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Dinner with the Livingstons: Tension on the Table

by Katie Baker

Todd Solondz’s Storytelling (Non-Fiction) is a harsh look at a “typical” American family—the Livingstons. Nonfiction explores the dysfunction and turmoil that exists in the Livingston family and in no scene is this dysfunction more evident than “Holocaust Survivors”—a scene at the family dinner table where Solondz parodies the ideal suburban family by exploiting them at their most typical “familial” moment. The conversation here expose the true dysfunction and interpersonal tragedy between these characters by using a backdrop of expected harmony. The setting is a typical dinner table— it is nighttime and all the members of the family are eating a meal and sharing details about their day. Mr. Livingston first asks Scooby, our indifferent teenage protagonist, how his day was, and in typical teenage angst fashion he answers “the same”. The middle son then goes on to mention what he has been learning in school and eventually the entire family begins a discussion concerning the Holocaust. Not your typical light family dinner conversation: and this is our first indication that the idealized image is being manipulated here. Scooby—the dispassionate teenager—is set up as the catalyst for all of this dysfunction. While the family head and patriarch, Mr. Livingston, attempts a relatively normal dinner conversation, Scooby attempts to turn this into a discussion of the Holocaust and a broader more philosophical discussion of survivorship in general. His declaration that if it wasn’t for Hitler none of them would have been born causes the tension to explode and derails any normalcy the dinner might have had as he is banished from the table by Mr. Livingston—the same person that invited him into the conversation in the first place. I believe this is meant to display that the familial dysfunction occurs as a result of a refusal to deal with or acknowledge reality. When the family is acting “normal” and attempting to be so—the tension exists but is not tangible. The public face is disrupted when Scooby draws attention to the unsaid and is then banished by the individual, the patriarch, in charge of containing and controlling the tension. Solondz is drawn to this idea of the unspeakable—this conversation topic is an obvious taboo and so too are Scooby’s comments concerning it. Not only does this scene reveal the downfall of the family, but it also reflects a larger societal issue concerning people’s discomfort with anything outside the norm and their preference for easy, if artificial, situations.

Hostility at Dinner Time

by Mario Ventura

            The dinner table scene in Storytelling’s “Non-Fiction” attempts to shatter the conventional portrait of nuclear family in the contemporary American mind by both the use of the narrative content and the way the scene is shot. It begins with a panning shot of the whole family, but soon concentrates on Scooby and his father and the tension between them. Over the shoulder shots of Scooby and his father are during their hostile exchange about Scooby’s uneventful day at school. During this exchange only Scooby and his father are visible in the shots, bringing our attention to their obviously strained relationship.

Once the shot cuts back to the whole family, many of whom are not engaged with each other in any visible way, Scooby’s younger brother, Brady, interjects with a comment about his own day. As his father acknowledges him and asks to know more the shot remains unchanged, not until Scooby comments to get a reaction out of his father. The shot shifts back to the over the shoulder shot that was previously used. The fact that the shot did not shift for Brady, but did for Scooby tells us that much of the focus of this family centers on the dysfunction present between Scooby and his father.

In the midst of the conversation Brady brought up shots cut from character to character, indicating a separation present between them. In fact, it not until Scooby takes a somewhat combative approach towards his mother that we return to the method previously used with his father – a series of over the shoulder shots that only have the two engaged in the conversation in the shot. This again seems to serve to point out the poor relationship between Scooby and his mother,

Thus, even down to the use of shots, Solondz attempts to create a dinner table that subverts the traditional ideal of the nuclear family – in this scene he does so by intimating the separateness of the family from each other, and the difficult relationship Scooby has with his parents.

Tension: It's What's For Dinner

by Michelle Robinson

This clip by will be used to explore representations of the family meal in Todd Solondz’s films Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness, Palindromes, and Storytelling. Students will examine Solondz’s parodies of domestic and family ideals via scenes that depict his characters around the dinner table, an iconic site for representations of the family unit. Additional commentaries will be provided by students in the course “The Film Director as Public Intellectual” at UNC Chapel Hill (Spring 2012).

Storytelling - Scooby's Family Dinner

This clip is from "Non-Fiction" in director Todd Solondz's two-part feature Storytelling, and shows dinner at the Livingston family's house.

from Storytelling (2001)
Creator: Todd Solondz
Distributor: New Line Cinema
Posted by Michelle Robinson