catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 7 :: 2003.03.28 — 2003.04.10


The big red box

Fighting film with film

Todd Solondz is not afraid to look at the ugly side of human experience. His first major success as a filmmaker, Welcome to the Dollhouse, featured Dawn "Wiener Dog" Wiener (Heather Matarazzo), an unattractive eleven-year old who just doesn't fit in. The film, representing Solondz, attempt to demythologize the transition years of junior high school, consists of a merciless succession of scenes depicting one act of cruelty after another. Solondz offers no apology. "Very often in films we see, this period of life is not treated with much reality," he says in an interview with Debra Jo Immergut. "We tend as adults to sentimentalize and sugarcoat this time of life. I think it is a very critical passage we all had to go through, so we should look at it for what it is, and not as we would like to comfort ourselves with."

Solondz' next relatively successful film, Happiness, is not much of a feel-good movie either. Its focus on sexually frustrated social misfits who love but are not loved reflects Solondz' desire to represent those who are often mis-represented or overlooked if only for the reason that their lives don't make good stories. Even so, Solondz suggests, some account must be made for these people. Real human life must be examined in its complexity, Solondz suggests, even if that means looking closely at the more ugly aspects of humanity.

Solondz is often criticized for this perspective. Some say his depictions of cruelty reflect an intense enmity and resentment, indicating an overall negative outlook on life. The less-than-flattering representations of suburbia in both Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness so closely resemble his own upbringing in New Jersey, critics are tempted to see his films merely as acts of retribution against the people and places he hates. Solondz is judged to be cruel himself for daring to depict the cruelty that he has known in his real life.

For Solondz, a true representation of complex human life must include cruelty, however. The reality of life is that people are cruel. Therefore, it should not be avoided or ignored on the big screen. Of course people are kind, too, he would concede, but kindness is more than adequately represented in the film industry. Indeed, the sweetly sentimental bliss of kindness that is a real experience of life becomes exaggerated in film to the point of deception. Since all of life is not kindness, all movies need not be films of kindness, either.

In order to inject a dose of reality into an industry dominated by sickly sweet films of kindness, compassion and (pretended) good will towards all humankind, Solondz' most recent film, Storytelling, attempts to display the cruelty that exists at the heart of filmmaking itself. Storytelling's two sections, Fiction and Non-Fiction, clearly speak to the harsh exploitation of human life that operates in the art of filmmaking, proving that a close look at film will expose the cruelty within film itself. Just as Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness reveal the cruelty of real life, Storytelling exposes the cruelty in trying to capture real life, in putting it to writing, even in trying to tell it like it is.

Storytelling begins with Fiction, a tightly-written scenario that introduces us to Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick), a student with cerebral palsy, reading his story to a college-level creative writing class. With his girlfriend Vivian (Selma Blair) sitting next to him, Marcus reads what is, by any account, a bad piece of work, a laughably pathetic fantasy about a day when he will walk and run and sing and dance in a body no longer afflicted with disease. The class, consisting for the most part of prudish white females, is gentle. Mr. Scott (Robert Wisdom), the brooding black professor, on the other hand, rips the story apart, wielding all of his Pulitzer Prize-winning authority to burst Marcus' bubble ("You ride on a wave of cliches so wan it almost approaches a level of grotesquerie").

Ashamed, Marcus lashes out at his girlfriend after class. Feeling angered by his rejection ("I thought Marcus would be different. He's got C.P!"), Vi goes out that night to a bar. Finding Mr. Scott there, she goes home with him. After discovering pictures of naked white students in his bathroom, she tries to squelch her own misgivings about what is sure to come by reminding herself repeatedly, "Don't be racist!" (this scene can be understood as Solondz' own instructions to his character or even to himself, since it marks his first explicit engagement with issues of race; it could also represent the voice of the critic who is waiting for Solondz to slip-up, revealing the director's underlying attitude of hatred toward his characters). After this pep talk, Vi engages in a humiliating and degrading sexual encounter that is conspicuously covered with a big red box, a censoring device made necessary only in American theatres (thanks to the MPAA) to avoid an NC-17 rating.

The next class period, Vi delivers an autobiographical account of that horrible night to the creative writing group. Her stuffy classmates are outraged. The piece seems vengeful, full of spite. "Why do you have to write about such ugly things?" one student asks (a question often brought against Solondz himself). Mr. Scott is critical too, of course, and uses this opportunity to pass judgment on Vi's character, who seems to him to be confused about her own desires. She longs for attention and this evidences itself, he says, not only in her taste for sensationalism, but also her taste in men. Vi responds in tears that, because the events she wrote about really happened, the class has no right to criticize her work. The professor teaches what appears to be the only lesson in the short piece when he informs her, "Once you start writing, it all becomes fiction." In storytelling, there is no "really happened."

Of course, the professor is right. For Vi and for the audience, there never was any "really happened." The sexual act with the professor is no more a real event than the next scene when she's reading her story about it. The events that transpire for her and for the audience are events of film, fictional events, events within a story. Vi can claim no real existence as her own. Even Vi's argument that the students may not criticize her true story is placed before the audience's critical gaze within a story, through the fiction of Fiction.

Point taken. What if we tried to convey the "really happened" with non-fiction, however? This is the project of the second piece in Storytelling.

Non-Fiction begins in the tiny room of Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti), an aspiring film director, who looks suspiciously like Solondz himself. Obviously inspired by recent trends in gritty, unflinchingly "realistic" film-making (a Dogme 95 poster hangs crookedly on his bedroom wall; there's a reference to The Blair Witch Project, a short parody of the flying bag in American Beauty, and a heavy dose of humor a la American Movie), Toby seeks to make sense of teenage behavior with a documentary highlighting the pressures real kids face. Toby meets Scooby Livingston (Mark Webber), the soon-to-be subject for his documentary, in the boy's bathroom of a high school. Lacking any desire to go to college, having no ambitions except to become a late-night television personality like Conan O'Brien, Scooby appears to be the ideal focus for Toby's project.

Once Toby convinces Scooby's family of his good intentions, promising not to exploit or harm them in any way with his film, the project is off and running. In order to capture real life, Toby and his cameraman (Mike Schank) are careful not to miss anything. No part of the wealthy suburban family's life should go untouched. The camera circles the table while the family eats. It zooms in on Toby while he's taking his SAT test. It documents the lives of all those around him, even the Hispanic maid (Lupe Ontiveros) who is ignored by most of the family.

Even if Toby's camera is not able to capture Scooby's every move, the camera of Todd Solondz is always there. Solondz probes even further than the documentary, capturing a homosexual encounter between Scooby and a school acquaintance, entering even into Scooby's dream about meeting Conan O'Brien. But when Scooby's brother goes into a coma as a result of a football injury, Scooby seems to get lost in the drama.

Toby keeps his focus on Scooby despite the dramatic events that are unfolding with the rest of the family, but the story itself is getting away from him. Toby complains to his assistant in the editing room (in a previous scene, she blames him for not caring about the people in his documentary, an accusation he vehemently denies) that he isn't sure what to make of his work anymore. Despite his earnest attempt to capture the harsh reality of suburban teen life, the footage, when in the context of his documentary, is starting to seem funny to him. Toby doesn't understand what's happening. "I'm not making fun," he says, "I'm showing it as it really is". He suggests screening it in front of an audience to get a better idea as to what he has.

At the screening, Toby's fears are confirmed. The audience finds Scooby's father (John Goodman) to be a hilarious caricature of an over-bearing wealthy businessman who's out of touch with Scooby's feelings. The viewers of the documentary also laugh at the expense of Scooby himself when he's surprised to find out that even Conan O'Brien went to college.

Solondz doesn't spare his Scooby the embarrassment of being laughed at, either. Solondz puts Scooby at the screening and makes him watch through stifled tears as the audience laughs at his own misery. This moment of laughter is a complex one. Watching the audience laugh at Scooby in Toby's documentary reminds us of our own laughter evoked by the palsied student, by Scooby's dream about Conan O'Brien, and by Toby's own lofty ambitions ("I wrote to Derrida to see if he'd like to do the narration").

More than just observing our own laughter, we are forced to observe Scooby's view of himself as an object of laughter. At this point in the film, however, laughing at Scooby or his situation seems too cruel. Watching Scooby become aware of himself as an object of laughter takes us out of our experience as an audience, placing us instead in the shoes of Scooby himself, who we were laughing at only moments ago.

For all these characters go through for us, the humiliation, the degradation, just so we can laugh at them, just so we could be shown our own laughter, they deserve an apology. Scooby gets his apology only after coming home to find his family dead. Their deaths are a result of a ridiculous storytelling device that involves Scooby's youngest brother. The fifth grader hypnotizes his father and commands to be loved more than his other brothers. He also suggests that the Hispanic maid be fired for her laziness. After getting fired, the maid comes back to turn all the gas on in the house while the family sleeps. This preposterous turn of events seems forced, but the obvious manipulation (even mishandling) of the story, calls attention to the violent grasp of the story on the character's lives. The maid's surprising role in the ending is also Solondz' way of punishing the family for overlooking her as if she had no place in their story. This extreme punishment, however, leaves Scooby without a family. For this, for the humiliation of the screening room and for the exploitation of Scooby and his family (an exploitation literally leading to death), Toby arrives to offer his most heart-felt apologies. Scooby's out-of-character response to this apology finishes the film on an ambiguous note. The somewhat abrupt conclusion leaves one wondering whether or not Scooby was in on the joke the whole time.

Non-fiction has been criticized for its flat characters, dull tone and awkward plot devices. But in this case, all the criticism, clumsiness and confusion directed at or found within Storytelling only add to the essential focus of Solondz' effort, which is to display the cruelty, the exploitation that gets concealed in filmmaking itself. Several dimensions of the film experience (we've already seen how Solondz puts up a mirror for the audience to see itself) are represented in the movie. The film sharply responds to those critics who think Solondz is cruel for portraying cruelty, for example, by including the merciless voice of criticism throughout Fiction. This inclusion of the critic?s voice is Solondz' way of saying, "You think I'm cruel? Listen to yourselves!" Solondz doesn't deny his own cruelty as writer and director, either. After showing the critics their cruelty, he strengthens his point about cruelty's pervasiveness by confessing his own cruelty. He practically flaunts his use and abuse of the characters throughout Non-Fiction, forcing viewers to recognize his own act of exploitation so that no part of the process, no part of life as a whole, is shown to be free of cruelty. By the end of Storytelling, no one, not the audience, not the characters, not the director, not even the critics should be able to blame anyone for cruelty without seeing it in their own lives.

What purpose does this expose on cruelty serve, though? What good can come of merely recognizing cruelty? Solondz' answer may be found in his comments about the need for the big red box in Fiction.

Though the intrusion of this censoring device breaks up the tension of the disturbing sex scene between Mr. Scott and Vi, Solondz considers it something of a personal victory. In an interview with Jean Tang, Solondz explains: "The fact is, the studio didn't want any big red box: It was "Over my dead body", they said. But I had it in my contract that I had the ability to put boxes and beeps wherever necessary in order to procure the "R" rating: I feel the audience is entitled to know what they're not allowed to see." Solondz had the option of digitally altering the scene, as was done in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, but he wanted the audience to be aware that something was being covered up.

Just as cruelty is acknowledged in Storytelling, so the workings of the American ratings system are put on display with the big red box. "I chose red because I didn't want it to be subtle," Solondz says. "This is a very darkly lit scene, and I needed a very strong color to pop out so there would be no ambiguity. It's not a mistake. It's right in your face." Solondz' choice to put the big red box on display coincides with his ambition to show things as they really are. Solondz wants to call attention to what he considers a kind of censorship. "To make a distinction, by the way, the MPAA is a ratings committee, they're not a censorship committee," Solondz says with tongue in cheek. "In fact, the only thing I'm not allowed to do is to use the word "censor," that's the only word they censor. Do you ever notice on in-flight movies or on TV, they'll say, "This movie has been altered or modified," but won't say it's been censored. Studios are complicit and there are larger forces at work, even if it's tantamount to a kind of censorship." Solondz wants to uncover what's really going on, no matter how ugly, even if that exposure requires a big red disruption in the flow of his own story.

Then again, for Solondz' Storytelling, the ugly disruption is the story. The importance Solondz places on this big red box indicates a desire to expose the duplicity of filmmaking itself. That which conceals life is to be dealt with. Talking with Sean Axmaker about Happiness, Solondz indicates that his role as filmmaker is to focus on issues that are only discussed superficially in other areas of the media. Solondz explains,

There's nothing in [Happiness] that I don't think one won't see discussed any day of the week, whether it be a TV talk show, a newspaper, a news magazine, tabloids and so forth. I mean it?s out there every day assaulting us. The difference in part is that the media tends to have a dual sort of message, on the one hand being very moralistic and on the other a kind of entertainment, a kind of titillating freak show. So you get that jangly, righteous moralistic/exploitative message and it seems inevitable that a filmmaker is going to try to address these issues in a more serious, exploratory fashion.

Having already addressed the particular issues of Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness in order to expose what is typically glossed over by regular societal discourse, Solondz is compelled to bring film under the same scrutiny with Storytelling. Movies are often condemned from church pulpits, boycotted by special interest groups, criticized by governing officials, examined by science journals and are the focus of debates on radio and television, so it makes sense that Solondz would want to take up the issue of film with film itself.


Of course film is always an issue for film. Every film says, "Look, this is what a film is, is not, does, does not, can, cannot, should or should not, could or could not do." Those who work with film take from film's history in order to make narrowly defined films ("a box-office smash," "an academy award-winner," "an indie picture" etc.) or films incorporating broader or more intricate visions. Solondz, who desires to show things the way they are, who wants to expose as myth film's frequent claim that life is as sweet and kind and good as we pretend it is, forces film to include cruelty within its definition of itself.

By accepting the shortcomings of film, by recognizing its own appalling nature, Solondz believes we are closer to accepting the way things really are. In the interview with Axmaker about Happiness, Solondz says, "I think it's by acknowledging the flaws, the foibles, the failings and so forth of who we are that we can in fact fully embrace the all of who we are." Cruelty may be the most difficult foible to acknowledge, but humans must not avoid its existence, especially in the regular societal discourse (of which film is only a part) that helps define who we are. Seeking out the ugly parts of human experience does become necessary, then, if film is going to tell it like Solondz wants it told, that is, if film is really going to tell it like it is.

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