Fueling the Flames
Labor and greens must join forces to stop Bushs assault on the planet.
More African-Americans are running for governor than ever before.
Rigged elections are widespread throughout Africa, and not just in Zimbabwe.
A New Detente?
The Bush administration cozies up to China.
No evidence, but a Missouri inmate is facing execution.
Britain passes measures to elect more women.
Seeds of Destruction
Genetic contamination raises stakes on GMOs.
Pennsylvania debates are calculated to exclude Greens.
HMOs aim to stop even modest reform in its tracks.
BOOKS: Israel, the occupation and "apartheid."
Disasters in Waiting
BOOKS: Ahmed Rashid on more impending Jihad.
Play It Again, Sam
MUSIC: How multiple reissues keep record labels flush.
FILM: The moral dilemmas of Storytelling.
An interview with ®mark's Frank Guerrero.
March 1, 2002
The moral dilemmas of Storytelling.
eplying to critics who damned The Picture of Dorian Gray as immoral, Oscar Wilde maintained that his supposedly decadent novel was in fact too moral. Todd Solondz finds himself in a similar quandary. Despite making films that have been condemned as nihilistic and amoral, he is, in many respects, an unrepentant, albeit misunderstood, moralist. In any case, after skewering suburbia in Welcome to the Dollhouse and insisting in Happiness that pedophilia can be more banal than evil, its become clear that he possesses an unerring talent for making critics and audiences both squeamish and irate.
His latest film, Storytelling (The New York Observers Andrew Sarris concluded his review by proclaiming, I hate it. I hate it. I hate it.), again raises the questions that continue to polarize viewers: Is Solondz a fearless satirist whose attacks on good taste constitute a needed breath of fresh air? Or is he an inveterate misanthrope who sneers at his caricatured protagonists with a marked lack of empathy? Storytelling, which is most intriguing for its merciless self-scrutiny, demonstrates that there is more than a certain amount of truth to both assertions.
A two-part variation on Solondzs usual themes of adolescent angst and suburban squalor, the film opens with an episode coyly titled Fiction. Scorn is heaped on both the masochistic rituals of creative writing seminars and guilty white liberalismand the cleverness of this assault on political correctness resides in our gradual realization that these disparate forms of self-delusion are in fact intertwined. The focus is on Vi (Selma Blair), a student at a college where the manicured lawns and antiseptic buildings are indistinguishable from the landscape of an industrial park.
The seeming blandness of Solondzs settings and characters enables him to up the ante as a provocateur. If there is something a little cruel about the fate he designs for the attractive and well-intentioned Vi, her creator proves ultimately more rueful than contemptuous. The hapless heroine feels like a good citizen when she dates a fellow student stricken with cerebral palsy, proudly dons a Steve Biko T-shirt in class, and admires the social realist novels written by Mr. Scott (Robert Wisdom), her dour African-American creative-writing instructor.
While it would be easy to dismiss this scenario as a conservative indictment of campus altruism, Vi is not being condemned for her left-liberal agenda but for her shallowness and hypocrisytraits that implicitly extend to the critics who condemn films like Storytelling for their lack of positive characters.
Mr. Scott, certainly no paragon of virtue himself, cavalierly trashes an earnest but sentimental story by Vis disabled paramour as a piece of shit and seduces his female students with impunity. But as Vi prepares for a tryst with Mr. Scott in his bathroom and peruses nude photos of other co-eds, she mutters under her breath, Dont be racist, dont be racist. Her self-rebuke might be viewed as an admonition to the audience as they ponder a black protagonist who is neither a cardboard villain nor an idealized hero in the mold of the characters once played by Sidney Poitier.
What follows has become Storytellings most notorious sceneMr. Scott exercises his power by having passionless anal sex with Vi and ordering her to abuse him with racist epithets. Capitulating to the demands of the films distributor, which imposed a contractual obligation on Solondz to deliver an R rating, the scene is digitally obscured by what he has termed a Stalinist red box. Yet the bowdlerized sex scene allows us to envision a coupling that is undoubtedly much smuttier and graphic than what was included in the original cut.
Vi, rather predictably, bases her next writing exercise on this decidedly unerotic encounter with Mr. Scott. Equally unsurprising is the savaging she receives from her fellow studentsaccusations of misogyny, racism and affectation are volunteered with the hollow proviso that its all a matter of opinion. Vis protest that it happened inspires her unflappable instructor to utter what might be Solondzs credoonce you start writing it all becomes fiction.
n a similar vein, the films longer, more ambitious segment, Nonfiction, takes as its departure point the premise that documentary can be as slippery and opaque as fiction. Toby (Paul Giamatti), an aspiring filmmaker whose pale visage and enormous glasses makes him Solondzs unflattering alter ago, clings to his dream of achieving fame and fortune with a documentary on the pressures experienced by college-bound suburban high school students. (While Solondz comes off in interviews as one toughand articulatenerd, Toby is merely a talentless wimp.)
The self-regard of documentarians who simultaneously love their subjects and cash in on their foibles certainly offers rich material for satire. (As far back as 1979, Albert Brooks Real Life offered a gentler, although in certain respects more devastating, look at the same milieu.) Unfortunately, while the impact of Fiction is comparable to a concise blackout sketch, Nonfiction misfires by tackling a much larger canvas with a similarly minimalist approach that proves more sterile than enlightening. The more diffuse focus of the second half almost confirms the accusations lobbed by Solondzs most severe criticsthe characters are buffoons that make us feel perilously smug.
This tendency becomes especially glaring with the arrival on the scene of Scooby (Mark Webber), the vapid teen-age star of Tobys movie. An affectless young man whose only ambition is to become famous like his television idols, Conan OBrien and David Letterman, he merely appears to prove the tautological proposition that an intellectually impoverished environment, besotted with pop culture, produces apolitical, numbed kids.
Scoobys unsavory family, moreover, provides many strained opportunities for glib humor. His blowhard father (played by the always convincing John Goodman) comes off as a more prosperous version of Ralph Kramden. His mother (Julie Hagerty), obsessed with Israels survival but oblivious to her Hispanic maids privations, is little more than a ninny. The plight of the maid, Consuelo (Lupe Ontiveros), could easily be mined for more than a few cheap shots. In the final analysis, however, she is, like her employers, another expendable gargoyle.
These shenanigans are enlivened with occasional barbed humor. Solondz has great fun mocking the hand-held camera work and artistic pretensions of the largely clueless Toby. The mock-documentarys futile attempt at lyricism allows him to wreak revenge on director Sam Mendes (who told an interviewer of his disgust after seeing Happiness) and insert an enjoyably gratuitous put-down of his American Beauty. A school psychologists claim that the youth of Bosnia experienced less stress during the siege of Sarajevo than what American high school students go through when applying to college captures our culture of narcissism with deadpan accuracy. Nevertheless, as Storytelling lurches towards a preordained bleak conclusion, it seems less like an astringent critique of American conformism than a filmmakers attempt to round up the usual boorish suspects.
Richard Porton is a member of Cineastes editorial board and the author of Film and the Anarchist Imagination.
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