Scattered pleasures and frequent irritations
As someone who has followed Atom Egoyan’s career closely since his pre-Exotica days, viewing his most recent feature films has been an intensely ambivalent experience. While The Sweet Hereafter (1997) far exceeded the dubious expectations created by its status as an adaptation, its use of name actor Ian Holm in a starring role, and its release in the multiplexes, his subsequent films have disappointed them. Moreover, despite the scattered recognition received by Felicia’s Journey (1999), Ararat (2002), and even, here and there, Where the Truth Lies (2005), it is apparent from the relative dearth of serious scholarly scrutiny that the earlier critical enthusiasm for Egoyan’s films has been confused, if not defused altogether, by his recent turn to the popular.
The goal of this essay is not, however, to beat these films with the club of Egoyan’s earlier films, nor simply to recuperate them within the auteurist rubric of his oeuvre. Rather, I want to ascertain in a critically satisfying manner exactly what distinguishes them from the prior oeuvre. Not only do I hope thereby to understand better both the films and the filmmaker, but also to find a critical vocabulary able to reckon with the fact that Egoyan’s turn is by no means unique in the small world of Canadian cinema, or the larger but still small world of what used to be called “art-house” filmmaking.
[Egoyan] has a list of things that attract him to a project: “Complexity. Conflicting agendas. Different people trying to present a version of reality. A hidden history. How people cope with trauma. The need to create and construct personas.
— Interview in Backstage at the time of the release of
Where the Truth Lies
There is no question that Atom Egoyan regards himself as an auteur in the classic sense of the term, the sense that dominated the burgeoning field of cinema studies during the late 1970s and early ’80s when he was attending the University of Toronto. Nor is there any question that auteurist approaches have dominated critical writing on his films, be it the journalistic reviews that checkmark his familiar obsessions, the critical assessments that outline the consistency of his themes from film to film, or the post-structuralist studies that employ his consistent thematization of media technology toward a critique of contemporary culture, representation, and gender.1 Reviewers and critics, as well as Egoyan in pronouncements such as the one cited above, tend to regard his oeuvre as an auteurist continuum, susceptible to value judgments according to the criteria of that continuum; theorists tend to truncate their analyses with 1989’s Speaking Parts (in the case of media) or with Exotica (1993) and The Sweet Hereafter, in the case of gender, tacitly asserting the lack of interest of the more recent films.
Beyond the fact (which I deal with in the conclusion of this essay) that Egoyan’s ten commercially released feature films comprise only a part of his cinematic, not to mention his artistic and cultural production, these auteurist approaches are unable to account for the dramatic shift in Egoyan’s later films in anything other than qualitative terms. In order to distinguish what has changed and what has not in the post-Exoticaperiod, I divide my analysis into three categories, all of which have been identified with auteurist production, especially in the context of the French cinema and criticism within which the term originated: formal qualities, or those related to narrative form, theme, and characterization; stylistic qualities, or those related to the visual and aural aspects of the films; and qualities of production, or those external to the film itself, such as production and distribution, and the cast and crew.2 To be sure, these are heuristic categories as much as anything, and there is much overlap between them. Nor in the space of this essay am I able to deal comprehensively with every aspect of Egoyan’s auteurship. In addition to compensating for the preponderance of formal qualities in the critical analysis of Egoyan’s films, this tri-partite division also brings sharply into focus the ways in which the later films diverge from the earlier ones.
In the films through to Exotica, this narrative dynamic was explicitly mediated, as well as implicitly subordinated, to the theme of mediation through technology: Peter records the progress of his infiltration of the adopted Armenian family on tape recorder in Next of Kin; Van’s father tapes his couplings with a mistress over videos of Van’s absent mother in Family Viewing; Clara remembers her beloved brother in a video mausoleum in Speaking Parts. The celebrated critique of media culture and the substitution of taped for authentic memory is no less foregrounded: the video therapy sessions of the Armenian family and the handheld camera documenting Peter’s surprise party in Next of Kin; the battle over the memory of Van’s mother conducted through videotape in Family Viewing (1987); the climactic daytime talk show dramatization of Clara’s trauma in Speaking Parts (1989); the censor’s clandestine taping of the pornography she reviews in The Adjuster (1991); the photographer’s obsessive reviewing of the video record of his trip to Armenia in Calendar (1993), reliving the loss of his wife while seeking memories of the reasons for it. I have discussed this theme at length elsewhere, in particular the one-sided reception of it as a satirical critique of the mediation of memory rather than as a dialectical analysis of its role in contemporary culture.5
Within the feature films, the thematic presence of media technology recedes to the background from The Adjuster and Exotica onward, accompanied by what most critics — Egoyan included — have identified as an increased range and depth of emotion and compassion for the characters.6 To be sure, Egoyan also maintains that his earlier films had attempted to take the same attitude toward their characters, but that he had not managed successfully to impart that attitude to his audience.7 This seems like special pleading; whatever the reason for it, there is no question that a shift occurred in the portrayal of character, nor that that shift coincided with a marked widening of budget, audience, and reputation. While Egoyan has remained remarkably consistent in his themes throughout the shift in his means of presenting them, it is important to note the increased self-consciousness with which those themes are presented in the post-Exotica films, a self-consciousness in which the above claim to continuity participates.
With The Sweet Hereafter, for the first time, Egoyan began to “cite” his own auteurist themes, explicitly deploying them rather than implicitly reproducing them. This is consonant with the increased openness with which he discussed their origins in interviews and articles. I do not mean by this that Egoyan’s earlier films were at all “unselfconscious” — they are, in fact, noticeably self-conscious in their intellectual underpinnings — but that it is their meaning that is self-conscious rather than their status as emblems of his identity as auteur.
The invasive quality of Stephens’ lawsuit in The Sweet Hereafter, however, is demonstrated sharply through his relationship to technology. The key confrontation with Billy Ansel occurs while Stephens is videotaping the wrecked school bus. It is interrupted by a cell phone call from Stephens’s estranged daughter, which Stephens immediately (and unsuccessfully) appropriates as an anguished remark about how “we have all lost our daughters,” an ironized rehearsal of the one-sided critique of postmodernity so common to earlier Egoyan criticism that feels singularly crass in the face of an irredeemably real loss of children that had nothing whatsoever to do with the ills of contemporary society. The single manifestation of Stephens’ promise of wealth is the computer he donates to the new bedroom of his star witness, the wheelchair-bound Nicole. In a supremely self-consciously ironic remark, the counterpoint of Stephens’s above, Nicole’s only comment on the devastating effects of her perjured deposition is the faux-innocent question to her abusive father as he sinks dejected into the driver’s seat of the family station wagon, “Do you think he’ll let us keep the computer?”
In The Sweet Hereafter, Egoyan reduced the novel’s explicit discussion of Sam’s sexual abuse of his daughter Nicole to a single, romantically rendered seduction scene. In his adaptation of William Trevor’s novel Felicia’s Journey, Egoyan altogether eliminated the incestuous relationship between Joseph Hilditch and his overbearing mother revealed near the end, dismissively remarking that it would have made the son’s character “thunderingly reductive.”8 Instead, he focused the theme of incest on the relationship between the predatory father-figure Hilditch and the teenaged women to whom he offers assistance and protection. Moreover, rather than Trevor’s internal monologue to signal gradually to the reader the sinister results of Hilditch’s offer, Egoyan introduced surveillance video, catalogued by Hilditch in an archive hidden in his otherwise Luddite mansion along with the cooking-show videos of his vanished mother, all that remain of Trevor’s scenes of cynical seduction.
Egoyan himself has noted that the shift from original to adapted screenplays allowed him to escape from the thematic impasse to which his own obsessions had led him.10 At the same time, the changes he made to the works he adapted reveal quite clearly the different ways in which he had come to understand those themes. While often dramatically effective, especially in The Sweet Hereafter, the fact that the themes were intentionally worked into rather than originated with the source text also emphasizes the sense of citation.
In addition to the changes rung on the incest theme, planting it as the secret foundation of the narrative rather than an overt plot point, Egoyan reworked his source materials in other significant ways. He expands the single pair of phone calls to Stephens’s motel room that climaxes the central monologue in Banks’ novel with the revelation that Zoe has tested HIV-positive into a tragicomic repetition in which she constantly harasses Stephens through his cell phone at inopportune moments. The cell phone motif simultaneously reminds us of the similarity of Stephens’ own tragedy to the townspeople’s loss and its distance from that same loss, rooting that comparison in a critique of modernity equally signified by Zoe’s presence in a phone booth in the midst of an urban wasteland at the other end of the line. Egoyan also added the aforementioned video camera and computer. Where Banks broadly contrasted the cynical, self-aware lawyer to the psyches of the small-town inhabitants struggling to make sense of their tragedy, Egoyan rooted that contrast in issues of technology and mediation. The immediacy of our emotional relationship with the townspeople’s loss is mirrored by their physical relationship to each other and the world around them. The tactile nature of their small-town occupations — Billy Ansel is a mechanic, Sam Burnell a plumber, the Ottos make crafts, Dolores Driscoll drives a bus — contrasts sharply with Stephens’s abstract relation to loss. At the same time, the sharply delineated introduction of what previously had been a universal critique of media technology serves to complicate the dichotomy. The tactile relationship to their surroundings encompasses Sam’s abuse of his daughter as well as Billy’s ability to reject the lawyer’s temptation; Stephens’s alienated relationship to the tragedy empowers Nicole to free herself from her father’s grip.
Consistent with the emotional immediacy of the later movies, Egoyan introduced a thematic register wholly absent from his earlier auteurist repertoire: the fairy tale. Used in different ways in every film from Exotica to Where the Truth Lies, the fairy-tale motif provides an internal hermeneutic that for the first time provides a broad social context independent of the media-technology thematic. To be sure, only in retrospect could one identify the schoolgirl scenario ritualistically reenacted in Exoticain terms of a fairy-tale motif, but already Egoyan had dissociated the scenario from a presentation through the means of technology. As a pre-modern form derived from oral culture, the power of the fairy tale lies in its archetypal depiction of interpersonal relations, a version of the family romance accessible, if you will, even to the child. In this sense, the late-coming revelation that the incestuous striptease ritual is as necessary to Christina as it is to Francis is essential to understanding the shift in focus of the film from Egoyan’s earlier oeuvre.
Only a minority of reviewers caught the added references in Felicia’s Journey to Bluebeard, another fairy tale of predatory males, just as only a few saw fit to comment on the scenes of the biblical legend of Salomé glimpsed by Hilditch as a Rita Hayworth vehicle on a hospital TV screen that prompts a flashback to the boy at the opera with his mother which motivates the use of opera glasses during his dining rituals.14 To a man who had recently mounted Strauss’s Salomé for Toronto’s Canadian Opera Company (1996), and who was no doubt familiar with Bartók’sBluebeard’s Castle (directed by Robert Lepage for the COC in 1992), not to mention Jane Campion’s use of the myth in a similar context in her 1993 film The Piano, these were essential subtexts to the film’s meaning, as his repeated mention of them in the DVD commentary makes abundantly clear. In the DVD commentary on Elaine Cassidy’s hooded blue duffle coat, especially in the key abortion sequence where she dreams of her lost baby playing with its father in the same color blue, Egoyan also introduces the more familiar figure of Little Red Riding Hood.15 Given the currency of that myth in popular culture as an image of child abuse and seduction, however, it is not surprising that Egoyan displaced it by altering the color of the cloak and subordinating it to the less familiar forms available through Bluebeard and Salomé.
The Bluebeard motif neatly introduces the concept of seriality to the child’s perception of the predatory male, while the locked closet equally neatly tropes the issues of denial and secrecy that Egoyan has repeatedly cited as central to his understanding of traumatic memory.16 The Salomé motif, conversely, signals Egoyan’s amplification of Felicia’s power within the narrative. Although it is the maternity signified by her pregnancy rather than the dancer’s mature sexuality that ensures the death of the male protagonist, the image testifies in either case to the power of female corporality to trouble male authority. Moreover, Egoyan links that power to his own refusal to depict the serial killer’s violence toward his female victims onscreen. As he spells out in the DVD commentary, he found it ironically satisfying that the only physically violent moment in the film comes on a TV screen, in a Technicolor Hollywood film from the 1950s world of Hilditch’s childhood, and at the hands of a woman.17 Here, too, Egoyan cites the auteurist thematic of his early films to make a secondary point rather than a thorough-going critique. Eschewing Trevor’s conventionally Oedipal etiology, Egoyan grounds the mother’s traumatic effect on Hilditch in a sterile relationship to the budding television culture of the ’50s, allying Salomé to the TV-star mother, accessible only through the television screen. She may remain a castrating monster, but that effect will be blamed on the culture rather than the individual.18
The budding celebrity culture of the late ’50s that produced Gala is also indicted for empowering the hedonistic and predatory lifestyle of Vince and Lanny, the famously successful comedy duo in Where the Truth Lies. The novel’s Alice-in-Wonderland motif is maintained in the film, where a pageant in the Wonderland children’s clinic concludes in a threesome in which a costumed Alice fellates Karen. Especially as realized by Egoyan, the motif serves to introduce, if in a heavily displaced form, a familiarly pedophilic theme to the “wonderland” of celebrity.19 Once seduced by the media trappings of that other world in her childhood, the young reporter, now herself a halfway member of it, offers her body as price of entry into its ugly secrets.
Here, too, the motif of media and mediation delineates forms of engagement with the past. Celia’s relationship to artistic media is simultaneously direct, adversarial, and misplaced: not only does she physically attack Gorky’s portrait because of what it represents to Ani, but she is the only character whose décor includes a computer itself, pasted with clipped artworks.23 His sole conduit to the past before the tragedy a photograph of himself as a boy with his mother, Gorky’s relationship to media technology is glossed with the nostalgia we now associate with the still photograph. Similarly, Gorky chooses to understand that relationship through what is to us the even more anachronistic mode of the oil painting. The most powerful image available of the Armenian holocaust, and in many ways the only cultural product available of it to the Western world before Egoyan’s film, Gorky’s painting nevertheless seems truly accessible only to the informed gaze of a highly trained intellectual such as Ani. While Raffi’s video diary of Mount Ararat is possessed of a profound meaning the young photographer was unable to receive from his mother’s cold analysis of Gorky’s canvas, it is also compromised by the Satanic bargain he has had to make in order to get the shots he wanted. The cans of celluloid filled either with illicit drugs or with invaluable images are a transparently urgent metaphor for the bargain Egoyan must have felt necessary to make in order to do the film: a bargain with dollars, with Hollywood genres, with everything his early films had negated. At the same time, as Calendar had made abundantly clear, there was no historical meaning or identity to be found from within the terms of that negation. By recovering the absolute conviction of a child’s perspective on his profession and his obsessions, Egoyan argued that he could work his way out of the intellectual and emotional impasse of his early films’ inability to confront the denial of his own history and identity.
While formal qualities garner the lion’s share of analysis of Egoyan (and other filmmakers) as auteurs, the stylistic means of realizing those themes is equally essential to their meaning and equally revealing of the changes in that meaning over his career. A key but unnoticed shift in style from Exotica onward is Egoyan’s emergence as a studio director, and, in his most recent films, as a consummate creator of period pieces. The importance of this shift in approach emerges in Egoyan’s discussion of the making of Felicia’s Journey, where he found himself with the entire repertoire of London’s fabled Shepperton Studios at his disposal:
It was a great privilege for me to create a set. I had never been able to afford one before. The nature of the films I had done before meant that I had to build rooms in warehouses and wait for trains to stop. You just don’t have the control that you do when you’re using a huge studio like Shepperton and I took full advantage of that. For instance, when you make a set like that and want to populate it in England, there are prop houses where they’ve kept everything from every film that’s ever been made.… In Canada, we don’t have that depth. I needed a mixer from the 1950s and had five choices of models that had been stored; that seemed really remarkable.24
It is not coincidental that the first film in which Egoyan had a sizeable budget, Exotica($2 million), was also the first film in which, rather than a setting whose reality was demonstrably real, the construction of a plausibly real but imaginary setting — the nightclub — was central to the film’s meaning. The tension in Exotica emerges from the fact that its nightclub makes us accept it as real even as we know that its non-exploitative appropriation of an exploitative institution — the strip club — cannot actually exist.25 The emotional accessibility of the films from Exotica on is inseparable from this fundamental shift in the epistemological status of their settings. Whether using locations or constructed sets, the later films require a suspension of disbelief and emotional identification diametrically opposed to the acceptance of their account of culture and emotional distance required of the prior films.
What is fascinating about Egoyan’s oeuvre is not so much its consistency as the fact that he has managed to elicit a similar set of critical responses to such a radical shift in emphasis. Now, we could just as well explain this shift in terms of economics as in terms of artistic vision. The increase in budget made newly available to Egoyan techniques and strategies previously unavailable to him, while formally his means of production has changed much less — after all, he has retained the screenwriter credit for every one of his films. Certainly, Egoyan has put those extra dollars on the screen: the carefully created atmosphere of the establishing shots of the Exotica club; the brilliantly chilling helicopter shot of the bus sliding off the road and sinking through the ice in The Sweet Hereafter; the languorous opening stroll through Hilditch’s house as if in the eyes of a child, matched with Hitchcockian precision by the man’s final stroll to his death in the kitchen in Felicia’s Journey; but also the powerfully evocative portrait of Felicia and Hilditch against the massive backdrop of the Birmingham locations, on a scale and with a visual sharpness unseen before Exotica; the patently artificial epic settings of Saroyan’s Ararat, simultaneously evidence of Egoyan’s inability to make a historical epic and manifesto of his refusal to do so (not to mention the novel use of CGI effects in the battle scenes); the big-budget recreations of the ’50s and the ’70s in Where the Truth Lies — and the dismissal of their accuracy by one influential reviewer must have galled Egoyan more than any other of the many facets of the film that were dismissed.26
The visual representation of the past and of memory has similarly changed in the later films. While no “past” as such exists outside of video and tape in the early films, and nothing of aesthetic beauty emerges either — think of the taped memories of Van’s mother in Family Viewing, of Clara’s brother in Speaking Parts, or of the photographer’s images of Armenia in Calendar, their grainy texture the proud badge of their refusal to seduce us — every film from Exotica onwards presents pristine scenes of aching beauty, always set in the past, but always immediately accessible to at least one of the film’s characters along with the members of the audience.27 Now, in every case these images represent a memory of something irretrievably lost, but the change in the visual representation of that loss mirrors the change in the status of the loss. Rather than the postmodern worlds of infinitely receding representations as which Egoyan’s early films were received, we find a modernist world in which lost innocence remains, at least to all appearances, pure and immediate to memory: the fields through which Christina and Eric make their way searching, it turns out, for the body of Francis’s daughter; the overhead shot of Mitchell, his wife and their baby daughter lying in bed that is intercut with the scene of the bus crash; the overwhelmingly green fields of Felicia’s County Cork.
Ararat plays on this visual motif in a different way befitting the film’s uneasy relationship between the early and recent attitudes toward the past. In a key choice made at the editing table, Egoyan excised a scene in which he had explicitly located Gorky’s studio on the set of Saroyan’s Ararat. While Egoyan recounts that he cut the scene because the self-consciousness of a conversation between Ani and “Gorky” would have overly alienated audiences, the omission has another effect as well: it postpones resolving the ambiguity of the Gorky sequence until the premiere of Saroyan’s Ararat near the end of the film, when we see Simon Abkarian, the actor who plays Gorky, attending, and conclude that his scenes, also, were a part of the film.28 This ambiguity is key to the meaning of the film, since it postpones a decisive knowledge as to whether we are to interpret the scenes set in New York during the 1930s as identified with Saroyan’s film or Egoyan’s. If the former, we must interpret them according to their role within the historical melodrama; if the latter, we must interpret them according to the ostensible “realism” attributed to the modern-day scenes, and, in particular, according to Ani’s exegesis of the painting and her explanation of Gorky’s erasing of the hands.
Given the ambiguity between portraying the Armenian events as melodramatic spectacle and emphasizing their accuracy according to the historical record, the status of the Gorky story that frames the movie in its final cut bears all the more the weight of the film’s meaning. And given that the final shot is an image of young Gorky with his mother in a peaceful Van, an idyllic scene punctured by our knowledge of what is to come, but ambiguous in its status vis-à-vis the two films of Ararat, Egoyan’s attitude toward this image seems all the more problematic. And what do we make of the trademark exterior shot of beautiful rolling hills (identified in the shooting script only as “EXT. VAN. TURKEY. COUNTRY. RIVERBANK – DAY”29 ), used here as the backdrop for the long march, a rape scene witnessed by a terrified young girl, and the context for Gorky’s mother’s death by starvation? Like so much else in Ararat, the semantic confusion of Egoyan’s auteurist tropes promises a hermeneutic solution while simultaneously sabotaging that solution. Or, phrased in terms of the analysis above, he radically destabilizes the newly grounded permanence of memory at the same time that he appeals to the innate power of its historicity. While, formally, Egoyan introduces a series of motifs to resolve the inability of this contradiction to withstand the scrutiny of his own oeuvre — in particular the film cans as a metaphor for history that is irredeemably compromised on the one hand but redeemed through individual faith and conviction on the other — stylistically, the visual motifs sabotage the thematic motifs. We may know intellectually that the scenes of naked women doused with kerosene and of mothers being raped have been “staged” for Saroyan’s film, and that they are both more — because visualized — and less horrible than what actually happened, but their iconic power as conventional images so far outweighs the elaborate apparatus around them as to call into question that anything besides a melodrama vastly superior to Saroyan’s own could ever represent the truth of what happened and also to preclude the appropriateness of any other form of representation of that truth. What had set Egoyan’s previous movies apart from the exploitative potential inherent in their charged material of pedophilia, incest, and serial murder was his ability to invest only a certain set of images with the full power of that material. It is those very images — the fields of lost innocence — that Ararat profaned with Hollywood atrocities in a decision that was no less misguided for being both well intentioned and brilliantly rationalized.
The introduction of video to Trevor’s material does a fine job to unbalance the periodizing assumptions we would otherwise make about the time warp feel of Hilditch’s house. In what must be an homage to the reel-to-reel-tape-wielding, bitter old man in Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, which Egoyan would film for English television the year after Felicia’s Journey, Hilditch is addicted to the recordings of what had once been a novel form of media but which to us — and to the technicians who digitally altered the film footage to give the effect — appears as quaintly outmoded as the faulty mixers Gala had endorsed at the height of her fame. Unlike Beckett’s Krapp, however, Hilditch is equally, if more secretly, at home in the contemporary world of technology, and the shot of Felicia’s legs from the sinister point of view of the video camera hidden in his car, like the grainy, unbalanced video footage of his prior victims, allows Egoyan subtly to insinuate the way in which being trapped in a private cul-de-sac in the past by no means exists mutually exclusively to making use of the trappings of the contemporary world for your own purposes. There is a dialectic between old and new technology far more complex and ambivalent than the simple replacement of one with the other. In this way, Egoyan’s substitution of video interviews for Trevor’s device of Hilditch’s “Memory Lane,” a mode of remembrance as anachronistic as the rest of him, successfully complicates the portrait as much as does the elimination of most of the backstory.
In Where the Truth Lies, by contrast, the periodic framing of the telethon sequences through the grainy black-and-white of 1950s video technology seems, like the touches of pedophilia, a gesture at Egoyan’s auteurist past without any intrinsic relationship to the meaning of the movie or deepening of the novel’s slick murder mystery. Rather than related to the privileged moment of the “Miracle Girl’s” meeting with Lanny or in anyway disturbing our expectations and assumptions, the revelation of the truth about Maureen’s death the night before that meeting feels like the excuse for the sensational material that has preceded it. This is a fine situation for a typical genre movie, but without any of the cross-fertilization that makes Felicia’s Journey and Ararat intellectually (if not dramatically) compelling.
In his post-Exotica films, Egoyan, too, has managed to play both sides of the fence, maintaining his auteur identity by making films that purport to subvert the generic conventions on which their increased funding increasingly relies. Even the $30 million Where the Truth Lies was funded in part by Telefilm Canada.31 Whereas the microscopic budgets of Egoyan’s early films could be covered entirely by public funds on the local, provincial, and federal levels, the public-private split from Exoticaonward, and especially the increased pressure of international co-production — the mode from The Sweet Hereafter onward — altered the fundamental dynamic of the auteurist vision. Egoyan’s consistency as his own scriptwriter ensured formal consistency even as his formal priorities were shifting and evolving; the continuity of producers and crew ensured stylistic consistency — composer Mychael Danna (since Family Viewing), sound designer Steven Munro (since Family Viewing), DoP Paul Sarossy (since Speaking Parts), editor Susan Shipman (since The Adjuster), production manager and producer Sandra Cunningham (since The Adjuster), executive producer Robert Lantos (since Calendar), and two latecomers who have ensured the visual consistency of the recent films, costume designer Beth Pasternak and production designer Phillip Barker (both since The Sweet Hereafter) — even as stylistic priorities were shifting.
The use of actors has ensured another sort of consistency, but a consistency that has more and more receded to the margins of the films. Just as the formal and stylistic motifs of the early films reappear bracketed and contextualized in the later ones, so does the extra-diegetic meaning of the actors become part of the films’ diegesis rather than their reason for being. We glimpse this relationship in a playfully ironic manner in Calendar, which began life as a prize the sole requirement of which was filming in Armenia, and which so successfully played on Egoyan’s image as an auteur and Arsinée Khanjian’s image as his fetish actor/muse/wife that the small world that saw the film was convinced it was the factual document of a fractured marriage. We glimpse it the following year in the scene of Khanjian pregnant in Exotica discussed above. But only with The Sweet Hereafter do auteurist qualities of production begin to be encoded into the texture of the film in a thoroughgoing way.
This encoding is most evident in the casting. Every single actor playing the inhabitants of Sam Dent (with the notable exception of Tom McManus, who plays Sam Burnell) had appeared in at least one prior Egoyan film, most had appeared in many of them, and one — Khanjian, of course — had and continues to have appeared in every one of them. This continuity results not simply in the intuitive grasp of the director’s vision but in an allegory of the relation of each new film to that vision. While no doubt partially motivated by economic constraints, Egoyan brilliantly manipulated the casting of well-known English character actor Ian Holm in the film’s leading role in order to emphasize his status as outsider to the Canadian regulars. Egoyan aficionados thus found two forms of familiarity in conflict with one another: the expectations of deadened affect and underplaying associated with the actors of the earlier films and the expectations of quality realism associated with Ian Holm. Rather than standing on its own as postmodern alienation, the townspeople’s stunted affect is motivated within the film’s diegesis, as we come to discover, by the accident itself. The same terms equally motivate Holm’s different style in terms of his coming from another world.
Evidently, Egoyan made a concerted effort to duplicate this interplay in pre-production for Felicia’s Journey, proposing to William Trevor a shift of setting to the English colonialist time warp of Victoria, British Columbia, and of Felicia to a young Québécoise from somewhere in the back country.32 Trevor predictably balked at the loss of the inimitable texture of the Easter rebellion, but Egoyan’s solution was actually quite plausible given Quebec’s Catholic culture, historical backwardness, and history of conflict with its English-based colonial master. And one can readily imagine a richly Canadian allegory of Anglophone Egoyan regulars cast against established Québécois stars in place of the Irish characters, with young Marie-Josée Croze caught in the middle, the only question being on which side to place Arsinée Khanjian. Instead, Egoyan ingeniously inserted his own auteurist past in the video memories of French chef Gala and plunged into the unfamiliar. While amusing for Egoyan, Khanjian, and many long-time fans, the subplot remains wholly extrinsic to the rest of the film, like Gala herself an exotic import to the drab world of Birmingham. Read in terms of Egoyan’s prior formal and stylistic interests, it adds an important subtext to the film, deepening Trevor’s novel as it betrays its intent. Read in terms of auteurist production, it reads almost as a cry for help, a lifeline to the world he had left behind for the candyshop of Shepperton and the deep pockets of Mel Gibson’s Icon Productions (Felicity’s Journey is the only one of his films on which Egoyan did not also act as producer).
Although Ararat‘s $15 million budget provides one motivation for the distancing device of the film within a film, the fact that the film was an all-Canadian affair renders a different allegory, as Egoyan negotiated his Armenian heritage and community with an auteurist past in which that heritage and community had played a supporting, if nonetheless significant role. The casting of cultural icons such as Charles Aznavour and Eric Bogosian as the director and screenwriter neatly reveals the degree to which outside audiences had always assumed they were “French” and “American,” respectively, allowing them proudly to display their Armenian heritage, and demonstrating the invisibility of Armenia as a cultural marker in the same way that Canadians have always complained occurs with their own actors within Hollywood.33 That same maneuver, however, makes it all the more difficult not to read the rest of the film in the same extra-diegetic sense.
In contrast, the casting of venerable Canadian leading man Christopher Plummer and rising Québécoise star Marie-Josée Croze is unprecedented in Egoyan’s oeuvre and inexplicable in terms of its internal auteurist parameters. Rather, they seem motivated by a need or desire to reference every form of Canadian cinematic iconicity. If Greenwood and Koteas personify the English-Canadian, Toronto-based roots of Egoyan’s oeuvre, Plummer references the famously invisible Hollywood Canadian, apparently indistinguishable from his American colleagues. To be sure, the Toronto-born Plummer makes a brilliant foil for first-timer David Alpay’s Raffi in the quintessentially Egoyan airport customs scenes; his iconic presence bestows upon these scenes not just the allegorical weight of Armenian-Canadian versus English-Canadian, but the added burden of Armenia’s cinematic invisibility uneasily cross-fertilized with the fraught status of an independent Canadian auteur smuggling his familiar themes into the alien (yet known) territory of mainstream, big-budget filmmaking.
Croze’s role in the film is both more mysterious and less satisfying than Plummer’s. The most irritating and far-fetched bundle of issues and coincidences in a film built around them, Celia’s Québécoise identity seems to have been motivated only by some strange sense of completion. Her character is a laundry list of new Québécois film motifs — not surprising given Croze’s Genie- and Jutra-prize winning turn in Denis Villeneuve’s Maëlstrom (2000). From her stylish, sexy wardrobe and designer loft apartment to the subculture markers of psychological instability, casual nudity, drug dealing, and violently antisocial behavior, Celia has nothing to do with Egoyan’s prior catalog of characters and everything to do with the seductive but often empty art-house surrealism of Villeneuve, Jean-Claude Lauzon, and André Turpin. Add a further subtext somehow displacing the 1985 storming of the Turkish Embassy by three armed Armenian activists onto Raffi’s father and into Celia’s vandalism and the FLQ associations inevitably arising from her identity as lone (and violent) Québécoise in the film, and we have a half-baked cluster of associations whose range suggests the ambition of Ararat but whose refusal to jell suggests the film’s distance from a director’s oeuvre characterized by nothing so much as the extraordinary tightness of its multiple levels and fragments.34
As the pivot of the myriad themes, plots, and references, Arsinée Khanjian’s Ani is impossible to accept as a realistic character, but neither does she have the hieratic distance necessary to function as the pure allegory we might find in the films of Theo Angelopoulos or Sergei Paradjanov. Egoyan’s films have always struck a knife’s-edge balance between emotional authenticity and intellectual distance, the non-linear movement of the plot forcing the audience to bridge the gap between the characters’ deadened emotions and the trauma behind them. As Egoyan was fully aware, only personal trauma can be transmitted effectively in this way; unfortunately, there is no analogous representational mode for jumbling the trauma of an entire people.35 The codes proper to each mode sabotage the other, and the result is that the more a sequence such as Raffi and David’s confrontation in the airport is emotionally and intellectually satisfying in itself, the more inappropriate its application to the greater historical subject. Similarly, the more Egoyan insulates himself from criticism of exploitation with arguments that are compelling in intellectual terms, the more the viewer becomes irritated qua viewer. And here Ani, as the voice of truth — she is the one who protests at the film’s manipulation of reality in the service of emotional truth; she is the one who refuses to compromise her own fidelity to truthfulness in order to provide Celia or Raffi with the emotionally satisfying answers they crave; she is the one who explains Gorky’s erasure of his mother’s hands as a gesture to the inability of memory to do justice to the past — becomes ever shriller the more we know she is justified in everything she says.36 And our knowledge of Khanjian’s own background as Egoyan’s wife, linchpin of his own auteurist vision, and catalyst of the director’s own burgeoning awareness of his Armenian past only exacerbates this frustration. The self-consciousness that was a necessary evil of the early films and that was craftily subordinated to the diegetic requirements of Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter, andFelicia’s Journey rages out of control in the expansive vision of Ararat.
Perhaps what is most fascinating about the popular turn in Egoyan’s career is that his own discourse about the films has remained as consistent and consistently intelligent as the cast and crew with which he has surrounded himself. The latter appear to have insulated him from a full awareness of the unevenness of the products of the partnership just as the former has insulated him from recognizing the growing inability of his brilliant intentions and exegeses fully to account for what actually shows up onscreen. The growing degree to which the auteur Egoyan is bracketed in his films by the greater world — financial, historical, cultural — around him thus mirrors the inevitable loss of control to which the auteur submits when he or she emerges from a cocoon of independence into the global marketplace of contemporary cinema. It is a testimony to Egoyan’s ability as a filmmaker that he has managed to preserve his identity as much as he has and has continued to make films of compelling intellectual fascination; however, this should not blind us to the fact that the primary reason we still go to his films and bestow them the critical attention we do is in ritualized compulsion to recover the extraordinary memory of the ones we saw in a now-lost past.
Epilogue: The Five Hundred Hats of Atom Egoyan
It is a peculiarity of auteurist studies of Egoyan’s oeuvre that they tend to elide the presence of non-auteurist works from the very beginning of the director’s career: CBC movies such as Paul Gross’s In This Corner (1985) and Gross Misconduct, and episodes of The Twilight Zone (1985), Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1985), and Friday the 13th (1987).37 The common assumption that this was work-for-pay is reinforced by the coincidence of its termination following the mainstream success of Exotica; a fitting endpoint would be the near deal to direct a conventional film noir with Warner Brothers that Egoyan eventually passed up in order to adapt The Sweet Hereafter. Nevertheless, the early work as director-for-hire must have played a role in preparing Egoyan for his superlative work with mainstream actors and the popular genres he tackled in Felicia’s Journey, Ararat, and Where the Truth Lies — a role he tacitly acknowledged in referring to Hitchcock as “the master of self-consciousness” while discussing the thrill of working with Martin Landau on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and hearing the venerable actor’s memories of North by Northwest.38
Since 1995’s A Portrait of Arshile, Egoyan has exhibited nearly a dozen short films and installations in gallery settings ranging from the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin to the Venice Biennale to the Musée d’art contemporain in Montreal and the Power Plant in Toronto, as well as the site-specific installation “Steenbeckett” in the former Museum of Mankind in London.39 As with America, America, a combination of extracts from Elia Kazan’s film and personal footage exhibited at the 1997 Venice Biennale, A Portrait of Arshile played a formative role in the conception of Ararat, its highly personal and fragmented meditation on Gorky’s portrait and Egoyan and Khanjian’s baby Arshile transmuted into Ani’s strident art history lecturing.40
Other expositions have worked in the opposite direction, revisioning extracts of feature films such as Calendar, The Adjuster, and Felicia’s Journey in the context of the visual arts and the aesthetics of the installation. Evidence, a 19-minute video compilation of the surveillance shots of Hilditch’s victims from Felicia’s Journey, toured the world as part of the exhibition Notorious: Alfred Hitchcock and Contemporary Art, originating at the Oxford Museum of Modern Art in 1999. Extracted from the context of a mainstream narrative thriller, the component of Felicia’s Journey most indebted to the theoretical concerns that had made Egoyan the darling of media theorists found its way back to that original setting.
Subtitles, the collection of essays he co-edited with Ian Balfour, reads like a who’s who of the rarified world of art film and cultural theory, with contributions from Claire Denis, B. Ruby Rich, Trinh T. Minh-ha, Fredric Jameson, and Slavoj Žižek, the latter of which concludes in a timely homage to The Sweet Hereafter.41 While the collection includes a few pieces on the more popular aspects of subtitles and foreignness, its primary concern, reflected in the innovative production design mirroring the dimensions of the 1.66:1 aspect ratio of the widescreen frame, is the intransigent cultural critique of Egoyan’s early auteurism. Rather than historicized in terms of their different cultural signifying from their identification with art cinema in the 1960s to their current denotation of foreign, often fake, cultures in popular cinema and television, subtitles appear here for the most part as signs of a global alienation of language and culture, an intellectually fascinating but historically inert phenomenon. High art remains resolutely distinct from popular culture.
While work in the art and music world has allowed Egoyan to retain the avant-garde currency in which his films no longer participate, his new economic clout and cultural profile have opened up different doors for him, from serving on the jury of the Cannes Film Festival in 1996 to serving as executive producer to a half dozen Canadian features since 1996, and providing informal assistance on numerous others. In 2004, he opened a combination 52-seat cinema and bar designed by business partner Hussein Amarshi in the trendy Queen West neighborhood of Toronto. In addition to the high-concept café, the screening room is used to show alternative features and experimental shorts, including Egoyan and Khanjian’s own video work-in-progress, Citadel.42 Weighing in on the commercial thrust of Richard Stursberg’s tenure at Telefilm Canada as a respected authority on all things Canadian and cinematic, Egoyan has solidified a position of eminence within the culture in which he always figured himself as outsider even as his feature film production moves him further and further away from that very culture. Or, perhaps, indicates precisely the direction toward which that culture is moving.
The middle film — something like The Adjuster, let’s say — is hard to do these days. Once you are involved at a certain budget level you have to perform in a different, perhaps more restrictive way. It seems it’s either bigger budget stuff or something totally handmade, like Citadel. That middle film is harder and harder to make.… Of course, it all depends on the story you want to tell.43
The replacement of a tension within his films by a dialectic of cultural production outside of them accurately characterizes Egoyan’s shift to the popular that began following The Adjuster. While his big-budget travails in the 21st century can furnish an object lesson of the dangers and temptations besetting the independent filmmaker in the global market, the ever-widening split in his oeuvre between the growing constraints of the big budget and the artistic ambition of the experimental suggests the provisional strategy he has adopted to weather the storm. We can only hope that Egoyan can find a way to achieve the synthesis between them that promised so much in the 1990s. Meanwhile, the brilliance of marginal work such as Krapp’s Last Tape and the Steenbeckett installation will have to balance the scattered pleasures and frequent irritations of the recent features.
———. “Applause Greets Egoyan’s New Movie,” Toronto Star (19 May 1999). LexisNexis Academic: cited December 2004.
———. “Lessons Can Be Found in Canadian Loss.” Toronto Star (22 May 2005): C07. LexisNexis Academic: cited 3 December 2006.
Ararat. Dir. Atom Egoyan. Perf. David Alpay, Charles Aznavour, Eric Bogosian, Marie-Josée Croze, Bruce Greenwood, Arsinée Khanjian, Elias Koteas, Christopher Plummer. Alliance Atlantis Communications, 2002.
Banks, Russell. The Sweet Hereafter. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
Beavis, Mary Ann. “The Sweet Hereafter: Law, Wisdom, and Family Revisited.” Journal of Film and Religion 5:1 (April 2001): 1-27. http://www.unomaha.edu/jrf/sweether.htm: cited 4 January 2006.
Caughie, John, ed. Theories of Authorship: A Reader. New York: Routledge, 1981.
Davidson, Sean. “Lights, Camera, Drinks.” Playback (11 October 2004): 10. LexisNexis: cited December 2004.
del Río, Elena. “The Body as Foundation of the Screen: Allegories of Technology in Atom Egoyan’s Speaking Parts.” Camera Obscura 38 (May 1996): 92-115.
Dillon, Mark. “Egoyan, Sarossy Think Bigger on Ararat.” Playback (16 September 2002): 43. LexisNexis Academic: cited December 2004.
Dillon, Steven. “Lyricism and Accident in The Sweet Hereafter.” Literature/Film Quarterly 31:3 (2003): 227-30.
Dwyer, Michael. “Atomic Power. At first Atom Egoyan considered filming William Trevor’s Felicia’s Journey in Canada. However, after meeting the writer, the subtext insisted that the film be made in Ireland.” Irish Times (21 August 1999): 63. LexisNexis Academic: cited December 2004.
Egoyan, Atom. Ararat: The Shooting Script.New York: Newmarket Press, 2002.
———. Audio commentary to deleted scenes. In bonus disk of Ararat. DVD. Miramax Home Entertainment. 2003.
———. Audio commentary to Felicia’s Journey. Dir. Egoyan. Perf. Bob Hoskins, Elaine Cassidy, Arsinée Khanjian. DVD. Artisan Home Entertainment, 1999.
———. “In Other Words: Poetic License and the Incarnation of History.” University of Toronto Quarterly 73:3 (Summer 2004): 886-905.
———. “Spellbound: from a filmmaking fan, an appreciation of the master of suspense’s show business.” Village Voice (6 December 2005, 2:00 P.M.):http://www.villagevoice.com/film/0549,egoyan,70702,20.html; 5 January 2006.
———, ed. Exotica: The Screenplay. Toronto: Coach House Press, 1995.
———, and Ian Balfour, eds. Subtitles: On the Foreignness of Film. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004.
———, and Russell Banks. Audio commentary to The Sweet Hereafter. Dir. Egoyan. Perf. Ian Holm, Sarah Polley, Bruce Greenwood, Gabrielle Rose. DVD. New Line Home Video, 1998.
Ellis, Don. “Ready for its closeup: Film fans create a haven on Queen West.” National Post (9 October 2004): T06. LexisNexis: cited December 2004.
Felicia’s Journey. Dir. Atom Egoyan. Perf. Bob Hoskins, Elaine Cassidy, Arsinée Khanjian. Artisan Entertainment, 1999.
Finlay, Marion. “Atom Egoyan on set with challenging British tale. Filmmaker hopes to release Felicia’s Journey next fall.” Toronto Star (11 December 1998): D5. LexisNexis Academic: cited December 2004.
Gabereau, Eve. “Portrait of a Genocide.” The Independent (London) (15 November 2002): Features 12, 13. LexisNexis Academic: cited December 2004.
Holmes, Rupert. Where the Truth Lies. New York, Random House, 2003.
Howe, Desson. “Film Notes; After The Sweet Hereafter.” Washington Post (19 November 1999): N53. LexisNexis Academic: cited December 2004.
Howell, Peter. “Egoyan’s Muse.” Toronto Star (27 August 1999): Entertainment. LexisNexis Academic: cited December 2004.
———. “Modern Horror Story,” Toronto Star (12 November 1999): Entertainment; LexisNexis Academic: cited December 2004.
———. “Souls for Sale in Tales of Intrigue.” Toronto Star (7 October 2005): D03. LexisNexis Academic: cited December 2004.
Hunter, Stephen. “Felicia’s Journey: Soup to Nut.” Washington Post (19 November 1999): C05. LexisNexis Academic: cited December 2004.
James, Nick. “The Right Stuff.” Sight and Sound 15:7 (July 2005): 12, 14, 16-17. IIPA Full Text: cited 4 January 2006.
Johnson, Brian D. “Atom’s Journey.” Maclean’s (13 September 1999). LexisNexis Academic: cited December 2004.
———. “How Sweet It Is.” Maclean’s (8 September 1997). LexisNexis Academic: cited 5 January 2006.
Klawans, Stuart. “Getting Inside the Head for a Portrait of Evil.” New York Times (21 November 1999): Section 2; Page 15; Column 1. LexisNexis Academic: cited December 2004.
Kraus, Matthias. Bild — Erinnerung — Identität. Die Filme des Kanadiers Atom Egoyan. Marburg: Schüren Verlag, 2000.
Lageira, Jacinto, Danièle Rivière, Paul Virilio, and Carole Desbarats, eds. Atom Egoyan. Paris: Dis Voir, 1994.
Lane, Anthony. “Worlds Apart: Far from Heaven and Ararat.” The New Yorker 78:35 (18 November 2002): 104-105. IIPA Full Text: cited 4 January 2006.
Lavery, David. “The Movie Artist: cited 5 January 2006.
The Making of Ararat. Dir. Michele Francis. Perf. Mychael Danna, Atom Egoyan, Robert Lantos. 2003. In bonus disk of Ararat. DVD. Miramax Home Entertainment. 2003.
McCarthy, Todd. “Where the Truth Lies.” Daily Variety (16 May 2005). LexisNexis Academic: cited December 2004.
McKay, John. “Already hot, Ararat skips spotlight: Atom Egoyan’s controversial film on Armenian genocide will be hors-concours at Cannes.” Montreal Gazette (25 April 2002): C8. LexisNexis Academic: cited December 2004.
McSorley, Tom. “How Do We Know What We Know? Atom Egoyan’s Where the Truth Lies.” Take One 14:51 (September-December 2005): 20-4.
Ouzonian, Richard. “Dealing with the Ghosts of Genocide.” Toronto Star (5 September 2002): A01. Lexis-Nexis: cited December 2004.
Pevere, Geoff. “Difficult to Say: An Interview with Atom Egoyan.” In Egoyan 1995. 43-67.
———. “No Place Like Home: The Films of Atom Egoyan.” In Egoyan 1995. 9-42.
Pike, David L. “The Passing of Celluloid, The Endurance of the Image: Egoyan, “Steenbeckett,” and Krapp’s Last Tape.” In New Essays on Atom Egoyan. Eds. Monique Tschofen and Jennifer Burwell. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier UP: 2006. Forthcoming.
Porton, Richard. “Family Romances: An Interview with Atom Egoyan.” Cineaste 23:2 (1997): 8-15.
———. “The Politics of Denial: An Interview with Atom Egoyan.” Cineaste 25: 1 (December 1999): 39-41.
Romney, Jonathan. Atom Egoyan. BFI World Directors. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
Rosen, Steven. “Hoskins, Egoyan, Make Journey Important.” Denver Post (19 November 1999): 2D. LexisNexis Academic: cited December 2004.
Schaefer, Stephen. “Egoyan Embarks on Dangerous, Adolescent Journey.” Boston Herald (21 November 1999): 051. LexisNexis Academic: cited December 2004.
Spaner, David. “Egoyan returns to his roots: His drama of Armenian genocide is the big Canadian film of Christmas season.” Vancouver Province (10 November 2002): B8. LexisNexis Academic: cited December 2004.
Stoffman, Judy. “A film, cup of joe, some chat; Screening room has 50 seats.” Toronto Star (29 September 2004): F01. LexisNexis: cited December 2004.
Stone, Jay. “Egoyan and the urge to forget: Memory, resolution are director’s themes in film, Ararat.”Ottawa Citizen (6 September 2002): D3. LexisNexis Academic: cited December 2004.
The Sweet Hereafter. Dir. Atom Egoyan. Perf. Ian Holm, Sarah Polley, Bruce Greenwood, Gabrielle Rose. Alliance Communications, 1997.
Trevor, William. Felicia’s Journey. New York: Penguin, 1994.
Tschofen, Monique. “Repetition, Compulsion, and Representation in Atom Egoyan’s Films.” North of Everything: English-Canadian Cinema: 1980 to 2000. Ed. William Beard and Gerald White. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2002. 166-183.
Weese, Katherine. “Family Stories: Gender and Discourse in Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter.”Narrative 10:1 (January 2002): 70-90.
Where the Truth Lies. Dir. Atom Egoyan. Perf. Kevin Bacon, Rachel Blanchard, Colin Firth, Alison Lohman. Serendipity Point Films, 2005.
Whyte, Murray. “Facing the Pain of a Past Long Hidden.” New York Times (17 November 2002): Arts and Leisure, Section 2, Column 1: 13. LexisNexis Academic: cited December 2004.
- The benchmark critical monograph is English critic Jonathan Romney’s thoughtful and conventionally auteurist film-by-film survey (through Ararat), Atom Egoyan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), published in the BFI “World Directors” series; Matthias Kraus’s Bild — Erinnerung — Identität. Die Filme des Kanadiers Atom Egoyan (Marburg: Schüren Verlag, 2000) uses an equally auteurist but far more theoretically inclined approach, as does the French collection, Atom Egoyan, eds. Lageira et al. Kass Banning’s entry on Egoyan for The Film Reference Library’s online Canadian Film Encyclopedia accounts for Egoyan’s entire career in plausible, if relentlessly positive auteurist terms: cited 4 January 2006). Along with Romney, Richard Masterson’s straightforwardly thematic analysis, “Family Romances: Memory, Obsession, Loss, and Redemption in the Films of Atom Egoyan,” University of Toronto Quarterly 71:4 (Fall 2002): 881-91, is the only detailed approach to the recent films as a group. Geoff Pevere, “No Place Like Home: The Films of Atom Egoyan,” in Exotica: The Screenplay,ed. Egoyan (Toronto: Coach House Press, 1995), 9-42, provides an excellent overview of Egoyan’s career; Monique Tschofen, “Repetition, Compulsion, and Representation in Atom Egoyan’s Films” in North of Everything: English-Canadian Cinema: 1980 to 2000, eds. William Beard and Gerald White (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2002), 166-183, is one of the best of many thematic studies. [↩]
- The classic collection on auteur theory in its cinephilic and structuralist manifestations, as well as reactions against it, is John Caughie, ed. Theories of Authorship: A Reader (New York: Routledge, 1981); for a sanguine approach to auteurism in terms of contemporary cinema and its relation to Hollywood filmmaking, see David Lavery, “The Movie Artist,” cited 5 January 2006. I use the term to describe the mostly unarticulated tendency to use auteurist principles to examine and evaluate Egoyan’s filmmaking as a coherent oeuvre rather than as a strictly delineated theory of cinema. [↩]
- Egoyan labels the dynamic in Richard Porton, “Family Romances: An Interview with Atom Egoyan,” Cineaste 23:2 (1997): 9; this theme forms the basis of Masterson’s analysis (881). On media, see especially Lageiro et al, Kraus, Romney 3-6 and 94 (where he even manages to find the theme in Egoyan’s hockey bio-pic Gross Misconduct ), and Elena Del Rio, “The Body as Foundation of the Screen: Allegories of Technology in Atom Egoyan’s Speaking Parts,” Camera Obscura 38 (May 1996): 92-115. [↩]
- Brian D. Johnson, “Atom’s Journey,” Maclean’s (13 September 1999); LexisNexis Academic: cited December 2004. Masterson singles out the “darkest mystery” of incest as the central component of what he sees as the growing emotional maturity and accessibility of the family romance theme inExotica and especially The Sweet Hereafter (883-88). [↩]
- David L. Pike, “The Passing of Celluloid, The Endurance of the Image: Egoyan, “Steenbeckett,” and Krapp’s Last Tape,” in New Essays on Atom Egoyan, eds. Monique Tschofen and Jennifer Burwell (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier UP: 2006), forthcoming. [↩]
- As Egoyan put it in interview with film critic Brian Johnson about The Sweet Hereafter, “In all my other films, the characters have been fragments or aspects of my own personality. They were people looking for their own identity through rituals or gestures. But they were just shells.” (“How Sweet It Is,” Maclean’s [8 September 1997]; LexisNexis Academic: cited 5 January 2006). See also Masterson’s discussion of Egoyan’s shift away from “stylization” (884). [↩]
- Geoff Pevere, “Difficult to Say: An Interview with Atom Egoyan,” in Egoyan 1995, 60. [↩]
- Egoyan, quoted in Desson Howe, “Film Notes; after The Sweet Hereafter,” Washington Post 19 November 1999: N53; LexisNexis Academic: cited December 2004. [↩]
- Egoyan’s shooting script further developed Karen’s relationship to her father (also a reporter) through a reel-to-reel tape player he used at the telethon and which she continued to use in her own reporting as an adult (“Deleted scenes from Where the Truth Lies“). Some early examples of discussion of Lohman’s performance in what became a leitmotif of reviews: Todd McCarthy, “Where the Truth Lies,” Daily Variety (16 May 2005): LexisNexis Academic: cited December 2004; Nick James, “The Right Stuff,” Sight and Sound 15:7 (July 2005): 12, 14, 16-17; IIPA Full Text: cited 4 January 2006; Peter Howell, “Souls for Sale in Tales of Intrigue,” Toronto Star (7 October 2005): D03; LexisNexis Academic: cited December 2004. [↩]
- Johnson 1997; evidently, it was Khanjian that initially persuaded Egoyan to consider adapting Banks’s novel (Howell, “Egoyan’s Muse,” Toronto Star [27 August 1999]: Entertainment; LexisNexis Academic: cited December 2004). [↩]
- See Mary Ann Beavis, “The Sweet Hereafter: Law, Wisdom, and Family Revisited,”Journal of Film and Religion 5:1 (April 2001): 22-3; cited 4 January 2006; Steven Dillon, “Lyricism and Accident in The Sweet Hereafter,” Literature/Film Quarterly 31:3 (2003): 228; Katherine Weese, “Family Stories: Gender and Discourse in Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter,” Narrative 10:1 (January 2002): 76-80; Romney 135-37. [↩]
- Johnson 1997; Porton 1997, 10. See also Egoyan’s discussion of the ambiguity of “the most controversial scene in the film” in the audio commentary to the DVD. [↩]
- Russell Banks, The Sweet Hereafter (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), 254. [↩]
- Stephen Hunter, “Felicia’s Journey: Soup to Nut,” Washington Post (19 November 1999): C05; LexisNexis Academic: cited December 2004); Egoyan says that the only scene in which he thought of Hitchcock explicitly was the one of Salomé (quoted in Stephen Schaefer, “Egoyan Embarks on Dangerous, Adolescent Journey,” Boston Herald [21 November 1999]: 051; LexisNexis Academic: cited December 2004). Egoyan pays a great deal of attention to both myths in his audio commentary to the DVD of the film (1999); in interviews (“Applause Greets Egoyan’s New Movie,” Toronto Star [19 May 1999]; LexisNexis Academic: cited December 2004) and on the audio commentary, he has also mentioned the influence of Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, in particular the dreamlike scene where Felicia wanders the hallways of Hilditch’s house while he is at work. [↩]
- Egoyan 1999. Schaefer also lightly touches on the allusion, as does Steven Rosen, “Hoskins, Egoyan, Make Journey Important,” Denver Post (19 November 1999): 2D; LexisNexis Academic: cited December 2004. [↩]
- Denial figures most prominently in Egoyan’s myriad comments to journalists regarding the impact of historical events on personal lives in Ararat; see also his detailed discussion of the issues in “In Other Words: Poetic License and the Incarnation of History,” University of Toronto Quarterly 73:3 (Summer 2004): 886-905. In his audio commentary on Felicia’s Journey, Egoyan discusses secrecy as part of Hilditch’s lack of awareness of his own actions (1999). [↩]
- Egoyan 1999; he makes a similar comment in Schaefer. [↩]
- As Egoyan put it in a widely quoted if disturbingly reductive comment, Hilditch “may be the first monster that television created” (quoted in “Applause”). Howell quotes the comment somewhat dubiously in his review of the film, “Modern Horror Story,” Toronto Star (12 November 1999): Entertainment; LexisNexis Academic: cited December 2004. [↩]
- As one unconvinced reviewer put it, Lohman’s character “reads as so naïve, there is something pedophilic about the sex scenes” (Melissa Levine, “Strange Brew: The Truth is, Egoyan’s latest is B-movie noir, with killer performances,” SF Weekly [19 October 2005]; LexisNexis Academic: cited 3 January 2006). Nevertheless, the overlay of drug anthem “White Rabbit” onto the sequence ensures that the dominant note is hallucinatory hedonism. [↩]
- Since Egoyan has suggested both reasons, although never at the same time, I am assuming that, as with many such decisions, they had equal weight notwithstanding the radically different spheres in which the weight of each reason would have asserted itself. For the artistic version, see Jay Stone, “Egoyan and the urge to forget: Memory, resolution are director’s themes in film, Ararat,” Ottawa Citizen (6 September 2002): D3; LexisNexis Academic: cited December 2004; Eve Gabereau, “Portrait of a Genocide,” The Independent(London) (15 November 2002): Features 12, 13; LexisNexis Academic: cited December 2004; Egoyan says something similar in The Making of Ararat (2003). For the lack of budget version, see John McKay, “Already hot, Ararat skips spotlight: Atom Egoyan’s controversial film on Armenian genocide will be hors-concours at Cannes,” Montreal Gazette (25 April 2002): C8; LexisNexis Academic: cited December 2004. [↩]
- Indeed, in the shooting script, the perceptions of a fourth child, David’s grandson Tony, equally structured perception of that family romance around the story of Noah’s ark (Egoyan, Ararat: The Shooting Script [New York: Newmarket Press, 2002], 6-7, 15-17, 76-78. Egoyan shot all of the scenes from this thread of the narrative, and speaks wistfully of the need to cut them (audio commentary to deleted scenes, Ararat DVD ). Only the middle of these scenes survived in the final cut, along with a related scene where Ali’s excitement at hearing about getting the part of Jevdet Bey is played out in the museum in front of a school group of kids for whom Ali immediately puts on his stage villainy act. [↩]
- On Egoyan’s longtime desire to make the film, see 2004: 887. [↩]
- Here, too, material excised in the final cut amplifies this relationship (Ararat DVD, 2003). The encounter with Raffi that concludes in the scene in which she urges him, in her only seemingly unselfish moment, to travel to the land around Ararat to find meaning begins with her ignoring her lover’s dilemma by typing away at her keyboard. Another scene had her visiting the site of her father’s death, simulating the plummeting height through a vertiginously held video camera. [↩]
- Egoyan in Porton, 1999, 41. In addition to location work in Los Angeles and Toronto (masquerading as New York City), Where the Truth Lies was also shot at Shepperton. [↩]
- Nowhere has that difference been made more evident to me than in a question Egoyan received at the screening of the film during the New York Film Festival asking him the address of the club in Toronto. The director’s understandably nonplussed and dismissive response to the question nevertheless ignored its emergence out of the success of the film’s fundamental premise. [↩]
- Variety reviewer Todd McCarthy (somewhat unfairly) called the attempt to recreate the ambiance of the duo’s act “half-hearted” and called the period detail “uneven.” [↩]
- To be sure, one could argue that the origin of these images lies in the 16mm shots of Armenia that represent the experience of the photographer’s wife and the guide beyond the viewfinder that traps the photographer. But precisely to the extent that our perceptions are limited to those of the photographer, the only thing the beauty of those rural images can be said to represent is what the photographer is unable to experience. [↩]
- The excised scene and Egoyan’s commentary are included on the bonus disk to the Ararat DVD. [↩]
- Egoyan 2002, 83. According to Egoyan’s audio commentary, the background setting was shot in Alberta and the extras were digitally added later (Ararat DVD); Gabereau adds the detail that it was Drumheller, Alberta, matched to surreptitiously shot DV camera footage of Armenian hills. [↩]
- Banks, 99. In the novel, it comes near the beginning of Stephens’s central monologue, in a general, private meditation on the fate of the people of Sam Dent, rather than in the conversational interchange in which Egoyan resituated it. [↩]
- Indeed, writing from Cannes after Cronenberg’s A History of Violence and Egoyan’s Where the Truth Lies were shut out of prizes because of their commercialism, the Toronto Star directly ascribed the shift in direction of this pair of films to the directors’ frustration at Telefilm Canada’s recently departed director Richard Stursberg’s push to link film funding to commercial viability (“Lessons Can Be Found in Canadian Loss,” Toronto Star [22 May 2005]: C07; LexisNexis Academic: cited 3 December 2006). [↩]
- Marion Finlay, “Atom Egoyan on Set with Challenging British Tale,” Toronto Star (11 December 1998): D5; LexisNexis Academic: cited December 2004; Michael Dwyer, “Atomic Power,” Irish Times (21 August 1999): 63; LexisNexis Academic: cited December 2004; Johnson 1999; Stuart Klawans, “Getting Inside the Head for a Portrait of Evil,” New York Times (21 November 1999): Section 2; Page 15; Column 1; LexisNexis Academic: cited December 2004. [↩]
- As quoted by David Spaner in the Vancouver Province on the occasion of the film’s premiere in Egoyan’s home town, the director had the “‘romantic idea’ to assemble for Ararat as many accomplished actors with Armenian backgrounds as possible” (“Egoyan Returns to His Roots,”Vancouver Province [10 November 2002]: B8; LexisNexis Academic: cited December 2004). [↩]
- Egoyan and Khanjian discussed the importance of this 1985 episode in their own lives, and, implicitly, in Ararat, in a three-way phone conversation with Richard Ouzonian on the occasion of the gala opening-night screening of the film at the Toronto International Film Festival (“Dealing with the Ghosts of Genocide,” Toronto Star 5 September 2002: A01; LexisNexis Academic: cited December 2004). [↩]
- As New Yorker reviewer Anthony Lane brutally but aptly summarized the dilemma, “This was new to me: the emotionally useful genocide” (“Worlds Apart: Far from Heaven and Ararat,” The New Yorker 78:35 [18 November 2002]: 104-105; IIPA Full Text: cited 4 January 2006). [↩]
- Characteristically, the irritation is an intentional effect on Egoyan’s part: “‘Of all people, Ani is someone who should understand what the effects of denial are,’ Mr. Egoyan said. ‘And yet, she’s in a very privileged position where she refuses to acknowledge another woman’s history. And that privilege takes a huge emotional toll on someone.'” (Murray Whyte, “Facing the Pain of a Past Long Hidden,” New York Times [17 November 2002]: Arts and Leisure, Section 2, Column 1: 13; LexisNexis Academic: cited December 2004). The problem is, this typical Egoyan maneuver functions far differently in the vast canvas of Ararat than in the intimate milieus of his previous films. [↩]
- The notable exception is the obsessively completist Romney. [↩]
- Egoyan, “Spellbound: from a filmmaking fan, an appreciation of the master of suspense’s show business,” Village Voice (6 December 2005, 2:00 P.M.): 5 January 2006. Note, however, how the issue never arose (from either party) in the detailed discussion of Hitchcock in the intellectual, left-leaning film journal Cineaste (Porton 1999). [↩]
- The Médiathèque of the Musée d’art contemporain in Montreal provides a complete list up to 2002 here; 4 January 2006). [↩]
- Egoyan and DoP Paul Sarossy screened Kazan’s 1963 turn-of-the-century story of a Greek boy escaping Turkish oppression in considering the visual look of the film-within-a-film (Mark Dillon, “Egoyan, Sarossy Think Bigger on Ararat,” Playback [16 September 2002]: 43; LexisNexis Academic: cited December 2004). [↩]
- Atom Egoyan and Ian Balfour, eds,Subtitles: On the Foreignness of Film(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004). [↩]
- Judy Stoffman, “A film, cup of joe, some chat; Screening room has 50 seats,” Toronto Star (29 September 2004): F01; LexisNexis: cited December 2004; Don Ellis, “Ready for its closeup: Film fans create a haven on Queen West,” National Post (9 October 2004): T06; LexisNexis: cited December 2004; Sean Davidson, “Lights, Camera, Drinks,” Playback (11 October 2004): 10; LexisNexis: cited December 2004. [↩]
- Tom McSorley, “How Do We Know What We Know? Atom Egoyan’s Where the Truth Lies,” Take One 14:51 (September-December 2005): 24. [↩]