Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Director Report Card: Todd Solondz (2001)

4. Storytelling

The twin critical success of “Welcome to the Dollhouse” and “Happiness” made Todd Solondz a hot name in the world of indie filmmaking. Though both of those films were divisive, both received awards and recognition for their actors and Solondz himself. His fourth movie, “Storytelling,” was less well-received. The director was criticized for indulging in the same topics his previous features focused on: Suburban dysfunction, perverse sexuality, and controversial topics. Maybe the critical establishment felt he was repeating himself, though it does seem odd to me to criticize someone for doing what made them famous. If the “Storytelling” critical reappraisal has to start somewhere, let it start with me.

“Storytelling’s” opening credits are displayed on plain shapes in bright, contrasting colors, both against each other. This is a clue to the film’s story structure, that of two separate tales that comment on each other mostly through how different they are. The first tale is called “Fiction.” Vi, a creative writing major with bright pink hair, is currently dating a fellow student with cerebral palsy. After a story he wrote about their relationship is brutally critiqued by the stern writing professor, the boy breaks up with Vi. Upset, she seeks solace in a bar, where she meets up with the same professor. The two head back to his apartment, the man taking advantage of the girl. Her attempts to accuse him the next day in class go horribly wrong.

The first segment of “Storytelling” has the director, once again, telling a difficult story. It’s a film without moral certainties, as all of its primary characters are, in different ways, terrible people. It’s apparent from the first scene that Vi is only sleeping with the afflicted Marcus because it makes her feel better. By being with someone who is socially ostracized, she’s making herself more “special.” Marcus, played by a barely recognizable Leo Fitzpatrick of “Kids” and “Bully” fame, sees through this façade, calling Vi out on it. Her reaction is not to patch up the relationship but to go and hook up with another guy, a large black man who happens to be both her professor and a Pulitzer Prize winner. When talking with Marcus, she says the professor’s writing isn’t that good. When talking to her professor, she claims to be a big fan. That’s not the only way “Storytelling” criticizes a certain college-age mindset. The other students in the creative writing class tend to follow the pack, parroting whatever everyone else is saying. After Marcus' story, everyone else in the group names off famous writers with some sort of condition concluding, hilariously, with “Updyke has psoriasis." After Vi’s story at the end, the crowd similarly piles on negative feedback, the criticism growing more severe, building to accusations of racism and misogyny.

If “Storyelling” hates college hipsters, it hates sadistic college professors more. Played by intimidating character actor Robert Wisdom, Mr. Scott is cruel. The way he cuts into Marcus at the beginning of the segment goes far pass a teacher’s responsibility and into bullying. Scott clearly enjoys abusing his female students, all of them young, thin, and white. After going back to his apartment, Vi discovers a collection of photos of her classmates, nude and some of them tied up. When she attempts to leave, he commands her to disrobe. Once she’s nude, she stands before the large man, the film drawing attention to how small and frail Vi is in comparison to him. The situation quickly escalates to rape. The character is monstrous and, as unlikable as Vi can be, the audience’s sympathy lies with her.

Naturally, it wouldn’t be a Todd Solondz film if it didn’t generate some controversy. The sex scene between Vi and her teacher was scrutinized by the MPAA, who threatened the film with the commercially nonviable NC-17 rating, which Solondz willfully surrendered on “Happiness.” Solondz’  response to this was to covered the actor’s thrusting backside with a red square, “Censored!” written on it. The MPAA bulked at this too, claiming they don’t censor films. They let him keep the big red square though. The uncensored version appears on the DVD and, unfortunately but unsurprisingly, hundreds of celebrity sex scene websites. Though I can’t imagine anyone jerking off to a moment as depressing and uncomfortable as this. I guess some people really want to see Selma Blair naked…

That moment brings “Storytelling’s” uncomfortable racial commentary to the forefront. While in the middle of the task, the professor commands VI to say some very impolite and racially charged words. After fictionalizing the previous night’s events, and reading it to the class, the students heap on the inflammatory feedback, in a way that would put Tumblr to shame. The professor’s student aide, who also is seemingly sleeping with him, puts the finest point upon it. She accuses Vi of being enamored of the tired stereotypes concerning black men and the professor, having realized this, called her on it. This is true but doesn’t make what he did any less despicable. Solondz isn’t commenting on race so much as he is on social perceptions of race.

The second portion of “Storytelling” is entitled “Non-Fiction.” It follows a would-be documentary filmmaker, and current shoe salesman, named Toby Oxman. He scrounges up grant money for a documentary about the American teenager. He finds a kid named Scooby, a stoner with no direction or goals in his life, beyond a vague desire to become a late night talk show host. Scooby’s tyrannical father is forcing him to take the SATs, to go to college. His young brother is a jock who accuses him of being gay because Scooby’s a vegetarian. His mother, focused on the family’s Jewish background, and his obnoxious youngest brother, are clueless. Toby documents it all, uncertain of how to approach his own material, if he wants his film to be funny or not.

As the title makes apparent, “Storytelling” is a film about making fiction and contains the meta elements that premise implies. Toby Oxman is patterned after the director himself. He has Solondz’ wire-brush hair, thick framed glasses, slouching demeanor, and nasally voice. Both started out as actors, took an extended break, and came back to write and direct. Solondz’ films have been criticized for mining the problems of mentally broken people for laughs. “Storytelling” is no different. Scooby’s nonchalant attitude to everything around him and his parents’ clueless reactions provide plenty of chuckles. However, while editing the documentary, Toby is uncertain of the direction he wants to take. During one conversation with his editor, Toby says he wants people to take the film seriously. During another editing session, he says he wants people to be entertained by the movie, finding it just a little bit funny. During a thrown together preview screening, the audience laughs uproariously at a rough cut of the doc. Solondz’ films are always about the humor and the horror of human foibles. It’s interesting to see that he too is uncertain about that balance. The big difference between Todd Solondz’ movies and Toby Oxman’s is that Todd’s films are about fictional characters. Toby’s is about real people. The movie within the movie is called “American Scooby,” which seems to poke slight fun at two other films. The first of which is “American Beauty,” which “Storytelling” parodies via a sequence focused on a blade of grass floating through the air. The second is “American Movie,” a documentary that’s also controversy for whether or not it’s embracing or making fun of its subject. To further this reference, Mike Schank, Mark Borchardt’s sidekick from “American Movie,” has a small role as Toby’s incompetent camera man.

At the center of the movie’s documentary is Scooby, the dead-eyed oldest son of the Livingston family. Scooby is introduced during a session with his guidance councilor, who quickly becomes agitated by the boy’s lack of direction in life. Or his interest in anything, for that matter. Back in high school, I knew a lot of kids like Scooby, rudderless teens with little interest in learning and even less ambition. (Most of them work in construction now.) Scooby, who partakes occasionally in drugs, dreams of being a late night talk show host but would settle for any level of fame. This is nothing more then a pipe dream though, as Scooby emphatically doesn’t want to go to college and has no drive to pursue anything. He’s like every teenager, really. He wants validation but he doesn’t want to do any work to achieve it. (“Storytelling” was made before the rise of reality TV and YouTube made it possible for any soulless bastard to achieve some sort of fame.) Scooby is so disinterested in the world around him that he lets a neighboring kid perform oral sex on him. Not because he’s gay, though there’s a suggestion that he might be, but because he sees no reason not to. Despite his seeming lack of interest in anything, Scooby is capable of weirdly observant insight. While his mom is attempting to deliver some sort of moral about the Holocaust, Scooby correctly chimes in that the family wouldn’t exist without Hitler. Some of the rambling monologues he delivers to Toby’s camera are weirdly prescient. He’s self-aware enough to be hurt by Toby’s final film but also grateful that he’s finally achieved the fame he desires. Mark Webber is so good in the role that I’m not entirely convinced he wasn’t a genuinely clueless teenager the production just scooped up.

Naturally, because this is a Solondz film, “Storytelling” is also a story of suburban dysfunction. The Livingston family is clearly well-to-do, owning a big home in a nice New Jersey neighborhood. The family has enough cash that even an obvious burn-out like Scooby has his own car. Dad has a great job while Mom calls for donations to the local synagog. Of course, it’s all rotten beneath the surface. John Goodman has been somewhat typecast as big friendly father figures. His role as the Livingston patriarch not only subverts that image but taps into the immense power Goodman has as a performer. The father occasionally goes into bellowing rages, shouting over everyone else, usually Scooby. The mother spews empty platitudes. The middle son, Brady, is a proto-jock and a douchebag, with his frosted blonde tips, pastel tee-shirts, and bubblegum girlfriend. After accusing his older brother of being gay, he plays in a football game, where the couch yells homoerotic commands at them and everyone stares at the other guys’ asses. Pointedly, during his first ball game, Brady is tackled, hard enough to cause irreparable brain damage, leaving him in a vegetative state. This latest trauma puts even more pressure on Scooby.

Except for the youngest son, Mikey. Mikey is well-dressed, robotic, and painfully indifferent to other people’s suffering. Despite being no older then eight, he’s already planning for college. After Brady’s brain injury, Mikey successfully hypnotizes his father into praising him, at the expense of everyone else in the family. He frequently says insensitive, selfish things. Though he may be young, the film seems to agree that the kid is just a prick. Most glaring is his treatment of Consoulo, the family’s put-upon maid. Anytime the camera is inside the house, Consoulo is always visible in the background, performing some demeaning, menial busy work. Mikey pesters her with clueless, often cruel questions, which she dutifully answers. The most heartbreaking moment in “Storytelling” occurs when Mikey goes into Consoulo’s room, late at the night. The woman is crying. Her grandson has just been executed on death row. Mikey reassures Consoulo that her grandson probably deserved to die and then tells her to clean up the juice he spilled. The kid can’t even be bothered to pronounce her name right. Mikey then convinces his father to fire her because she’s “lazy.” The denouncement has Consoulo getting her revenge on the family, which is satisfying but also sets in stone the movie’s opinion on social barriers and classes.

“Storytelling” is clearly concerned with the storyteller’s relationship with their fiction. In “Fiction,” Vi dramatizes the abuse she faced at her professor’s hand. When her classmates criticize her, she yells that it really happen. In one of Solondz’ most chilling endings, the professor intones that once something is written down, it becomes “fiction.” Any story, no matter how based in fact it might be, reflects the writer’s attitudes, prejudices, and feelings. “Non-Fiction” tackles this head-on, where a family’s tragedy becomes fodder for a snarky documentary. The film asks the question of how much responsibility a storyteller takes for his characters and what happens to them.

Powered by the ironically upbeat musical score from Belle and Sebastian, “Storytelling” does not have the cohesive bite that “Welcome to the Dollhouse” or “Happiness” had. This might be due to the excision of a third sequence, “Autobiography,” which starred James Van Der Beek and was about a football player discovering his homosexuality. Why the third segment was cut is unknown and it hasn’t yet become available. “Storytelling” still makes its point and is as funny, brutally honest, and as much of a conversation starter as the director’s previous films. [Grade: B+]

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