Enraged, scurrilous, and angst-ridden, allergic to hypocrisy, morbidly spiteful, and naturally very funny, Todd Solondz is the movie equivalent of a ’60s sick comic, a ’70s comix artist, or maybe Dostoyevsky’s underground man. Tougher than Terry Zwigoff, more straightforward than Neil LaBute, Solondz is a master of maxing embarrassment who dares the discomfited viewer to laugh at obviously incorrect spectacles of pain or humiliation.
Storytelling, the leanest and meanest of Solondz’s misanthropic comedies, feasts on the anguish of adolescence and confusion of college—white suburban-style. Based on cartoonish stereotypes, it could be considered an anti-Amélie were the style not so laconic. Two stories are told; the first, shorter one, pointedly called “Fiction,” is a memorably nasty meditation on what post-structuralists call “difference.” The opening minutes oscillate between prurience and pathos, as two undergraduate members of a college writing workshop, pink-haired Vi (Selma Blair) and cerebral-palsied Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick), couple in a cinder-block dorm room. “The kinkiness is gone,” Marcus complains afterward. “You’ve become . . . kind.”
Kind is not an operative word in Solondz World—here, as in Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness, suffering does not necessarily make for compassion. Marcus reads his transparently autobiographical story in writing class, and after harvesting his peers’ requisite sympathetic responses—one comparing him to Faulkner—gets smacked down by the teacher, Mr. Scott (Robert Wisdom), who calls it a grotesque, pretentious, “banal piece of shit.” That this Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Sunday Morning Lynching is a large, glowering black man grimly presiding over an all-white, mainly female seminar only adds to the frisson. Before long, Vi, who emblazons her politics across her chest with a collection of “Biko Lives” and “USA for Africa” T-shirts, has her own encounter with the unsmiling Mr. Scott. (“You have beautiful skin,” he tells her coolly.)
Solondz not only plays his stark exercise in universal objectification as a Zen parable but blatantly inscribes the anticipated critical response. As befits a movie by a onetime yeshiva student, Storytelling is to be understood as a work of commentary. Despite (or perhaps because of) Solondz’s uninflected compositions and ongoing autocritique, Storytelling—which is accompanied by a soundtrack of breathy, celestial laughter—will strike some as cold and even repellent. Now a victim as well as a victim lover, Vi finally has something to write about. She makes use of her misadventure as the basis for her next story, and the class is suitably appalled: “Do people have to be so ugly? It’s perverted. It’s mean-spirited,” not to mention racist, misogynist, and exploitative.
Storytelling‘s second tale, “Non-Fiction,” is less finely tuned in its cruelties and performances but even more self-reflexive—not the least because it involves a nebbishy documentary filmmaker with a passing resemblance to Solondz. A disheveled dweeb with horn-rimmed glasses, Toby (Paul Giamatti) is first seen cold-calling a girl he jilted in high school 20 years before because he’s heard she has become a producer. As though a graduate of Mr. Scott’s class, Toby is looking for funding to make a documentary on teenage suburban life, with an appropriately deconstructivist narration. Searching for a graduating senior to profile, Toby stumbles upon Scooby (Mark Webber), a pot-smoking slacker whose ambition is to serve as sidekick to Conan O’Brien. Theirs is a pact of mutual exploitation: Scooby may be dazed and confused, but he agrees to cooperate because he knows about The Blair Witch Project and has heard of Sundance.
As in his previous movies, suburban New Jersey serves Solondz as his personal barrel of ducks. Scooby’s casually dysfunctional family is a monument to unearned comfort. Every dinner affords the overweening patriarch, embodied by John Goodman, an occasion for a purple-faced slow burn. (In a touchy-feely world, this terrifying actor would be legally required to appear opposite Roseanne for the remainder of his career.) Throwing fuel upon the emotional fire, Scooby’s mother is played by the suitably timorous Julie Hagerty. Making the family fatuously Jewish allows Solondz to mock their sense of victimhood, as expressed in the cult of Schindler’s List. (American Beauty is another target.)
Toby’s self-narrated documentary describes high school as “a time when I woke up every day depressed, in despair, and suicidal.” Eventually titled American Scooby, his movie (as well as Solondz’s) is consumed by a hatred of jocks and haunted by the specter of Columbine. But, as in “Fiction,” it’s what the New Left used to call “white skin privilege” that’s most relentlessly flaunted and satirized. The truly painful episodes allow Scooby’s supremely annoying little brother, Mikey (Jonathan Osser), to doggedly persecute the family’s downtrodden Salvadoran housekeeper (Lupe Ontiveros in a Reno, Nevada, T-shirt), in part through his tiresome metaphysical questions. Mikey’s convincing awfulness is a perverse tribute to Solondz’s skill as a director of children.
“Fiction” is set in the 1980s; “Non-Fiction” complements it as a kind of a priori flashback. Where Vi was attacked by the class intellectual as “a spoiled suburban white girl with a Benetton complex,” the high school guidance counselor here tells Toby that tests have shown her college-bound seniors are more stressed-out than the children of Bosnia. For Solondz, the failure of empathy is a given. In the relentlessly miserablist Happiness, he sought to test the limits of audience tolerance by making a child molester the most sympathetic character in a cast of gargoyles. Perhaps burned by the hostility—as well as tolerance—this strategy evoked, he uses Storytelling to revisit the nature of cinema ethics.
To that end, Solondz conjures up his own critics. Toby’s producer (Franka Potente) accuses him of feeling superior to his characters; Scooby’s father interrupts his usual rant to attack Toby’s subjectivity: “Stop trying to impose your misery on others.” (A test audience, meanwhile, responds to American Scooby as though auditioning for the Seinfeld laugh track.) As exploitation turns profitably to tragedy, Toby has second thoughts. “I’m so, so sorry,” he tells Scooby. “Don’t be,” is the sagely cynical reply. “The movie is a hit.” It may seem Solondz is giving one of his creatures the last word, but in fact, he’s ceding that role to the spectator.
In the world of Japanese anime, Metropolis is a formidable all-star production—a science fiction spectacular directed by Rintaro (Galaxy Express 999) and written by Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira), from a 1949 comic book by “God of Manga” Osamu Tezuka.
Metropolis begins by quoting 19th-century French historian Jules Michelet—”Every epoch dreams its successor”—as well as Triumph of the Will and Blade Runner. Elaborating an early-1900s vision of the year 2000, populating its mega-city with rounded, cartoony figures and an extensive taxonomy of 1950s toy robots, Metropolis is an anthology of 20th-century pulp. (Tezuka himself was inspired by the poster for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis; he hadn’t seen the movie.) The only comparable American exercise in retro-futurism is The Iron Giant.
Metropolis has been released here with subtitles, like an art film (which it is). The animators not only compose images in terms of shadows, reflections, and camera angles but also take care to distinguish varieties of light—the glowing neon signage has an entirely different quality from that of the candy-colored living billboards. A near perfect fusion of computer and cel animation, Metropolis flaunts its labor-intensive mise-en-scène: marble-patterned floors, brocade robes, long scenes played amid falling snow. The narrative is something else. Duke Red, gangster ruler of Ziggurat, plans to install the female robot Tima on the throne (in fact, she’s plugged in), completing a circuit that will destroy the universe. A blond child with big green eyes, created in the image of the Duke’s dead daughter, Tima is rescued from the Duke’s jealous adopted son by Ken-ichi, nephew of the little Japanese detective Shunsaku Ban.
None of this much matters. Although a social theorist might wonder if Metropolis‘s merging of past and future expresses a desire to transfigure Japan’s static economy, it’s the nature of the cyborg that’s important. Hopelessly attached to her playmate Ken-ichi, Tima is just another mecha (to use the standard anime term), fixated upon the human. Metropolis is A.I. without tears. In a juxtaposition worthy of Kubrick, Rin scores a world-ending explosion to Ray Charles’s plaintive ode to psychological programming, “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” Inexplicable for much of its running time, Metropolis ends with a grand crescendo of escalating craziness. With Ziggurat wrecked, the humans blasted back to Japan, and Tima a legend for her fellow robots, a lonely red transistor radio is left to wonder, “Who am I?”