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Todd Solondz's latest film, Storytelling, is a critical probing of multiculturalism, the ideology of American individualism, and the politics of talking about them.

Directed by Todd Solondz

Reviewed by Jayson Harsin

Sunday, March 17 2002, 7:55 PM

Todd Solondz's latest film, Storytelling, is a critical probing of multiculturalism, the ideology of American individualism (seen as social hypnosis), and the politics of talking about them (filmmaker to object)--Storytelling: "Fiction" and "Non-fiction."

The film is divided into two parts, the first is entitled "Fiction" and centers around a black Pulitzer-prize winning author, Mr. Scott, who verbally and emotionally abuses his writing students, and who eventually has sexual relations with Vi, one of his female students. The second part is entitled "Non-Fiction" and consists of a pathetic nerd-loser, Toby Oxman, who nevertheless has critical insights on the sociology of the suburbs and high school culture in particular. Oxman is making a documentary film about an angst-ridden high school senior, Scooby, for whom all the conventions of suburban high school, especially the competition to get into a "good" college, are but empty rituals, which he subjects to upsetting scrutiny, as if gazing over the abyss. The documentary filmmaker wants to see Scooby as funny, dumb, and yet a symbol of high school angst that he very much identifies with. The film's plot and characters are rounded out by Scooby's convention-loving family. The youngest son, an aspiring fifth-grade hypnotist, is precocious but morally callous, the middle son is a football star in a coma (effusing a kind of tragic-comic Morrisey aureole), and the Salvadoran maid, Consuela, is an overworked (and abused by the fifth-grader) but faithful servant.

Many critics read the film as "Todd Solondz Strikes Back" at his critics. This line of thinking suggests that in response to accusations of misanthropy, Solondz this time made characters for whom he has empathy, with whom he can actually identify. This may or may not be true. And this depends on how a person comes to identify with characters. Clearly, in this film, Solondz has heroes and villains, the latter of which seem to be only puppets of social convention and the former of which can switch places with the latter depending on viewer's perspective-taking. Does he identify with any or all of them? Perhaps closer to "real" life, he may identify with all of them strongly at moments but not all of the time. There are perhaps more interesting questions that his film poses and partially answers, which need no help from biographical psychoanalysis. Once one puts one's finger on the film's play of the heroic (namely Consuela, and possibly Prof. Scott and Vi) a vast terrain of historic battles engulfs the setting of one's thought. Characters begin to represent forces larger than themselves and invite the viewer to choose sides that are, in a word, disturbing. Multiculturalism seems naԶe and reifying, in need of history. Murder and rape dance around one's interpretation like angels and devils, so that identification, empathy, and justice beckon with a terrifying sense of irrevocability.

One review I read of this film called the fifth grade boy's hypnotism a "hokey device that goes at least as far back as Gilligan's Island." But really, such a statement wrenches the film out of its complex, dark context. Hypnosis is a metaphor that comments on the entire film: on the routines that people fall into, that are so often arbitrary and meaningless that perhaps only a ruthlessly close analysis at a teenager's struggles with everyday life can reveal--this was Scooby. When the aspiring, popular middle child, Brady, hears rumors circulating at school that his brother is gay, he, quite business-like, confronts his brother about it, telling him "it's cool" with him, but urges him not to continue his alternative lifestyle, lest he lose his social status. Again, social hypnosis. Brady does not question his urge to repress. The documentary filmmaker, Toby Oxman, is haunted by the drama of high school conventions and judgments. His pathetic phone call to an old high school would've-been flame indicates that he at once feels disgusted by that social formation and yet also finds his life desires still motivated by them: he is both humiliating himself with the phone call and unleashing his vengeance in a documentary film exposure of the cold disciplinary logic of high school social drama. The child Mikey's Republican-speak to the older woman and servant Consuela, whom he can't possibly understand, is simply another facet of the trope of hypnosis circulating through the film and commenting on the characters, even reflexively on this one who fantastically employed it on his father. What happens when the puppet master is a puppet, the hypnotist hypnotized? We seem to need a little magical device to portray non-fiction. Otherwise it is not believable. This is the tragic paradox that propels Todd Solondz's Storytelling.

The film is masterfully constructed so that later parts form a retrospective context for earlier ones. For example, rape is the largest worm of controversy Solondz opens in this can-of-a-controversial film, and it is all the nastier and more controversial because it is associated with race. What are we to make of a cruel black professor who pummels his students with a mandarin's verbal abuse? Who is this Mr. Scott, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A SUNDAY LYNCHING? The professor dehumanizes his students, controlling and reducing all his interactions with them to commands and insults, even outside of class. But he is as complex as his latest sexual student-victim, Vi, who walks home with him to his apartment and in using his bathroom finds pictures of other female students naked and tied up. She tells herself "don't be racist" and then subjects herself to humiliating and rough anal sex with him as he commands her to say over and over again "Nigger, fuck me hard!" It is not clear what Solondz intends. The black professor is not by any means a particularly likeable character. As I said, he is reduced to an eloquent dehumanizer and possibly dehumanized. But here, he seems to represent an ominous vengeance of history, drawing attention to race ("Nigger, fuck me hard!) and to the reduction of human relations to the imperious mode. This is clearly a racial historical reversal, a kind of return of the repressed. At the same time, it is not clear why she went through with it. Is it a critique of a naive multiculturalism?

Before going to the bar where she meets him, she tells her roommate she's going to go get drunk, maybe laid. She shows up at the bar and looking around the room, seems surprised to see the professor sitting in a booth alone. She finally goes over there and also expresses surprise at seeing him there. Is this genuine surprise, or does she know that he sometimes frequents that bar? Assuming she is genuinely surprised but looking to get laid, she ends up going home with him, telling herself "Don't be racist." Even after seeing the pictures, she is very ill at ease but tells herself "don't be a racist." Is this a critique of the limits of an uncritical, naive multiculturalism? (It may only be reactionary depending on the conclusions one draws from it) This may be the most viable reading, for she stays and follows his further dehumanizing commands, to strip and turn around (not unlike, perhaps, a slave on the buying block), before being commanded to say "Nigger, fuck me hard," which she finally does after at first refusing, punctuated by sounds that can hardly be described as those of pleasure.

This disturbing scene is followed by her showing up at her (recently ex-) boyfriend's apartment, all teary-eyed, broken, and, as the palsied boyfriend notes, "sweaty." He registers that she has done exactly as he predicted (he said she just wanted to screw the professor like every other "white cunt"--I believe those were his words--on campus). Her boyfriend has cerebral palsy and senses that he was once exotic to her but is now a multicultural charity case and the object of mechanical sexual routines. Is multiculturally driven desire an extension of the hypnosis trope?

Vi then reads a supposedly autobiographical story about the abusive (sado-masochistic?) sexual encounter, which she describes as rape. The term rape, though, becomes a metaphor that is contested as an appropriate signifier for what transpired between the two. The class rejects the story, with no little irony, as racist fiction, as disgusting (not unlike what some critics say about Solondz's films). The class pet even offers a psychoanalytic reading of Vi's attraction to and following through with the affair as a racist, perverted white girl suburban fantasy, still dependent on exotic images of the hyper-sexually potent black man. It's not clear that she's wrong, either. However, the questionable status of what happened is underlined as that scene closes where a male student objects "But I thought that this was a rape?"

The issue of rape is not a totally new one in the growing Solondz corpus. Solondz fans will recall that Dawn Weiner, in Welcome to the Doll's House, was threatened by a nearly equally unpopular boy, who claimed he would rape her at such and such a time, insisting that she be there. She actually shows up for this rape appointment, apparently out of a desire to fit in. It's as close to being liked as she can get. Being victim of exclusion seems to produce an equally disturbing desire to fit in at any unquestioning cost and a counter desire to inflict vengeance. This prior film scene serves as an important intertext for the questionable rape of Vi in "Fiction." In this intertextual context, can Vi's willingness and counterintuitive desire to go along with the events be seen as the limits of an uncritical, naive suburban, white multiculturalism? If so, is that a necessarily reactionary move in the film's narrative?

But this is not the only intertext that can be brought to bear on the issue of rape, history, justice, and the politics of interpretation. The fifth grade boy-hypnotist, academically precocious and emotionally and ethically immature, creates a powerful interpretive intertext in a scene where he goes to the Salvadoran servant's room late at night to order her (by asking) to clean up some juice he has helplessly spilled. She is crying, and when he interrogates her about the cause of her distress, she confesses that her son, in El Salvador, was just executed. She maintains that he never did anything wrong and yet that he was executed for murder and rape. This conundrum is somewhat solvable by the view into the child's naivete about the politics of justice and interpretation.

He asks what rape is, and she answers surprisingly broadly that it is "when someone loves someone who doesn't love them and they can do something about it." Such a metaphorical reworking will inevitably disturb many viewers, especially because his answer puts the entire film in an arena of human tragedy where no god(s), angels, or heaven, are there to set things right in the end, as Consuela agrees in another disturbingly loaded answer to the boy's interrogations: "You don't really believe in God and angels and all that stuff, do you, Consuela?" "NO," she replies with no little foreshadowing. What is murder to one person is of course, in some contexts, justice to the other. But it is clearly a recoding of the signifier "rape" that tries to infuse it with what can only be an itchy dignity. Still, one could argue that what appears to be a diction mistake ("rape": "wrong word") from the point of view of social norms creates a useful tension that may induce reflection on those very social norms. And this tension is masterfully built with the precocious little boy's inability to appreciate Consuela's hard work for his own comfort, as well as in his amazement that she does not have any hobbies, does nothing besides work. This he interprets from his perversely overachieving fifth grade class position as "laziness."

The incommensurable interpretation is ferociously tragic. In dramatizing the contingency of law and morality and their unavoidable interpretive embededness, this is a highly postmodernist fable. In this sense, then Consuela's comment about rape folds back on to the Vi/black professor sequence and creates an inquisitive context. Can this troublingly righteous use of rape be applied to what happened to Vi? Did she somehow represent historical forces larger than the individual? Was she simply the vehicle of a black historical retribution? The sad historical remainder of over two centuries where a person called black by one who called himself/herself white could love but not be loved in return and yet until such a scene was not in the position to do anything about it? What does such a perverted use and implicit definition of rape suggest? What is its function? Is it good or bad? Does Vi have a strong historical understanding of race that underlies and motivates her multicultural desire? Is this a critique of a hollow boutique liberal chic? Does history only get better after it gets really really bad? Bad for whom? Is this a tragic view of history? An American history, where we are all but players strutting our hours. Or, might this be seen less as realism and more as avant-gardist interruption? An invitation to come to terms with that which disturbs, to understand it and change the way one behaves? Unsurprisingly, I, like Solondz, can only provide an exposure of its complexity, not a solution of inverse proportionately rivaling simplicity.

The themes of race and class exploitation that go unacknowledged through the work of hypnosis (which should, in my view, be read as a metaphor for social hypnosis or cold social structures) return as a kind of retribution in the end. Consuela has been wronged. And the wrongdoers refuse to acknowledge what they've done. She returns to kill them ("rape" them?) for no other reason than that she can. She is a return of the historically repressed. It is no irony, either that Scooby, who is another vehicle for analyzing the hollow routines of high school and suburban America, is the only one to be spared of this retribution. He is the only one who questions the routinized practices and thought, but the irony is that he is spared by chance, not by Consuela's historical selection. Nor is it insignificant that the child-hypnotist also fits into this troubling metaphor of rape and its vengeance. After all, his evil hypnosis is motivated by his unrequited love, his desire to be "the favorite." Like Professor Scott, he responds violently to his uncomfortably assigned identity, which itself will have repercussions that invoke justice. Vi writes a confrontational story. Consuela gases the entire family that went along hypnotically with the little boy's wishes to put Consuela on the street. Scooby who is exploited for laughs in a documentary is in reality headed for Princeton. The popular Brady ends up forgotten in a coma, which in the critical logic of the film, is scarcely different from being a social robot in high school. And Toby, returns from the land of the losers with a hit movie (but is he "just" in his portrayal of Scoobie?). In each of these cases, a character is assigned a socially rigid identity, which he/she rebels against in complex ways that invoke judgments of justice. Even Brady, who goes from football star to boyfriend in a coma󩳠it fair? To youngest sibling/hypnotist Mikey, whose lack of love and attention has made him resentful, it certainly is. A world where arbitrary (cultural-historical) social values produce "favorites," violence, symbolic or otherwise, is not far behind. The difference between fiction and non-fiction appears to be a click of the old Viewmaster held up to the willing light. Fiction and non-fiction are, then, subject positions, points of view that the mind may settle into contingent upon a host of other values judgments and identifications. "Will you step into my parlor?" said the spider to the fly.

In sum, Storytellingplays with the themes of what is fiction and non-fiction, depending on interpretive point of view, which may also depend on the politics and knowledge that accompany that point of view. To re-enter the biographical world momentarily, Solondz has been accused of exploiting his characters for laughs of icy superiority. His ending demonstrates that his identifications with characters are complex and that he is not un-reflexive about his relationship to them. Thus, he also, in my view, escapes one of the most serious accusations in circulation: that this is really a film about white suburbia's worst kept nightmare, black male-white female interracial sex. Rather, it is a view of the American socialscape that Solondz has tragic identifications with and which he exaggerates (by pointing the camera at only certain aspects of it) in order to interrupt people's unthinking acceptance of it󩮠order to induce reflection and possible public debate and change. In this sense, Storytellingis even more of a struggle with and critique of the social than was his last film, Happiness, the latter of which hardly proffered any awards to the suburbs either. Happiness was especially focused around the disturbing enigma of pedophilia (or, more strongly, child rape), and one could view some of that film as planting suggestions that such a pathology had some social roots in the suburbs. However, Storytelling is more squarely a film about the dark productive machinery of the social. Like Fritz Lang's underground world of Metropolis, it is a machinery hidden from the eye but which erects grievous injustices of a colossal historical magnitude and catastrophes attended by not even an angel.

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Copyright © 2002 by Jason Harsin. All rights reserved.

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