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Bard of Suburbia

In 'Storytelling,' filmmaker Todd Solondz answers critics of his landscapes of alienation and embarrassment.

January 13, 2002|JOHN CLARK

YONKERS, N.Y. — "People who are right are never confident, never well loved, never well liked."

Writer-director Todd Solondz is smiling as he says this. He is delivering the bad news to a crew member that tonight's shoot, already late, may run even later (it's now past midnight). It's a weirdly penetrating remark, but then, on the face of it, Solondz is a weird guy.

Standing on the set of his new movie, "Storytelling," which is being shot in a former church/ porn studio/school in Yonkers, he's wearing pale blue slacks, a short-sleeved pink-striped shirt, yellow Keds and oversized green glasses. On the ground next to his director's chair is the plastic bag he carries in lieu of a briefcase or knapsack. What could be in it? A comb? A book? He will use the bag until it falls apart.

The 41-year-old Solondz's idiosyncrasies, trivial in themselves, assume a sort of outsized significance because his movies, more than most others', excite interest in who made them. Solondz is the bard of suburban embarrassment. He specializes in those moments, sometimes innocuous, sometimes not, that we'd all rather forget, involving the kind of rejection that confirms our worst fears about ourselves: that we are unattractive, dysfunctional and generally unlovable.

"You look so sad," Solondz says, gently teasing one of his actors. And why not? He's playing a Solondz character.

Solondz's first film was the little-seen "Fear, Anxiety and Depression" (1990). His second was "Welcome to the Dollhouse," (1996) which made a far bigger splash. An excruciating examination of adolescent alienation, it introduced a character whose name has become synonymous with nerdiness and neediness: Dawn Wiener."

His third film, "Happiness" (1998), was so scandalous that the studio that financed it, October Films, dropped it (it was ultimately distributed by Good Machine). The movie featured, among other attractions, a father-son talk from hell in which Dad, rather than explaining the facts of life, admits that he's a pedophile and that he'd find his own boy a turn-on.

"Storytelling," which will be shown at the Sundance Film Festival, which began last week, does not have quite so many fireworks, which is not to say it isn't audacious. It may be more so than his earlier films because it's actually two films that are linked thematically but in no other way. The first part, called "Fiction," is about the sexual relations involving Vi (Selma Blair), fellow writing student Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick) and teacher Gary Scott (Robert Wisdom). Marcus has cerebral palsy and Gary is black, so the story is loaded with issues of exploitation and racial stereotyping. These are then refracted through the stories Vi and Marcus write about each other (and Gary) for their class.

The second part, "Non-Fiction," is about a would-be documentary filmmaker, Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti), who is shooting a film about a slacker teenager, Scooby (Mark Webber), his upper-middle-class family (John Goodman, Julie Hagerty, Noah Fleiss, Jonathan Osser)--and, not so incidentally, their long-suffering maid, Consuelo (Lupe Ontiveros). Oxman worms his way into the family's confidence and then proceeds, whether intentionally or not, to ridicule their materialism and Scooby's aimlessness.

"Storytelling" bristles with issues of exploitation, condescension and manipulation. Does this sound familiar? It does to Solondz's critics, and it certainly does to Solondz, because he has often been accused of being deliberately provocative and taking easy shots at the suburbs and suburbanites. (European critics of America have embraced him for the same reasons.)

Rather than ignore these criticisms or make another movie, Solondz has responded by addressing his critics head-on. In some ways, "Storytelling" is a Solondz movie about a Solondz movie.

"Certain scenes function in the film on their own narrative level but also have some bearing on the responses that my films have elicited," Solondz says. "Is the film moral or immoral or amoral? Is the film cynical, misanthropic? Is the film condescending toward its characters or is there a level of integrity that it accords them? They are legitimate questions, but I think that my work can be looked at a little reductively and oftentimes misread or misinterpreted because the signposts aren't really there about what to think and what to feel. And so people sometimes have a hard time getting their bearings."

Solondz describes the film's commentary on his critics as "playful," and certainly in at least one instance it is. There's a scene in which Oxman films strikingly unbeautiful street signs and stoplights, and rhapsodizes in a voice-over about how breathtakingly lovely the suburbs are--a parody of a similar scene in Sam Mendes' "American Beauty."

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