that has led some to such a vehement rejection of his work. When we look at what many refer to as ‘white-flight’ during the post-war boom, we find the establishment of the suburban enterprise. What was established was a sense of Pleasantville, moral aptitude, and lives as clean cut as our yards. At this point let me reiterate that I’m not attempting to be maliciously belligerent or to lump all individuals who currently live in suburbia into a mold of guilt or suspicion. Rather, I’m suggesting that what is going on behind closed doors and curtains in our neighborhoods and that which is rumbling the foundations of the soul and self are being given over to complacent dormancy. I’d hope that we wouldn’t let it be so. Solondz may not be for you, but let the discourse take place.

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about Todd Solondz’s film Storytelling on catapult.

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