Living in Oblivion
I think my primal fascination with movies about moviemaking has less to do with my obvious adoration of the silver screen and more to do with my compulsive interest in watching cinematic train wrecks. Because not all productions go by with the harmoniousness of a Rat Pack feature and because it’d be inevitably boring to watch a filming oriented picture that runs smoothly, dependable in the genre — or subgenre, depending on your angle — is the spotlighting of clashing egos and existential dread. Perhaps my taking to films that stand as being part of the category doesn’t have as much to do with loving miserable people interacting as it does with my fondness for receiving the sporadic reminder that making a movie can sometimes be its own special kind of hell. Consuming something and noticing that it’s good doesn’t always equivocate behind the scenes tranquility.
François Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973) still takes the cake as the finest excursion into the Movies About Making Movies subgenre — it’s equal parts a loving tribute to “the process” as it is a perceptive commentary regarding fame — but 1995’s Living in Oblivion, which very well could be considered its post-Grunge era equivalent, comes close to recreating its arthouse-to-popcorn affability.
The film works as a deeply personal project for writer/director Tom DiCillo, an independent filmmaker who experienced major turmoil during the production of 1991’s Johnny Suede and the development of 1996’s Box of Moonlight. Frustrated by the insanities and stresses brought on by temperamental actors and capricious producers, Living in Oblivion was made — thanks in part to peers who financed the feature after it was flatly rejected by every distributor — to express his disillusion with the industry.
Consequently are we presented a satire that snidely strips away the glamour of the movies. Suddenly does the otherworldly, conclusively “otherness” of the business seem incredibly human — especially in the independent film sector of the trade, artists are abidingly putting themselves on the line for the sake of making something they believe in. Trying it is, but at least DiCillo is able to stingingly laugh at his pains rather than wallow in the self-pity he in no doubt felt leading up to Living in Oblivion’s making.
In the film, Steve Buscemi headlines as the semi-autobiographical Nick Reve, an up-and-coming filmmaker struggling to get through the making of his first feature. Of the David Lynch variety, production has proven to be nothing short of a disaster, with the actors (led by Catherine Keener and James LeGros) being unendingly spiteful of one another, the crew members (Dermot Mulroney, Danielle von Zerneck, among others) flagrantly melodramatic, and the various props and sets betraying any sense of control Nick manages to feel.
Divided into three acts — all individually focused on the filming of a given scene — Living in Oblivion is devastatingly sharp, as much a zinger-ridden industry lampoon as it is a darkly fatalistic character study that assures us that people really and truly do suffer for their art. Fortunately DiCillo takes on Jarmusch meets Almodóvar hybridity — meaning the humor’s dry but sometimes borderlines into something more operatic with both the dialogue and the moody photography enhancing things — and so the film's bruising but not depressively so.
There’s a lot to love here, from Keener’s out-of-character resignation (she’s ordinarily the definition of the sexy, confident woman) to Buscemi’s frazzled anxiety and to DiCillo’s ingenious drifting back and forth between black-and-white and color cinematography as a way to exemplify the emotional unevenness of his protagonist’s miserable life. Only ninety minutes, we wish that Living in Oblivion were longer — how rare it is to find comedy with this much bite and depth. A-