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FILM: The moral dilemmas of Storytelling.
 
An interview with ®™mark's Frank Guerrero.
 

 
March 1, 2002
Unreliable Narrators
The moral dilemmas of Storytelling.
Storytelling still.
Selma Blair in Storytelling, trying hard not to be a racist.

Replying 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, it’s become clear that he possesses an unerring talent for making critics and audiences both squeamish and irate.

His latest film, Storytelling (The New York Observer’s 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 Solondz’s 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 liberalism—and 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 Solondz’s 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 hypocrisy—traits 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 Vi’s 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, “Don’t be racist, don’t 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 Storytelling’s most notorious scene—Mr. 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 film’s 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 students—accusations of misogyny, racism and affectation are volunteered with the hollow proviso that it’s all a matter of opinion. Vi’s protest that “it happened” inspires her unflappable instructor to utter what might be Solondz’s credo—“once you start writing it all becomes fiction.”

In a similar vein, the film’s 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 Solondz’s 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 tough—and articulate—nerd, 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 Solondz’s most severe critics—the 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 Toby’s movie. An affectless young man whose only ambition is to become famous like his television idols, Conan O’Brien and David Letterman, he merely appears to prove the tautological proposition that an intellectually impoverished environment, besotted with pop culture, produces apolitical, numbed kids.

Scooby’s 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 Israel’s survival but oblivious to her Hispanic maid’s 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-documentary’s 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 psychologist’s 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 filmmaker’s attempt to round up the usual boorish suspects.

Richard Porton is a member of Cineaste’s editorial board and the author of Film and the Anarchist Imagination.


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