Jul 21 2010

Living in Oblivion

As sharp and perfectly executed as they come. 4/4.

Tom DiCillo’s Living in Oblivion is a labor love about a labor love.  Making a film, especially an independent film, isn’t easy.  With all the various problems that collide with one another on set, it’s a miracle anything ever gets finished.  It’s no wonder that everyone in the film industry is borderline, if not certifiably insane.

Living in Oblivion focuses on a small, independent film crew shooting three scenes in a single day.  In an interesting twist, two of these scenes turn out to be dreams from two different crew members, and although the use of dreams may seem like a pretentious or frivolous plot device, it works, as both dreams are very realistic.  The “real” scene, oddly enough, involves the shooting of a dream sequence that is bizarre in a typical cinematic way.

The first sequence is dreamt by director Nick Reve (Steve Buscemi), who tries to shoot a simple, intimate mother/daughter conversation.  Unfortunately, everything, from an intrusive boom mic to bad milk, gets in the way of finishing the scene.  The scene (within the scene) is shot in color, while all the action behind the scenes is shot in a gritty black white, cleverly toying with the perception of real and cinematic reality.  The symbolism is obvious, but appropriate to the rags-to-rags misfit spirit of indie filmmaking.  Buscemi is perfect as the grungy, average-guy director understandably frustrated and agitated at the difficulties of capturing a single scene, and his meltdown at the end of the sequence is earnest, and even heartbreaking.

The second dream is dreamt by actress Nicole (Catherine Keener), who is known only for a “shower scene in that Richard Gere movie.”  This time the sequence is in color, while the scene, a romantic reveal, is shot on set is in black and white.  Again, a scene simple enough to shoot goes awry, this time by egotistical actor Chad Palomino (James LeGros), who stops every scene with a new idea of his own.  Keener is good as a desperate actress climbing her way to the top of the Hollywood food chain, but LeGros steals the show.  He’s a spoof of the movie star gaining street cred via twisted, small-budget films, most involving him as a rapist whose victims fall in love with him.  His fake, big-shot persona amidst the modest set is hilarious, and his tense back-and-forth with cinematographer Wolf (Dermot Mulroney) involving an eye-patch is a highlight.

Breaking away from the tried and true dream formula, the final sequence takes place in “reality”, yet is almost kookier than any of the previous scenes.  Shooting a dream sequence very reminiscent of Twin Peaks (red room and a dwarf), the scene is interrupted by Nicole’s flat performance, Reve’s Alzheimer-ridden mother showing up unexpectedly, and the resistance of the scene’s token dwarf Tito (Peter Dinklage).  Dinklage is perfect as an actor who is, clearly, tired of getting cast in roles that cater only to his size, and calls out the horse-beaten-to-death cliché of dwarves being thrown into dreams to make it zany.  One can’t help but think that this scene is directed towards David Lynch, who frequently uses dwarf actor Michael J. Anderson in several of his movies to give it that extra bit of surrealism.

Focusing on filmmaking itself, Living in Oblivion places the spotlight on the crew, and the use of an ensemble cast of little-known actors is a well-orchestrated one.  Each crew member has their own quirks and one-liners that remind you that many people are behind a film, and each makes their own contribution to it, whether or not its seen in the final cut.  The collage of personalities fill in the gaps between the focal points of the film, adds to the chaos surrounding a movie set in the most entertaining of fashions, and pays homage to those who receive no recognition for their efforts on a film.

In many ways, Living in Oblivion is an independent film made by, about and for independent filmmakers.  Making a film is no easy task.  Scratch that, its painfully difficult; taking into account the colliding egos, differences of vision, hunger for control and the sheer number of autonomous people, it’s a miracle films are made at all.  Oblivion revels in how even the smallest things, from bad milk to a digital watch, can ruin an entire day’s worth of work.

Like the best of indie films, Living in Oblivion is personal, and like the best of films, it’s got a great cast, talented direction and a tight script.  For the life of me, I cannot find one thing wrong with this film.  If there is one thing wrong with Living in Oblivion, it’s that it ends on a screwball coincidence that seems to be possible only in a dream, yet given the film’s affinity for dreams, it’s oddly appropriate.  Plus, if the little things aren’t as responsible for success as they are derailments, many films may never have been made.

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