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.
I dwell on this event in the first part of Storytelling because it seems to be the nerve center of the film. From here, you can shoot to almost any point in part two. You could link this chamber scene to the climactic moment when Consuelo (Lupe Ontiveros), a Salvadoran housemaid, commandeers the destiny of the whole Livingston family. You could think of Mr. Scott when Scooby Livingston grants a cold sexual favor to the boy who loves him. You might compare Vi to the wonderfully inept Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti), the would-be filmmaker whose documentary about Scooby provides the framework for part two. There’s something Vi-like in the way that Toby, for all his apparent innocence, agrees to serve professionally as a conduit for contempt. Or does that contempt make Toby the white schlemiel twin of Mr. Scott?
As these examples suggest, Storytelling is a meticulously balanced movie, despite its asymmetry. You can see both of these qualities full-blown if you imagine Vi and Mr. Scott next to another pair in the film: Mr. and Mrs. Livingston. For the latter roles, Solondz has cast the spherical John Goodman as husband to linear Julie Hagerty, creating a classic sight gag. What interests me, though, isn’t just the contrast of physical types; it’s the way that the contrast is hilarious with the Livingstons but not funny at all with Vi and Mr. Scott. I attribute the difference in effect to social attitudes–it’s the difference, in film history terms, between The Birth of a Nation and a Laurel and Hardy comedy–but also to the varying weights of the roles. Vi and Mr. Scott are central to part one; Mr. and Mrs. Livingston are peripheral to part two. Yet here’s the subtlety of Solondz’s filmmaking: He makes the camera gaze blandly at both pairs of characters, as if visual incongruity were not the doorway to a labyrinth but a simple fact of nature.
There’s something similarly simple, and perhaps deceptive, in the cruel justice that Solondz visits on his characters. The punishments, though horrible, are a little too neat. To some of the film’s detractors, this criticism also applies to the author’s self-inflicted wounds. In this view, Solondz’s implied self-portrait as Toby Oxman is a mere dodge, tossed into the picture to excuse the general mockery.
I can produce no evidence to counter this criticism, except for my own emotions. I felt, at the end of their stories, that Vi and Scooby were in a condition beyond either mockery or pity. They were, in a word, stuck. And it seemed to me that Solondz, who had done the sticking, had performed it with the effortless precision of a Zen archer.
Here’s how Solondz shoots in Storytelling: Hand, arrow and bull’s-eye are one. The aim does not falter, because the archer is the target–and so, I suspect, are you.
Nanni Moretti’s new film, The Son’s Room, won top prize at last year’s Cannes festival, despite the May sunshine on the Riviera. We’re lucky to have the picture released here in midwinter, when the atmosphere better suits the mood.
Playing his first dramatic character–in the past, he’s always appeared more or less as himself–Moretti comes before us as Giovanni, a psychoanalyst and family man. Although he’s often bored and irritated by his patients, Giovanni sustains himself through a warm, sexy relationship with his wife, Paola (Laura Morante), and through his pleasure in their teenage children. Irene (Jasmine Trinca) is a basketball star, and she has a boyfriend of whom Giovanni and Paola can disapprove just enough. She has the sort of high animal spirits that Giovanni likes, and which are shared by his son, Andrea (Giuseppe Sanfelice). But as the film begins, Andrea gets into a bit of trouble at school. It seems that Andrea might be concealing something from his parents. Before Giovanni can restore a sense of candor–before he fully admits to himself the need for restoration–Andrea dies in a sporting accident.
Now the movie begins in earnest, with the metallic screech on the soundtrack of screws digging into the coffin lid. The noise, which is unendurable, doesn’t end there. In search of those high animal spirits in which he puts his faith, Giovanni goes straight from the funeral to a carnival, where he’s whipped about in a ride to the accompaniment of the ultimate urban blare. Long after this blast subsides, The Son’s Room gives you the effect of a ringing in the ears: a physical correlate to the grief that hangs around the characters, driving them crazy and driving them apart.
This is the most intensely private subject that we’ve had from Moretti, who in the past has been more of a prickly, humorous social commentator. (Even in the section of Caro Diario in which he told of his treatment for cancer, Moretti kept his eye on the political dimensions of disease.) I admire the nuance he’s now brought to observing family dynamics, the intelligence with which he’s dramatized the professional frustrations of an analyst, the skill with which he’s skirted the problems of playing Giovanni. (Knowing that Moretti the actor can’t sustain a big, emotionally wrenching scene, Moretti the writer-director hasn’t given him one. The effect is to make the portrayal seem powerfully restrained.)
Most of all, I admire the way Moretti has let the deeper emotional currents shape the movie. You get to a point in The Son’s Room where characters begin to depart, in a flood. The movie seems to be emptying. Then a single new character comes into the story, to occupy the space that all the others have voided. Nothing draws attention to this internal movement of the story. It just happens; at which point The Son’s Room becomes full, as the best movies do.
The vagaries of deadlines have kept me from writing much about Tsai Ming-Liang’s most recent film, What Time Is It There?, which will have been playing in New York for a month when this column reaches you. But since I love this movie–and since it, too, is a story about a period of mourning–let me say this much:
It’s easy enough to imagine that when we die, we go to Paris. It takes a remarkable artist like Tsai Ming-Liang to propose that the Paris of the dead is a place where you don’t have any fun, because you don’t speak the language and nobody knows you. This seems to be the main idea of What Time Is It There?, in which a young man in Taipei–a street vendor of wristwatches–decides that his recently deceased father has moved on to Paris time. The young man goes about resetting every clock he can reach, as if to stay mindful of the father’s whereabouts. Meanwhile (and what a concept “meanwhile” is, in this film), a young woman from Taipei is having a miserable time in Paris. Or is the young man just imagining her ennui?
Tsai Ming-Liang is too playful, and too smart, to give you direct answers. He offers droll, sad experience instead. Highly recommended.