made his debut with the affecting teen angst drama “Welcome to the Dollhouse”, but he really made an impression with 1998’s “Happiness”, a wonderfully cynical look at some not so happy individuals. I personally loved it (it was #3 on my year-end Top Ten), but many people criticised Solondz for making fun of these poor souls in a mean-spirited way, for trying too much to “shock” us with ugly people doing ugly things. Mmm. Maybe there’s some truth in that, but I loved the guy’s movie nonetheless. Some didn’t get it, too bad for them. Solondz, though, doesn’t seem to have swallowed it so easily. Maybe it didn’t help that the following year, Dreamworks released a comedy/drama about not so happy suburbanites of its own, “American Beauty” which, like a lighter, more mainstream “Happiness” knockoff, went on to gather near unanimous praise and win a bunch of Oscars. I guess I can understand Solondz feeling a little cheated.
Now he’s back with “Storytelling”, which is sort of his “fuck you too” to his detractors. In a very self-aware way, he deconstructs storytelling in general in general and his own in particular. The film is divided in two parts, “Fiction” and “Non-fiction”, and in which authors aim for truth but still end up with half-lies. As the teacher says in the first act, even if something did happen, “as soon as you start writing about it, it’s fiction.” This is Mr. Scott talking (Robert Wisdom), an African American Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who also teaches in a university.
Superficially, this is kind of like “Wonder Boys”, but unlike that movie’s Grady Tripp, a sympathetic if offbeat professor, Mr. Scott is absolutely ruthless with his students. “Your story’s a piece of shit,” he’ll tell students choking back tears. Young Vi (Selma Blair) finds him overly confrontational, but at the same time she respects his honesty, his refusal to sugar coat what he thinks. And when her handicapped boyfriend (Leo Fitzpatrick) dumps her and she finds herself in a self-destructive mood, she ends up at her teacher’s place for some utterly romantic sex…
This leads to the scene most people cite when discussing the film, in which the older black man screws the young white woman and asks her to yell “Nigger fuck me hard!”, which she does. It’s a raw, powerful scene… And you’re probably not gonna be able to see it. In the U.S., at least, the MPAA wouldn’t approve it, and instead of changing it, Solondz just stuck a big red rectangle over the naughty bits. Fortunately, up here in Montréal, we’re deemed mature enough to handle extended thrusting action, so I was able to see the scene as the filmmaker intended it. As I said, it’s not an easy scene, it’s really balls-to-the-wall, but in context it serves its purpose, and it’s not THAT graphic. It’s not much more disturbing than, say, the anal sex scene in “Pulp Fiction”. Even if it does disturb you, that’s the point. And the rest of that story is about how Vi copes with it by, you might have guessed, writing about it. The interesting question then, is of who was really exploiting whom.
I have mixed feelings about “Non-Fiction”, though. In a way, I really liked the second part of the film: it certainly made me laugh my ass off on numerous times. Then again, I generally wished I shouldn’t be laughing! This is closer to “Happiness”, I suppose, with its pedophile, its murderer… Here, there’s nothing that bad, just people who are very pathetic, followed by a pseudo documentary filmmaker, Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti in Solondz-style thick-rimmed glasses, hint hint), who’s probably worse. “Non-Fiction” opens with a long, embarrassing scene in which he’s trying to catch up with an old high school girlfriend who obviously has no time for a desperate loser like him, and we have to watch as he just talks himself further down into ridicule.
Toby is trying to make a documentary on college, well, teenagers, well, suburban families… He’s not quite sure! Yet he does find subjects in the Livingstons, a dysfunctional suburban family if there ever was one! Here, it’s as if Solondz, who played on some of the same ground in his first movies and then watched as “American Beauty” one-upped him, wants to get back on top. And gosh darn it, he almost pulls it off. Watching the old man (a hilarious John Goodman) going gung ho on his crazy family, with his wife (Julie Hagerty) even more shallow and phoney than Annette Benning in “Beauty” and their three sons, football jock Brady (Noah Fleiss), unbearable goody two shoes Mikey (Jonathan Osser) and the ever dopey Scooby (Mark Webber). The latter is the focus of the documentary, if focus there is, as he ponders what to do after high school. He’s not a bad kid, but he’s clearly naïve and not too smart and inarticulate, yet he wants to get Conan O’Brien‘s job (which leads to a funny cameo)!
The ambiguous thing here, for Toby and for us in the audience, is whether to allow ourselves to laugh at Scooby and his family. Scooby is endearing, actually, as we’ve all felt aimless when it came time to choose a college and a future, at an age where you’re almost still a kid. Maybe Toby just wants to show things as they are, but as “Non-Fiction” illustrates, a documentary is always exploitative in some way. Through this, Solondz also keeps addressing the response his own (fictional) films have been getting, as he’s been accused of sneering at his characters himself. But even though he’s conscious of it, the question is still valid: what’s he going for, really? Does he want us to feel for these people, or to mock them?
“Fiction” works pretty well as a short story, but “Non-Fiction” is all over the place. I liked how it showed the unfair nature of the class system, as spoiled brat -and definite future Republican- Mikey harasses the Salvadorian house maid (Lupe Ontiveros). I also loved the direct pot-shots at “American Beauty”, notably Toby’s terrible attempts at video poetry (“A straw wrapper, floating in the wind…) And, obviously, the nearly all Belle & Sebastian soundtrack is a delight. But then you’ve got all those half developed ideas, especially the last few twists which don’t really work, not to mention that cheap shot of an ending. There’s enough clever flashes in “Storytelling” to make it worth checking out but, quite ironically, it doesn’t have the narrative drive to get beyond its shortcomings.
Some movies take a while to grab you. Sometimes it even takes repeated viewings. Then you’ve got movies which, from the very first shot, make you think this might be something special. “Monster’s Ball” is such a film. It opens with a moody, ominous extended shot of Billy Bob Thorton, lying in bed sleeping uneasily, in hushed green and yellow tones, with shadows passing over his face. This is almost like the opening to “Apocalypse Now”: it’s aesthetically interesting, but mostly it subtly takes you into that world and it sets the tone. Then we can get to know the specifics about Thornton’s character, Hank Grotowski. He’s a middle-aged Corrections Officer working on Death Row in a Georgia State prison, where his now ill father (Peter Boyle) worked before, and where his son (Heath Ledger) has started recently.
Director Marc Forster, working from a screenplay by Milo Addica and Will Rokos, carefully establishes his Deep South setting. I’ve never been to that part of America (though I’ve passed through it in a bus to Miami), so I don’t know if it’s more like the sunny “y’all come back, now” Georgia of Britney Spears’ “Crossroads” or as we see it here, all sweat, undershirts, sleazy diners and bars, with racial tensions boiling. In any case, there’s no question which of those two visions is the most dramatically involving! There’s none of the obnoxious girlie sap of Brit’s awful flick in “Monster’s Ball”, a film which focuses on the worst aspects of humanity, but not without finding hope. Hence, for all of Hank’s close-minded bigotry, racism and brutality, directly passed to him by his intolerant father, we see that his son is able to let that bitter heritage go and treat black people just like any other. This doesn’t sit well with his old man at all, but after a particularly heated confrontation, Hank will be forced to rethink his behaviour…
In a bit of kinda unnecessary serendipity, the woman through whom Hank changes is Leticia (Halle Berry), the widow of a cop killer (Sean ‘P. Diddy’ Combs, who between “Made” and this proves to be much more of an actor than he ever was as a rapper) that Hank’s team executed. These early scenes are effective, depicting death penalty as hard as “The Green Mile”, but with less light flourishes. Even before they meet, Leticia becomes as central a character as Hank. We see her, barely hanging on as her world is falling apart, with her husband in jail, her fat son (Coronji Calhoun) finding comfort in candy bars, her job as a waitress unable to support them… It’s a horrible life, or so it seems, and the nameless dread which inhabits the action on screen transmits all too well to the audience, and it only gets more wrenching as the film unflinchingly watches as tragedy deepens.
I won’t go into spoilers, but the goings really get tough, and both the Corrections Officer and the waitress find themselves lonely, tired and empty, desperately in need of somebody to hold on to. It’s a bit of a leap for them to find comfort in each other, but I accepted it, and the next step seemed inevitable. After all the pain and the hurt, the film culminates with the most intensely cathartic fuck (no other word can do it justice) I’ve seen in movies. Part of me wishes the film had ended then, as it peaked. The hour that follows is good enough, the acting and direction still deliver, but the relentlessly growing tensions of the first half are now deflating. We’re left with rather conventional and predictable plot mechanics, and some simplistic turns, but the film ends on a surprisingly satisfying note.
Overall, “Monster’s Ball” remains a wonderfully crafted film, with a great score and always interesting shot composition, with the camera watching from behind windows, bars, furniture, in a matter of fact if not voyeuristic way. Most notably, Forster gets amazing acting from his cast. Billy Bob
Thornton has impressed me before, from “Sling Blade” through “A Simple Plan”, but in these past few months he’s been on an unbelievable roll, proving as great as an amusingly neurotic bank robber in “Bandits” and as an intriguingly detached barber in the Coen bros’ “The Man Who Wasn’t There”, and now in “Monster’s Ball” he might be at his best as a truly flawed man who learns to allow himself to change his views. Halle Berry is the real surprise here, though. Who knew this glamorous beauty could be so convincing as a vulnerable, unkempt , emotionally wounded woman? This is a brave, very affecting performance, and so is “Monster’s Ball”. While I feel it falls short from brilliance in its underwhelming last act, it remains a film which is sure to get to you.