Atom Egoyan: Speaking Parts (1989) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Atom Egoyan: Speaking Parts (1989)

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Andrew COMMENTARYThis is going to be one of those situations where I am writing about something and I suffer from ironic timing.  See, Speaking Parts is a film that continues Atom Egoyan's obsession with the way we transfer our honest selves into video and what people see in that.  Further, it bends the lines of gender and sexual gratification to extreme reverse of heteronormativity and still manages to throw in some more heavy incestual undertones.

All in all, it's not the kind of movie that I want the DVD player on my laptop to crap out on, especially since that's how I get my screencaps.  Every movie made relies on it's visual style to tell the story in a specific manner no matter how dialogue oriented the script and director may be.  This is especially true of a film like Speaking Parts where the lead is cast specifically because of his ability to blend seamlessly into the role of a woman or man depending on what is required of him.

So this will be fairly light on the screencaps, much to my chagrin.  That said, there is quite a lot to talk about with Speaking Parts, so let's hop to it.

An initial note, I am so impressed with the way Atom Egoyan widens his net little by little bit with each film.  In Next of Kin we followed the identity issues of Peter but were limited to his perspective.  Then we had the primary duo of Van and Aline in Family Viewing with the film leaping through time and into numerous video fantasies in each time sphere.  Now in Speaking Parts we have the central three characters, several elliptical dream sequences that may or may not be the projections of the primary player in each moment, video fantasies that coil back into reality, and a consistent and disorienting use of gender roles.

Much like Egoyan's other films, a fairly sturdy mainstream melodrama could be built off the bare plot material if Egoyan's ambitions weren't so stellar.  Lance (Michael McManus) is a bit-part actor who has had a number of roles in movies but never one that allows him to speak.  He's Lisa's (Arsinee Khanjian) object of obsession and she has rented his films upwards of 20 times each in order to catch a glimpse of him in the background.  They both work at a hotel where Clara (Gabrielle Rose) is currently staying as she works on a screenplay about her relationship about her dead brother.

Lance earns a chance at auditioning for the role of Clara's brother in her movie after his photo is left in her room by his gigolo (Patricia Collins), known only as the Housekeeper in the credits.  Clara's attraction and interest in Lance is intensified because he looks so much like her brother, a detail that becomes increasingly important as he ingratiates himself into her life so that he might get the role.  Meanwhile the Producer (the consistently eerie David Hemblen) slowly begins to write Clara out of her own screenplay and Lisa tries her hand at connecting with people through her video clerk Eddy's (Tony Nardi) movie business.

This movie is so psychologically dense it's hard to pick a point where to start, so let's just go through the list of the main three and how their characters tie into Egoyan's overall thesis on video and desire.

Lance is, in many ways, the perfect subject for how we transpose our own thoughts and emotions onto other people through film and video.  He is primarily a blank slate in his own life, servicing men and women (we're kept very much in the dark as to who is what sex) while remaining about as silent in his roles.  What's fascinating about his relationship with Lisa is how he is very much aware of the power his silence has.  He understands that she has projected a need so deep into him that she no longer has much control over herself, but not to a dangerous extent.

Any character, no matter how long they are on-screen or if they get to vocalize their thoughts, becomes an empty vassal for us to fill with emotion and feeling.  This is very much in line with Lacanian film theories of audience identification.  The meaning is produced in consumption and as Lisa watches Lance she allows herself to be filled with a love lacking in their physical interactions.  In fact Lance only allows himself to be physical with clients and with Clara, but that's just because he can use her and recognizes her own issues with transference.

Now by transference, I refer to the way we take things and assign them emotions and feelings that used to belong to other people or ideas.  This casts Lance into the middle of a fairly complicated web, since Lisa fills him with her need to be noticed (she walks around nearly breathing into people's ears but still cannot be heard or seen) and Clara with her intense desire to remember her brother and be remembered by her brother in a specific way.  Clara is the meatiest character, but first the issues with transference and Lisa.

This act of transference changes the way we digest situations depending on how it is framed.  We see two different weddings over the course of the film, the first watched through videotape by Lisa, the second filmed by Lisa after she has bugged Eddy enough to allow her.  The incredibly different emotional reactions in each scenario are situated entirely in their framing.  Eddy knows how to prod emotions of pride and love from his subjects by asking questions that function more as suggestions as to how to feel ("Is this the proudest day of your life?")  Lisa, by contrast, leads a poor bride in an entirely separate direction, asking her if the love she feels is real, if his love is real, how the bride can possibly know this, can it last forever and so on.

Alone with the camera and Lisa she explodes into grief and her husband, in turn, explodes into rage for Lisa having filmed it.  It's a reminder not only of a violation of his wife, but an honest depiction of doubt in their marriage which is barely hours old.  We possess the technology to preserve this grief and anguish until the end of the world or the universe.  So when the husband threatens Lisa with the camera asking her if she likes how it feels, it's an understandable backlash.  Why, in the name of "honesty", do we prod others for their negative sensations if they are only to be repeated?

This is a trend most seen in Clara's character, who forms the most interesting leg of the trio.  She enjoys the preservation of her grief, visiting her brother in a mausoleum that plays videos of the deceased whenever the living presses a certain button.  Is this healthy?  In this film, most definitely not.  She tries to replicate her brother anywhere she can from the company she keeps to the art that she produces.  Clara is no longer capable of love in any fashion that might be seen as healthy and cannot accept people or things as they are unless she places an element of her brother in them.  That is no longer love, it's psychosis.

The incestual vibe comes from a very specific experience.  Her brother donated his lung to her so that she might live, so in a sense her brother is forever inside of her.  This takes an even more direct connotation when she has sex with Lance, a man that looks eerily like her brother, so that his memory might enter her in a completely different fashion.

Of the three, Clara is the one that uses video most extensively to connect to her desires.  She watches her dead brother through the mausoleum screens, she is only capable of further sexual intimacy through video, and she can only confront others through video.  Lisa, by proxy, is searching for "the meaning of it all" in a sense and gets some fulfillment through what she projects onto Lance.  Lance, the opportunistic and somewhat unfortunate actor, knows that his only real honest emotion comes through being filmed and will do anything he can to stay in that field.

I am amazed that Egoyan is able to bring these three together without passing judgement on any of them.  He recognizes that this medium of video, with it's ability to forever preserve certain emotions, also has the capability of bestowing to an audience an outlet for desires it may never know it had.  This is why the leads, save Clara, have constantly shifting gender identities (Lisa with her fairly prominent brow and Lance with his feminine posturing) so that the audience may project what it wants onto these people.

What is particularly sly about Speaking Parts is how Egoyan suggests that this has always been the case and that video is just the most prominent form of it now.  There's a fascinating sequence where Eddy films a free for all orgy, where men suckle on men as though they were women, where men dressed as women are fondled and groped by women, and where a few stray male/female couplings outlay the surroundings.  Video is just way to role-play the things we wish our partners to be, the only difference is that it's preserved for all time.

Good, perhaps, for bliss and sex.  Bad, perhaps, for despair and anguish.

Revisiting Speaking Parts, I'm fascinated by just how much conceptual material Egoyan is able to cram into it's rather sleek hour and a half running time.  It's wonderfully dense, but constantly mysterious and evocative of a kind of craving that rarely gets addressed so directly in films.

A bit text-heavy this week, but this is a film that definitely deserves it.  Stay tuned for The Adjuster next week!

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Speaking Parts (1989)

Written and directed by Atom Egoyan.
Starring Michael McManus, Arsinee Khanjian, and Gabrielle Rose.

Egoyan with text

Posted by Andrew

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