Disability Studies Quarterly
Fall 2005, Volume 25, No. 4
<www.dsq-sds.org>
Copyright 2005 by the Society
for Disability Studies


BOOK & FILM REVIEWS

Solondz, Todd (Director & Writer). Storytelling [Film]. 2001. Good Machine, Killer Films, and New Line Cinema. DVD released July 16, 2002.

Reviewed by David Church, Western Washington University

Storytelling is composed of two separate short films about processes of creating fictional and non-fictional narratives (respectively). Because it foregrounds disability, the "Fiction" part is my sole focus. Vi (Selma Blair), a female graduate student, is dumped by Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick), her undergraduate boyfriend with cerebral palsy, and subsequently sleeps with Mr. Scott (Robert Wisdom), her African-American writing professor.

"Fiction" opens with Vi and Marcus coupling in a cinematic sex scene so apparently commonplace that Marcus's disability is not readily noticeable, which is itself uncommon because characters with disabilities are generally assumed incapable of "normal" sexual activity with able-bodied characters. Afterward, Marcus requests she read his revised short story, implying that he manipulates her with sex. When she declines, having read it before, he becomes the stereotypically self-loathing "cripple," suspecting the "kinkiness" she felt for his body is now supplanted by pity (because she no longer sweats during sex). Her use of his disabled body's Otherness as a sexual stimulus recalls hooks's (1992) concept of "eating the Other," whereby a culturally dominant (i.e., white/nondisabled) person fetishizes perceived difference, inadvertently appropriating positive qualities of minority cultures under pretenses of embracing diversity–despite maintaining hegemonic power (p. 21-39). Vi thinks Marcus's disability makes him excitingly different, more mature than other "juvenile undergrads." He submits to her essentialization of him because he thinks it a reciprocal relationship: surrendering his disabled body to satisfy her "kink," in return for sex and a reader.

With Vi's encouragement, Marcus presents his story in their writing class, but his feel-good super-crip story only elicits pitying compliments ("really moving and emotional") because the other students see Marcus only as disabled, as a "freak" incapable of complete humanity without the acceptance of an able-bodied person. After Mr. Scott denigrates the story, Marcus rebukes Vi–and, consistent with the cultural use of disability as a visual signifier for mental abnormality (Sutherland, 1997, p. 17), Marcus makes the illogical, racist/sexist assumption that Vi did not challenge the professor because she wants to have sex with Mr. Scott, "just like...every other white cunt on campus." Marcus's comment reflects a direct opposition between two contrasting stereotypes: black male virility and disability as demasculinizing. Intersectionality, as Davis (2002) says, is "the way that race eclipses disability" as a more socially prevalent indicator of minority status than disability (p. 148-9). Mr. Scott outright rejects the subtitle to Marcus's story, "The Rawness of Truth," implying that the "raw truth" experienced by a white "cripple" could not possibly match that of an able-bodied black man.

Vi eventually rediscovers her kink in another minority–her black professor–becoming "sweaty" during their sex together. Mr. Scott makes Vi say "nigger, fuck me" while he penetrates her, self-consciously exposing the power reversal he (as academic authority) exercises over someone fetishizing Otherness. Vi writes the experience into her next story, and, influenced by intersectionality, the other students react angrily due to their greater awareness of racial stereotypes than the disability stereotypes in Marcus's story. Ironically, Vi's fetishization of the Other is criticized by another white student sleeping with the professor. Mr. Scott says Vi's fictional counterpart "returns to her
crippled boyfriend" (translation: 'sexually impotent') as a safer option than remaining with his own counterpart, thus using disability stereotypes to attack Marcus's manhood. Though "Fiction" ends with Vi returning to Marcus, she remains powerless against Mr. Scott's use of critical distance to disavow their affair since, as he summarizes, "once you start writing, it all becomes fiction."

Solondz uses the students' reactions toward Vi and Marcus's supposedly fictional stories to foreground his awareness of some stereotypes. The negative reactions toward Vi's story are the same sort leveled at his own supposedly "mean-spirited" films, while those who swooned over Marcus's feel-good story represent critics preferring to reaffirm their own sense of self-worth than confront the prejudices of their own condescension. Mr. Scott's statement about it all becoming fiction wryly implies that Solondz–long accused of stereotyping and exploiting characters for comedic effect–may be portraying a personal version of "raw truth" that acknowledges his own inevitable prejudices while finding a kernel of truth in every negative stereotype. Simply acknowledging his culpability as a white, able-bodied filmmaker cannot fully excuse the negative representation of disability he portrays. Still, the anticipatory criticism built into the film (the other students) does indeed critique to some extent the ways in which nondisabled audiences marginalize the efforts of persons with disabilities to be seen as equals in both art and life.

Bibliography

Davis, L.J. (2002). Bending over backwards: Disability, dismodernism, and other difficult positions. New York and London: New York University Press.

hooks, b. (1992). Black looks: Race and representation. Boston: South End Press.

Sutherland, A. (1997). Black hats and twisted bodies. In A. Pointon with C. Davies (Eds.), Framed: Interrogating disability in the media (pp. 16-20). London: British Film Institute.





Copyright (c) 2005 David Church



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