Wednesday, June 20, 2012


"Fiction"                                                                                         "Non-Fiction'
In the late 90's Todd Solondz managed to become one of the most influential yet underrated American filmmakers of his time. He got worldwide acclaim and pretty much fathered the Sundance scene of the late 90's and early part of the last decade, yet he still stayed under the radar in comparison to his other contemporary American indie director peers like Tarantino, Kevin Smith and even Todd Haynes. After the success of Welcome To The Dollhouse and the controversy & hype surrounding the content & dark humor in Happiness his way was paved for success in the next decade. But one problem after another plagued his career and made this past decade a bumpy one for him all starting with Storytelling. But people get so caught up in the controversy around Storytelling (the fact that it was unfinished and Solondz apparently had a big falling out with Christine Vachon) that they forget it’s a great a movie (unfinished or not). Todd Solondz isn’t the first American filmmaker to emerge from the Sundance scene that was given a "major indie deal" only to run in to problems. If you read any material on American indie film from the late 90's you'll see that Todd Solondz, Todd Haynes and Hal Hartley are almost always mentioned in the same breath just as David Lynch and David Cronenberg are commonly associated with one another. From the late 90's leading in to the early part of the last decade all three of their careers kinda ran parallel with each other. In 1998 all three directors saw success with their films; Happiness (Solondz), Velvet Goldmine (Haynes) & Henry Fool (Hartley), were given bigger movie deals and strangely enough, all three directors released their next films around the same time yet again (between 2001 & 2002). Things seemed to work out fine for Haynes with 2002's Far From Heaven which got numerous academy award nominations and was probably Dennis Quaid's greatest (and most unexpected) performance to date. But Hartley & Solondz didn’t have the same "success" that Haynes had. After the surprise popularity of Henry Fool, Hartley's next feature length film (No Such Thing) was produced by American Zoetrope studios (George Lucas & Francis Ford Coppola) in 2001 and for the first time Hartley was working with a cast of actors like Julie Christie and Helen Mirren yet the movie, which is underrated in my opinion, "flopped". After Happiness, which was a minor crossover hit (being nominated for a golden globe and best picture at Cannes), Solondz got the attention of New Line Cinema and in 2001 he found himself working with his most diverse cast to date: John Goodman, James Van der Beek, Franka Potente, a pre-sideways Paul Giamati and even a cameo from Conan O’Brien! But Storytelling ran in trouble before it hit even hit the festival circuit. Solondz had censorship problems because of a sex scene about racial taboos involving Selma Blair where she was ordered to scream: "Nigger, fuck me" over and over again by The Wire's Robert Wisdom. Solondz was forced to cut the scene so he wouldn’t get an NC-17 rating (which is pretty much the “kiss of death” for a movie), but instead out of protest he placed a giant red box over the actors, which many people thought was silly and childish but I actually thought it was pretty funny...

And speaking of cut scenes, Storytelling took another major blow on the cutting room floor. The third act from Storytelling, which involves some kind of a graphic sex scene between a closet homosexual football player (played by James Van Der Beek), is one of the last films in an infamous group of rare & unfinished movies like Terrence Malick's Lanton Mills, Werner Herzog's A Game In The Sand' and Quentin Tarantino's My Best Friends Birthday that we'll probably never get to see. For reasons that still remain unknown 11 years after the film’s release, the third part was cut from Storytelling making it an incomplete film. Some speculate that because Van Der Beek's character in Storytelling was a high school football player that it conflicted with Varsity Blues (which was released a year earlier) and some mysterious studio powers that be had his part cut from the film. Or did it have anything to do with Van Der Beek being on Dawson’s Creek and a gay character wouldn’t sit well with the family friendly fan base? I don’t know if I buy either of those reasons because during the time Van Der Beek was on Dawson’s Creek he starred in Rules Of Attraction which featured just as much vulgarity and sex as Storytelling. He also made an appearance in Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back which had an average one gay joke every 2-1/2 minutes so it couldn’t have been that either. To this day I find myself googling around trying to find that one interview or write-up that clearly explains what the problem was involving the third story from Storytelling but I have yet to find it. But this major cut in the film still didn’t stop the promotion (actually by the time it hit theaters a lot of people didn’t even know that a big part of the film was missing). Todd Solondz gave the pedophilia a rest this time around and addressed issues like racism, white guilt, the America family and he even addressed his nay saying critics in a not-so subtle way. Solondz still focused a good portion of the film on youth which is common in just about anything he does. The film is made up of two unconnected stories ("Fiction" & "Non-Fiction") that both take place in New Jersey...

The first story centers on "Vi" (Selma Blair); An untalented journalism major with dreams of being a writer. In the middle of the story she's faced with whether or not she should sleep with her black professor who clearly has a "thing" for young white women. Fiction not only deals with the so-called taboos of interracial curiosity and racial fetishism but it’s also a comment on the taboos of sexual relationships between college professors and their students (sure, both sides are adults but there's an ethical factor to consider). Fiction was also made to address Solondz' critics who found his previous work disturbing and gross.

Non Fiction - The second story is about a documentary filmmaker (Paul Giamati) and his attempt to make a film about an everyday American teenager (Steven Weber) and his family. But a series of surreal and unexpected events occur that affect the production (hypnotism, paralysis and murder). Non-Fiction features a surprise cameo from Conan O’Brien and is one of John Goodman's last memorable performances. 

It’s commonly agreed among most Todd Solondz fans that Happiness and Welcome To The Dollhouse are his definitive films. In my opinion Storytelling should be added to that group of "definitive Solondz films". But because it’s been clouded with Terry Gilliam-like post production problems and faced some HEAVY editing, most people have forgotten about it. Storytelling stands as an important film in Solondz' career. It showed growth and his ability to tackle new subject matter just when people were starting to pigeonhole him all while still maintaining his unique darkly quirky sense of humor and that key dream sequence that comes with every one of his films. In the same way Solondz had us laughing at the absurdity of 11 & 12 year olds calling each other faggots in Welcome To The Dollhouse or depression and perversion in Happiness, Solondz had us laughing at everything from racism to a family being set on fire in their sleep in Storytelling. Sorry, but it’s just as much a Todd Solondz film as Happiness is. Just as the ensemble character/crisscrossing plot movies were starting to die down in the late 90's, Michael Haneke (Code Unknown), Steven Soderbergh (Traffic), Guy Richie (Snatch) and Alejandro Inarritu (Amorres Perros) breathed new life in to the genre at the start of the new decade. When connecting the stories seemed like the "in" thing to do, Solondz went the route of his peer Todd Haynes (Poison) and separated the stories. Was he intentionally trying to make some kind of a statement against those kinds of movies? Of course not. His last movie prior to this was Happiness (one of the more popular ensemble films of the late 90's). But weather he meant to go against the grain or not, Storytelling was still a breath of fresh air.


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