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Victims of Video

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SPEAKING PARTS

** (Worth seeing)

Written and directed by Atom Egoyan

With Michael McManus, Arsinee Khanjian, Gabrielle Rose, Tony Nardi, and David Hemblen.

I suspect that when the definitive social history of the last half of the 20th century is written, the chapter on influences and causes will revolve around a single word: video. From the cradle to the rest home, the tube blares its unceasing mixture of entertainment, comedy, alleged reportage--in the words of All That Heaven Allows, a 1955 Douglas Sirk film, "drama, comedy, life's parade at your fingertips."

Growing up with a constant barrage of video images can result in the failure to develop an inner, self-reflective identity, in an inability to analyze issues logically, perhaps even in the absence of a soul--like the characters who populate many of the films about video that we've seen over the last decade or so, from Network to Videodrome to sex, lies, and videotape. The ability to have images from all over the world in one's home confers the illusion of ownership, the false belief that the self has somehow expanded--or I might say contracted--to include everything that the tube brings us. The hypnotic omnipresence of TV's substitute world causes the video victim to confuse illusion and reality so hopelessly that appearances command more attention than the flesh-and-blood actuality they were once thought to represent. How else to explain the image-oriented lack of substance in most advertising, including the way most recent political campaigns have revolved around video imagery rather than proposals or ideas?

The rhetoric of some recent postmodern art seems to reflect, in a different and more sophisticated way, the same basic idea: there is no primary reality in the world, there are only different images, different modes of representation. Just as a child who grows up victimized by video will see the world primarily in terms of different imagery, and as entertainment, so for the postmodern artist originality, inspiration, reality, and truth are utterly irrelevant concepts, because they involve comparative aesthetic and moral judgments rather than simply the most immediate perceptual and emotional reactions.

All this is very much to the point of Speaking Parts, an often brilliant, sometimes maddening third feature by Atom Egoyan, a 29-year-old Canadian of Armenian parentage. His new film is a dense, multicharacter study of image making and its diverse and labyrinthine effects on the self.

One of the extraordinary things about Speaking Parts is its narrative structure. Egoyan gives us six principal characters, and while each interacts with several others, none interacts with all the others. Thus the film has no main character, no audience-identification figure, which is important, since rather than seeing things through a single person's subjective vision we are forced to assume perpetually changing perspectives.

Egoyan has spoken of exploring the difference between producers and consumers of images, and the power relationship between these two groups. His characters in Speaking Parts are organized almost schematically along these lines, with one person of each sex occupying each of three levels of power. At the bottom level are Lance (Michael McManus), a hotel housekeeper, aspiring actor, and occasional extra, and Lisa (Arsinee Khanjian), who works with him in the hotel and loves him obsessively. Because her love is unrequited, she rents every movie he appears in, viewing them again and again. At the next level are Clara (Gabrielle Rose), a writer whose autobiographical story of herself and her brother is being made into a movie, and Eddy (Tony Nardi), a video-store clerk who also tapes weddings and parties. At the top are the hotel's housekeeping supervisor, who as a sideline enlists some of her employees, including Lance, as prostitutes for hotel guests; and a TV and movie producer, a darkly hilarious, grotesque parody of the hard-boiled mogul. These two have power because they're the actual creators--one of bedroom scenes, the other of films and TV shows--though their work must also satisfy others. But the producer can assume, as he says, that what pleases him will please the audience, and his position allows him the occasional error in that regard; whereas Eddy must tape only what he is hired to tape, and Clara is powerless to prevent the producer's changes in her script. At the lowest level, Lance must read lines others have written for him, while Lisa is reduced to worshiping Lance's video image.

Some critics have described Speaking Parts as having a main story line, which concerns the making of the movie based on Clara's story, and there is a rather typical narrative arc leading to a denouement during that film's shooting. But it would be more accurate to describe Speaking Parts as an exploration of multiple relationships, some but not all of which revolve around the shooting of the movie. For example, a friendship that develops between Lisa and Eddy is, by the film's end, every bit as important as that between Lance and Clara.

Though only some of the narrative lines converge, Egoyan does relate them all metaphorically, through crosscutting. The film's opening, virtually devoid of dialogue, gives a good insight into his method. In the first shot, the camera moves slowly sideways as we see a cemetery, some of whose gravestones have pictures of the deceased on them. We then cut to a shot of a woman, Lisa, seen from the back while watching TV; the camera moves slowly sideways in this shot too, bringing the TV screen into more prominence. Next we are in a cemetery vault; Clara touches one of the marble slabs, and it slides away to reveal a video screen displaying a home movie of her dead brother. We then return to Lisa watching Lance on TV. The women are compared: both consume images, but Clara has a certain imaginative power (or the wealth and genius to have found a truly amazing cemetery!), which Lisa, at least at this point, lacks.

This kind of intercutting is the basis of Egoyan's method. We are never left with one scene for very long; two or three are developed simultaneously. Lisa asks Eddy to let her help with one of his tapings; this request is intercut with Lance auditioning for Clara, trying to get the lead in the movie being made from her story. Lisa shows up uninvited at the bizarre sex party Eddy is taping; we cut to Clara and Lance having sex (watching each other masturbate to orgasm via a video-conferencing system).

From this sort of intercutting, a point much darker than the mere articulation of power relations emerges. The film suggests that its characters are all ultimately enslaved by imagery, that they are alone, empty shells, who only acquire egos when they acquire imagery. Egoyan gives us a Lisa who is nothing without her tapes of Lance; when they prove insufficient, she attempts to "graduate" to image maker by helping Eddy. Lance, understandably a bit embarrassed about his job, seeks meaning in his screen appearances, and even appears to find some small measure of identity in his "performances" as a hotel prostitute. The producer, whose lifework has been making "shows," appears before his film crew, and even at a wedding party, on a giant video screen rather than in person. Neither the film nor any of its characters has a center: each moment of existence is merely a transition from one kind of imagery to another.

This is conveyed most strongly in Egoyan's editing, which is frequently dazzling. He structures his film as a kind of multidimensional tapestry in which each part affects the way each other part is seen, and in which the only possible hierarchy is a hierarchy of power. That all the actors' performances here are restrained, occasionally even wooden, is very much to the point: we are seeing vacant shells, hopeless narcissists who can exist only through the ways others see them. Thus it is that Lisa can define "love" as being about "feeling someone else feeling you," or that Clara can be driven near suicide when she loses control of her script. When Lance protests the script changes to the producer, on the grounds that they are not "authentic," the producer replies, "Authentic to what?" In fact, Speaking Parts has no notion of authenticity external to image production. The producer goes on to point out, in one of the few moments in the film's dialogue that could be characterized as true, that making a movie is a different process from writing a true-life story, and that script changes are needed as a result. But then the producer, whom David Hemblen plays in a wonderfully vile monotone, is relatively ingenuous: he doesn't claim to be doing anything other than making pictures. The more sympathetic Lisa, by contrast, makes extravagant claims--she says Lance is her lover.

Perhaps it is because Lisa is at the bottom of the power pyramid that Egoyan allows her a rare moment of truth. When Eddy lets her do a video interview with the bride and groom on one of his wedding jobs, she breaks their bubbly mood and asks the bride a few questions that require genuine self-knowledge--"What do you see in Ronnie? When you look at him, what are you looking at?" These quickly reduce the bride to tears. An authentic character, who believed in herself, her husband, and their love, would have responded differently; it is because this bride partakes of the main characters' inner emptiness that, when forced to confront it in herself, she falls apart.

At the film's ending, the powerful characters' schemes--filmmaking and prostitution--seem to be collapsing, in both cases because their victims have apparently committed suicide. Part of the film's wisdom is to consciously acknowledge the death of the self that results from a reality based only on images. Out of this wreckage, two lower-rung characters find each other: Eddy and Lisa kiss in silhouette. But this moment also seems both a rehash of and a knowing reference to the standard ending of the tragic multicharacter Hollywood melodrama, in which the two least obnoxious characters are allowed to form the beginnings of a happy couple, while the others lie in ruin.

On a cinematic level, some of the most extraordinary moments in Speaking Parts occur when the film image is recorded from the same position that a video camera had occupied. When Lance begins his video audition, he looks directly at us; after the producer concludes one of his video-conference addresses, we cut to a film image, from the same angle, of the chair he had been sitting in as he walks away. The video image had given us only his head, and I had assumed he was standing; now we see that he had been sitting. Film, for Egoyan, is capable of conveying knowledge, while video, as used by someone like Lisa, is pure hypnotism. But by placing his film camera where a video camera had been or might be, he also suggests that the two media are fusing, just as his characters are fused with the images that others make of them.

Egoyan's daring cinematic juxtapositions suggest the tightrope he walks in constructing this film, which by its nature places him at risk of participating in what he appears to be criticizing. While his editing and camera placement are frequently brilliant, most of the images he composes are little more than workmanlike--only the occasional oddly angular placement disrupts the smooth, antiseptic surface he establishes. Images as clean and bloodless as the hotel bathrooms his characters scrub are in danger of being as soulless as those very characters. Moreover, while his narrative juxtapositions are often thought-provoking, ultimately his characters are less different than they seem at first: the film sees them all as victims of the worlds they inhabit or create, and several of the leads even resemble each other physically, as if to emphasize their interchangeability. Near the film's end, short bursts of video static separate intercut scenes, as if Egoyan were comparing his film's structure to switching TV channels, making a connection that was already obvious a bit too explicit. A kind of leveling effect occurs, so that the viewer comes to feel the sameness, the emptiness, that pervades each character, an emptiness that the film lacks the vision to provide an alternative for.

As with so many of the more notable films of recent years, certain film classics spring to mind as possible influences. It is perhaps no accident that TV was seen as a pernicious, even vile influence in early references to it, in 1950s films such as All That Heaven Allows and The Last Hurrah, when television was an economic threat to Hollywood. Recent films, however, in an era in which commercial filmmaking derives much of its income from such video outlets as cable and cassette rentals, partake of much of the video culture, however critical of it they may appear.

The older film that Speaking Parts evokes most strongly is Fritz Lang's final masterpiece, the 1960 The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse. This film is also set in a hotel that's under evil influences, and also involves video: the archvillain Dr. Mabuse, as part of his diabolical attempt to take over the world, has placed video cameras secretly throughout the Hotel Luxor, which he monitors from a secret room in the basement. In one of this film's sublimely terrifying moments, we learn of this video system in a cut from a shot of a couple eating in the hotel restaurant to a shot of the same couple on a video screen. We first see that video image in close-up, and are unaware exactly why the image quality has changed; only then does the camera pull back to reveal the whole bank of monitors.

Lang, a director whose career began in the silent days and who survived Nazism by fleeing to the United States, had a far better understanding of cinema, and of the totalitarian possibilities of voyeurism, than Egoyan and his contemporaries have. For Lang, there is in fact a difference between illusion and reality, and more important, between good and evil. Both exist, and are locked in an eternal struggle: it is up to us to observe, to try to understand, and ultimately to choose sides. We only discover the video monitors halfway into the film, and the way Lang first presents video establishes that, in his eyes, it constitutes a very different level of reality from that we've just been seeing.

The decade that began with Lang's film was, it must be said, filled with a great deal of nonsense. But mixed in with the chaos and even evil of the 60s was a utopian notion that seems to have largely vanished from our culture: that there are right things and wrong things, and one way to build a better future is to fight for the former and against the latter. The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, and much of the classical cinematic narrative tradition, is based on compositional and editing principles that find meaningful differences between different levels and representations of reality, encouraging the viewer to draw distinctions and come to appropriate moral conclusions. In depicting the very different, far more relativistic ethos of the current period, Egoyan has constructed his film on a kind of equivalency principle, in which character, narrative, and video image all collapse into each other, leaving only the emptiness and flatness of a world full of images and devoid of souls.

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