https://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=5353&reviewer=67

Storytelling

Reviewed By Thom
Posted 12/22/01 10:39:37

"Everybody suffers."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

A Solondz film is never going to be easy and he is in danger of being controversial for controversies sake. He comes close in Storytelling to simply being shocking without having a reason behind it. As the film progresses his examination of the complexity of the suburban myth becomes the driving force of the film.

Solondz has handful of characters to act out his Socratic dialogue about the suburban condition and ends up humanizing them rather than ridiculing them. He asks the difficult questions and delivers a complicated message. Life is a trap, he seems to be saying. And there is no way to free yourself from it. You can analyze, create and enlighten but you can’t really stop the way things are. You can only stop it for yourself. The artistic, intellectual bohemian is priveleged in Storytelling but it is not the subject. The subjects in all his films are fucked up, dysfunctional people in a fucked up dysfunctional world.

All the stories have a disppointing edge. Failed promises and absurd hopes. The film opens on a college campus in a segment called “Fiction”. A Pulitzer prize winning creative writing teacher bitterly abuses the work of his students and has a violent sexual fetish, appropriately enough involving bondage. He sees himself as fettered professionally and translates that to the way he puts chains on his students figuratively and literally.
In the “fuck scene”, Solondz voluntarily placed a red rectangle over the two figures to avoid any repurcussions with the MPAA. Or perhaps it is a ruse to avoid showing and prefering to let our imagination fill in the blanks. In spite of all the “Fuck me, Nigger”, it wasn’t really a shocking scene because the film delivers its own perspective on what happened. Solondz offends and then he uses that moment to instruct. He conveniently avoids criticism by redeeming himself with the “correct” interpretation. However, we still get to witness the incorrectness of the moment.

And then when the student writes about it, she is derided, accused of fetishizing, demonizing and then escaping from “Mandingo”.

Race, class, gender, sexuality and patriarchal macho culture are brought to the table and explored in Solondz’s unique method of discussing the world through this films.

The second half of the film, titled, “Nonfiction” features Paul Giametti as a documentarian named Toby Oxman who can’t seem to finish any of the creative projects he starts. He’s tried acting, writing and now film making. He rationalizes his job at a shoe store by using his creative work to separate himself out from the mall rabble. He’s not really “one of them”. “Nonfiction” is the more compelling of the two parts. Toby begins work on a documentary of the suburban teenage experience. In this case, an upper middle class neighborhood in New Jersey.

Toby finds a directionless guy, Scooby Livingston (Mark Webber) who wants to “be on TV” when he grows up. Scooby’s dysfunctional family becomes the backdrop for the biggest punch the film makes. Suburban dysfunction isn’t a new topic. It played out to a highly receptive audience in American Beauty and Solondz even makes a little joke about the movie with a straw wrapper blowing in the wind against a wall while he narrates “the most beautiful thing I ever saw”.

Storytelling sets up the same tone and then becomes a more pointed, less accessible American Beauty. Instead of social prejudice or failed relationships, the tensions of class conflict and pressure to “succeed” result in tragedy that is also, paradoxically, opportunity. After the pain, there is nothing left to do but rebuild on all the new wisdom gained from the experience. In Storytelling, the real tragedy is not in the lives of the individuals but in the system as a whole. Solondz keeps pointing to the larger machine and only uses his subjects to show how it affects us as individuals. When bad things happen to people you don’t really care about its like, you don’t really care.

John Goodman and Julie Hagerty play Scooby’s parents, Marty and Fern who embody the worst of the Aggressive Father and Passive Mother. Neither of them are concerned about their son as a person, instead pushing him to “succeed” and “conform”. Scooby’s youngest brother Brady (Noah Fleiss) doesn’t even think his parent’s love him even though they work very hard to provide a good life for him.

Toby also has a mentor helping him edit his documentary who gives him advice about how he is treating his subject and how much of himself to put in the project and how much of his own growing he needs to do to avoid self-limiting arrogance. Through her, we get the balanced perspective on terminal hipsters pointing an accusing finger at the bridge and tunnel world they are all running from. But this is not a bad thing to want to reinvigorate the world and stir up the fetid waters of the world they were all encouraged to recreate for their own generation.

Toby is desperately trying to find a story and as he explores all the angles, he ultimately leads the Livingstones to look at their personal failures and certainly forces Toby to a self-examination he was not ready for.

On of my favorite scenes is Scooby relenting to take the SAT. He doesn’t want to go to college and then he finds out that Conan O’Brian went to college and he changes his mind. The SAT scene brought it all back. The isolation, the silence, everybody sweating out their fears that they may only get into a second tier college and thus seal their fate to a lifetime of shopping at JC Penney and budget group travel.

O’Brian has a cameo as himself, the talk show host in a dream sequence while Scooby is getting a blow job from his gay friend. Scooby is remarkably generous in letting his closeted friend, even though everyone knows that he’s not only gay, but is after Scooby’s booty, get a little taste of the goods. Scooby is also not the slightest bit confused. He doesn’t wonder about his own sexuality, he just agrees to get blown.

Storytelling shows that even banal humans are humans after all. If you prick them, they will bleed. He also shows how ignorant social attitudes are passed on just as much as how progressive attitudes develop. The one character we watch develop, Scooby, stands in for us. Kinda lost, kinda doesn’t understand how the world really works, kinda doesn’t know what to do with himself until he happens upon a mirror that shows him how ridiculous he looks.

The shock of recognition gives him something real to feel, something he has to comprehend, something that stirs the waters of his soul and makes him act. We “get it”, even though “it” hurts.

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