People used to say, and maybe some still do, that video and DVD would revolutionize the movies. By rights, they should have. Anyone could have predicted that they would improve the economies of filmmaking, change audiences’ ideas about quality and value in film, cause the industry to pay less attention to immediate profits and more to longer-term returns, and maybe even challenge the whole industrial base of moviemaking. But they did none of these things, and it’s now clear that they will not. The DVD release of Todd Solondz’s Storytelling, on July 16, is a representative case.
This release showcases the development–halting and unsure, but highly indicative of recent fashions–of a director of the moment at a point when his star has fallen. This movie is, itself, that fallen star. Though Solondz has been on most filmgoers’ radar for only about five years, since the trickle-down release of Welcome to the Dollhouse in 1996-97, his career really stretches back as far as 1989. His first movie, Fear, Anxiety and Depression, is an all-time classic terrible movie. It’s available on video, though not on DVD, and since one possible benefit of video/DVD is the sense of historical perspective it can make available, it would be an interesting exercise in the vagaries of cultural value to see the older film before taking in his latest opus.
Storytelling was released in New York and Los Angeles last winter, and then, according to Jim Carl, director of programming at Durham’s Carolina Theater, it was “yanked by the distributor” from the Triangle because of bad reviews and poor grosses in those markets. It’s an undeniable advantage that a movie Triangle area filmgoers were largely prevented from seeing will now be made available to them in this format, but in both its marketing and its formatting, the DVD of this movie, like those of most movies, relies heavily on the machinations of myth surrounding its production.
Storytelling was originally supposed to consist, reportedly, of three episodes, loosely connected thematically. In its release version, it consists of only two. In the first episode, “Fiction,” which focuses on a college writing seminar, the teacher has violent sex with one of the students, who then fictionalizes this tawdry encounter in a story she reads to the class. The second episode, “Nonfiction,” deals with a documentary filmmaker shooting a movie on the life experiences of a contemporary teen, who gradually comes to realize that he is being exploited. Both stories, in fact, deal with the mutual exploitation that can govern the interactions between storytellers and their subjects, but though Solondz clearly identifies with both the exploiter and the exploited, he sympathizes with neither.
There would be no need to sympathize with either, if not for that erstwhile identification, and that’s where Solondz’s first film comes in. Fear, Anxiety and Depression tells the story of Ira Ellis, a young aspiring absurdist playwright in New York City, played in an embarrassing imitation of Woody Allen by Solondz himself. In the film, Ira’s quasi-Beckettian play Despair opens to merciless pans from the Village Voice, the spurned girlfriend who idolizes him becomes suicidal, the downtown performance artist he’s obsessed with ambiguously rejects him, and his best friend betrays him. The movie is a postmodern septic tank, yet its putrefactive message is that postmodernism is bunk, culture is over, and all people really want is sex. None of these claims is outlandish–each, in fact, may well be true–unless accompanied by an adolescent aura of postmodernism, a nitwit cultural patina, and the masturbation fantasies of an imbecile.
That seven years passed until Solondz’s second film is less surprising than that Solondz was ever given funding again. But what’s most illuminating in looking back at this early offal is how much of a piece it really is, in retrospect, with his subsequent work, Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness (1999). Like this first film, the later ones showcase a jaded sensibility bent on simulating conditional qualities of empathy and counterpointing shock effects meant to be funny in their affectless postures and startling in their imposing flippancy.
Since he defected from his movies as an actor, Solondz’s films have grown successively more subtle and complex, though they’re also still confrontational in their comic styles, and fraught with baleful resentments. Though they don’t exactly give the impression of the work of a director who really wanted to be a movie star, like Tarantino, they do seem to disperse their director’s sympathies in odd ways across a series of characters who resemble him in look, style and sensibility, like the beset junior high school girl played by Heather Matarazzo in Welcome to the Dollhouse, or the filmmaker in Storytelling, played in a wildly interesting performance by Paul Giamatti.
Solondz’s ur-plot always involves, in one way or another, a self-defined geek who seizes a moment of possibility to rise above geekhood, and ends up defeated and humiliated. With Solondz playing the main character, the tone of that first movie was something like, “I hate this character, but it is myself, so I must perform it anyway, and make people watch it at pitiless length, because they are the reason that I hate myself.” The tone of the subsequent movies is something like, “I hate these characters, but they are not myself, however much I impose myself on them, and therefore I shouldn’t hate them too much.”
In Storytelling, the mother played by Julie Hagerty is the most telling character. The role is conceived as standard-issue suburban anomie, and Hagerty has obviously been directed to downplay the exaggeration of the conceit. She delivers her lines in a breathy tremolo so understated it comes out the back end right back into dithery overstatement, suggesting sweetness and neurosis; but the lines are a series of vacuous absurdities meant to stir the contempt of the viewer in the know. The result is a character we can’t hate because she’s pathetic and can’t like because she’s stupid, though we feel we’re being hectored to hate and like her in equal measure as a gauge of all that is at stake–namely, nothing–in her role. It’s an odd combination of gravity and peevish indifference.
What’s interesting in Storytelling is the play between this tone, which infuses the whole movie, and the movie’s conceit of setting up a series of schematic little ethical dilemmas, then charging them with the undertow of race, sex or class. What if the teacher seduced the student: Does she have the right to turn it into sensationalist fiction and then read it to the class? And what if the teacher were black and the student were white, and if the teacher made the student shout racist epithets while they were fucking? If a rich family fires the poor maid, does she have the right to take extreme revenge on them? And what if the firing were unjust, brought about circuitously by a seemingly “innocent” kid, and the maid is Hispanic? If a filmmaker exploits a kid’s half-witted celebrity hunger to get him to agree to appear in a film, does the filmmaker have the right to lampoon the kid’s stupidity? These dilemmas get more complicated and less charged as they go along, and there’s an increasing intricacy in how they’re played against one another, but they still feel a little like the hypothetical conundrums of a junior-college ethics professor.
Storytelling comes bearing the ready-made notoriety of censorship issues. There’s no telling what happened to the footage of James Van Der Beek on the receiving end of an act of anal intercourse–a vision that will tantalize fans of Dawson’s Creek for seasons to come–but that scene has not been restored, needless to say, on the DVD (unless as an “Easter egg” I didn’t manage to find). What’s left in is a quasi-rape scene the producers wanted cut because Solondz was contractually obligated to bring in an “R” rating. In wisenheimer mode, Solondz slapped a big red box over it and left it in. It becomes thereby, we are now asked to understand, a trenchant commentary on censorship. Never mind that, despite the ascendancy of digital technology that was supposed to bring everyone into the fold, thousands of filmmakers are censored every day by not being funded in the first place, or that no artist would sign a contract governing “content” (and if that means that no filmmaker, henceforth, can be declared an artist, then so be it). Solondz is obviously not responsible for the “buzz” factor that is so much a part of modern film culture, but he is responsible for the way it invades his films.
In a way, what DVDs are, or have become, is an embodiment of that buzz factor. The DVD for Storytelling, for instance, contains both the “R” rated theatrical version and an unrated version. These are useful to have side by side for those interested in comparison, but quite apart from its scholarly value, the point is really to make the “controversy” an element of the film’s packaging. In fact, one of the prevailing myths of the DVD is that it restores the artist’s “real” vision, but it seems likely that Solondz would sign the same contract, or one more restrictive, for his next film, and certainly other directors do more and more (contractual obligations to achieve desired ratings are a Hollywood norm now) precisely because they think they can put back in the DVD what was banned in the theatrical release, and use it as a selling point. Couldn’t we argue with equal justice, on the strength of such increasingly common rationalizations, that DVDs compromise director’s “visions”?
If the advent of DVD has contributed a greater awareness to many filmgoers’ experiences of movies, it’s of a very specific kind, a cultish type of knowledge, in which localized background detail used to sell the disc, or production tidbits commemorated in the filmmakers’ commentaries on DVDs, turn into a new form of mythology. Demystifying movies would have been the greatest favor digital technology could have done for them–that’s exactly how it could have revolutionized the art–but DVD is just the latest cycle in the heightened commodity fetishism that’s been destroying movies for the last two decades.
It’s no surprise that Solondz is being marketed, on the DVD, as the “bad boy” of indie film. He’s really like the Fat Boy in Dickens who wants to make your flesh crawl, and the impulse expresses both contempt and self-loathing. In his new film, that impulse is muted a little in approach; probably what Solondz learned from his first movie is how ugly his sensibility is at full throttle, because he’s pulled back more and more in each subsequent film. To the extent that Solondz is interesting at all, it’s in how he resists these apparently instinctual impulses to envelope-pushing. But a lot of this most recent movie still feels as if he’s trying to figure out what else he can throw into the mix: Let’s make this character palsied, and then show him having sex; let’s have that character engage in a surprise sex act that confirms what we’d been tempted to doubt.
It’s as if two contradictory sensibilities were merging, one ascetic, uptight and cautious, like Eric Rohmer’s, and the other patently outrageous, like John Waters’. If they ever come together, and if he ever develops a visual style, Solondz might be a fine filmmaker. Until then he’s making genteel variations on that awful first movie, and his subsequent films are only a shade better. This repetition-compulsion probably tells less about how a young filmmaker has evolved than about how public taste in movies–over exactly the same period that has been dominated by the emerging cultures of video and DVD–has devolved.