What Minotaurs lurk in the polite American mind, hungering within the contortions of liberal conscience? Even the most not-for-profit filmmaker–a documentarian, a socially responsible type–may turn a corner in his soul and discover a beast in the path, gnawing on the bones of an interview subject. The tender lover bumps blindly into a creature that howls for dirty sex; the tolerant democrat gets screwed, or worse, by the bogeyman she pretends she doesn’t believe in. These monsters, and more, inhabit the labyrinth–or rather, the clean and well-lit suburbs–of Storytelling, an educational new film by Todd Solondz.
When I say “educational,” I mean that both of the tales that Storytelling comprises are concerned with schools. The first, much briefer section of the movie takes place at a university in New Jersey, where Vi (Selma Blair) studies in the writing workshop of a gravely superior author, Mr. Scott (Robert Wisdom). The movie’s second part is set mostly in the home of a well-to-do Jewish family, whose eldest son, Scooby (Mark Webber), is about to wash out of high school on a lukewarm tide of inertia. One way to sum up Storytelling might be to say that Vi wants to learn and does, though (like most of us) she finds the lesson she gets isn’t the one she’d expected. Scooby does not want to learn. Like most of us, he’s taught a good lesson anyway.
But before I elaborate on either of these moral tales, I’d better attempt another definition. Who’s “us”?
The question presents itself early in Storytelling, because Solondz constructs the movie as a brilliantly calculated series of provocations. The appropriate series of responses–the ones that will make the provocations seem worthwhile–are likely to come only from a certain audience. In honor of the fictional New Jersey family in the second part of Storytelling, I will call this audience the Livingstons, who used to be the Levinsteins. Not that Solondz needs a Jewish audience to get the desired effect. What matters is that his viewers recognize themselves in characters who enjoy ma-terial comfort, believe firmly in their own good intentions and feel a part of mainstream American life. Would Mr. Scott, from the first part of Storytelling, respond to the movie as required? I think he’d be grimly amused, and maybe even impressed; but as a black man of a certain age, he also might feel that this party’s been thrown for someone else.
The true audience (or is it target?) would more likely be Vi, who is mild, beneficent and white. Although she escapes the lash in the first writing workshop we see–a session made excruciatingly funny because the participants lie transparently or not at all–Vi later invites a much riskier form of pedagogy, after she runs into Mr. Scott at a bar. She comes to the table where he’s drinking alone; she babbles something about admiring him. Mr. Scott drags on his cigarette, taking the time that belongs only to those who are in control, then replies by laying his hand over hers. To this much younger, much weaker, much less articulate person, he says only, “You have beautiful skin.”
What happens next, in Mr. Scott’s rooms, cannot be shown on an American screen. An orange rectangle drops down over the characters, as if we needed to be protected from a sight that Americans have long been eager to imagine. The scandal this time has nothing to do with the action we might witness; it’s all about the attitude that the movie leads us to adopt. Mr. Scott is playing out a heartless drama of power and powerlessness; and Vi, the character with whom we’re asked to identify, deserves everything she gets.