Todd Solondz is the director behind the art-house hits Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness. I regret to say that I have yet to see these films, so I saw Storytelling without the greater context of Solondz’s canon. Whether this is a positive or negative thing seems to be a hotly debated issue; I have friends who swear that Dollhouse is the worst film they have ever seen, while others cannot stop singing the praises of Happiness. The only common thread I picked up in reading articles on Solondz is that he is “ungenerous” to his characters – a claim that is certainly supported by Storytelling.
The film is split into two separate stories. The first, subtitled “Fiction,” centers around Vi (the always game Selma Blair), a college student taking a creative writing course. We meet Vi in the throes of passion with her boyfriend Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick), who has cerebral palsy. It’s clear Marcus is trading sex for Vi’s assessment of his stories. Later, in a brutal (but accurate) scene, Marcus’s story is torn to shreds by his writing workshop.
Brutal as it was, I enjoyed this scene. Solondz has clearly attended a writing workshop or two. The tentative attempts to find good things in the story, then the one criticism that opens the floodgates. The only wrong note is the creative writing teacher himself, who’s a bit more severe than any CW teacher I’ve ever met.
Following a break-up with Marcus, an upset Vi finds herself in a one-night stand with the writing teacher, a large, intimidating black man. Solondz is playing with dynamite here as about three or four cultural taboos (past and present, conscious and unconscious) take center stage. It’s difficult to describe the feelings the scene elicits. The professor practically (definitely?) rapes Vi while ordering her to scream racist obscenities at him. (Incidentally, the actual copulating figures are obscured by a red rectangle; the MPAA wouldn’t give Solondz an R rating with the scene as it was, so this is his way of underlining the censorship.) Yet, like Vi, any modern American viewer, raised in an era of tepid political correctness and smoldering undercurrents of racial conflict, will probably have a difficult time sorting out their assessment of the scene. My conclusion is that it was a rape. The difficulty was keeping race out of it.
The second story, entitled “Nonfiction,” focuses on an amateur filmmaker (Paul Giamatti) looking to make a documentary on the modern high school student. He settles on Scooby (Mark Webber), a slacker senior with no ambition other than to maybe get on television one day. Scooby is trapped in a suffocating upper-middle-class family (headed by a stern John Goodman, whose talent for displaying barely-concealed rage is put to good use). Even more interesting than Scooby is his kid brother, Mikey (Jonathan Osser), who torments the family’s El Salvadoran maid with seemingly innocent questions that shred the illusions of American class equality. The rage seething in this respectable, well-off Jewish family is fearsome.
I’ve never seen a filmmaker treat his characters with such near-contempt. He seems to have sympathy for no one – except, perhaps, the glumly passive Scooby. The Giamatti character (”Toby”) is, I would guess, intended as an avatar of Solondz himself. None of these characters are well-fleshed out, though some are creepy (particularly Mikey). I found it amusing that when Vi presents her rape as a story in class, one of the students asks the same question I was at the time – was it a rape? After all, Vi did what the professor asked. Of course, she was being intimidated – or was she? I think she was, but I suppose it’s open for interpretation.
Storytelling is not a film to move its viewers. Its mission is to shock, surprise, maybe even elicit a few nervous, guilty titters. How many directors would dare make a film that makes fun of people with cerebral palsy, has a black man rape a white girl, has a kid who mercilessly and innocuously torments his foreign au pair, and brutally exposes the raging undercurrent of middle class America? The film speaks the unspoken and dares us to face up to it. I only wish there were at least some spark of goodness to counter the cynicism.