(2001) dir. Todd Solondz
Self-conscious, self-reflexive, and possibly self-loathing, Todd Solondz’s Storytelling is a cynical look at the creative process.
The film is broken into two parts, “Fiction” & “Non-fiction,” though Solondz certainly attempts to blur the lines between definitive notions or each. In the first section, set in a creative writing workshop, Solondz suggests that the process of “telling” a story, even one based on actual events, fictionalizes it. In the second, longer section, he turns his critical eye on a documentarian, a character that he depicts as an utter sham of a person from the very first scene. The film-maker projects his feelings onto his documentary subjects, skewing their “realistic” portrayal into one of his own vision. He is completely lacking in genuine understanding or empathy for them, and Solondz clearly paints him as the bad guy.
The self-reflexivity of the first segment is so self-conscious that it is hard to read how “honest” it is meant to be. At times, it just seems persistently ironic. Oddly enough, the professor (Leo Fitzpatrick) seems to be the voice of reason, making the comments that are harsh, but with which, the films ultimately seems to agree.
The professor, like all of the characters, seems a stereotypical archetype, and Solondz even comments on the nature of such a portrayal. The class session acts like a quick-read analysis of the events that play out in preceding pieces of narrative.
The protagonists of both sections seem filled with self-loathing. Selma Blair’s character in the first section is a perpetual “victim,” with whom one might sympathize until the viewer realizes that all of the other characters’ criticisms of her are valid. Paul Giamatti’s documentary film-maker, on the other hand, is just entirely pathetic.
The most sympathetic character in the film is Scooby (Mark Webber), the subject of the documentary. He is simply a teenager who has yet to become self-aware. He is simple and naive, possibly to the degree of stupidity. Giamatti’s Toby Oxman stumbles onto him, realizing that he has found someone whom he can exploit. He shoots footage of Scooby and his family under the pretense of making a film about “the typical high school experience” (a notion that evolves constantly, as Oxman’s inability to focus his ideas keeps them reaching). However, his film is turns out to be a comedy at everyone’s expense but his own.
There are two interesting sites of particular critique in the film. In the documentary, which is titled “American Scooby,” Oxman comments in voiceover on the unique beauty of a straw wrapper blowing in the wind, which seems an explicit reference to American Beauty, in which a similar description occurs in what is meant to be a sincere epiphany. Of course, for Solondz, Oxman is a hypocrite and a sham of an artist. It’s a clear dig at that film.
More obscure, perhaps, but much more significant for me, is the use of Mike Schank, who plays Oxman’s roommate and cameraman. Mike Schank was a co-subject of the hilarious documentary American Movie (1999) by Chris Smith. That film was also about the film-making process, though Schank & Mark Borchardt, the subjects of that film, ended up becoming unconsciously funny “real” subjects rather than portrayed in the way that they thought that they were being seen. Putting Schank, a non-professional actor, so close to the documentarian in this film, plus the titular reference again, seems to be a significant dig at that film, too.
I am curious of how “personal” of a film this is for Solondz. The opening segment’s interest in fictionalizing “true stories,” and the fact that the second section is titled “Non-fiction,” makes me wonder if this image of teen lethargy and alienation amidst suburbia has some autobiographical nuance to it, especially as it seems the sole site of sympathetic portrayal in the film,…though still populated with stereotypes.
The lack of closure and definition of Solondz’s critiques leaves a lot of questions as to the ultimate meaning of Storytelling. That openness seems appropriate to two forms that clearly overlap, intermingle, and blur.