Hollywood is often criticized for lapses of taste. But if you're looking for truly creative ways of making moviegoers squirm, see what some independent and international filmmakers are up to.
Storytelling comes from Todd Solondz, a deliberately outrageous writer-director who's facing the biggest challenge of his career - how to stay outrageous by coming up with fresh psychosexual jolts in every new film. "Welcome to the Dollhouse" chronicled the sensual awakening of a nerdy adolescent girl, and "Happiness" plunged into scandalous subjects from pedophilia to murder. After these, what do you do for an encore?
Solondz searches for the answer via two separate stories in "Storytelling." The first, subtitled "Fiction," probes the tensions between a disabled student, his fickle girlfriend, and the African-American man who teaches their creative-writing class. The second, "Nonfiction," follows the ineffectual exploits of a wannabe filmmaker who decides to shoot a documentary about a teenage boy who's almost as pallid and pathetic as he is.
Solondz is a serious, almost anthropological filmmaker who feels a genuine affinity with the pathetic specimens of humanity he frequently portrays. The sexually explicit climax of "Fiction" is as explosive a depiction of contemporary social relations as we're likely to see, bringing to the surface a seething mixture of psychological pressures - rooted in race, gender, and class - that gains much of its shock value from the fact that it's as readily recognizable as it is virtually invisible in today's culture.
Viewers have been debating this and other aspects of "Storytelling" since its debut at the Cannes film festival last spring. Both sides of the polarized argument are partly right: Solondz is a courageous social commentator and a canny provocateur at the same time. He'll never get to Hollywood if he stays on this track, but cinema will be a lot duller if he ever mends his incendiary ways.
Waydowntown, a different kind of social satire, sparked a different kind of controversy a few months ago.
The story takes place in a Canadian office and shopping-mall complex, where four young workers have made a wager on who can go longest without venturing outside for a breath of nonrecycled air. Their frustrations and fantasies play important parts in the story, and some of the film's sardonic urban imagery took on unsettling undertones after the World Trade Center disaster, which happened just before the picture's planned US release. It's now rescheduled to open this month.
I don't think "Waydowntown" would ever have discomfited viewers. It's a smart and creative comedy that skewers cheaply dehumanizing architecture and self-absorbed yuppie mentalities in a series of skillfully assembled scenes. See it in a theater that's waydowntown, and city life may never look the same.
"Storytelling," rated R, contains sexually explicit and socially offensive material. "Waydowntown," rated R, contains sex and vulgar language.