In music it’s very common for artists to provide answers to criticism in the form of a song. It’s called a “diss track” or “diss song.” In movies it’s much harder to do that, because movies generally require the involvement of many people, and are much more expensive to create. So it’s very uncommon for a film director to express his answer to criticism in the form of a movie. It’s even more uncommon for such a movie to be very interesting and filled with substantial social critique. Storytelling by Todd Solondz manages to achieve both of these goals.
And if there is one director for whom the existence of a movie dedicated to the criticism of his work is justified it is Todd Solondz.
Todd Solondz has shocked the American public before with movies on taboo and difficult issues, such as pedophilia, child neglect, violence, perversion, and the general psychopathology of modern lives. His movie Happiness, which shows the dark ways through which some people might search for happiness, is very often described as one of the most disturbing movies ever made.
Storytelling is no less disturbing. It’s divided into two parts respectively called “Fiction” and “Non-Fiction” both dealing with issues of modern hypocrisy through drastic imagery.
Without revealing too much of the plot, I can reveal that “Fiction” is nothing more than a parody of politically correct, superficial liberals: the very same people who claim that the director’s movies are hollow, exploitative, disgusting, unbelievable, and mean-spirited.
The main protagonist, Vi, a white female college student, has a relationship with someone because “she thought he was different because he had CP.” After they break up, an African-American creative writing teacher coerces Vi into sodomizing him, while yelling racist obscenities. An act which he obviously enjoys sexually.
Vi then expresses this traumatic experience in a story, which she reads in the professor’s creative writing class. Her story is met with the exact same criticism that Solondz has been met. The classmates attack it for its ugly characters, and claim that it uses disturbing imagery to hide its essential hollowness. They also say that it’s unrealistic, which in the context of this movie is ironic, because her story is indeed based on fact. This part of the movie ends on a quote which indicates that, while the author aims for social critique, he does not aim for realism. “I don’t know what happened Vi… because once you start writing it all becomes fiction.”
Solondz continues his social critique in “Nonfiction.” In it, a documentary film maker named Toby does a documentary on the life of an archetype of a teenage slacker called “Scooby.” Toby is an exaggerated representation of how Solondz’s critics view him; he’s a loser who has failed to become an actor and whose only chance at becoming famous is in exploitation. While making his documentary, he tries very hard to appear “deep,” to the point of being comical and pathetic. In line with American Beauty, Toby marvels at the beauty of a plastic bag.
During the course of the movie, this caricature of a filmmaker is met with the same criticism as Solondz had been, when his producer claims that he’s mocking the misery of his characters:
“I’m not making fun. I’m showing it how as it really is.”
“You’re showing how superior you are to your subjects.”
“No, but I like my subjects. I like these people.”
“No, you don’t.”
“Yes, I do! I love them!”
This is also a meta-reference to the movie. All the characters in this movie are laughable, but also sympathetic and relatable, despite their social dysfunction. They are “real.”
I think that in “Nonfiction,” Solondz says that the primary aim of his work is not to depict real life as a documentary, but instead to provide social critique through works of fiction. Although the same situations that happen in his movies might actually happen in real life, his movies are fiction. He proves his point by contrasting himself to a director similar to himself, who tries to create black comedy in the form of documentary and, in turn, actually exploits people
While in “Fiction” he says that his movies are often so disturbing and ugly, because real life is often disturbing and ugly, and that often, people do not accept the harsh realities of life. They deny them by saying that they are unbelievable.
This movie is one of the most elaborate answers to criticism in the history of cinema, and this, combined with the unique and disturbing plot, creates a very unique cinematic experience. And yet, I can’t recommend this movie to everyone, because many people may dislike it for the same reason as the critics, to whom the movie is directed.
But I can say with confidence that this movie will be loved by anyone who loved Happiness or any other movie by this director.
Final Rating: 8/10