by Richard Porton
|Widely regarded as Canadas leading independent filmmaker, Atom Egoyan is frequently hailed as brilliantly innovative and occasionally damned as a purveyor of arid cinematic parables. Egoyans wry self-deprecation, however, allows him to view both acclaim and derision with a jaundiced eye. In fact, the critical response to Egoyans films often seems several steps behind the directors unsparing assessments of his own work. Egoyans personal modesty has never interfered with his professional assurance, enabling him to explore a cluster of interrelated themesthe erosion of ethnic identity in the face of modernity, the relationship betweeen technology and alienated sexuality, and the black humor that can be derived from the travails of irrevocably dysfunctional families.
Egoyans debut feature, Next Of Kin (1984), typifies the absurdist tenor which suffuses his work. A lighthearted film which provides a glimpse of darker ironies, Next Of Kin focuses on an elaborate wish-fulfillment fantasy concocted by Peter, a nondescript young WASP who flees his affluent middle-class family to effortlessly become part of a warm but fractious Armenian clan. Never one to offer glib panaceas, Egoyan mercilessly skewers both the puritanical Anglo-Canadians and the feuding Armenians; the Candide-like protaganists search for ethnic bonhomie proves futile.
A few ludicrous videotaped family therapy sessions in Next Of Kin foreshadow the all-encompassing preoccupation with video surveillance and voyeurism that comes to the fore in Egoyans subsequent films. Even if the narcissistic protaganists of Family Viewing (1987) and Speaking Parts (1989) seem inextricable from the media-saturated landscapea world which fetishizes the ability to instantaneously record and play back imagesEgoyan is not committed to a crude technophobia. He is merely bemused by how new technologies become harbingers of perceptual and cultural upheavals.
The Canadian critic Geoff Pevere remarks that these early works create a world where identity becomes as erasable as videotape and as ephemeral as battery power. Family Viewing (1987) deals explicitly with the permeability of one young mans identity, a Toronto WASP named Van. Vans discovery that his authoritarian father has erased an entire archive of video images proves pivotal; amateur pornography featuring the smug dads sexual romps with his mistress obliterate the sons cherished images of a childhood spent with a now-absent mother and grandmother. Vans unlikely alliance with a phone-sex operator culminates in a strangely upbeat triumph over the enemies of historical memory.
Speaking Parts, a less optimistic cinematic fever dream, can be savored as a savage parody of the culture industrys tendency to reduce serious discourse to a series of banalities. Set in an antiseptic Toronto hotel, the narrative plunges us into a vertiginous and often hilarious tale of bumbling solipsists. Clara, a naive young woman, writes a heartfelt but plodding script in an attempt to commemorate her brothers death. But the script is eventually bowdlerized by a wily producer who replaces its earnest platitudes with a talk-show format. Both Clara and Lisa, a pouty chambermaid, are dazzled by the films leading man, Lance. Nevertheless, they usually cannot enjoy his sexual allure in person, but must resign themselves to gaping at his image on a video monitor. Even grief has become subserviant to electronic razzmatazz; in Speaking Parts dystopian universe, video mausoleums convert mourning into a private spectacle. While Family Viewing concluded with a qualified optimism, Speaking Parts refuses to comfort the audience with even a glimmer of hope.
Equally pessimistic, The Adjuster (1991), Egoyans first wide-screen film, bestows an epic dimension on its protaganists concerted disengagement from reality. Noah Render, the eponymous insurance adjuster, is an unsavory mixture of therapist and con artist. Superficially empathetic towards his clients, his compassion for the bereaved emanates from a need to control their lives. And Renders arrogance is bizarrely congruent with his wife Heras job as a film censora task that fuses anal-retentive zeal with furtive prurience. By the films end, the semicatatonic Renders are eventually victimized by the schemes of more diabolical narcissistsa wealthy couple who spend their time staging increasingly violent private fantasies. The Adjuster unveils the authoritarian implications of a world where the genuine pursuit of pleasure has been replaced by loss of affect and asocial hedonism.
Casting a wider esthetic and thematic net, Calendar (1993) and Exotica (1994)a low-budget experimental film and a lush, relatively high-budget psychodramawere incrementally less claustrophobic and even flirted with a new sense of hope. Calendar offered an opaquely personal gloss on the preoccupation with assimilation already evinced in Next Of Kin and Family Viewing. When a Canadian-Armenian photographer and his Armenian-born translator wife (played by Egoyan and his actual wife Arsinée Khanjian) return to their homeland, the chasm between North American affluence and a culture wounded by war and deprivation becomes glaringly apparent. The failure of Egoyans alter ego to confront a submerged past leads to the dissolution of his marriage; his moral hibernation is rife with both personal and political reverbations.
While Exotica was indisputably Egoyans commercial breakthrough, it is also his most problematic work. This elaborately mounted puzzle film unfolds like a quasisurreal parody of a psychoanalytic session: a nubile stripper assumes the role of a surrogate shrink while the opuulent sex club referred to in the films title serves as a commodious couch. Audiences were understandably seduced by the films rapid-fire plot twists and visual panache, but Exoticas soft-core titillation, as well as its facile resolution, seemed to pander to an art-house audience.
Fortunately, The Sweet Hereafter (1997), Egoyans most recent film is one of his most textured and compassionate efforts. Like Exotica, this imaginative adaption of Russell Banks novel is concerned with personal devastation, the ravages of incest, and the deleterious effects of self-delusion. But the collective anguish of a troubled rural community supplants the urban anomie of the earlier films. The Sweet Hereafters central cataclysmic eventa school bus accident in which many of the towns children perishprovides the springboard for an open-ended moral inquiry in which a pragmatic litigiousness is pitted against one courageous individuals resistance to bottom-line acquisitiveness. Mitchell Stephens (played with nuanced intensity by veteran British actor Ian Holm) hubristically believes that he can salve the towns wounds with a whopping cash settlement, while Nicole Burnell, a young accident victim, simultaneously resists the lawyers blandishments and transforms her childhood traumas (the scars wrought by both her fathers incestuous advances and the accident itself) into personal triumph.
Egoyans decision to eschew the predictability of a linear narrative for an intricate skein of flashbacks and flashforwards pays off brilliantly. Avoiding the pitfalls of tabloidish melodrama focusing on a lurid accident and its outcome, The Sweet Hereafters insistent splintering of chronology allows us more profound access to a communitys dark night of the soul. Egoyans informal stock companyKhanjian, Maury Chaykin, Gabrielle Rose, Bruce Greenwood, and David Hemblendisplay an impressive virtuosity. Usually cast as urban neurotics, these skillful character actors portray small-town bus drivers, motel owners, and mechanics with genuine conviction.
Cineaste spoke with Egoyan soon after The Sweet Hereafter won the Grand Prix at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival and several months before its American premiere at the 1997 New York Film Festival. In the folowing interview, he speaks lucidly, and frequently wittily, on topics ranging from cinephilia and the current state of the film industry to the peculiarities of the Canadian experience.Richard Porton
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