Atom Egoyan: Family Viewing (1987) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Atom Egoyan: Family Viewing (1987)

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Andrew COMMENTARYThink for a moment about all the good hard work that goes into preserving someone's memory.  For a select few that's a simple a matter as going to the quiet spot in our minds where they reside and reconstructing the memories as though they happened hours ago.  The rest of us aren't so lucky.  We must rely on relics, the occasional smell or taste, and image or two to take us back to when they were still around.

I admit, I have a far above average memory, and there have been more than a few times I wish it was necessary for me to take those steps instead of just switching things on and off.  After watching Family Viewing for a third time I have to reverse that position just a tad.  At least in my mind there doesn't stand that chance of someone coming and erasing what traces exist of those I love.

Atom Egoyan takes the battle of desire and memory to a very tactile and literal battleground in Family Viewing.  Those fresh from Next of Kin may think that they've slipped into a sequel or continuation in the opening moments, but Egoyan very quickly slips into a very experimental guise.  True, Family Viewing does star another fairly anonymous and blank 20-something male searching for his own identity, yet Egoyan makes this man far more unhinged than his earlier prototype.

Van (Aidan Tierney, in his only film credit) is caught in an unusual living situation at home.  His father Stan (Egoyan regular David Hemblen) keeps a quiet but very intense hold on his son after the passing of his wife.  New to the household is Sandra (Gabrielle Rose), Stan's lover and sometimes temptress to Van.  In the parallel plot we meet Aline (Arsinee Khanjian), a phone-sex operator who meets Van in the nursing home where her mom and Van's grandmother stays.

The family dynamic is, again, a bit odd.

The inciting incident here is a bit of an odd one and very interesting.  Van and Sandra barely conceal their attraction for one another from Stan but never do anything about in (aside from a few fantasy scenes) so as not to anger him.  One day, while Sandra is in the shower, Van plays one of the tapes in the VCR and finds that its a sex-tape of Stan and Sandra that is being taped over old family recordings of Van, his mother and grandmother while Stan's voice looms overhead.  Meanwhile, Aline's mother dies under Van's watch and in a strange turn of events, gets his still living grandmother to take her place so that Stan cannot touch her anymore.

Got all of that?  If you did, congratulations, because that's about as straightforward a plot as we are going to get from Egoyan for well over a decade.  But it's not complicated simply for the sake of throwing convoluted story structures in our way.  Each character is getting something interesting out of the other and, as is the case with his early features, Egoyan is using video technology to show how progress has supplanted our desires.

Before we had all of this television and instant hook-up connections it was a lot harder to live out whatever fantasy you wanted (outside of a high-class escort service, but we'll get to that in a few films).  The question is if this is healthy or not.  Sometimes, as it was in Next of Kin, it can be strange but very satisfying for all parties involved to pretend that you are someone else.  But I am not so sure that is really the case for anyone in Family Viewing.

You also get the sense that Van is working out some attraction issues he had with his birth-mother through his surrogate-ma.

This is most obvious in the way Stan conducts himself.  There is no tenderness to his voice or actions and what little submission we see when he first appears on-screen is just a lack of energy instead of domination.  His arrangement with Sandra is never clearly outlined outside of their role-play sessions, but even those have an odd twist.  Stan call up a phone-sex service and asks the woman on the other line to act as though she is a lonely woman.  As she describes what she would like to do to Stan, Sandra steps in and, with very little emotion, performs those actions.

Who is getting what out of this arrangement?  Well, to the casual observer it looks as though no one it happy with anything.  But outside of physical gratification, which is the last thing on any of these characters' minds, it allows each one to supplant themselves in a different role of fulfillment.  Stan, for a brief moment, gets to be seen as an emotional nurturer, Sandra gets to be the madonna and the whore (though whether the latter still brings her as much joy is up for debate), and even Aline gets to step outside of herself and know she's providing pleasure to someone.  Everyone gets to erase their memory of themselves, or others, and create a new persona from the ground up.

Of course all of this is being captured on video, because it wouldn't be honest to any of the characters otherwise.  No one is very far from any sort of video recording or playing device for long with the exception of Aline.  But she gets the added benefit of seeing just how messed up the family is.

Still, the process of recording themselves doing these things gives an added layer of authenticity to the lie.  It's as though the fact that they are able to play back those moments is a reminder that they occurred and that they may have felt tenderness at some point.  It's no different than what actors and directors do, really.  They get to try time and time again until the lie becomes "real" and affects the audience as much as themselves.  This is why Van is so hurt by Stan's decision to tape his "fiction" over the "real" past, what his family accomplished in one take Stan needs an elaborate set-up and willing partners to do now.

The harshest moments visually are also the most blunt emotionally.

The layers go on and on in so many different directions that we run the risk of losing sight of who these people really are.  But each performance finds one specific anchor to weigh their characters around and, almost in spite of the eclectic style, come out functioning humans at the end.  David Hemblen, in his first Egoyan role, is the strongest among equals here as he gets to show the most of what he is concealing.  He still feels tenderness toward the grandmother, but mistakes her for another woman at first, then she rips into his flesh once he as the right bed.  What is his story?  The devil is in the details and a small hint at the end, featuring a crying Stan helpless in front of the gaze of his videotaped dead wife, betrays his depths and how much he tried to let go of.

Befitting the material, Egoyan goes with a heavily video-filmed approach.  This doesn't make for the most traditionally pleasing sort of aesthetic that you may be accustomed to, but it works.  Most of the film is grainy (it is shot in video after all) but is in different layers of clarity depending on how emotionally "open" the character is being.  An exchange of direct threats between Van and the man who runs the nursing home is in stark clarity, while a similar confrontation between Van and Stan in their "roles' is grainy and accompanied by a television sound track that is eerily timed to the roles they've assumed.

All of this is absolutely fascinating.  The characters are so multi-layered that it's difficult to find a suitable entrance and exit point, instead having to settle on what we find most interesting about ourselves and how we might relate.  Despite the supposed coldness and distance that Egoyan takes to the material, it's that necessary means of entering the story that brings us the closest means of emotional identification.

Family Viewing is an incredibly successful follow-up to the already psychologically complex trappings of Next of Kin.  It gives me great delight to say that it only gets better from here, so stay tuned next week as I look at Speaking Parts.

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Family Viewing (1987)

Written and directed by Atom Egoyan.
Starring Aidan Tierney, David Hemblen, Gabrielle Rose, Arsinee Khanjian.

Egoyan with text

Posted by Andrew

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