Todd Solondz is sensitive to criticism, a fear he hypocritically lays bare throughout Storytelling, an oftentimes funny but cowardly auto-critique. In the film’s first part, Vi (Selma Blair) and her fellow classmates translate real-life woe into creative writing assignments for the stolid Mr. Scott (Robert Wisdom), a Pulitzer Prize-winner for the fictional Sunday Lynching. Marcus (Neil Fitzpatrick), a horny teen with cerebral palsy, transcribes his sex life with Vi onto paper, but his affliction doesn’t excuse him from the censure of his fellow students. “Fiction” is the cinematic equivalent of a Dan Savage column, except Solondz’s evocation of his own fetishistic qualms is nowhere near as deliciously catty as a Savage whip. Imagine Solondz as a sex columnist, opening a letter from a confused white teen wondering if it’s okay to call her lover a “nigger” while having sex. Less concerned with deconstructing political correctness than he is with deflating criticism through self-reflectivity, “Fiction” is the director’s apologia for absolutely everything he does.
Solondz evades insult by transforming Marcus and Mr. Scott into something more than objects of desire. Vi assumes that Marcus’s condition limits what he can do in the sack. Marcus shatters her myth, leaving Vi to pursue Mr. Scott after bumping into her professor at a local bar. Lured to his apartment, Vi freshens up in her teacher’s bathroom only to stumble upon pictures of naked white girls. “Don’t be racist,” she mumbles repeatedly (speaking for herself and Solondz), oblivious of the extra-curricular lesson she’s about to receive. Vi’s fear of the fetish implied by Mr. Scott’s pictures fascinatingly gives way to her own submission. A red block (the director’s “Soviet” jab at the censors) covers their naughty bits while Mr. Scott forces Vi to say “fuck me nigger” during sex. Vi, confused and unaware of the politics of their exchange, honors his request and subsequently turns life into fiction. As she reads her tale to the class (read: the audience), Vi could pass for Solondz himself, a martyr tortured by conflicted desires and haunted by the pressures of the moral elite (here it’s a classroom but the group may very well represent Solondz’s critics). If Storytelling finds Solondz at his most obvious and passive-aggressive, the only thing to champion here may be the way he creepily blurs the line between fiction and non-fiction.
Catherine (Aleksa Palladino) is the classroom’s harshest critic and comes the closest to tearing apart the power dynamic implied in Vi’s fetish: “You just want to fuck him like every other white cunt on campus.” If brevity is the soul of wit, Margaret Atwood’s Rape Fantasies sorts through this kind of baggage with more grace than Solondz does here, though Catherine’s criticism must be heralded as an affront to the moral elite who champion political correctness and feel empowered whenever it’s enforced. Catherine’s who-cares approach is certainly valid for some, though it’s difficult to determine whether Solondz himself feels entirely comfortable when it comes to his own sexual fantasies. These paradigms of power can be as liberating and self-effacing as they are rooted in shame; “Fiction” hints at this skittishness but Solondz doesn’t appear to be defending this exchange of power as much as he is making redundant excuses for his own hang-ups.
“Non-Fiction” is equally hampered by self-reference but seemingly benefits from its longer running time, not to mention its audacious glorification of slave empowerment. Could it be that the maid played by Lupe Ontiveros, who calls her character a “fantastic killer,” is the answer to Vi’s power riddle? Evoking Albert Brooks’s superior Real Life, “Non-Fiction” follows Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti, a Solondz doppelganger) as he creates a documentary on the Livingston family and their day-to-day struggle with themselves. Deadbeat Scooby (Mark Webber), the eldest son, hopes for fame and shuns the idea of college. He’s smart (he knows the importance of contacts when it comes to breaking into show business) and quickly takes center stage as Toby’s object du jour. Father Marty (John Goodman) asks the Dogme-loving Toby, “How do we know we won’t be exploited?” He doesn’t, of course, but with Solondz behind the camera it’s only a matter of time.
Solondz’s evocation of an American family’s demise (here, literally and figuratively) hinges on a spectacle of suburban youth crisis. Straight-boy Scooby is the loner type and seemingly acts as target practice for Solondz’s own repressed fantasies—munching on mushrooms, Scobby let’s his repressed gay friend (for Solondz, is there any other kind?) give him a blow job. Brady (Noah Fleiss) is the jock, and though he’s open-minded when it comes to his brother’s slippery sexuality, he’d still like Scooby to keep his perversions under wraps. When Brady slips into a coma during a football game, the bratty young Mikey (Jonathan Osser) is left to bogart the love of his parents. He’s a prissy Log Cabin Republican in the making, a would-be hypnotist who takes pleasure in dehumanizing Consuelo (Ontiveros).
Like Catherine in “Fiction,” Franka Potente’s producer character is the self-referential voice of reason, Solondz’s way of directly entering his narrative—as if Toby weren’t already enough. It’s around this time that Toby’s documentary becomes a mere act of contempt. Though “Non-Fiction” is messier than “Fiction,” its conflictions are certainly more fascinating. Scooby’s embarrassment at a test screening of the documentary egregiously reinforces the film’s already defensive self-critique but “Non-Fiction” is cruelly hysterical where “Fiction” is just plain nasty. Mikey is such a loathsome mini-Dubya that it’s a surprise Solondz doesn’t have the child raped. Given the boy’s behavior—he hypnotizes Marty, asking his father to treat him as the favorite child and fire Consuelo because she failed to clean up his spilled juice and dared to cry for her grandson who’s facing execution—it’s almost as if Solondz wants the audience to wish his demise.
Solondz’s dystopic paranoia frequently gives way to biting humor. One absurd dinnertime conversation portends the demise of the Livingston family. They talk about the Holocaust so it’s easy to liken their home to something of a gas chamber. Consuelo walks away from the house, giving the figurative finger to her white oppressors. In the end, her “fuck you” could have easily been one to Vi and her fearful fantasies. Despite its flaws, “Non-Fiction” works because it finds Solondz at his ballsiest. Whether you accept Solondz’s cowardly apologias are beside the point, his attacks on suburban myths are potent and certainly shocking. Consuelo brings the power paradigm around in the second half of the film. Both she and Solondz have their issues but they suggest that people must pay for their oppression of others.