A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 310 – Living in Oblivion

Living in Oblivion – January 4th, 2011

Today is Andy’s birthday so I told him hey, I got to pick what movie we watched on my birthday, you should pick what movie we watch today! The thing is, while I had twelve movies to pick from, which made things nice and easy, he had a lot more to look at. And we both had today off, so if he’d wanted to watch Seven Samurai today then we totally could have. We had the time. But instead he picked this, and I’m not surprised. It’s a movie about making a movie, which is wonderfully perfect for our project. Neither of us have ever been directly involved in film-making, but as one might guess from this project, we love movies, big and small. A movie about making a movie? Yes, please.

We first saw this back when I was in college and we were both working for a local video store that specialized in the stuff you couldn’t get at the big chains. I don’t remember what it was, specifically, that made us pick this up and take it home one night, but I suspect it was Steve Buscemi’s involvement. Regardless, we loved it. It’s a strange little meta film (and for an extra level of meta, there’s commentary available on the DVD), but it’s also a lot of fun and has some terrific performances.

By far, the star and best performance in the movie is Steve Buscemi as the beleaguered director, Nick. Nick’s trying to make a movie that seems like a major labor of love. It’s his and he’s thoroughly invested in it. And when things start to go wrong, and oh do they go wrong, he has to figure out how he’s going to deal with it or, well, quit. The thing is, while on the surface the things that go wrong seem a little outrageous, I do not doubt for a moment that such or similar things actually occur in a business like film. Crew members getting sick mid-scene? Cast and crew sleeping together and creating a tangle? Random family members showing up on set? A cinematographer with an eye patch? Yeah, sure. All thoroughly believable. As are the exploding light, exploding smoke machine, and exploding director (that last is more exploding in catharsis than actual smoke and flames, but the other two are literal).

While I love the movie as a whole, I have to say one of my favorite things about it is how it begins and how it incorporates a gimmick that could otherwise be a little tired. We all know the “It was just a dream!” trope (warning, that is indeed a tvtropes link and it will eat your life), but the movie plays with it in a nicely clever way. For one, some revelations and events from the first dream sequence are carried over into the second, which another person is having. And at the end, when we aren’t seeing a dream at all, there are things still carried through. The cinematographer’s eye patch, for one. It gives the dream sequences a touch of reality that the characters really do know each other and what’s going on well enough that their dreams are somewhat accurate about many things. But then it’s all turned on its head at the end while the cast and crew film a dream sequence that is so very cliched that one of the actors calls Nick out on it. Said actor is played by the fantastic Peter Dinklage, and I can only imagine that his speech about having little people in dream sequences was terrifically cathartic for him.

My one quibble about the movie stems from how it was made. The original concept for the film was only the first section, ending with Nick’s explosion and realization that he’s totally wrapped up in the project. Writer and director Tom DiCillo has said that it was inspired by his own life and I can believe it. And the first section is noticeably different than the others in that the on-screen stuff is all in color while the off-screen is in black and white. The effect is startling and I like it, but then it isn’t carried through in the rest of the movie. But the rest of the movie was filmed well after the first section, after DiCillo realized that there was no real venue for a half hour film. Too long to be a short and too short to be a feature, he either would have had to edit it or expand it. After raising the money to expand it, that’s what he did, and I’m glad he did. But it means that the first part has a few things that don’t quite match up with the rest. Then again, it could have gotten to be too obvious and too tired had it been used for the whole 90 minutes. It’s just one of those things I wish had been done slightly different.

In the grand scheme of things, however, it’s a fantastic little movie. Catherine Keener is the female lead and she’s fantastic, playing both her role as an actress and playing the actress playing a role, in and out of dream sequences. It’s fun to follow once you know what’s going on, but it’s also a great performance regardless. Steve Buscemi is, as I said, wonderful. And everyone involved seems to have been really invested, in some cases literally, having put in money to help the film get made and receiving a bit part as a thank you. The movie has a sort of “we’re all in this together” feel, much like the movie being made in the movie, which is utterly perfect. It was great to see it again after so many years, and know that it really is still as good as I thought it was when I first saw it.

January 4, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Living in Oblivion

January 4, 2011

Living in Oblivion

For my birthday Amanda told me I could choose any movie from our collection. Well, of the two hundred and forty we haven’t reviewed yet. That’s a tough choice. How do I select a movie from all those that works as a birthday present for myself? I toyed briefly with the notion of going out and buying the 39 Steps since it’s my thirty-ninth birthday, but ultimately I was too lazy to go out (too bad, since I’m unlikely to have another 39th birthday during the project) so instead I settled on doing a movie about movies. It just seemed right for the project.

I’m in love with this movie because I’m in love with movies. John Godfrey Saxe is said to have declared that in order to respect laws and sausages you must never see them being made – this movie is proof that the complete opposite is true of most artistic endeavours. That’s why I love listening to commentary tracks and watching making-of documentaries and seeing outtakes. There’s an unbelievable magic that has to happen for a cooperative effort like a film to happen at all, much less be any good. This movie is the best expression of that impossible convergence of ability, perseverance and blind luck that is necessary for a good movie.

Steve Buscemi plays director Nick, who is having problems on the set of his little independent movie. At first it’s little things like the boom mike falling into frame or noise from off-set interfering with the dialog. But as with any small group of people forced together and doing long hours on a project there are tensions. As the movie progresses everything slowly falls apart. It’s not just that Nick can’t get that perfect shot he has planned – the whole production is in danger.

There is so much that is clever and fun about this movie. It jumps from black and white to color and back to distinguish the moments caught by the camera from the “real world” of the people trying to make the movie. There’s a fantastic bit where Nick has a complete meltdown because an annoying beeping noise is ruining the sixth or seventh take of a very emotional scene he’s trying to capture – and after he has shouted at every member of the cast and crew and torn the set apart in frustration he wakes up to discover the noise was his alarm clock. Waking him up so he’ll be in on time for another day of shooting. I’ve had that exact dream, albeit with different stresses causing the outburst, so it’s fun to see it so well captured on film.

Absolutely everything about this movie is charming and wonderful. It was made on an absolute shoestring – funded in large part by the actors themselves. (During a Q&A session featured on the DVD writer/director Tom DiCillio admits that in many cases he gave roles to friends who put in a few thousand dollars to keep the project going. It’s like Ed Wood – but with a good movie being the result.) Everybody’s performances are great but the highlights are Katherine Keener as Nichole, the star of the movie, Rica Martins as her co-star in the first scene and later as Nick’s addled mother, and of course Buscemi himself proving that he’s not just a quirky character actor but can actually headline a movie. There’s a great nightmare of a self-absorbed big name actor called Chad Palmero which was apparently written for Brad Pitt to play but is played instead by James LeGros. Many of the biggest laughs in the movie come from his astonishingly bad instincts about what makes for good blocking in his scene and I can totally see Brad Pitt in the part. Then there’s Peter Dinklage, fast becoming one of my favorite actors by the way, who plays a little person actor completely fed up with being cast in roles meant for little people. (There must be a bit of self-insert here since Peter has since made a career for himself playing roles that were NOT written for little people.)

Every time I watch this it is filled with laugh-out-loud moments, and every time it increases my respect for all the hard-working people who somehow put aside their personal differences long enough to make movies happen. If it were not for all those wonderful, crazy artists I wouldn’t have hundreds of movies filling every shelf and flat surface in my apartment. Thank you Tom Dicillio – you made this a very happy birthday for me.

January 4, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | 1 Comment