With its disturbingly affectless treatment of pederasty, Todd Solondz's Happiness provoked mainstream wrath and turned the director into the geekiest outlaw of the art-house set. In comparison, his new film, Storytelling, is much tamer. Its outrages seem manufactured for our delectation.
The first half of the film, titled "Fiction," takes place on a nondescript college campus in 1985, and opens with a coed, Vi (Selma Blair), having sex with her classmate boyfriend, Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick), who has cerebral palsy. All is not well, however: Marcus accuses her afterward of losing interest in the kinkiness. "You've become kind," he laments. Fitzpatrick, who appeared in Larry Clark's Kids and Another Day in Paradise, gives Marcus a woebegone avidity. When he reads a maudlin short story about his condition to his writing class, his stone-faced teacher, Mr. Scott (Robert Wisdom), a celebrated African-American novelist, slams it mercilessly and sets Marcus off on a crying jag. Solondz has a legitimate comic point to make in this classroom scene about the absurdities of political correctness, as Marcus's fellow students, including Vi, grope for reasons to praise his story by associating it with the work of other writers with infirmities -- such as the psoriatic John Updike. But this is not a particularly fresh or trenchant piece of dark humor, and neither is what follows, when the starry-eyed Vi, lured back to Mr. Scott's apartment for a tryst, gets more than she bargained for.
Her sexual brutalization, in which her teacher makes her scream out obscene racial epithets, is practically presented as a thesis: Mr. Scott is acting out Vi's debased fantasy of submitting to a dehumanized sex machine while he acts out his own revenge fantasies against white society. Or maybe this is a student-teacher S&M thing and race is secondary. Or maybe Solondz just wanted to spray venom. (The sex itself is blocked out in order to get the movie an R rating.) It's all open to interpretation, I suppose, and yet Solondz is asking us to extract "meaning" from the incident. When Vi turns her experience into a short story in which she's made to feel like the teacher's whore, the derisive class deems it too stereotypical to be real. Vi's response -- she says it's clichéd but it happened -- is countered by Mr. Scott's pensée: "Once you start writing, it all becomes fiction." Solondz wants us to know that there is no such thing as the truth, and yet, as is clear from the deliberateness of his agenda, he would also have us believe that what we're watching has philosophical import. In the end, what he offers isn't very different from an exploitation movie, plus an arty overlay. Solondz is turned on by shocking subject matter but then feels the need to justify his appetites by intellectualizing everything. He's a tease.
The second half of Storytelling, titled "Non-Fiction," is somewhat better because its characters aren't quite so diagrammatically drawn. Paul Giamatti plays Toby Oxman, a schleppy documentary director making a movie about a screwed-up high-school senior, Scooby Livingston (Mark Webber), who wants to forgo college and become a talk-show host like his hero, Conan O'Brien. Scooby's family (John Goodman, Julie Hagerty, Noah Fleiss, Jonathan Osser) is nouveau riche Jewish, and much is tiresomely made of how they patronize their live-in maid, Consuelo, played by the marvelous Lupe Ontiveros. (Again, we're supposed to think, It's clichéd but it happens.) There's also a dinner-table sequence in which Scooby's mother lays claim to a family history of Holocaust survivorship that is dubious at best. Solondz is onto something here -- Holocaust-survivor chic -- but he backs away. What for him is a punch line would be the starting point for a truly fearless dark satirist. In any case, Solondz is after bigger game: He wants us to see Toby's documentary as yet another example of how movies debase reality. In exploiting Scooby's life, Toby redeems himself by humiliating others. But this deepthink about the intrusiveness of art isn't particularly heartfelt or confessional -- or convincing. It's just another of Solondz's tony ornaments. Albert Brooks did this art-reality thing a lot better years ago in Real Life, his takeoff on PBS's An American Family, and was sidesplitting besides. Filmmakers without a lot on their minds often get entranced by the "meaning" of what they're doing. The smarter ones just do it.
What Time Is It There? is about a watch dealer (Lee Kang-Sheng) who becomes enamored of a Paris-bound female customer (Chen Shiang-Chyi) and goes about turning all the clocks in Taipei to Paris time. The Malaysian-born Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang has such a carefully calibrated visual sense that you get the feeling his static compositions would collapse if his camera moved even a millimeter out of place. He also has an almost pointillist sense of sound: The muted gurgle of a fish tank or the soft whoosh of a man urinating into a plastic bag has the enhanced soothingness of a mood tape. In addition to the urination motif, Tsai also works into his film an extended scene of female masturbation and other off-color sundries: The contrast between Tsai's effete stylistics and his often blatant subject matter is, at best, deliberately, subtly comic. Most often, however, What Time Is It There? is an art piece in which everything seems to be a metaphor for something else, and as pleasing as it is to watch, it's too pretentious by half. Tsai has been praised for reviving the swank alienation effects of the Antonioni era, but must we feel so nostalgic?
If my back were to the wall and I were forced to name the greatest actress in screen history, I'd have to go with Anna Magnani, who is being honored by MOMA with a fourteen-film retrospective through January 31. When Jean Renoir, who directed her in the sublime Golden Coach, called her the "complete animal . . . an animal created completely for the stage and screen," he was responding to her carnal expressiveness, her genius for embodying every emotion. There isn't a film in this series I wouldn't recommend, but pay particular attention to Bellissima, The Miracle, and The Human Voice.
Directed by Todd Solondz; starring Selma Blair, Paul Giamatti, and Mark Webber.
What Time Is It There?
Directed by Tsai Ming-Liang; starring Lee Kang-Sheng and Chen Shiang-Chyi.
The Billy Rose Tribute to Anna Magnani
Through January 31 at MOMA.