September 12, 2005

Excuse Me For Living: A Film by Atom Egoyan

It's rare that Canada produces something as completely batshit crazy as Where the Truth Lies. Atom Egoyan is usually quite retiscent: if he tends towards a non-naturalistic style, it's of a chilled thesis-statement variety rather than Ken Russell freak-out time. But pushed into a corner by changing funding rules, he's desperately in need of a hit, and thus tries out the Goodfellas/Boogie Nights showbiz orgy genre with spectacularly deranged results. He's waded into waters- that of excessive people trying to gratify themselves with as many drugs and sex partners as possible- in which he's hopelessly unqualified to swim, and comes up with the traumatic anti-sex downer that Larry Flynt will watch on a loop in Hell.

Only Atom Egoyan could think of Colin Firth and Kevin Bacon as ideal choices for a Martin-and-Lewis comedy team- the latter seems like an angry drunk, and the former like a private-school headmaster moonlighting for kicks. And only he would direct Alison Lohman to play a manipulative journalist as a guilt-ridden convent school girl- as if anyone determined to wheedle out facts for money would be such a passive wuss. But there they are, with the duo trying to cover up the sex-murder (by whom?) that destroyed their partnership and the latter ineptly sleuthing for the person who pulled the job.

The milieu, as it turns out, is wholly inappropriate to the man who gave us feel-bad epics like Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter. The we-had-evil-fun-and-then-it-all-fell-apart genre at least acknowledges the pleasures that will be paid for in the final act. But Egoyan can't even do that: you cringe when anybody smiles or shows naked flesh, because you know the hammer of shame is going to crash down on your head not long afterward. But Egoyan half-thinks that he's playing by the rules, meaning that he pours on the period outfits and ladles on the 50's/70's soundtracks. The trappings of fun are there, but they're administered by a man who makes Woody Allen look like Ted Nugent.

Atom tries to have it both ways: a sexy movie that hates sex and some non-subersive genre subversion. He can't just have an Alice in Wonderland pageant at a children's hospital: it's got to be one where Alice breathily sings the Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit", so you know there's, like, subtext. Never mind that any parent would be horrified by the incursion of that druggie classic (and that any child would be given nightmares by the enormous Cheshire Cat head); never mind that the scene plays like something written by people on the planet Mars. Atom's got a point to make, and little things like sense don't enter into it.

And at last, there will be no more denying Atom's deep-seated fear and resentment of women. Self-decieved fool that he is, he thinks he's progressive for eviscerating the lie of the comedy team and through the conduits of Lohman and the corpse of Rachel Blanchard; but the women turn out to be thoughtless parasites who poison the men with guilt and responsibility. He turns the gun on himself because he thinks a woman is telling him to: thus he carries out what really isn't asked of him while hating the person who's egging him on. As a series of evasions of this final fact, the film is breathtaking in its contortions and shattering in its nihilism.

The ironic thing is it's the most entertaining movie Egoyan's ever made: you'll laugh, you'll gasp, your eyes will pop at every ill-advised moment. There's always something crazy going on in this astounding folly, which will leave you stunned at the magnitude of its insularity and self-deception.


Alex Jackson said...

The Sweet Hereafter had to be the most tasteful movie I've ever seen about incest just as Felicia's Journey has to be the most tasteful movie I've ever seen about a serial killer. A distinctly Canadian affliction I would think.

Thanks Travis, this marks the first time in a while that I've become interested in an Atom Egoyan film.

Anonymous said...

Oh Egoyan! Cheer up and do a great Canadian remake--like Meatballs or something.

TIFF note

“The Proposition” is an Australian neo-Western set in the Australian bushranger era of the late 19th century. Director John Hillcoat and writer/composer Nick Cave struggle valiantly with tone in a piece that awkwardly marries expressionistic tableau of the brutal countryside with steaming dollops of macho hokum. Ray Winstone offers his trademark “gone-to-seed badass” role as Captain Stanley, an ineffectual lawman faced with the task of rounding up a gang of outlaw brothers—each more psychotic than the last. Stanley captures two of the brothers and offers to spare the life of the young, dunderheaded one if the stoic, pretty one (Guy Pearce) agrees to murder the eldest, craziest one (Danny Huston) as payback for a horrific past crime that is never fully explained. Interminable but lovely traveling shots of Pearce ambling towards his destiny are jostled with stagey exchanges between Winstone and Emily Watson as his dutiful, loving wife ;creating the unfortunate impression that “The Proposition” is a film about the historical dangers of being pussy-whipped. A brief interlude featuring John Hurt as the hammiest bounty-hunter in the west; and some jarring, Romero style gore-effects offer some promise that Hillcoat and Cave will succumb to their obvious B-movie impulses and forgive themselves for wanting to make a bloody shoot-em-up. No such luck. Once the lead psychopaths begin to quote poetry and sing haunting ballads in between head-stompings—all shameful, visceral thrills will be unforgiven.

Not cultivating high-hopes for “Thumbsucker” tonight, (Tom Robbins already covered the thumbs, man) but tomorrows’ doc about suicide bombers looks interesting. Cheers y’all.

Nate said...

I don't know if this is ironic or not, but your write-up here makes me desperately want to see this film. But "self-deceived fool"? That's more than a little harsh for a man who gave us a film as beautiful and brilliantly-crafted as The Sweet Hereafter. And your implication that Egoyan is a misogynist doesn't ring true, especially considering his wife (by all accounts an intelligent woman) appears is nearly all his films.

Bill C said...

Yeah, I don't know that I'd describe Egoyan as a misogynist, but he certainly deifies women to the point where they become threatening. There's a fine line but a line all the same between God-fearing and God-hating.

Nate said...

I don't know, I still think his handling of gender and sexual politics is fair. I don't feel that his films fear women, but perhaps the characters within them do. Most men I know are perpetually threatened by women, so if Egoyan portrays them that way, isn't it just stark realism?

Hollow Man Stuffed Man said...

DOn't know about this one but I like his other stuff. Sweet Herafter is a little over-rated but still a good film nonetheless. Felicia's journey is a much better film in my opinion even though it gets a little too operatic at the end.

Walter_Chaw said...

You know what I like is that one scene in The Sweet Hereafter where Ian Holm is holding a little knife above his daughter's neck as they make the trip to the nearest hospital. Also like the scene where you come to the realization that the school bus has gone off the road.

Egoyan strikes me like that often: memorable - more like indelible - scenes and then a lot of other stuff that I tend to instantly suppress. I think that I don't understand Egoyan very well: his sensibility is foreign to me particularly in regards to the alleged awfulness of sex. I think he's gifted, though, and as to the charge of "self-deceived fool", I wonder if it isn't better-levied on countryman Guy Maddin.

Curious to see both of these films (the Egoyan and the Aussie western) almost moreso based on the kind of negative buzz they're garnering - has The Proposition been picked up?

Appropros of nothing, my high school graduating class chose "Comfortably Numb" for its class song only to be vetoed by the fetal neo-cons in student council power. New song? "It's the End of the World as We Know It". Nihilism trumps drug use: The Rapture vs. rapture. Born-agains, man - the root of that silliness and perpetuators in our judeo-christian ethic of the idea that women are, in fact, to be feared.

The fact that they're terrifying is just one of those things.

Up at RT but not yet at the mutha-site is my review of Just Like Heaven.

Up there at the bottom ten for this year along with Hustle & Flow and Gunner Palace. Interesting article at the LA Weekly about the former.

If you ever wonder if there's something up that we can't go live with yet - just type in the url as above, subbing titles as necessary. I think we're running a little behind at the moment because of Toronto, but usually, you'll pick up a few logged reviews crouching there under the radar. Think of it as a sneak preview for our dedicated readers.

I'm rather fond of Felicia's Journey as well - Bob Hoskins fan since Roger Rabbit.

Walter_Chaw said...

Speaking of fetal neo-cons and born-agains:

Fucking terrifying.

Nate said...

I love me some Hoskins as well. Just re-watched Mona Lisa for the umpteenth time (though I hadn't seen it for years) and his work in that is heartbreaking.

I'm in fear of your Just Like Heaven review - my S.O. plans on dragging me to it on the assumption that Mark Ruffalo wouldln't dare be in a bad movie.

Adam N said...

hope you're not slagging off REM, Walter. Cause that wouldn't be nice.
Can't wait read your take on Cache when you see it-- it's quite something. The last shot is just marvellous.

And Travis: nice piece on the Egoyan, although as you know, I've promised myself I'll never ever see it. And it's a promise I intend to keep.

Anonymous said...

Walter, those penguins are some scary Mo-Fo's.I was wondering when Micheal Medved was going to pick his pet film for the year (Guess he didn’t see “The Devil’s Rejects”) I’ve avoided the Penguins like the plague—but, will probably have to see it now that its destined for the Op-Ed Page.

Saw “Thumbsucker” at the Festival last night—another obvious, glib sitcom about a skinny dude coming of age (Crapus Sundancicus is, I believe, the correct term) Expecting some flashes of Harmony Korine style shenanigans (which is not necessarily a good thing) I got “Garden State” without the tunes. Nonetheless, the film should maintain some notoriety as it contains the single worst Keanu Reeves performance ever---his shaggy, new-age orthodontist has to be seen to be believed.

Don’t feel like picking on this one too much. However, I’d like to pick on the four loud jackasses who sat behind me and beside my wife respectively. These lovely chaps chewed watermelon gum, farted, cracked their knuckles, kicked our seats and made wise, pithy comments throughout the entire movie (“Isn’t that the guy from Law & Order?” “Vince Vaughn---woo!”) Reminding me that sometimes the line between Film Festivals and K-ROCKK FM Movie Giveaway nights—is very thin indeed. Bless the egalitarian TIFF—but, next year I want more Hoidy with my Toidy.

Looking forward to “Diameter of the Bomb” this eve—

Walter_Chaw said...


Yeah, meant to warn you about Thumbsucker. I liked Lou Pucci in it, but beyond that - been there, done that. Already logged a review though I don't think it's up yet - should be by this weekend. Also have an interview with Pucci and director Mike Mills that's set for an upcoming Sunday Feature. Must say that Mills is pretty articulate and interesting to talk to. As a first-timer, he doesn't know yet what he should and shouldn't say about publicists and the whole process of selling one's film.

Walter_Chaw said...

And to me, Dave, if you pay festival prices to see something, you should expect ushers to bounce the silly bitches that decide that they're in their living room. If you can't expect civility to rule the day, you should at least be able to expect physical enforcement of civility.

Hollow Man Stuffed Man said...

Did any of you guys see "Everything is illuminated" ? I saw the trailer and press confrence. It looked interesting. Especially the guy who plays the translator. What did you think if you did see it ?

Hollow Man Stuffed Man said...

You guys must go to press confrences, is it just me or the guy Henri Behar who's a moderator at those things, the dumbest, most irritating asshole in history ? If you don't know what I'm talking about, never mind.

Alex Jackson said...

Mr. Hunt has provided a form on the Web site that can be downloaded and taken to the film. "Please use the notebook, flashlight and pen provided," it says, "to write down what God speaks to you as He speaks it to you."


It's funny, I thought that the film could be considered to be a strong argument for intelligent design but it's an even greater argument for an uncaring God that is no longer involved in the world; or even a God who out and out hates penguins and created them so that He could get off on their suffering.

These fucking penguins have a life that I would not wish on anyone. For all the anthromorphization involved, I found it rather unexpectedly brutal.

Walter_Chaw said...

Brutal and so base - so, at its root, animal - that the jackasses finding intelligent design therein are really friggin' squinting. How can people ever be just this comfortable with their ignorance? At the same time, though, it reads just like the "Good Times" version of the Christian bible, the one that reduces any poetry in the mythos to short, declarative sentences - so I guess I'm not surprised.

You'd be astounded how personally people take criticism of this film. Old feller confronted me on the street a couple of weeks ago and was literally shaking with outrage. When I told him that I suspected he would have liked it just as well if it hadn't treated him like an idiot he retorted that I was treating him like an idiot to which I responded:

"No, I'm treating you like a grown-up - my mistake is not treating you like an idiot."

We're just a little comfortable being coddled and talked down to nowadays, aren't we? The bill comes due sooner or later.

Keith Uhlich said...

"No, I'm treating you like a grown-up - my mistake is not treating you like an idiot."

Love it when you get all Harlan Ellison, Walter. :-) Hope no one ever pisses you off to such an extent that you send 'em a dead gopher fourth-class mail.

Walter_Chaw said...

Ever tell you about the time I had Ellison as a teacher in a writing seminar about eight years ago? He'd come out of retirement for one class and, dude, the guy was fucking insanely brutal. He didn't critique my stuff but rather picked out like five or six victims to just draw and quarter. Weird thing is that he was sorry the whole time he was doing it. He said so, and you could see in his eyes that he meant it. The cruelty was taking its toll on him and if I compare to the guy in no other way - I think I'm a lot like him in this way. I reel from confrontations like that for weeks. I can be scathing in an argument (not consistently right, but consistently scathing) - and then I dwell on it for longer than I should. A benefit, if you call it that, of this job is that my skin's at least a league thicker than it used to be.