Storytelling review by The Grim Ringler


Anyone who has ever seen a film by director Todd Solondz comes into any new film of his ready for the worst and ugliest portrayals of people around. He has yet to disappoint. Choosing to strip bare every day people of their false smiles and sweaty handshakes, Solondz asks only that you witness the world as it is, good or ill, and beyond that, its on the audience to make a judgment call. I have to admit that its hard not to judge the people in his films but its best to avoid it. We see a snapshot of a life, not an entire picture in his films, so its impossible to say what made these people, and what they will become, we just get a brief glimpse of the path they are currently on, and even that can be obscured. What we learn in the end isthe cruelest things in life are often done with the best of intentions.

Storytelling is broken into two parts Fiction and Nonfiction. Fiction tells the story of a young woman in a writing class with a professor who has been recognized as much for his cruelty as his talent for writing. The young woman is seeing (more sleeping with than seeing) another student in the class who has cerebral palsy and after his story is ripped to shreds by a student and the professor in the class the boyfriend pulls the plug on the young woman (Selma Blair). The boyfriend accuses her of sleeping with him for the kink of it, something she refutes yet its hard not to wonder. Later that night the young woman, feeling depressed and lonely after being dumped, goes out to a local dive bar and runs into the professor, a quiet black man she is very drawn to. After an awkward courting ritual, the two return to his place for sex, though she realizes, after seeing some explicit pictures in his bathroom, that she isnt the only student to have gone home with him. Knowing what she knows though, she doesnt refuse his sexual advances, a play where he has her remove her clothes and bend over for him. The sex is rough, and seems brutal, when he tells her to call him a racial slur and to spur him on with it. But while she refuses at first, she does as he says and gets wrapped up in the moment. Later that night though, as she returns to her recent ex, crying and humiliated, the scenario has changed in her mind. For the next class session the girl writes up the account as a fictional experience and is horrified by the reaction the class gives it, and to her when she insists the story is true. But then, what is the truth of what happened between her and the professor?

The second story is Non-Fiction where a slacker (Paul Giamatti) that fancies himself a documentary filmmaker decides he wants to make a film about high school life. After happening upon a student a hardcore slacker and pothead searching for himself the director decides to use the student, Scooby, as the focus of his film. What he doesnt realize is how much his vision will change due to the demands of the family, who want the film to be solely about Scooby. The filmmaker works on his documentary, and its coming together much better than his editorial assistant had expected and, when Scoobys brother is paralyzed in a football accident, the film takes on a darker, grittier feel that could create a sensation. The filmmaker insists on having a test screening before the film is finished, desperate to get an audiences reaction. What he, and an unwitting Scooby who walks in on the screening, is that he has an unintentional comedy on his hands. People think Scooby and his family are ridiculous, something Scooby is none too happy to see. Unfortunately, this is only the beginning of the story, as an act of selfishness committed by Scoobys youngest brother comes back to haunt the entire family and put a dark ending to the film being made about them.

While not as dark and shocking as his film Happiness, this is still a very grim film about people that are all too real. Its hard for the film to top the nastiness of Fiction, a story that really stays with the viewer long after that episode has ended. Fiction is so powerful because it raises questions of latent racism, kinks, self-empowerment, and ownership of our actions. We feel one thing during the sex Vi (Blair) and her professor have, but after the episode is over, those feelings are apt to change and Vi is suddenly far less sympathetic. Her professor is not a monster though his teaching is pretty monstrous but a man who merely gives Vi what she wants, to her horror. She is interested in her boyfriend because of the kinkiness of sleeping with someone with Cerebral Palsy, and he calls her on that. So too does she want to sleep with her teacher because he is a black man, and perhaps in her mind an angry black man. And he calls her on it, and gives her what she wants. Her classmates, upon hearing the story, give her the exact reaction she hadnt expected to get, again to her horror. But its the professor who really tells her the truth her story is better than the rest of the work shes done because its real. And in the end youre left wondering who used whom.

Nonfiction is a very interesting story because it takes a very cold look at documentaries and what they are. In it Paul Giamatti really does care about the family, but not so much that hes willing to put the camera away when the final tragedy strikes. And again, it makes us ask ourselves if these people are just fodder for ridicule or real people who deserve more respect and deserve their privacy. What is exploration and what is the difference between that and exploitation? Its a hard question to ask and answer.

This is a very good film but it really is hard to top the first story. The second story is good, but is almost worth a feature film itself, which can lead to the segment feeling longwinded at times and sparse at others. And as always, there will be people who will hate the film and how cruel it can be, but again, I stress that this is nothing more than a mirror, of sorts, and we will see in it what we will. The director is merely walking us into the room and what we see is up to us.

A very good film, though at times disjointed, fans of Solondz will be pleased to see he isnt softening up in the least. Its hard not to admire a filmmaker willing to ask such hard questions. Its a credit to him that he never lets his own views of characters reveal themselves, simply letting the stories run out as they will and letting the audience ask their own questions. Its a shame that his films are lumped into a silly category, be it geek cinema or alternative cinema. Whatever. What he is, is a fascinating filmmaker who is telling stories without hype or pretension. Two things you dont see a lot of people doing.


7 out of 10 Jackasses
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