Written and directed by Todd Solondz
With Selma Blair, Leo Fitzpatrick, Robert Wisdom ("Fiction");
Paul Giamatti, John Goodman, Julie Hagerty, Mark Webber, Jonathan
Osser and Lupe Ontiveros ("Nonfiction")
Rated R; 89 minutes (2001)
I'm tempted to say that Todd Solondz' Storytelling is critic-proof.
Not in the way Harry Potter was destined/designed to rake
in the golden galleons no matter what the nation's critics
thought of the actual film, but in a cleverer and even more
Storytelling's theme is that the act of telling a
story, and of interpreting it, is in and of itself either
impossible or ridiculous. So even though the stories told
(there are two unrelated sections, "Fiction" and
"Nonfiction") are repellent, containing "characters"
without a single redeeming quality - and few recognizably
human traits - one feels like a fool for criticizing them,
or the film itself. One even feels like a fool reacting to
them, though that didn't stop the disgust from welling up
while I watched the film.
Throughout Storytelling, Solondz (who also directed the
bleakly funny Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness,
which I didn't see but which sounds similarly sick), picks
apart the processes and conventions of creating stories -
both the ones writers and filmmakers use, and those people
use in their everyday lives.
In "Fiction," the first and shorter of the two
sections, Vi (Selma Blair), a graduate student taking a creative
writing course, is involved with fellow student Marcus (Leo
Fitzpatrick), who has cerebral palsy. After Marcus' short
story - apparently a fictionalized account of their relationship
- is ripped apart during one seminar, Marcus breaks up with
Vi for not supporting him during the critique session. She
then embarks on a particularly ill-advised one-night stand
with the course's professor, Mr. Scott (Robert Wisdom), a
charismatic black author with a penchant for rough, degrading
sex with his students. Vi attempts to get back at the professor
by writing a story about the experience, but it, too, gets
a thumbs-down from the students - for being racist, misogynistic,
It sounds like a predictable, banal graduate-student short
story, and that's how Solondz directs it as well. At first
glance it feels a bit like satire - the way that people say
exactly the opposite of what they're thinking, and the squirming
embarrassment in the writing seminar scenes, have the ring
of just slightly stretched truth. But other scenes play more
like theater of the absurd. Vi's pickup of the professor in
a local bar is so underwritten - for a writer he's not exactly
eloquent - that it's like an outline of this archetypal event
rather than a specific scene between two people.
Solondz also uses filmmaking's conventions to play with our
expectations. When Vi and the professor do have sex, he superimposes
a big red rectangle over the middle third of the screen. In
interviews Solondz has said he used this device rather than
cutting the scene altogether (or cutting enough of the graphic
elements) in order to qualify for an R rating rather than
an NC-17, which would have effectively killed whatever commercial
chances Storytelling had. He made the usual good points
in interviews - the MPAA review board is far more terrified
of sex than of violence, there are different standards for
big-budget Hollywood movies than independents, etc.
However valid his reasons, Solondz' solution only adds to
the sense that we, the audience, are being manipulated, as
indeed we are. We are cued to understand that it's an "X-rated"
scene - but it's also the central fact of this "story,"
and we are not allowed to see what "happens" with
our own eyes (and make our own judgments). Does Vi deserve
to be brutalized? Does she enjoy it? Is she sickened by it?
Exactly how stupid/shallow is she?
These would all be legitimate questions in a conventional
story, but again Solondz pulls the rug out. The students in
the graduate writing seminar - the audience - misunderstand
Vi's story, applying their own prejudices and rejecting the
real human pain underneath it. And we realize that we're simply
watching a story too. One reason Solondz makes the story so
basic is so we can see how we would react if one little detail
changed. For example, when Vi goes to Scott's apartment, she
sees nude, S&M snapshots of his other student conquests
before she has sex with him. (She whispers to herself "Don't
be racist. Don't be racist.") So she's aware of how badly
this could go. How would we feel about her if she didn't know
ahead of time exactly what a sicko the professor was?
I'm going into this level of detail because it seems to be
the point of the film. Scott basically announces the theme
near the end of "Fiction": "Once you start
writing, it all becomes fiction."
Well, if fiction is poisoned, how about "Nonfiction"?
The second segment concerns itself with a would-be documentary
filmmaker (Paul Giamatti, sweaty and desperate) who decides
to focus on a suburban teen as the subject for his project.
He picks Scooby Livingston (Mark Webber), a walking catalog
of hot-button teen "issues": drug user, ambitionless,
fascinated with guns, passively homosexual, full of empty
dreams of becoming a TV "personality" like Conan
O'Brien but with no clue how to achieve even that hollow victory.
Scooby's parents and siblings are caricatures, with good
actors John Goodman and Julie Hagerty used for their most
obvious traits (his physical size and blustering voice, her
oversized eyes and questioning whine). Jonathan Osser as Scooby's
younger brother - supposedly the "good" child in
the family - is in actuality the creepiest creation of Solondz'
weird imagination. Veteran actress Lupe Ontiveros, as the
Livingston's overworked maid, comes the closest to creating
a coherent human character - until Solondz decrees that she
take revenge on the selfish, materialistic family that has
fired her, turning her pain into cartoony caricature as well.
Throughout "Nonfiction," Solondz gives us a number
of surrogate audiences for the unfolding events. I would call
those events tragic but, as in "Fiction," I have
a sneaking suspicion that everybody deserves what they get
- but there I go making actual judgments about characters
who are hardly even one-dimensional.
In any case, Giamatti and his editor (Franka Potente) view
the footage in various stages of completion. And near the
end, Giamatti screens a rough cut of the documentary for an
invited audience of downtown hipster types. They laugh hysterically
at the suburban stupidity and crass materialism of the Livingstons
- though it's not terribly funny stuff.
Again, Solondz plays with our own reactions. If we laughed
too, we would be as heartlessly "sophisticated"
as the audience in the movie. If we don't laugh, we can look
down on them as well. Both interpretations are equally valid.
Of course, Solondz is hardly the first filmmaker to play
with an audience's expectations, or to implicate their voyeurism
in darker emotions. Kubrick's Clockwork Orange certainly
comes to mind, as does much of Hitchcock's best work. One
of my favorite moments in Hitchcock's Psycho is after the
infamous shower scene. Norman Bates has put Marion Crane's
body into her car and pushed it to the edge of the swamp,
to bury the evidence of "Mother's" crime. The car
sinks, burbling and guggling. Then it stops, its back half
still conspicuously out of the water, and in a few chilling
reaction shots Anthony Perkins - who has been nervously chewing
candy - stops too. The audience holds its breath. We want
the car to sink, and it finally does after a few more agonizing
seconds. It never fails to get either a laugh or a sigh of
relief from the audience. We want evidence of the crime to
be buried - not only because Perkins has created a sympathetic
monster but because we want the story to go on.
Storytelling is undeniably a powerful piece of filmmaking.
It's disturbing, and it's also unpleasant. Is it worth it?
Is Solondz just playing intellectual games? Does he hate his
audience? Does he hate himself? I don't know the answer to
these questions, but I guess it's to his credit that I'm even