ArtsEtc: `My Films Are Not for Everyone' ; `Happiness' Put Everyone's Moral Radars in a Spin and Sent Director Todd Solondz Running for Cover. with His Latest, Says James Mottram, He's Getting Back at Critics and Fans Alike
Mottram, James, The Independent (London, England)
A film that vehemently divided viewers, the violent reaction to Todd Solondz's 1998 'burbs-set black comedy Happiness was enough to prompt the New Jersey auteur to take issue. While Happiness's amoral portrayal of paedophiles, sex pests and other misfits incensed some, others saw his manipulation of these loners and losers as misanthropic and exploitative. The film was dropped by distributor October Films, following pressure from parent company Universal, who deemed its subject-matter unacceptable.
Storytelling, Solondz's fourth film, is his retort - to fans and detractors alike - as he self-consciously puzzles over the response to his past work. Conceived as companion pieces, the film is divided into two stories, Fiction and Non-Fiction, each resonating with the other's themes. The former is set around a creative writing class, a hostile environment the 42-year- old Solondz himself is familiar with (both as teacher and pupil).
Hosted by black Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Mr Scott (Robert Wisdom), the class includes the naive Vi (Selma Blair), who winds up being seduced by Scott. He has anal sex with her while demanding she repeatedly say "Nigger, fuck me hard". Deconstructing the myth of black sexual potency, Solondz also explores the issue of "taboo" art, as Vi - who construes the sex act as rape - later turns in a story dealing with her experience, only to be accused by her classmates of trying to deliberately shock. An accusation frequently levied at Solondz himself, he would seem to share Vi's disbelief at how such incendiary material can be misread.
Equally telling is the lengthier Non-Fiction, the story of struggling documentary film-maker Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti), who sets out to make a fly-on-the-wall study of an average American family, focusing on their eldest son, teenage slacker Scooby (Mark Webber). Undoubtedly an alter- ego for Solondz himself (who, like Toby, sports a wispy hairstyle and goofy glasses), the unsuccessful Oxman eventually achieves success at the expense of his subjects - who are greeted with howls of derision from the audience watching the resulting film. Called American Scooby, Oxman's doc is a thinly- veiled reference to Chris Smith's highly-praised study of a Midwestern wannabe horror director, American Movie. Solondz denies that he is attacking Smith himself but is instead commenting on "the nature of documentary film-making", partly as a response to audience misinterpretation.
"The audience that I saw American Movie with were laughing quite a bit," he says. "Some of it is funny, but at a certain point it became a little bit disconcerting. I didn't like this audience." It was, he says, largely made up of college undergrads, afflicted by a superiority complex higher education can engender. "It's something we've all been through. …