Displaced Selves: Natural and Mediated Identity in the Films of Atom Egoyan
There’s a seemingly innocent tracking boom shot in Felicia’s Journey.
Felicia, pregnant, tossed out by her father, and in search of her boyfriend in the English army, walks alone along one of Birmingham’s canals. She continues under a road bridge to emerge on the other side in a garden. Seen through Egoyan’s lens a different symbolism belies: Birmingham was where the Industrial Revolution began. The canal and a mammoth factory looming in the distance mark this. At once the industrial plant comes into view. Her entry into the garden is a portent of her quest’s end; it is neither an Eden nor a metaphoric return to the Old Sod, but a reattachment of nature and her natural self after the disruptions of technology.
Throughout Egoyan’s work we can see upheavals and dislocations projected on his characters, who are at once dependent on and altered through the technology they use. Marshall Mcluhan’s famous dictum, “The medium is the message because it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action,”[i] intends the idea that every advance in technology, especially in communication, brings a change in the way we interact. Similarly, Egoyan stated that, “the containers we use to store experience express as much meaning as the experiences themselves.”[ii]
Egoyan explores how the supposed authoritative qualities of our communication systems strip the genuine out of human relations. In Family Viewing (1988) a father, Stan (David Hemblen) erases the family videos he has made over the years spent with his first wife (Rose Sarkisyan) and son, Van (Aiden Tierney). He records over them with footage of his sexual exploits with his new wife, Sandra (Gabrielle Rose). What is not shown in the tapes, however, is the help required to make such an interesting act: the fact that a phone sex girl, Aline (Arsineé Khanjian) is servicing the two. Connections become even more complex as the phone girl’s mother gets roomed with Stan’s mother in an old-age home.
At one point during the film Stan watches nature shows on TV, the wildness of the animals serving as a countervail to the mediated and conditioned behavior of the flat acting style of his dysfunctional family. The real actions of the players seem but a script at times. In one scene the laugh track of the sitcom Van is viewing seems to comment on the semi-sexual maneuverings of Van and Sandra; in another Van consults Stan on how they should care for Armen, Stan’s aging mother. The tone and formal elements recall an episode of “Father Knows Best,” but here the father does not know best. He is selfish and flinty. The scene challenges the role of the patriarch as well as the entertainment programming that once deified him.
Stan’s sexual nature is altered through his tapes and use of the phone girl (Aline). Sex becomes unhealthy and transposed when Aline says she will “touch” Stan. Sandra performs the act to the command of Aline’s disembodied voice. Jonathan Romney once said, “It is tempting to see Family Viewing as a quasi-documentary about the ‘natural’ human behavior that underlies and resists the conditioned ‘unnatural’ social behavior of media-dominated society.”[iii]
Van’s name is caught between the false world of motion pictures and the real world of nature. It recalls actors Van Johnson and Van Heflin, but it is also the name of a lake now in Turkey (formerly Armenia), the boy’s ancestral home from his mother’s side. Egoyan presents Armenia, as well as Ireland, more than once as a place where people are connected to the Earth.
Egoyan’s comment on the changes technology has on the natural self is complimented by a similar suggestion of technology’s mark on the cognitive and sensory self. Jonathan Romney once wrote about the gaze of Stan’s ex-wife’s as seen on a video. She has been cut out of Stan and Van’s life and it is unclear how often they have contact. It is in the imprisonment of video and TV screens that she has meaning for them, a unilateral way of relating.[iv] Egoyan warns us that our transmissions are not reality but simulacra, an appearance of reality.
In Adoration Egoyan predicts of a surveillance society that will come about with world terrorism. The sound of the transponders scientists use to track polar bears on Armen’s program is the same diagetic sound we hear when Aline and her John enter a Montreal hotel room. The jump cut to end of day programming and a maple leaf flag make a statement that these kinds of doings happen in Canada, although the point is not clear. As new systems of recording advance, the users of them become more connected with others and disconnected at the same time. Egoyan has the advantage of progress on his side. His stock in trade, the ways media shape our lives, do not go out of style. In fact, each successive film is more invested in both ends of the system: the pros and the cons of such systems.
My message about technology is an ambiguous one, that you can’t either glorify or demonize it; it’s just a part of our lives, the way that we use to communicate with one another, and that the one condition that’s really obvious about the technology we now have to broadcast ourselves and our feelings is who is watching us, and how do we sustain that sort of attention.[v]
In truth, videos allow Van to idealize his mother and grandmother and Aline to memorialize her mother, after the fact. Egoyan does not question the small miracles new media allows. It is when we cannot separate the technology from our own sensual and mental faculties that we get into problems. Aline is in control when she is on the phone with clients yet when she passes an ad of a model on a bus stop, she seems challenged by the model and teases her hair in competition. When she enters her apartment building she gazes uncomfortably into the security camera.
Van’s love of his grandmother is genuine but held in a kind of suspended state due to the old family videos. In the present, Armen lies speechless and almost catatonic in her hospital bed. For her (as well as her grandson) the tapes are a lifeline into an old carefree existence. She smiles only when viewing them and shares Van’s idealization of the maternal family’s past. Van and Armen’s mutual love is not fully in the present but locked away in the old cartridges.
Family Viewing invites comparison with Barry Levinson’s Avalon wherein the fortunes of the Krichinsky family are tied to its embrace of the new medium of television in the late 1940s and early 1950s. In Avalon the grandson, Michael, worships his grandfather for the old stories he tells about his arrival in America in a similar way that Van reveres Armen for keeping the old Armenian traditions alive for him and his mother. Avalon shows the concentration of power and capital to those who employ TV and its decentralizing effects on extended families and the nuclear family. One loss is that of narrative. In Avalon the T.V. set’s mindless flickering images and pat story lines displace the banter that once connected the family at the table. In Family Viewing Stan’s cassettes use apathetic images of sexual encounter to replace the old ethnic songs and gabble of Armen, Van and Van’s mother sitting in the garden. Finally, both films end with an image of a television.
Carol Desbarats once said, “[Egoyan’s films] show a world where two traditionally incompatible spheres are joined: the private intimacies of family life and sexuality, and the public access allowed by modern and media technologies.”[vi] The joining allows the tapes to substitute for real communication or real sex.
Mediated personality reappears in Speaking Parts. On opening we see Clara (Gabrielle Rose) walking through a graveyard. The headstones have photo images of the dead, already an emblem that the reproduced image takes precedence over inscription.
The film is centered around a hotel laundry worker, Lance (Michael McManus), who is also employed by the crafty housekeeper (Patricia Collins) to “service” some female guests along with the laundry. Arsinee Khanjian plays Lisa, a fragile girl whose obsession with Lance lends her to frequent trips to a local video store where she rents obscure movies for the sole purpose of watching Lance on screen, as an extra. Lance’s career takes a turn when he lands an acting gig, his first speaking role, for a TV movie. The relationship between Lance and the show’s scriptwriter, Clara (Gabrielle Rose), an emotionally disturbed yet sexually-charged woman, intensifies as Clara is found dependent on him.
Clara is continuously found staring at the headshot of Lance, a face that reminds her of her dead brother, Clarence. The director once stated, “…I was obsessed with the idea of amour de loin, where the object you behold is never really in your presence.[vii] There is a scene in which Lisa, working for Eddy (the videostore owner) on a legitimate wedding shoot, photographs the bride (Jackie Samuda) in front wooded landscape backdrop; an idealized image that is frozen in time, not unlike the video Clara watches of her dead brother. The bride conveys a sense of idealized marriage like the perfection of nature.
Egoyan juxtaposes the recorded image with text in Speaking Parts. The written word, believe it or not, was once the latest in technology. As Maryanne Wolf contends, “Socrates believed it [the written word] would delude [students] into thinking they had accessed the heart of knowledge, rather than simply decoding it.”[viii] In Speaking Parts that distance is the work of video. Romney argues, “Speaking Parts is set in a world where images count more than words.”[ix] Lisa echoes that sentiment when she defends Lance’s non-speaking parts in films to Eddy, saying “Words are not everything.” In the mausoleum where Clara visits her deceased brother, Clarence, the inscriptions in bronze are no match for the surprise videotape of Clarence that appears when the tomb’s marble slab opens.
When Lance tries to empower Clara by acknowledging her occupation as a script writer, she counters “I’m only the writer.” She realizes she has no power with words. During a teleconference, recorded and playing on a monitor, Lance’s character informs his TV drama sister that, “I know you could be dying.” Meanwhile, the present Lance (the “real” one) teleconferences with Clara, who defeatedly announced the changes in her script. This is symbolically the “death” of Clara’s script or decay from original form. DEATH of BODY = DEATH of IMAGE = DEATH of THE WORD. All are remanded to the mausoleum as Egoyan asks whether we can rely on any of them.
It is of note that technology is not neutral in Egoyan’s oeuvre but seen as an instrument of character motivation. Technology as power device. Stan keeps Armen out of his nuclear family and preserves her essence on video. He is the patriarchal head of the family while the surveillance camera in the shelter is emblematic of the power of the Canadian state.
In one video we see Armen, Van’s mother, and little Van playing in the garden. Stan watches longingly from the bedroom window, the light of the yard forming a foil to the darkness of the bedroom, a place of Stan’s sexual dominance. Stan genuinely wants to connect but is locked out of the group due to the Armenian they speak and old world songs they often share while alone. Stan knocks on the pane with his open hand and it becomes a topology to control his son away from the “real” life in the garden. In the bedroom he induces little Van to sing “Ba Ba Blacksheep” in English.
Ba Ba Blacksheep
Have you any wool?
Yes Sir, Yes Sir
Three bags full
One for the master
One for the dame
One for the little boy
Who lives down the lane
This moment works as a paradigm of Stan’s parental control. As the song suggests, the wool is kept in circulation only among the master (here Stan), the dame (his first wife, and later Sandra) and the little boy (Van). The grandmother is kept out of nuclear family because she carries the family and homeland narrative and is thereby a threat to Stan’s Anglo-Canadian bourgeois power.
Stan also impedes Van’s progress into adulthood as he changes Van’s image on tape as a child into images of Stan’s sexual misdoings, a kind of fast-forwarding of sexual maturity without the requisite emotional nurturing from father and “new” mother. The soundtrack of one nature show states, “Studies of monkeys and apes in the past few decades have helped us come to a clearer understanding of ourselves.” Stan agrees: “There was a time when we [humans] needed [our nails] for scratching the ground or attacking our enemies. Makes you wonder if there isn’t some use we’re missing out on.” According to Cyndi Griffin of the Buffalo Zoo, male gorillas and apes are in competition with all other sexually mature gorillas and apes. In synch with Freudian psychological interpretations, Stan sees Van’s sexual maturity as a threat and has given himself over to the flirtatious behavior of Sandra and Van.
In Speaking Parts teleconferencing creates mystification of the power holder. In one teleconference the producer has the advantage of being in the here and now. Lance, on the other hand, is relegated to his past image speaking from a phallically smaller TV set below the producer’s. By altering Clara’s script the producer is wresting power from her voice. A later teleconference shows the producer speaking from a movie set from the 1600s. Romney has mentioned the Anglo-Canadian erasure of other cultures in Family Viewing[x] and here the producer presides over the culture of a past Canada through the TV image. History becomes a surface, a topology of concocted truth and national indoctrination.
As Egoyan is dubious about the reliability of meaning retained in reproduction systems, he is as much doubtful that they are a vehicle for carrying reality. He says, “The thing about video is the replay is always the same. You’re imprisoned in that version of events. The thing about memory…is that it at least offers you a chance of learning something from it.”[xi] This is clear in Speaking Parts when we see Clara eventually coming into the frame of Clarence’s memorial video. She wields a camera so it is clear his “live” image lives due to the act of capturing his spirit. We can infer that Clara’s presence in the frame means she too is transitory and will someday be committed to memory. When Lisa and Lance dissolve into a snow of pixels, Egoyan channels Andy Warhol, the 1960s pop artist who deconstructed Marilyn Monroe’s iconic face into patches of paint.
It beckons the question of whether we can trust reality in Egoyan’s work. Media shapes reality by affecting ideas. It is the Cartesian Res Extensa (the world) vs. Res Cogitans (thinking subjects on whom the world depends). But where do video and digital images fit in? Are they real? Clarence’s physical lung lives on in Clara but his selfhood only lives in her memory, the cogitans. Indeed, the film was shot in Toronto’s Windsor Arms Hotel, a true location rather than a production set. In a personal turn of identity with Lance, Egoyan himself was a laundry sorter in Victoria’s Empress Hotel. The uncertainty of reality does not leave identity untouched. In the climax of the TV talk show, characters metaphorically change identity in a montage of quick succession. Lance introduces himself as the brother of the sick man, David, played by Ronnie. Ronnie is now revealed as the actor who played the groom in Eddy’s wedding video, and the teary-eyed father of the bride is now the “father of David.” At once we see the “wedding” was a farce. Ronnie’s image jump cuts to Lance. David/Ronnie jump cuts to Clarence. Clara is now shown to be in the studio. She holds a gun to her head. She might as well be the suicidal guest in the hotel. And Lisa purportedly “watches” this on her hotel room television. Art and life become an ontological puzzle that Egoyan dares us to solve.
When technology changes our perception of reality, where does that leave our desires? In the ultimate scene Lisa kisses Lance to invoke her right for proof of his reality. She seems satisfied but this scene may not be real. She reflects the viewers’ desire for closeness to others. Is it really possible when our lives are so mediated? Cartesian philosophy aside, Egoyan does seem to believe in the reality of a natural world. That is where Lisa can connect with Lance, and Van can reconnect with his natural family and Armenian roots. And Van can, by breaking away from Stan’s power, also find a new/old way of looking at the world as and its structures. His new model for viewing the world is not video but humanism. This is a mature viewpoint, as he is coming of age. In the last few clips of the shelter reunion Little Van blinks uncomfortably at the camera. The past, living for him on the family tapes, is not what will sustain the family. It is the true and physical closeness of loved ones.
[i] McLuhan, Marshall, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 1st ed (MIT Press), 9.
[ii] Egoyan, Atom, “Memories Are Made of Hiss: Remember the Good Old Pre-digital Days.”, The Guardian, February 7, 2002.
[iii] Romney, Jonathan, World Directors: Atom Egoyan (London: British Film Institute, 2003), 48.
[iv] Romney, World Directors: Atom Egoyan, 44.
[v] Egoyan, Atom, interview in special features section, Adoration, Sony, Serendipity Point Films. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1074929/companycredits.
[vi] Carol Desbarats, “Conquering What They Tell Us Is ‘Natural’” in Carol Desbarats et. Al. (eds.), Atom Egoyan, trans. Brian Holmes (Paris: Editions Dis Voir, 1993), 9.
[vii] Wilson, Emma, “Desire and Technology: An Interview with Atom Egoyan,” 29.
[viii] Wolf, Maryanne, “Reading in a Digital World: Socrates’ Nightmare”, The New York Times (Opinions Section), September 6, 2007.
[ix] Romney, World Directors: Atom Egoyan, 62.
[x] Romney, World Directors: Atom Egoyan, 53.
[xi] Egoyan, Atom, The John Tusa Interviews, BBC Radio 3 (Sunday Feature), July 27, 2004. http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/sundayfeature/pip/5sp9a/