Storytelling (2001)

Directed by Todd Solondz

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The ends of the two stories that make up Storytelling as well as that of Solondz’ most recent film, Wiener-Dog, have a running theme of art taking from life.  In all three cases, someone suffers to produce art that is passable at best, and the joke at the center of the films involves the fecklessness of being alive.  We’re powerless in the only time we have any agency, but we suddenly have meaning when we’re no longer in control of our own image, or something like that.

Storytelling was meant to be a series of three films, though the third one was cut.  It’s really just a short feature film Non-Fiction with a brief short film ahead of it, titled Fiction.

In Fiction, a grad student in literature is dumped by her classmate-boyfriend, a man who happens to have cerebral palsy.  When Vi (Selma Blair) is broken up with, she expresses some amount of disbelief by reiterating that Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick) had “CP.”

Before their breakup, we are introduced to the small class that Vi and Marcus share.  Their professor, Mr. Scott (Robert Wisdom) is a black man who ruthlessly tears apart each of the students’ stories in as few words as possible.  The only student he agrees with is one that everyone else knows is sleeping with him.

After Vi’s and Marcus’ breakup, she wanders over to a dive bar where she runs into Mr. Scott.  She sucks up to him, and soon she finds herself in his apartment, forced to remove her clothing in an uncomfortable manner that is all the more topical today given the recent celebrity sexual harassment stories.

Soon Mr. Scott rapes her while forcing her to shout offensive obscenities directed at his racial background.  She hesitates but then goes through with it, this all after she found proof that Mr. Scott had in fact been sleeping with many of the other girls in his classes.

At their next class meeting, Vi tells her story, an almost beat for beat account of the scene we just saw play out.  Mr. Scott watches with no emotion and lets the other students pick apart her story while Vi remains silent and Marcus, knowing this took place, sinks tearfully in his seat beside her.  It’s hard to watch.

Eventually Mr. Scott himself critiques her story, and she insists that it’s not unbelievable because it all happened.  We’re left with a couple of suffering characters who fought the system and failed, so to speak.

This is from the end of Roger Ebert’s review of the film: “Note: During the sex scene between the professor and his student, a bright red quadrangle obscures part of the screen. When I saw the movie at Cannes, the audience could see the two characters–graphically, but not in explicit pornographic detail. The MPAA refused to give the film an R rating because of that scene. Solondz refused to cut it, and used the red blocking as a way of underlining the MPAA’s censorship. Good for him. And one more reminder that the MPAA and Jack Valenti oppose a workable adult rating for America.”

In Non-Fiction we’re introduced to a sad, middle-aged man named Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti).  He’s an aspiring documentarian whose business card reads more like that of a child posing as an adult, someone with no practical experience.

In his first scene he calls an old high school flame, Pam, who once loved him, underlining just how far he’s fallen from whatever he used to be.  When he inquires as to whether Pam still works as a movie producer, the scene becomes that much more pathetic with us now understanding why he called.  Toby is desperate for a big break, and he likely has been for some time.  His character is similar to one played by Danny DeVito in Wiener-Dog.

In between Toby’s scenes we meet Scooby (Mark Webber) and his painfully suburban family.  They feel incredibly real but also like a parody of the average middle-class American family.  They have three children, an angry father (John Goodman) and a sad but loyal housekeeper, Consuelo.

Scooby is a confused stoner, apathetic to life but with enough drive to admit that he wants something out of it.  His goal, apparently, is to become a late night host like Conan O’Brien.  When Toby runs into him while angling for a story on the American High School experience (though he changes the story angle depending on who or what he can gain access to), he becomes the subject of Toby’s documentary.

Soon the focus of the documentary expands to the whole family.  Along the way we watch as Scooby (passively) experiments sexually with a male friend of his, his jock brother suffers a head injury during football practice and falls into a coma and his youngest brother, a boy with severely flawed intelligence, picks away at Consuelo and eventually hypnotizes his father into forgetting about his comatose son and firing the housekeeper.

One day Scooby searches for Toby and stumbles upon a test screening of the documentary where he learns just how poorly represented he and his family are (as the butt of the joke).  While he’s out, Consuelo turns on the gas, setting a fire which kills the rest of the family.  When Scooby returns home to the disaster, Toby and his cameraman soon follow.  “Oh my god, Scooby, I’m so sorry,” Toby mourns, and as a gurney is wheeled out behind Scooby, he says flatly, “don’t be, the movie’s a hit.”

A movie this full of despair has to be a comedy, and it is.  Storytelling is absurdly funny, making you groan as much as it laughs.  It’s incredibly biting, and the only thing preventing the film from being too edgy is that it’s TOO edgy, enough to turn many people away.

The story is never hard to watch in any one moment, but the sadness, the bleakness of Solondz’ worldview slowly starts to add up, and I could easily understand how it might start to feel like too much.

Still, Storytelling is incredibly fun to watch because you’re never quite sure how far it’s going to go.  Every scene between the pest of a young brother and the poor, struggling, silent housekeeper is hilariously heartbreaking.  I’ve never wanted to punch a kid so badly.

All the scenes with Toby are similarly sad to watch, though his character is strangely ambitious given his career shortcomings, suggesting that he’s a guy blind to the real world by his own sense of self.  By the end, with Toby’s absolute devotion to his mediocre movie despite the overwhelming tragedy that has befallen his protagonist, he becomes that much more unlikeable.

In this movie, sadness is warped into something more evil.  In Solondz’ movies as a whole, perhaps, the put upon characters become more insufferable.  They don’t learn from their pain, they spread it to others like a plague.  This film, at least in the case of Non-Fiction, shows us the way people suffer, make other people suffer, and the way they document it for their own personal gain.  No one comes out on top here.

In Fiction, Vi tries to turn her suffering into something more powerful, a work of art, only to have it ripped to shreds in front of her by a disbelieving audience and by the man who inflicted such pain onto her.  Strangely, this movie feels very topical right now.

Up Next: Taxi Driver (1976), Columbus (2017), Sanshiro Sugata (1943)

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