Keener and Buscemi, Living in Oblivion
Day in the life of bizarre film
By Irene Dobson
It was Orson Welles who said that directing a film was like being given the most wonderful train set a child ever had. “What he failed to add was that most of the time it doesn’t work,” a wag later observed. But out of the most chaotic to-ing and fro-ing imaginable can emerge greatness. Tom DeCillo’s second feature is perhaps not great, but well worth your time.
Living in Oblivion is an account of one unrepeatable day on the set of a low-budget film, and sees director Nick Reve (Steve Buscemi) going quietly spare. Foremost among a multitude of tribulations is his bumbling cast and crew: Nicole (Catherine Keener) is a gifted but neurotic actress with conflicts to resolve; Chad Palomino (James LeGros) is a moronic leading man who thinks he can act; Wolf (Dermot Mulroney) is a leather-clad cameraman with a bad attitude. Put these alongside an exploding smoke machine and a temperamental sound boom and Kafka meets the Marx Brothers.
What is interesting about Living in Oblivion is DeCillo’s ability to rove between dream and reality without drawing undue attention to himself. Having your characters face escalating crises before pulling them (and us) up as they wake up sounds like cinematic old-hat, but DeCillo works with such confidence that this device is made irresistible again. Living in Oblivion is subtitled “A comic celebration of dreamers and their dreams.” Films are, by their nature, dreamlike, and not only are DeCillo’s characters stranded midway between reality and film, but audiences have been ‘living in oblivion’ ever since his film won the Best Screenplay Award at America’s prestigious Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.
Stating that he finds the behind-the-scenes reality more interesting than what goes on in the finished film may seem like bland self-promotion, but DeCillo’s expertly contrived scenes make the mechanics of film-making utterly fascinating. The sequence of retakes in which Nicole’s performance disintegrates shows Keener working her socks off, as well as revealing the process by which directors decide what makes a film performance convincing. Palomino’s ridiculous suggestions for embellishing his performance should not be missed.
Aside from Buscemi, whose rat-like features have been popping up in film after film since 1992’s Reservoir Dogs, DeCillo’s cast is little known if clearly on their way, and you can almost feel the good natured atmosphere which the film has generated. As they set about portraying the boom man, the caterer and the script girl, there developed “an interesting sort of chemistry between crew and cast,” further blurring the line between film and reality. It would have been easy for Keener to rebel as Buscemi steals the film from her, but if she did it scarcely ruffles Living in Oblivion.
As we are absorbed by this clever diversion, DeCillo’s title sums up the appeal of solid seamless film-making. And as we move into 1996 - the centenary of the cinema - it seems appropriate that one’s first visit should witness a celebration of the medium from the inside out.
—Irene Dobson, ArtsEye, 28 December 1995.
A teeny weenie lie?
I have a confession to make! When I wrote this piece I had not seen Living in Oblivion. I saw most of the new releases during my time as film critic at ArtsEye. But there were times when I did not enjoy a happy relationship with the film’s distributor, I had a funeral to attend, or one of my cats wasn‘t very well. This review turned out to be one of the reasons the editor of ArtsEye used to ‘let me go’ as their film critic. Much later I was thinking about what the writer ends up with when she doesn’t see the film she is supposed to be reviewing. And what the reader ends up with. And I have a theory.
The Theory of the Absent Spectator
The theory of the absent spectator is, unlike most film theories, a theory of writing, not a theory of watching. It emphasizes the knowledge and insight the reviewer brings to the film, rather than that which she derives from the film. It is a theory which does not emphasize my engagement with this film and the fruit thereof. Instead, it stresses my own knowledge, whether it is film knowledge, general knowledge, or other people‘s thoughts about the film. Its insights are outlying, embracing lots of films rather than just this one. The originality of thought comes in the way the critic arranges things on the page, rather than in her engagement with the look and movement of a particular film. The year after I submitted this review, I reviewed Primal Fear, in which I wrote about Frances McDormand and older depictions of split personality disorders in cinema history to make up for my lack of reference to specific scenes from Primal Fear, which I hadn’t seen. They published it gladly. This is not widely known, but critics often don‘t see the film! When Mr. Kirby missed the press show for Red Firecracker, Green Firecracker because his dog was down, that’s when I stepped in at the Evening News!
Writing without seeing the film must make up from books and prior experience what it lacks in experience of this or that film. The trick, I have found, is to make the many histories which feed the film speak up on its behalf and let that make the film seem irresistible, or horrible, to you or I. The truth is that any piece of writing is a tapestry of facts, insights, quotes, received ideas. I wonder how often we assume that a film reviewer has seen the film she is reviewing when she hasn’t, actually? The theory of the absent spectator is a theory of content and the way that content is arranged reveals the writer’s personality.
There is a long tradition of what some call ‘sociological’ writing about films in Britain, writing which describes the work and attitudes of real people who are depicted on film. Basil Wright beautifully emphasized the world out of which the film comes in his book The Long View. Describing a scene from Les Jeux interdits, he marshals all his compassion for the little children made orphans by a strafing German aircraft. His words are miracles of imagination, violence and gentle longing in which, long before video enabled him to go back and check, Mr. Wright conjured the film seemingly from nowhere. David Robinson was another who was well aware of what was in the frame before it became fashionable to think only of how the director chopped up what he saw. British documentaries depicting the world around us are our precious gift to cinema. Raymond Durgnat’s famous book was called A Mirror for England, and I think we are losing that idea of cinema as a mirror, a window on the world. Not seeing the film prompts me to write about it as if it is an account of worldly experience. It also bids me return to a place and a time when it was a photographic record and not a product, bamboozling Irene with sturm und drang, ‘production values’ for which I had to see the film in order that I could tell people what was different about this week’s conceit. Not seeing the film makes me forget, at least while I am writing, that it is just a product.
My theory has what you might call a political side. When I reviewed Living in Oblivion I drew from the press notes which I was able to obtain by a subterfuge all my own. Press notes are full of good things: interviews, quotes, plot and so on, and distributors want critics to use whatever publicity they make available. (I suppose they would even like it if you just wrote from what they make available, see the film at your leisure, and stop grizzling about ‘critical perspective’!)
If the critic doesn’t see the film she is supposed to be reviewing, the reader can end up with a series of trade-written gobbets laced with historical backdrop, a little lecture which may seem positive. But whether the review is good or bad, it may even be an artful piece of work too. My friend Bindy’s son writes for the British film magazine Total Film. She tells me that they don’t want you if you “know too much about films.” What they want is slick stuff, big words that they can re-use on posters. And in the press packs. (Sometimes I can think up hyperbole just by reading the film’s synopsis to myself!)
I do not recommend critics writing about films without seeing them. It was one excuse the beastly editor used when he sacked me. (When I think about how friendly the magazine was with the local cinema, it seems ironic as this was because of me!) It was wrong of Irene, of course! And not seeing the film denies the reviewer, and the reader, a richer opportunity for critical analysis. But at least it means I can be free of the distributor’s goodwill gifts and the obligations they bring. (I don’t want a sachet of fake transfusion blood, thank-you very much, or a horrible plastic ‘eye’ in a little case!) In fact, not seeing the film can help you to get around all the fakery and find something real. In 1995 I was the only one who wrote well of CutThroat Island and I got a nice note from Ms. Davis. I doubt whether any of the critics who saw it did! And I like the way not seeing the film puts the world out of which the film came first. You have to think about and perhaps research the experience of mental illness, the experience of being orphaned, the experience of being below decks in a smelly galleon, while the cleverness of the ‘auteur’ gets put aside (for once.) And so does the excitement of the over-excited bachelor spectator. Pauline Kael once said that what the films teach you about the world is often forgotten. And perhaps in the realm of pixels, we are forgetting what the real world looks like and how full of histories a photographic film is. In the meantime, my theory makes me think about the pastiche aspect of what film reviewers do.
(And at least I never said a film should be banned from Britain like another silly editor, Paul Dacre of the Daily Mail, did about Natural Born Killers. Which he hadn’t seen!)