Atom Egoyan: A Primer and Next of Kin (1984) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
10May/110

Atom Egoyan: A Primer and Next of Kin (1984)

Andrew COMMENTARYFun story from earliest days of the telegraph - a man and woman get to know each other over a long distance by writing to one another using the machine.  The contact brings them close together very quickly and soon the two are writing at a pace with one another that is taxing the early system.  Slowly the idea is brought up that they should meet in person and engage in the courting process properly.

When they finally meet it's awkward.  Neither one is able to express the emotions andi deas that they had come to display so freely as they were when they were communicating with the telegraph.  After a long period of uncomfortable silence one of them had an idea.  They each went into a separate room equipped with a telegraph and then closed the doors behind them so that neither could hear the other person speak or type.  Suddenly the communication was back and they were well on their way to becoming the happy couple again.

Atom Egoyan - not the inventor of the telegraph, but arguably more brilliant.

I think of this story any time I sit down to watch a new movie by my new showcase director, Atom Egoyan.  Despite his amazing success as an artist and filmmaker his filmography goes sadly unlooked at by many people that would consider themselves cineastes.  To be even, I still have not seen a single film by Sayajit Ray or any number of classic foreign directors.  But Egoyan's films are so amazingly easy to get into that it saddens me more people haven't discovered them.  Because as simple as it is to wander into their dreamy openings you'll find a labyrinth of desire and transference as you try and make your way out.  It is my hope that over the next couple of months that you will find yourself as endless trapped as I have with his films.

He taps into a number of topics that I am infinitely fascinated about, each of which having something to do with the telegraph lovers.  The first is the way that technology shapes the way we present ourselves and our desires.  In the story above, the two participants in the telegraph conversation were not exactly the most forthcoming with their feelings until they were presented with a device that granted them relative anonymity.  But they did not choose to remains anonymous with their thoughts and feelings, instead tapping into an honest side of themselves that did not come forward in face-to-face relations.  So, when faced with the object of their desire, it becomes necessary to retreat back to the reality of telegraphed communication, because that is more immediate and palpable than direct physical contact.

Is it wrong for them to feel that way?  Atom Egoyan will find completely different ways of phrasing and positioning that very question and arrive at the same answer every time.  For the telegraph lovers, and for so many others, there is no solace from desire.  There are temporary reprieves, but the sense of longing that we feel time and time again will never go away.  Using the initial example, the lovers sacrifice their own biological urges (which were still very much present) in order to satisfy the larger craving for conversation.  While they were hungry when apart, they were starving and unable to do much of anything when together.

Such is the way many of Atom Egoyan's characters are.  They're constantly trapped in a concept of who they are or what they want, forever twisting around the corridors of desire until they come to one dead end or another.  True, many are able to find some sort of peace with what they want, but it always comes at a sacrifice.

Atom Egoyan's movies are wonderfully dense and psychological pieces that demand close examination, which is exactly what I'm going to be doing in the coming months.  So without stalling any further...

 

Many times I've become enamored with the idea of completely abandoning who I am and charging forward with the favorite parts of myself and discarding the rest.  It hasn't happened in many years, but when it came it was strong and usually linked with some romantic or professional dissatisfaction.  It's part of the reason I was so afraid to live in a city for many years, it would be too easy to blend in, to disappear and become someone entirely different.

Next of Kin, Atom Egoyan's first film, shows us just how easily we can become someone else and how hard it is to convey that desire to anyone else.  Sometimes the most honest conversations that we have are the ones where we are pretending to be completely different.  It's all a part of tapping into that preconscious drive, that center that processes images in ways we still barely understand, that gets to do some of the driving and we finally listen to parts of ourselves that never get to speak and are still only heard in the smallest amount.

Not that those ideas are immediately evident in Next of Kin.  In fact, the opening scenes with Peter (Patrick Tierney) seem derived from a depressing day of shooting on the set of The Graduate.  Peter doesn't do anything with his life and is supported entirely by his parents.  We learn very little about them but that ties into the fact that Peter doesn't seem to want to get to know much about them as adult figures.  To him they're just mom and dad, playing out the same old cycle of arguing and passive-aggressive control that was old years ago.

If this is your life 24 hours a day it's not a stretch to imagine a change would be welcome.

Peter is taken to therapy in an attempt to knock him loose from his doldrums but the parent's make the mistake of thinking it's ennui that has struck Peter.  He's just terrified of exposing anything about himself that might lead to some kind of truth about himself.  He displays this quite clearly in a scene during the recording session where it's all he can do to not shirk away from the eye of each camera watching him.  Frozen in place, he puts on a shy show for the sake of the therapist and his parents.  If the camera catches him being honest, it will be recorded for all time.  For those of us grown up in this age of information it's a potent idea - which sphere of electronic communication actually encompasses the "real" you or is it all just a facade since now we're being recorded all the time?

His solution to this is rather brilliant and begs more questions.  When he goes in to watch the tape of his session he's mistaken for a doctor and watches the tape of another family.  They are Armenian and on the surface seem to be in a greater state of disarray by fighting and bickering constantly.  The parents, George and Sonya (Berge and Sirvart Fazlian) abandoned their son when he was only three years old because they couldn't take care of him.  As a result their daughter Azah (Arsinee Khanjian, Egoyan's future wife) bears the brunt of a lot of their aggression.  So Peter decides that it's time to leave his life for someone else's, contacts the family, and pretends to be their long-lost son.

What results is a fascinating examination of what it means to be telling the "truth".  Peter, by pretending to be their son, is able to express himself more fully than he ever was by the pool with his parents.  His new "parents" also get an opportunity to construct a life where they never gave their son away and where Azah does not exist.  Yes, Azah does get thrown back into the picture but she is the only one who has a sense of skepticism about Peter, but holds it back since she finally has someone to talk to.  Exactly how many lies do we tell ourselves in order to behave honestly?

I find myself asking more and more questions about Egoyan's characters and motivations every time I rewatch his movies.  Who is getting hurt with all of these lies?  No one, really.  So what good is the truth if we can construct whole realities from the materials of our next door neighbors?  The question is posed by Peter in his narration, constantly trying to figure out what aspect of himself is "true" to this family so that he will be a better fit.  Really, what use is your family when you can find someone else that needs the role filled that much more?

A brilliant bit of staging here as Peter gets to stand outside himself while watching himself from different perspectives of his "real" family while still being interviewed by the psychiatrist.

There are answers inasmuch as they lead to more questions.  The Armenian family has gained a son but lost the idea that his return would make them whole while the Canadian family loses the son to the very motivation they were trying to instill in him.  Desires are fulfilled only to be sublimated elsewhere.  Only Peter stays detached, Peter with his recorder making the only "honest" observations about life to a machine that will not betray his face to others.  Egoyan is careful to let the technology around Peter reflect what he's trying to hide.  When he's grilled by Azah about his foster/real parents he's finally able to talk honestly about them and we see flickers of the scared young man forced in front of a video camera.

Next of Kin is a bit more straightforward than most of Egoyan's other narratives (which usually feature frequent jumps through time), but it fits the purpose of the film perfectly.  It's all about the construction of an idealized version of yourself that fits into the mold of someone else's want.  It's important that we see that evolution from the beginning here, because we see how effortlessly one set of dissatisfactions bleed into another.

This is a truly ambitious start for a young director, and even that's underselling it a tad.  Psychological complexities as strong and varied as don't even come from the most seasoned of directors.  It's clear from the beginning that Egoyan is working from a different cloth than the rest of his contemporaries.  Next of Kin is a fantastic start to a career that's only going to grow richer, more complex, and infused with intriguing elements of pulp as time goes on.

See you next week for the thrilling Oedipal tale of abandonment Family Viewing.  See you then!

Next of Kin (1984)
Written and directed by Atom Egoyan.
Starring  Patrick Tierney, Arsinee Khanjian, Berge and Sirvart Fazlian

Egoyan with text

Posted by Andrew

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