Thursday, June 21, 2007

The World as Seen Through Videotape: A Reading of Atom Egoyan's Speaking Parts

Atom Egoyan's 1989 film Speaking Parts meticulously details the way communication is mediated by video in the contemporary world. Nearly every interaction in the film is in one way or another filtered through a video image. Emphasizing the pervasiveness of the medium in our society, Egoyan allows videotape to perform a bewildering array of functions. Throughout the film, video serves as instrument of fantasy, as means of communication, as memory, as recorder of truth, as liar, as instrument of oppression, as weapon. Egoyan ultimately presents a world in which we can no longer tell the difference between a video image and reality because we are only accustomed to viewing reality through the filter of video, a state of affairs that creates great difficulty in the sphere of human interactions. Below, I offer a brief reading of the film which glosses the picture's complex plot and outlines the numerous roles video plays in the work. An intricately structured film, Egoyan's skillful handling of its disparate threads results in a coherent and thematically resonant work.

Lisa (Arsinee Khanjian), a hotel maid, is obsessed with a handsome co-worker, Lance (Michael McManus), an aspiring actor who also serves as gigolo to some of the hotel's female guests. Despite Lance's rebuffs, an undeterred Lisa rents the videos of all of his films, films in which his role is limited to that of an extra (he has yet to land a "speaking part"), and watches only the scenes in which he appears, returning the videos half-watched. Lisa's obsessive viewing of these films places her in a voyeuristic role, since her primary goal is to obtain a hidden glimpse into the life of a man she knows in person, even if the glimpse is fleeting and filtered through a fictional role. Unable to communicate with Lance in real life (he remains mute when she tries to initiate conversation), she engages a fictionalized image of him through the medium of video. Unsatisfied by the reality of her situation, she exchanges it for a superior fantasy life made possible through videotape. Egoyan further emphasizes this fantasy element by indicating that some of the films in which Lance has appeared are pornographic, including an S and M video with the actor undergoing torture, of which the director provides us a brief glimpse. By watching Lance in a pornographic setting, Lisa is able to indulge in a vicarious sexual encounter with the actor in a way that would be impossible in real life.

Through her frequent trips to the video store, Lisa becomes acquainted with the clerk, a man named Eddy (Tony Nardi) who supplements his income by filming weddings and parties. Eddy takes Lisa to the back of the store and shows her footage he has shot from a wedding, in which he reduces the father of the bride to tears by asking him a sentimental question about his daughter. Eddy films the sobbing father, a refined, white haired man in close-up, seemingly capturing the truth of the situation with his intimate camerawork. Yet, when Lisa expresses amazement at his ability to evoke this level of emotion, Eddy dismisses it as nothing. It is little more than an act, he explains, in which he feeds the father a carefully selected question that allows him to lapse into easy sentiment without challenging him to reflect on the situation. In the end everyone is happy. In this sense, the videotaping becomes a lie, as a device designed to record objective truth here serves to mediate a superficial, non-reflective conversation in which both the cameraman and subject act out preassigned roles.

As Lisa eventually becomes Eddy's assistant and is given the chance to conduct her own interviews, she attempts to break down this sham communication and restore the video medium to a vehicle for the recording of truth. She breaks off a formulaic interview between a bride and groom to conduct a private questioning of the bride. As Lisa attempts to evaluate the true nature of the relationship between the couple by subjecting the bride to a penetrating interrogation, the bride becomes upset at finding her stock answers no longer fit the questions. "What do you see in Ronnie?" Lisa asks. "When you look at him, what are you looking at?" The bride runs off crying, bringing the interview to a close. The camera, in its attempt to record the truth, becomes an unwitting instrument of the invasion of privacy, an instrument of oppression. When the husband finds out about the interview, he confronts Lisa with her own camera, turning the lens on her. "How do you like it?" he asks, as he brings the camera into menacing proximity. As he descends on the cowering woman, the camera has changed function from instrument of truth into weapon.

Meanwhile, Lance pursues his first speaking part by insinuating himself with the film's screenwriter, a woman named Clara (Gabrielle Rose) who is a guest at the hotel and who becomes his lover. The tragedy of Clara's life is the death of her brother who donated his lung to save her, a tragedy that forms the basis of her screenplay. When not engaged in the film's preperations, she obsessively views video footage of her brother in a video mausoleum, illuminating yet another use of the flexible medium: video as memorial. The film's negotiations take place in the hotel meeting room in which the screenwriter and other staff meet with the film's producer (David Hemblen) via closed-circuit television, an arrangement necessitated by the producer's busy schedule. In one scene, Clara plays Lance's audition tape for him on a small video screen. The performance is thus doubly mediated through video, as the producer watches on a screen within a screen, and is twice removed from the action. If video here serves as a medium of communication, it is a severely compromised one in which the alienation between communicators is prevalent. The closed-circuit television later becomes the primary means of interaction between Lance and Clara when the latter is forced to join the producer at his retreat. Their love-making likewise is performed through video, as they engage a sort of virtual reality intercourse. Everywhere, in these scenes, video serves as a means of communication, verbal, visual and sexual, but in its removal from reality, it severely dilutes the immediacy of interaction.

In the final version of the film-within-a-film, a major change in the screenplay takes place. The original story, as written by Clara, involves a brother's fatal donation of a lung in order to save his sister. The final screenplay switches the sister for another brother, a switch that enrages Clara, who based the role of the sister on herself. As reality is transformed into film, it necessarily undergoes a change, a point that Egoyan emphasizes here by making the alteration in the screenplay a source of such rancor for Clara, who essentially feels herself eliminated from her own work. After Lance, who is offered the role of one of the brothers, unsuccessfully lobbies the producer to revert to the original screenplay, he repeatedly ignores a desperate Clara who only re-emerges at the film's climax. Clara becomes the film's ultimate loser, stubbornly insistent that film capture an exact reality and unable to accept any of the medium's numerous (and more prevalent) additional functions.

The film's climax details the shooting of a scene from the film-within-the-film. The scene in question takes place during a television talk-show, in which the fictional host communicates with the dying brother via a closed-circuit television connecting to his hospital bed. Egoyan concocts an incredibly complex series of layering in which reality is filtered through four successive levels of film and video: first through Egoyan's camera (film), then through the fictional director's camera (film), through the talk-show's camera (video), and finally through the closed-circuit television (video). As the shoot is interrupted by the appearance of Clara who puts a gun to her head, Egoyan constructs a fast-paced montage consisting of a series of short shots which depict the scene through various levels of filtering. The montage mounts to a level of such rapidity that it is no longer possible to distinguish which shots are seen through video and which are seen through only the first level of filtering (Egoyan's camera). In addition, the director intercuts a series of shots of static-filled television screens, implying the insufficiency of the video medium to provide the observer with adequate interpretation of reality. Egoyan suggests that we are so used to relying on the video image for our perceptions that we are no longer capable of differentiating between true reality and fiction, an inability that prevents us from deriving meaning from our interactions. This inability to distinguish is further emphasized by Egoyan's intersecting of the filming with a scene in which Lisa watches one of Lance's videos and hallucinates Lance talking to her. When she returns the video to the store, she confesses to Eddy that she has seen "new scenes" in the movie. For Lisa, the video world and the world of reality have become hopelessly blurred.

The film's final image attempts to break the stranglehold that video has held on the characters' relations throughout the work. Egoyan brings Lance and Lisa together for an intimate encounter unmitigated by video image. He films them in close-up, their faces softly lit against the scene's surrounding darkness. Lisa reaches out and touches Lance's cheek and he responds by kissing her. Egoyan allows Lisa this single moment of live human contact, a contact which serves as an antidote to the sort of video-sex in which Lance and Clara engage. The fact that Egoyan presents the image without the mediation of any video filter sets the scene apart from the rest of the film and marks it as an expression of genuine human interaction, a phenomenon all too rare in an increasingly virtual world.

1 comment:

SoMars: Literary Journal of Mayhem and Hysterics said...

This is an incredibly and eloquent discussion of the virtual world versus the real world depicted in Egoyan's movie. It was a stimulating discussion on of actual reality that we inhabit with human contact versus the fictional world that can be manipulated in the cinematic world with tricks and lighting etc,,,good work andrew send this to cineaste later...this is also a good idea which could be applied to various films, actors and directors
Hi Ho!