The Big Picture: Storytelling (18)

There's a sting in these tales
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The Independent Culture

The advantage of a thick skin should not be underestimated. How wonderful to be among those film-makers who nonchalantly dismiss whatever their critics throw at them and simply continue doing exactly as they please. Think of the time they must save, not worrying. The young American writer-director Todd Solondz is many things – contrary, spiky, mordantly funny. But thick-skinned he isn't, and his latest film, Storytelling, is very obviously an answer to what was a sensationally hostile reaction to his last film, Happiness. Difficult to ignore the irony, that a movie-maker who scrutinises his subjects – piteous adolescents, shifty suburbanites – with such piercing candour should himself be so, well, touchy.

"Why do people have to write about such ugly characters?" asks someone in reaction to a story written by a fellow student. That is, essentially, the theme of "Fiction", the first of two apparently unrelated stories that constitute the new film. With characteristic directness, Solondz opens it with a boy and girl in bed together. Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick) senses that Vi (Selma Blair) is cooling on him, literally: she doesn't sweat much when they have sex, which he sees as a bad sign. "The kinkiness has gone," he says mournfully: "You've become kind." He has cerebral palsy, and suspects this might, partly, be the reason Vi goes out with him. "Pity is the little sister to contempt," somebody once wrote, but Solondz shrewdly presents the alternative – unstinting honesty – as no more commendable, and considerably less humane.

When Marcus reads out his painfully earnest short story in class, the creative-writing professor, Mr Scott (Robert Wisdom), delivers a verdict so "honest" and annihilating that the whole room is stunned into horrified silence. Vi tries to comfort the stricken Marcus by pointing out that the Prof didn't much like her story either. "But yours was terrible," Marcus cries inconsolably. The line concisely illustrates the classic Solondzian manoeuvre: the sudden, disquieting switch from kindness to cruelty. Lend an ear in sympathy and you risk the object of your fine feeling spitting in your eye. Vi's sentimental education takes a dramatic swerve when she accompanies Mr Scott back to his apartment; in the bathroom, she finds photographs of him with another student in various postures of sexual humiliation. She knows she ought to scarper right then, but Mr Scott is black, and out of a mixture of curiosity and correctness ("Don't be racist," she whispers to herself) she submits to his unlovely demands.

At the next seminar, Vi reads out a story that's a veiled account of this bruising experience, provoking a storm of disgust among her classmates: they think it's "weirdly misogynistic" and "mean-spirited". The point being made here is simple, yet it's one that's frequently misunderstood. Artistic worth should be judged not on the choice of subject matter, but on its treatment. What Vi does in her story (we must presume, since we hear only its conclusion) is the same thing Solondz is doing in his films: rather than condemning perversion, they humanise it. Audiences, accustomed by modern movies to being spoon-fed their responses, tend to be at a loss when a film refuses to make explicit moral judgments. Hence the widespread dismay with Happiness. "Fiction" is not as incisive or incendiary, but it reaffirms Solondz's understanding of embarrassment, which he handles with an almost poetic stealth. His skill lies in giving actors confidence to leave room around their lines, and stretching silences until the whole body feels bent into a cringe.

A very fine exponent of this is Paul Giamatti, who stars in the second and more problematic of the film's segments, "Nonfiction". His cold-calling of an old girlfriend at the start (her guarded, toneless replies to his eager questions are excruciating) is a masterclass in self-mortification. He plays Toby Oxman, a diffident loner who's desperate to break into film-making. That break arrives when he starts making a documentary about a disaffected highschooler, Scooby (Mark Webber), the oldest son of a middle-class family in New Jersey. "We need this to be a positive experience," says Scooby's father (John Goodman) warningly. One look at his son – a dead-eyed stoner with a hopeless ambition to be a talk-show host – suggests that this might be easier said than done. Toby's avowed aim is to portray "teenage life in suburbia", though this is, in effect, a cover for Solondz's aim to explore the tragicomic aspects of dysfunctional American parents – here, the sort who are stiff with fear that their oldest son might be gay, yet who fail to pick up the signals of personal grief emanating from their overworked maid, Consuelo (Lupe Ontiveros).

Solondz's confidence seems to wobble in this second half, mainly because he gets caught between offering attack and defence. On the one hand, he impugns Toby's integrity as a film-maker by having his supposedly serious documentary turn into an ironic laugh-fest called American Scooby – a wink to last year's extraordinary American Movie, about the hapless horror auteur Mark Borchardt. On the other, Solondz is ambivalent about this sort of docudrama; first, because Toby is plainly a good guy who likes his subjects, and second, because he uses Mike Schank, the burly acid-freak of American Movie, as Toby's cameraman. Solondz also manages to work in a sly dig at the "plastic bag" moment in American Beauty; why, I'm not sure, but it's not the only film this week to follow the tiresome trend of referencing Hollywood smashes (see Zoolander and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back).

Storytelling ties itself in knots trying to work out its own point of view. There are wonderful moments in its first part, when Solondz's acidulous comedy burns through the enamel of complacency. But it is surely too soon for him to be getting steamed up about his vocation; Fellini was deep in mid-career when he made Eight 1/2, as was Woody Allen when he roasted his audience with Stardust Memories. Todd Solondz has the potential to be an ace director, and I still believe Happiness is the best American film to emerge in the last four years. Once he develops a thicker skin and goes back to the raw stuff of human predicaments, rather than the mediated stuff of critical reputation, he may yet make an even greater one.