I first heard of Atom Egoyan about 10 years ago. Mike D'Angelo had written a review on Exotica, which he loved. Before Taratino (re-)popularized non-linear story-telling, Egoyan was doing it earlier.
Egoyan has been criticized for telling chilly stories, where characters are hard to relate to, and for appealing to the brainy set. He often opens his film with a peculiar scene. In The Sweet Hereafter, it is a view that's very odd, blurred. Over time, you see that it is water rushing down a windshield. Then, you see it is a person in a car in a carwash. This opening scene makes an apperance later, as it does in Calendar.
The opening scene of Calendar is a video being taken on a dirt road passing by, if I recall, sheep, or some herd of animals. The car lurches forward, then stops, as it negotiates past animals occupying the road. This scene is finally explained at the very end of the film.
Egoyan isn't like David Lynch, who often does not explain what he's doing. Egoyan explains, but in a subtle way. He gives you scenes out of context, and then puts them in context, making you piece together what's happening. In the middle of this intellectual exercise are often characters that are dealing with emotional issues, yet, he presents these traumas in a muted way, so subtle, you may not even notice if you don't pay attention.
One of my favorite Egoyan pix is one of his first: Next of Kin. It tells the story of a WASPish Canadian teen, who has the life. His parents are rich, but they are emotionally hollow. Nowhere is this more evident than in an early scene, where his parents sit near their indoor pool, and the boy is swimming. He hides behind a structure, out of view of his parents, and doesn't move.
Do his parents care? Do they rush to see if he's alive? His mother peers out for a moment, then goes back to reading. He realizes his parents don't care if he's alive or dead.
They go seek counseling. He finds a tape of an Armenian-Canadian family who is dealing with their own familial issues. The daughter, as many immigrant daughters do, is rebelling against her parents. They attribute part of their problems to a son they had to give up for adoption. The WASPish kid gets an idea. He will pretend to be their son. He is not Armenian, but he gives it a try.
The parents are so desperate to fill this missing void, that they don't even question that this is their son.
Ultimately, the film also serves as a kind of metaphor. We've all heard of American being a melting pot, but it's seen as something peculiar to the United States. Yet, people emigrated to Canada as well. Egoyan's family emigrated by way of Egypt (although he is Armenian).
The Armenian family isn't perfect. It argues. It tries to bridge the gap between the old culture and the new. The father likes to go to strip clubs, even as the mother has no idea, and devotedly stays at home. Yet, they are more vibrantly alive than the family that's considered more truly Canadian.
Egoyan hits several themes that he revisits again and again. First, there is some relation between the WASPish son, and the Armenian family's daughter. Egoyan hints at a kind of incest, even though they are not brother and sister. This kind of almost-incest occurs in Ararat between a half-sister and half-brother, though it's explored more explicitly.
He also visits the video as a form of digital memory. In this case, video is used in the interviews that the WASP kid views. In later films, especially, Calendar, it serves as a kind of selective memory, showing that even video, which is meant to be objective, is, at times, not at all objective. You watch what you want to, and what it means, depends on the viewer.
Egoyan also deals with some themes he doesn't explore so much in later films, such as the Armenian immigration experience. At one point, the "son" who is clearly in his late teens, wants to be held by his "mother" as she did when he was young, even though such an incident never occurred.
It is a form of rebirth, and as with many scenes, Egoyan mutes the emotional impact of this kind of rebirth. It is common among, say, born-again Christians, and yet, he does it without any religious implications. Egoyan constantly revisits powder-keg issues but never glamorizes or overplays it, partly, because he wants us to accept it as it is. I believe, for example, that he thinks incest is indeed fine, in the right conditions, but he also knows it's a very tricky subject, and so he must show it in a way the unintelligent viewer doesn't notice or care, and the intelligent viewer sees him sneaking the ideas in.
The transition theme also occurs at a birthday party. The kid has a birthday early on, where his real parents go through the motions. Then, he has another one in the Armenian family. They sing "Happy Birthday" before slipping into a traditional Armenian song, and you see the embrace of one culture for another, and one child into a family, serving both a small and large theme simulataneously. Egoyan seems to avoid this parallelism in his later films, preferring to tell the story at hand, and not make it metaphorical of something bigger (either that, or he's even more subtle).
Go watch Next of Kin, and you'll see a master at his audacious start.
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