Character or Caricature February 8, 2007 – Posted in: Aberrant Normalcy

StorytellingIn the film Storytelling by Todd Solondz, people do loathsome things to one another. There were certain elements early on in the film which cued me in that this was going to be a pretentious art house film, or perhaps a fresh-out-of-film-school flick whose director wanted to remain true to his “artistic vision” rather than mash the film into a Hollywood cliche. At the end of the movie, I was left with a bad taste in my mouth. The film failed on multiple levels, but it took me some time to figure out why.

People who like this film accuse the critics of hating the film because it mocks their suburban, bourgeoisie lifestyles. That’s not why it fails at all. It fails because this film sketches caricatures of people, but never fleshes them into full-fledged characters, into real individuals. In my opinion, characters become real when they take risks, make decisions, and face the consequences of their choices. In Storytelling few if any characters face the consequences of their actions. Here are two examples:

Example 1) The red-haired girl leaves her palsied boyfriend, who has accused her of sexual longing for her black professor. The red-haired girl happens to meet her black professor in a bar (on the same night, no less), then goes home with him and indulges in the black professor’s white rape fantasies. The red-haired girl then returns to her palsied boyfriend the same night. In the next class session, the red-haired girl reads her true account of her encounter with the black professor while her palsied boyfriend sits next to her, supportive and holding her hand.

We never see the consequences of her choice. She leaves her boyfriend for the teacher, but then comes back to him. How does he react? Why does he take her back in so quickly? How does he feel when she reads her cuckolding story right next to him? How does the black professor react to her reading the story aloud and saying to the whole class that the events therein are true? We never see any of it.

Example 2) A struggling documentary film-maker exploits an upper-middle class Jewish, suburban family to make a film about their disaffected son as he prepares to graduate high school. The boy has delusional and childish dreams about his future. The film-maker screens the film to a test audience and the audience laughs at the boy’s utter naivety. The boy just happens to find the screening room as the audience laughs at his on-camera remarks. The boy goes home by bus (his parents’ SUV has conveniently been stolen in a mere instant after he enters New York City) only to find that his loathsome parents are dead. The end.

We never see the boy’s reaction to being mocked on film. He never confronts the film-maker, asking, “What have you done to me?” His parents’ car is stolen, but he never has to deal with that because his parents were killed. He doesn’t react to their death. He just says to the film-maker, “You have your hit.” Also, I neglected to mention that the boy is gay, and his homophobic brother just happens to go into a coma right when the tension between the two starts getting interesting. His homophobic brother says, “I have a good rep at school, so please keep this quiet.” In the next scene the brother is knocked permanently unconscious for the duration of the film. We don’t even see the family mourn the comatose brother.

There are at least five other instances of just such poor characterization in this film. To me, nothing is more important than a character facing the choices of her actions, and unfortunately the writer of Storytelling just didn’t get that. In this case, the director tries so hard for us to get his message that he tramples on his characters. I’m a big believer that if you allow the characters to do what they want to do instead of what you force them to do, the message will reveal itself all on its own. Sometimes, you may surprise yourself at the message that results.