Review: Storytelling (2001)

The follow-up to the controversial and acclaimed Happiness is a film which also caused controversy, earning the useless NC-17 rating. This annoyed director Todd Solondz that he decided to shove a big fat middle finger in the MPAA’s faces by calling their bluff. The scene in question that earned the rating, an anal rape scene, was covered by Solondz with a big red rectangle. This appeased the MPAA, who were unaware that the rectangle was Solondz’ way of criticising their twisted view of censorship.

I watched Storytelling last night, and was shocked to discover that my Region 4 DVD contained no such red rectangle, and the scene was left bare and untouched for me to see, and now, before I jump into the review, I’m going to tell you why the NC-17 rating was completely unnecessary.

For one, the scene was graphic, yes, but certainly not pornographic and no genitalia was visible. Secondly, the scene was not a closeup or anything like that, the camera was actually noticeably distance, although static. And finally, I have seen sex scenes much more graphic than this that didn’t bother the MPAA in the slightest. They either have a real bone to pick with Solondz after Happiness, or the other, more likely reason they were so insistent, was the context of the scene.

Storytelling is a film split into two parts: the first is thirty minutes, and the second is the remainder of the film, closer to an hour. The first part is definitely more compelling and meaningful than the second part, and if it had been produced alone as a short film, it would be brilliant, but part of the impact is taken away by the second story.

The first story, and the one which contains the aforementioned scene, tells of a young woman (Selma Blair), who, along with her boyfriend who suffers from cerebral palsy, is a budding writer. But her writing teacher, a black man (Robert Wisdom), criticises both of their respective works mercilessly. He gives the boyfriend’s story such a thrashing that he takes it out on Blair, whose character is Vi. She promptly dumps him, and goes to drown the sorrow of her mixed emotions at a bar. Distraught and sexually confused, she meets her teacher there. He says a few, unkind words, but she is drawn to him as his silence is both repulsive and attractive. In a scene that is pure Solondz, we see them walking slowly back to his apartment on the footpath, wordless, staring away from each other, while cooling music plays. Then they get to the apartment, and she asks to go and freshen herself up in the bathroom. While in there, she sees a series of extremely graphic pornographic photos (the MPAA had no problem with this, then, did they?) and realises he may be perverted. She whispers to herself over and over “don’t be a racist, don’t be a racist,” before exiting the bathroom. He lays on the bed and tells her to strip, turn around and face the wall. She reluctantly obliges, convinced that if she didn’t do as he said, she’d be a racist. Then the graphic sex scene takes place, and turns quickly into a sort of sick rape. He forces her to say “N***er, fuck me hard!” and she does so, disgusted with herself but doing as she says only so she is not a racist.

This is Solondz dealing with the subject of racism in a cleverly brilliant manner. Vi has no choice here; she feels she has to say and do these things because if she doesn’t, society deems it prejudiced. This shows how often, racism is overcooked and people become oversensitive, and how people can use this to force us to do things against their will. Just the other day, I reviewed a film that tackled racism in an awful, disgustingly insulting manner, Crash, directed by Paul Haggis, and I think he could learn a thing or two from that scene.

The second story in the film deals with different themes, most notably our obsession with being gratified for our hard work. Paul Giamatti plays a loser, who is trying to reconnect with a girl from high school, and thinks he can impress her by making a documentary film about schoolkids in a post-Columbine society. He decides to focus his documentary on Scooby, a dope-smoking, unintelligent failure whose parents (including John Goodman in somewhat of a Walter Sobchak reprisal) are at their wits end. The documentary starts out as a heartfelt analysis of the crushing high school society but unwisely turns into a critical embarrassment which makes fun of Scooby’s stupidity and false hope.

Solondz is stubborn and tough here, as unflinching as we have come to rely on from him, and Storytelling is yet another accurate, concise, and somewhat brilliant analysis of society’s ills. If you liked Happiness, and generally approve of Solondz’ ideals and works, Storytelling is a must-see. But in general, it’s not particularly outstanding, although it is worth renting from Netflix just for the excellent first story.

My Rating:

3.5/5

Is It Worth Adding To Your Netflix Queue?

So what about you folks? Have you seen this little slice at society’s straightwire? If you have, leave a comment below. Thanks.

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About Tyler

Patient observer of all things film and music, from Béla Tarr to Boards of Canada. Foul mouthed and clinging to the edge of sanity.

Posted on July 11, 2011, in Movie Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. So glad you highlighted this film. Todd Solondz is among maybe the most five interesting directors working today, and Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness are without question among the greatest films of their respective decades. I’ve rarely been so uncomfortable, in an absolutely exhilarating way, as I’ve been when I’ve sat in the theater watching one of his movies. It’s hard to think of another director who’s so uncompromising and unafraid of not being liked, and one so brilliant and original as a writer. One of the great things about Storytelling in particular is the way its odd, asymmetrical structure is reflected in the way the film as a whole keeps you so constantly off balance. While I agree that the first segment is excellent, I think the second is even better–Solondz’s dry, dark sense of humor is at its best here. (Also: God bless him for casting Julie Hagerty, Airplane’s brilliant leading lady, an immensely talented actress whose comedic gift has been lamentably overlooked for decades.)

    • Glad to hear you liked it. I wasn’t sure I was going to get any comments on this review. It’s a film people often overlook, despite its obvious talents. I agree with you about Hagerty, but I think she wasn’t given nearly enough to do.

  2. You have it on DVD! I’ve been looking for this for a while in NZ. Can you tell me where you got it or let me know who the distributer on the DVD is. Thanks.

    PS Can’t wait to watch Life During Wartime. (Just released on DVD)

    • I got it from a local DVD rental store (United Video) and found it in the Arthouse/Foreign section (ignorant fuckers). It was really a stroke of luck just to find it. Aside from that there’s really not much more to say, sorry. Hope it helps.

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