Since the perversely engaging Welcome to the Dollhouse, and in particular the follow-up, the beyond ironically named Happiness, Todd Solondz has been a writer/director never afraid of courting controversy in an almost “come on, gimme your best shot” style. Either that or he just possesses an entirely unique and considerably bleak world view and is just doing what comes naturally to him. The existence of Storytelling, however, would suggest that the prior hypothesis is closer to the truth.
The film consists of two parts, simply entitled Fiction and Non-fiction. Rather than giving away the entire plots for both, it’s possibly a better idea to give more of a recipe layout of each...
Fiction, the shorter of the two stories at around 25 minutes in duration, is a concoction consisting of a cerebral palsy sufferer, a pink-haired literature student, her aggressively confrontational Pulitzer Prize-winning black lecturer, short stories, relationships, encounters in bars, what could easily be described by some as rape, perversion, racism and the line between fiction and fact.
Non-fiction involves an awkward shoe salesman cum “documentarian”, the somewhat apathetic subject of his teenage life in suburbia project named Scooby, the latter’s Jewish family, homosexuality, grid iron, apathy, the holocaust, a disgruntled foreign housekeeper, a young and frightening future Republican, hypnotism, gas and Conan O’Brien. Oh, and quite the nod to American Beauty...
Now, you don’t have to be an honours student to spot quite the number of taboo, even incendiary for many, subjects amongst those two little shopping lists. And here’s where you can’t help but wonder as to what Todd thought he was doing with Storytelling. Putting aside the clunkiness of including two stories which basically have no connection at all, what we’re left with smacks of a blind, all out assault on political correctness (not necessarily such a bad thing on its own) – a sort of pick a taboo, any taboo type stance – that is deliberately courting controversy with shock tactics simply for the sake of it, without providing anything much in the way of engaging diversion or plot – which surely isn’t too much to ask from what is, at least the last I checked, still a supposed medium of entertainment?
|" There’s optimism and then there’s stupidity – it’s a very fine line." |
Despite some great performances (can John Goodman ever stuff up?), not one of the many characters we’re confronted with in either story has any particularly redeeming features, let alone anything we can relate to (working on the assumption that neither myself nor anybody reading this is as pathetic as any of these folk). This leaves a feeling that sits about as comfily as a beanbag full of broken glass throughout, and anybody without that perverse human condition that is attracted to train wrecks will undoubtedly find it hard to make it all the way through the film’s relatively brief 83 minute duration – at least not without wanting to either smack Solondz violently about the chops, or give him an enormous tickle attack in hopes of cheering him up even a little bit.
Much to-do has been made in certain circles of a certain “sex” scene that was crudely censored in many parts. The “good” news for purists (probably not the best word to use, considering) is that it is presented here in its full and blatantly intentional horror. Yet remarkably the film escapes with an Australian MA15+ rating, whilst the likes of Baise-moi get banned – go figure. Perhaps the censors had fallen asleep by the time this scene appeared 15 minutes or so into the film – or maybe they just saw through its obvious infantile attempt at shock value?
Seemingly grungy by design – after all, this is an art film darling - Storytelling’s 1.78:1, anamorphically enhanced image is alright, without being great. There’s little in the way of filmic detritus and blacks are reasonable, however colour is more often than not muted, added to a picture that spends most of its time erring on the soft side of things, leading to a slight lack of detail. Some scenes are alive with grain and the odd tape glitches; however these are depictions of video footage so you’d be a numb nut to complain about it.
The solitary soundtrack on offer is a Dolby Digital 5.1 affair, which doesn’t really make much use of anything other than the front soundstage. The relentless dialogue is always easy to decipher and is all synched properly, and balances well with the soundtrack – the only thing which really hints that this is more then a two channel mix. Whilst the subwoofwoof essentially remains mute, some score gets to play in the rears – and it really is quite a fabulous score. Scottish indie wunderkinds Belle and Sebastian were roped in to provide the majority of the film’s music, much of which has a cheerful jauntiness that sits unnervingly at odds with that which is depicted on screen – and often with the lyrics as well. As well as their songs and incidental music, a few other folk pop up – including The Cardigans’ lead singer Nina Persson, and Elton John with his fabulous little greatest hits-dodging ‘70s single Island Girl.
Now wouldn’t a commentary in which Todd was able to shed some light on his intentions be a fabulous bonus? Yes it would, but sadly we have to make do with a simple, full frame trailer. Commencing with a seemingly tongue in cheek text screen disclaiming the lack of any previewing of the first of the two stories, it runs for 2:04 and only just hints at what lies within. Oh, there’s also the Dolby Digital ‘Egypt’ trailer for those who still get off on such things. Hey, at least in this sonically unchallenging presentation it lets you know your system is working OK...
Coming across almost as some sort of slightly pathetic, self-reverent defence of his previous works – which, although also provocative in their own ways, at least didn’t smack of try-hardness - Todd Solondz’s Storytelling is either a confronting look at the evils of political correctness, or utterly trite and pretentious twaddle.