PC or not PC, that is the question as American culture crawls out of the Sept. 11 wreckage and charts a course for the future. Are we one nation under God, or are we a melting-pot stew of races and creeds? President Bush keeps sliding into us-versus-them rhetoric, as if he knows exactly who "us" and "them" are. But I wonder where he would place Todd Solondz, the Osama bin Laden of American independent film. The director of Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness, Solondz has gone after our way of life like a pit bull that's just had its teeth sharpened; and Storytelling, his latest, only confirms Solondz's reputation as the guy with his finger on the hot-button issues of our time. An inflamed response to the tamped-down satire of American Beauty (there's even a blowin'-in-the-wind plastic bag), Storytelling could be called American Ugliness, so thoroughly does Solondz rub our faces in our own depravity.
I suppose we should thank him.
Or spank him. Consider the opening chapter of Storytelling, a 30-minute sequence titled "Fiction." Selma Blair is Vi, a creative-writing student who, through some combination of apple polishing and jungle fever, winds up at the apartment of her Pulitzer Prize-winning African American instructor (Robert Wisdom), who forces her to take it from behind while shouting "Nigger, fuck me hard." PC? Non-PC? So non-PC it's PC again? And then there's Vi's boyfriend (Leo Fitzpatrick, from Kids), a fellow writer who, when Vi's sexual interest seems to have waned, says, accusingly, "The kinkiness is gone. You've become...kind." PC? Reverse-PC? So reverse-PC it's PC again? To be quite honest, I don't know, but I do appreciate Solondz's willingness to stroll through these political minefields, if only as a way of clarifying exactly where all the bombs are placed. They're everywhere, apparently.
Solondz uses his racial storyline to make a larger point about...well, about storylines, the way our lives immediately turn from nonfiction to fiction when we talk or write about them. And that's the linking idea between "Fiction" and "Nonfiction," which completes Solondz's cinematic diptych. "Nonfiction" introduces us to Toby Oxman, a documentary filmmaker played by Solondz stand-in Paul Giamatti. Nailed as a total loser when, in the opening scene, he tries and fails to land a date with a woman out of his high school yearbook, Toby seeks redemption in his work via the Livingston family of suburban New Jersey, especially their teenage son, Scooby (Mark Webber). If Toby can capture Scooby's youth-today pathology on videotape, maybe his own pathologies won't seem so pathetic. The trick is to hang back and let the Livingstons (including John Goodman and Julie Hagerty as Mom and Dad) be their excruciating selves.
It seems that everyone in Solondz's fictional universe is excruciatingly him or herself. The guy likes to make us squirm. And he's been accused of having contempt for his characters. But what if he does? All I ask is that they illuminate some aspect of our lives, which most of them do. "I'm not an idiot, man. I watch TV," Scooby tells someone or other, and not only is this a funny line, it shows us just how narrow Scooby's intellectual horizons are. Suburbia takes it on the chin again in Storytelling, and that's the least interesting thing about the movie. But the particular punches, as when the Livingstons' youngest son ruthlessly interrogates the family's Salvadoran maid (Lupe Ontiveros) about how she spends her copious free time, have a nice smack. I only wish that Solondz's own storytelling skills would rise a notch or two. The diptych's second segment ends abruptly, its last line: "The movie's a hit."
For better or worse, I doubt it.