Mediamatic Magazine vol 5#4 Sonja Snoek 1 Jan 1991

Visual culture as alibi

The Traditional Love Stories of Atom Egoyan

In the works of the Canadian/Armenian filmmaker Atom Egoyan, film and video are constantly intermingled with each other.


Visual culture as alibi -

The cool, qualities of blown-up videotakes leave their traces in the 35mm format. Television, home movies and video networks funstion as direct extensions of the characters, without leading to the plastic representations of Videodrome. The integration of man and network in Family Viewing and Speaking Parts may be painless and complete, but it is not without consequences. In Egoyan's films, erosion of the private domain and simultaneity eventually turn out to be immersed in classic loves stories.

Family Viewing shows us how a boy named Van takes his grandmother out of a nursing home because she is withering away in front of the television there. His father, a dealer in video equipment, makes home videos and records his sex life over oldvideotapes of family events. In Speaking Parts, a chambermaid called Lisa makes advances to a colleague called Lance. She compensates for his rejection by hiring films in which he acts as a walk-on. Lance is to play the lead in a film based around the death of scriptwriter Clara's brother. In vain Clara tries to protect her script against the interventions of a producer who constantly communicates through video networks.

In the civilized world of these films, visual culture is omnipresent. The image is all around us, the use of it in everyday life has become a matter of course. Indeed, since the audio-visual product in the living room, the television, has gained a firm foothold, its role has been democratized. Camera and videoplayers, no longer the exclusive domain of professionals, are now being used to record private life. Means of communication are being extended to include electronic display. Eye contact with the absent is possible; network and cable connection allow visual interaction at a distance. One-way traffic has become characteristic of visual contact with the past. Take Van, clinging to the videotapes of one-time family life; everyone can be the voyeur of his own personal history.

The omnipresence of visual culture suggests a fading of the boundaries between the reality of the original and the virtual truth of the representation. The virtual world of the image performs actual functions between the characters. Thus, Speaking Parts shows us how Lance and Clara masturbate simultaneously, separated in space, with Clara visible to Lance on a monitor. Telephone sex with images, implying the continuation of their sexual relationship through other means. There is no question of replacement of direct communication, but of an extension of mediatized contacts.

Video safety systems, home movie, screen test: virtual intermediate stages presenting themselves to reality, each with their own truth value and possibilities of manipulating time and place.

visual culture as an alibi, the private domain founded on a conspiracy

The best way to outline the consequences of the films’ visual culture is to centre them around the characters. The absent is visible and can be spoken to, the past can be called up perpetually. The latter - the power of memories riveted in images - affects their attitude towards the topical.

Memories have become one with the images recorded, in such a way that the not yet registered reality begins to evoke a sense of insecurity. Not until it has been recorded does the digestion of reality begin. Claras enterprise in Speaking Parts stands for a ritual, in which reality can only be consumed when it has been transformed into images. Her film script is her way of digesting her brother s death, a strategy to defuse her emotions. Does the unregistered in fact exist? Lisa in particular seems to appreciate the insecure status of unrecorded reality. Lance is important because, as a walk-on, if not as a speaking part, he has been registered on tape. It is not the content of his role, but purely the being oh screen that counts. There's nothing special about words, observes Lisa. The father in Family Viewing applies a similar strategy. Not until the family shots are replaced by his sexual escapades is the memory of a one-time family life overtaken by the present.

The place of the media in the world of Family Viewing and Speaking Parts coincides with the erosion of the typical ambience of privateness. Simultaneity of time and space creates an electronic publicness; everyone is aware of being connected to a network. As a consequence, private life has become object; childhood and marriage are riveted into moving images. Egoyan links this constant media presence with absence of private territory. This is symbolized by the hotel room, in which part of Family Viewing and nearly all of Speaking Parts take place.

The make-believe private world of the hotel implies more than the reduction of the room-to-yourself to a temporary place-to-stay. The most characteristic quality of the hotel room is the way it comes into being. In this context, a place has the meaning of a commercially created space. The private domain is founded on a conspiracy, which is no more a human product than visual culture.

In Egoyan's films there is no question of the explicit media horror of Poltergeist or Shocker. They do not feed media fear by means of derailing technology and subjugation to image manipulators. On the contrary, they bring about a perfect integration of man and media. Yet there is good reason why the producer in Speaking Parts claims that he is part of Lances subconscious because Lance has grown up with his tv shows. Egoyan's argument at that moment is that visual culture impairs our personality by replacing it with the collective memory of the mass media. However, this is by no means the predominant tenor of the films. What does happen in them is a return from a mediatized world to a traditional one in which love and family reign. The boy Van, in Family Viewing, rescues his grandmother from the home and eventually restores the family relations as he knows them from the video tapes: grandmother, mother and son reunite. In Speaking Parts Lance and Lisa find each other, with Clara going to pieces over the filming of her memories. Their touching is presented as a victory of love over the videotapes.

Sterility and functionality

& The way Egoyan glides down into these love stories is subtle. It is the style of the film that performs an important function here. The characteristic, solid form lays the foundation for the credibility of the love stories, for example, in the funeral parlour scene in Speaking Parts. A cool, marble room. Subdued fighting. Penetrating, minimal music. The walls are covered with uniform commemorative plaques. From a marble bench, the next of kin can view a videotape of the deceased, played on a monitor in the commemorative plaque. The room gives us an impression of sterility, functionality and painlessness. The impersonality of the hotel room and the presence of electronic networks converge in the styling. An unmentionably dull setting, from which Egoyan wants to let his characters escape by means of relationships, situated not inside, but outside the established order of images. In this desire everything revolves around authenticity, diametrically opposed to the achievements of visual culture. The depth of family ties, the unreliable tension of a love affair, are desirable in a world of surfaces, Egoyan tells us. Indeed, there is nothing behind images. As his extreme zoom-ins on the monitor screens are to let us see: the nearer we come to the image, the more abstract and meaningless it becomes. An unpleasant side-effect for those who had begun to equate reality with its registration!

That in Family Viewing and Speaking Parts happiness is to be found in old-fashioned values can perhaps be called easy, and at most reactionary. What is worse is that Egoyans films are interesting at the start, but end up like soap operas. The kind of visual culture portrayed in the films is purposeful and obsessive. The media have become household equipment, the refrigerators of the memories, the mixers of the senses; prostheses that have heavily disfigured the personality of their users. We are spared the consequences of this vision, because Egoyan prefers to tell love stories, using visual culture as an alibi.

translation Olivier-Wylie