Atom Egoyan: Final Thoughts - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Atom Egoyan: Final Thoughts

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Andrew COMMENTARYThe vast majority of movies that try to deal with desire miss out on one key detail involving the overall structure of it.  Desire is never fully repressed, it's just a question of how it decides to make itself known.  Yes it may not reveal itself in the way the holder may wish it to be (in the bluntest terms, someone who wants sex getting laid), but it seeps out in ways that may surprise us.

But most movies wouldn't have it that way.  Instead we get the standard climax of the hero and heroine at arms length (doesn't matter the genre, it happens all over), quivering at the chance to be in each other's arms again.  A scenario so blase that too many films find ways of restructuring that scenario instead of writing something completely different.  Even structuring the hero/ine's frustration can use a basic tune-up.  Why quiver when deprived of sex the protagonist could find out s/he can redirect that energy to something interesting like a musical instrument, or paper mache sculptures?

Does that scenario sound wildly implausible?  Well, Atom Egoyan has managed to wring out twelve different films that play with desire in a variety of settings.  He goes beyond the standard man/woman "Oh why can't we just have sex in peace?" plotlines and delves straight into scenarios that are as common as they are unusual and rarely explored.

Case in point his first film, Next of Kin, is about a young man that wishes to become someone else so badly that he fakes being the son of an Armenian family who go along with it because they miss their son so bad.  In his next film, Family Viewing, Egoyan deals with sex but via  a sexually repressed man finding pleasure only by filming himself and his girlfriend as she performs actions as described by a phone sex operator.  Is it really so hard to try and twist these scenarios into intriguing films?

Apparently so, but Egoyan has managed to do so for over 25 years.  The key word to place on the way he views his characters is "empathy".  No matter the odd predilection or taste, Egoyan rarely looks at his characters as anything less than complex humans that are at the mercy of the things they can't help but love.  This is why Where The Truth Lies strikes something of a false chord with it's "big killer" reveal in the end and is also one of the only times where Egoyan has a sort of distant disdain for the characters involved.  But in all of his other films he does what he can to make us feel how it is to be trapped in these unusual desires.  Even Chloe, a film I admired a bit less the second go around, understood just how painful the title characters existence in and how she ended up in such a cliche'd (but completely understandable) climax.

But beyond his empathy is his craft.  No other director captures the dreamlike haze of being a perfect slave to your desire as Egoyan does.  His films are disorienting without being confusing, understanding that when you are enthralled with something time doesn't have the same meaning as it does when simply sitting down to accomplish a task.  Instead it becomes a jumbled mixture of images and emotions, and when other people share in that moment we see how the fires that burn in everyone aren't so dissimilar.  A feat that Egoyan pulls off most impressively in Felicia's Journey where he's able to connect a serial killer obsessed with his dead mother's cooking show and a young woman who wants to find her lover so that she can avoid going to Hell in the eyes of her friends and family.  That is not an easy thing to accomplish.

For quite some time I have mulled over why it is that Egoyan's films aren't more widely known amongst fellow cineastes.  His fellow Canadian auteur, David Cronenberg, enjoys a wider berth of popularity and respect here in the States but Egoyan remains curiously behind.  It all comes down to a matter of expectation and payoff.

During my research on The Sweet Hereafter a little over a year ago I found an article comparing Hereafter and Titanic.  The similarities are intriguing, considering that they're both movies that deal with a personal tragedy through the lens of the past (taking place through Mitchell and Rose's eyes for, respectively, each film).  Egoyan, empathy firmly in place, spares us the sight of having to see the many dead children that were left in the wake of the accident.  James Cameron is the direct opposite, utilizing the many dead people for dramatic effect and then tossing in some gun shots in the meantime.

Egoyan allows the mind to linger far more than other filmmakers and ignores the spectacle of death and destruction that attracts so many American directors (such as Cameron).  I love Cronenberg's movies, but there's still an element of the grotesque in his features (save Eastern Promises, though that still has an amazing fight sequence) that serves as an attraction.  Even Bergman dabbled in the spectacle from time to time, and Bela Tarr still has an undercurrent of atheistic mysticism about his work that stems from trying to not judge at all (as opposed to Egoyan, who really wants the audience to empathize).

His films lack the flash of those directors without sacrificing a single bit of emotional resonance.  Egoyan has long been overdue his spot in the canon of great directors, and has produced a body of work that is so psychologically dense that it can be enjoyed on a purely analytic basis (if that's your thing).  His movies may work in the realm of lurid pulp, but they go far beyond the seedy front that most of our desires put on and jab straight at the sadness.  He's just too perceptive at how lonely we are in our longing.

I hope that you enjoyed this series and spread the word.  Next week I start a fresh batch of analysis.  The subject?

Here's a taste.

See you then.

Egoyan with text

Posted by Andrew

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