Friday, August 22, 2014

Living in Oblivion (1995)

USA, 90 minutes
Director/writer: Tom DiCillo
Photography: Frank Prinzi
Music: Jim Farmer
Editors: Dana Congdon, Camilla Toniolo
Cast: Steve Buscemi, Catherine Keener, Dermot Mulroney, Danielle von Zerneck, James LeGros, Peter Dinklage, Rica Martens

The title for Living in Oblivion refers to a state of working on a project, working so intensely that time, reality, and life seem to fall away, leaving a binary existence, working inside of nothing trying very hard to make something. There's a kind of creeping self-pity to it just around the edges, which comes even more sharply into focus in interviews with director and screenwriter Tom DiCillo. Yet in spite of all the booby-trap plot points that threaten to blow it to smithereens of cliché it is an exhilarating ride, one of the best movies ever made about making movies—admittedly a sketchy category, perhaps matched for tiresome potential only by novels about writing novels.

But Living in Oblivion works. And it's not just a movie about making movies, but commits many other sins as well: extended dream sequences, a wanton mix of color and black and white film stock, and for God's sake Steve Buscemi, Peter Dinklage, Catherine Keener, James LeGros, and Dermot Mulroney, an early flush-out of talent in a new post-Tarantino era. So self-conscious is this that at one critical point Quentin Tarantino is mentioned by name (a late-breaking substitution during the shooting for Oliver Stone). Living in Oblivion is thus a walking, talking compendium of every indie hipster gesture you've come to loathe—but it's so good I have to wonder if it isn't maybe one reason all these things became cliches. Who needs to bother after this?

Buscemi as indie film director Nick Reve and Keener as his leading lady Nicole Springer turn in matched and subtly mysterious performances. The strange, swirling story this movie wants to tell, that it tries three separate ways to tell, revolves around the humdrum matter of getting a shot, and all the things that conspire against it. It expands from there to regions of Kafka and Sisyphus, and then on to redemption, managing a scope as big as the world with a handful of scruffy players acting make-believe in a New York City warehouse space.

I came to it a few years late—much like the characters it's built around, I don't think it has yet seen much of the recognition due it—and then it reminded me of nothing so much as Run Lola Run. Both movies exist in strange alternative realities, with formal redundancies and repetitions outside of time, told in triptych form, and they end on similar unlikely upbeat notes that feel more like genuine salvation than empty cheer. Even with all the hipster trappings they are profound, convincing, and tremendously heartening.

But forget the big picture. Consider the small parts, because more than anything else Living in Oblivion is a great thing made out of very fine small things. Catherine Keener's performance, for example, where she is required to convince us, across multiple takes of a single scene (three separate scenes, actually), that she is a very good actress attempting a very difficult scene, capable of nailing it entirely but more often hitting her strongest notes only occasionally and randomly. Because that's the way it goes when you're making a movie. Buscemi is equally convincing as the film director who knows what he wants, can feel it at the furthest edges of his fingertips, and is totally committed to getting it, but is foiled in large and small ways again and again at nearly every point.

The first third of the movie was originally conceived and shot as a separate short film, and that is where the greatest sense of futility occurs, almost at the level of pure abstraction. The shot they are trying to get is a delicate scene between Nicole's character and her mother Cora (Rica Martens), who share a background of unresolved pain, and one thing after another keeps fouling it up. Reve wants to get it in a long single take but problems occur: a boom in the frame (twice), a focusing goof, external noise. Finally the players are so frazzled by the interruptions and stress they start blowing their lines. Reve stops everything and calls for a break and a run-through of the lines. In the run-through, something is triggered in Nicole and Cora and the great scene starts pouring out of them. But Wolf (Mulroney), the camera operator, happens to be puking his guts out from bad milk and they will never get it. Is that why it is so tremendously moving as it plays out? Yes, of course, partly, but also Keener really turns it on right there, with a convincing depth I'm not sure we've seen from her anywhere else. It's a tremendously beautiful, isolated moment.

Everything else feels right too, starting with the integration of the second two parts with the original in the full version of the screenplay. While the narrative of Living in Oblivion is fractured by design, all parts have always felt coequal and organic to me, a seamless whole. And there are so many fine things here: the sulky but talented Wolf, the flinty efficiency of Wolf's girlfriend Wanda (Danielle von Zerneck) as the production manager, James Le Gros's hammy Chad Palomino, all the ways the crew interacts and gets its jobs done. It's possible I like especially that latter point because Living in Oblivion often reminds me of another movie about making movies that I like, Day for Night. But I have never actually been on the set of a movie. That's not the kind of verisimilitude I'm talking about when I say it feels right. It seems truest to me about the constant frustrations and meager rewards of creative work, where nine-tenths of all effort can feel like a futile, soul-deadening waste of time and effort.

It was thus generous and shrewd of DiCillo to give us the 10% that makes everything else worth enduring—and to give it to us at the end, amounting to the "happy ending" that is ironically rarely the hallmark of the indie production (though it is, actually). Not coincidentally, it is also the part of the movie that is funniest, with Peter Dinklage taking apart the whole enterprise of using small people to signify dream sequences in indie-addled movies (though I like it very much, Twin Peaks comes to mind at this point). Dinklage's thunderous fit of pique takes place amid the greatest collapse yet of Reve's quest to get a shot. And just when all is lost, the magic happens—but that only makes you realize how much magic has been happening for the movie's entire 90-minute length. It's a little masterpiece.