Storytelling (2001)


Written and directed by Todd Solondz


contains spoilers

Storytelling is an excellent film, written and directed by Todd Solondz, whose previous works include Welcome to the Dollhouse and the ironically titled Happiness.

If you haven't seen the film, it is divided into two parts, entitled 'Fiction' and 'Non-fiction' respectively. They are unrelated in terms of narrative, but are somewhat linked thematically. 'Fiction', which is the smaller part of what is quite a short film anyway, in some ways sets up the latter part, creating something for us to relate 'Non-fiction' to when we think about the issues.

'Fiction' is the story of some creative writing undergraduates at an American university during the era of campus identity politics, and their teacher, an angry black award winning novelist. The professor, Mr Scott, seems to play to the stereotype the white students have of him, as an aggresive sexualised black man and acts in a sadistic and misogynistic way.

When the main protagonist's boyfriend, who suffers from cerebral palsy, finishes with her because he believes she is only staying with him out of sympathy (which is true), she turns to Mr Scott, who she runs into in a bar. Vi, the student, acts submissive and flatters Scott, hypocritically stating that she is a big fan of his work, and allows him to dominate her, arguably he rapes her, just as has happened with a seemingly more self-assured classmate before her.

The target of the filmmaker in this section seems to be to attack so-called political correctness, - something liberals use as a hypocritical excuse to skirt genuine consideration of issues such as stereotypes? When the disabled student reads his trite, clichéd story about his struggle with cerebral palsy, the other students tell him it was "very emotional", and come out with a load of drivel about other writers who had disabilities. On the other hand, when Vi reads her piece of supposed fiction about her encounter with the teacher, it is dismissed by the class as unrealistic, misogynistic and racist, the irony of course being that the story is true.

'Non-fiction' attacks these same values, but in a much broader way. If the narrative here is flabbier, the message goes further, is more cutting and targeted more obviously at a wide section of society. The themes that I drew from this section were of shallowness, fame, and exploitation, particularly amongst the American suburban middle class (targeted in a much weaker way by American Beauty). When loser and would-be documentary maker Toby decides to make a documentary about the stress undergone by high school leavers, he picks slacker Scooby Livingston as the sole subject, promising the documentary will not be exploitative, genuinely intending it to be a sympathetic and highbrow portrayal of an issue that evidently pains the film maker himself. But when the family suffer a series of tragic misfortunes, it is caught on film, and the documentary is a great success, despite having compromised the half-assed ideals of the creator. Ironically, the so-called non-fiction has this time become fiction as comedy and drama overtake pretensions of giving a sober, balanced view of Scooby's life. At the same time we are given a view of the narrow minded Jewish family Scooby is rebelling against, with a moronic father, another submissive female as the wife and two brothers including a particularly obnoxious pre-teen.

In the plotline concerning the pre-teen and the El Salvadorian maid we are given a particularly harrowing, but unsentimental account of one example of the other side to the superficial American Dream (etc.). The spoilt brat of a son spills his juice and when he goes to find Consuelo the housekeeper to clean it up for him, she reveals to him that her grandson has been executed for rape and murder. Significantly, given an earlier dinner table discussion about the holocaust among the family, Consuelo's grandson was killed by gassing – and, if I may skip forward in the plot, it is gas Consuelo allows to leak when murdering the family, after being sacked on the young boy's influence.

As we have seen from this plot as well as in previous films, Solondz is not afraid to shock the viewer, and he takes a swipe at those sorts of people who are liable to find the content objectionable, namely conservatives and phoney liberals alike. Political Correctness is again mocked when the school psychologist says that American schoolchildren are under more stress than those in Bosnia during the bombing, and when the father sends Scooby away from the dinner table for pointing out that if it wasn't for Hitler, the family would not have moved to America and so the children would not have existed.

Following September 11th, when a background shot of the twin towers of the World Trade Center was pointed out to Solondz, he said he was inclined not to remove it from the film. For me, Storytelling works even better in light of the attacks of 11th September, given the film's attack on American (and western) foolishness and selfishness, which to an extent extends beyond the politics of media and identity it primarily deals with. Think of the dramatic ending to the film, the comparisons that have been made between the twin towers attack and something that might happen in a Hollywood movie, and the blurring of the boundaries between fact and fiction that Storytelling looks at.


Storytelling has a soundtrack by the Scottish indie pop band Belle and Sebastian. Although the album comprises 18 tracks, it's quite short, and only a little of it can actually be heard in the film. Like the film, the Storytelling soundtrack recieved only moderate acclaim. Both are said not to be up to the standard of the artists' previous offerings. Sound clips from the film intersperse the album, and although they help relate the soundtrack to the film, they mess up the flow a bit too much. My favourite song is the catchy title track, with lyrics that relate to the theme of the film.

Tracklisting:
1. Fiction
2. Freak
3. Conan early Letterman (dialogue)
4. Fuck this shit
5. Night walk
6. Jersey's where it's at (dialogue)
7. Black and white unite
8. Consuelo
9. Toby (dialogue)
10. Storytelling
11. Class rank (dialogue)
12. I don't want to play football
13. Consuelo leaving
14. Wandering alone
15. Mandingo cliche (dialogue)
16. Scooby driver
17. Fiction (reprise)
18. Big John Shaft

CD Cat. No.: JPRCD014

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