Nothing Shocking
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Here’s my philosophy on controversial film: you can have all the table-dancing midgets, necro-pyro-bestiality fetishes, and disaffected drug-addled kids you want—as long as you have a theme driven plot to carry them. Todd Solondz landed a rep for being controversial with the release of his bleak vision of suburbia Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), the harshest of his critics arguing that, combined with Happiness (1998), his second foray into these realities, he was shocking merely to be shocking. Dollhouse was released the same year as Larry Clark’s Kids, a demented, angst filled, nihilistic look at skateboard-wielding gutter punks in New York City. Denounced in British parliament, subject to an outpouring of protests, and launching writer Harmony Korine into the indie circuit, Kids proved, in spite of its hype, to be little more than an “After School Special.” Korine went on to do Gummo (1997), a painfully plotless, annoyingly aggravating effort to be extreme—in spite of cat killing, comatose old people, and midgets, it still made a horrible date movie. Nonetheless, Shock Cinema had a new face, lacking all the clever camp of John Waters and leaving me finished with the Not-Quite-A-“Shocking”-Genre.

All those films that stood on the dark side of “quirky” biased me against anything Solondz had to say. Dollhouse seemed to reek of the same publicist that touted Kids and Gummo, leaving my only impression of the film based on choicer bits of dialogue quoted by friends, which did little to encourage me. Then along came Storytelling (2001), another Solondz foray into the unsettling, divided into two unrelated parts, “Fiction” and “Non-Fiction,” but rumored to be an exploration of these devices for viewing reality. Here, I was intrigued.

Storytelling operates on multiple levels. At once Solondz heads his critics off at the pass with self-reflective dialogue that challenges his detractors, providing an on-screen version of himself as protagonist in the second segment. Meanwhile, he explores issues of racial tension, celebrity-centric society, and apathetic suburban life in a look at the nature of truth.

“Fiction” focuses on a college writer’s workshop lorded over by Nobel Prize winning author Mr. Scott (Robert Wisdom), who seems to relish brutally ripping apart his students’ work. Two of his students, Vi (Selma Blair) and Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick), form centerpiece to this segment. The romantically involved couple writes stories drawn from their own experiences, only to have Scott and the class destroy them as implausible, biased, or cliché, inadvertently destroying their relationship in the process. Solondz’s dialogue with his critics is reflected here—in the judgments issued against the writers, saying that their work is unnecessarily shocking. What’s reflected in the reality of these written fiction stories is criticized to the point of irrelevance.

The longer second segment centers on Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti), an aimlessly ambling thirty-something, drifting absently through jobs with aspirations of becoming a documentary filmmaker. Oxman, the Solondz alter-ego, sets out to document the exploits of pot-headed suburban reject Scooby Livingston (Mark Webber) and his family. Marty (John Goodman) and Fern (Julie Hagerty) are Scooby’s somewhat clueless and success-driven parents, applying excessive pressure on their children to succeed. He has younger brothers, the cool-obsessed (that is, obsessed with being cool) Brady (Noah Fleiss) and Mickey (Jonathan Osser), who’s so emotionally aloof that he seems like a creepy kid from a horror franchise. Oxman insists he’s devoted to his subjects. He invests in their life, in not exploiting them, yet throughout all the tragedy that befalls the family, he’s bent on making it a comedy. “Non-Fiction” provides the bookend to “Fiction” with Oxman’s end result edited to be misleading and biased—a slanted vision of truth.

My philosophy of controversial film still stands, but I’ll probably catch Dollhouse and Happiness now.

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