Atom Egoyan directed my favorite film, The Sweet Hereafter, but the other two films of his that I'd seen, Exotica and Felicia's Journey, I actually didn't much care for. Both were organized around the same principle: "Here's someone acting strange! Let's very slowly find out why!" Still, I knew this was only a small portion of his oeuvre, and with the recent release of pretty much everything he's ever done on DVD, I figured I'd take a couple of days and give myself an overdose. I ended up watching three short films (Howard in Particular (1979), Peepshow (1981), Open House (1982)) and five short features: Next of Kin (1984), Family Viewing (1987), Speaking Parts (1989), The Adjuster (1991), and Calendar (1993). None was in The Sweet Hereafter's league or even close, but at least a couple of them were good films, and there was an unmistakable family resemblance — the same way a girl can be an order of magnitude more beautiful than her sisters but still give no one cause to think she might be adopted.

The first couple of short films were not what I expected, being weird little sci-fi pieces that were at least attempting to be wacky, not exactly the first word one associates with the modern Egoyan. They also show that Egoyan's obsession with recording and playback goes back to the beginning of his career, as Howard revolves around a (clumsily delivered) message recorded on a reel-to-reel, and Peepshow is a little "Twilight Zone"-style piece about a photo booth (and hey, didn't Egoyan do a "New Twilight Zone" ep back in '85 or so? Hmmmm.)

Then there's the other short, Open House, which is unmistakably of the Exotica/Felicia school and is quite dull, stretching its one revelation out over twenty minutes. But better twenty minutes than over an hour, as in the case of Family Viewing and The Adjuster, two films of little merit. The first, like Felicia's Journey, indulges Egoyan's recording/playback obsession by having someone fixated on a videotape and watching it over and over and being prompted to some fairly extreme actions by it, while the film never gets around to letting us in on how A leads to B, why the character finds the image on the tape so powerful. The Adjuster is pretty much the ultimate in the "someone acting strange" genre, as there are a lot of people acting strange (why is the insurance adjuster shooting arrows? why is the censor taping the porn? why is the flaky woman sticking a vomit-covered bum's hand up her skirt?) but why they're acting strange is a purely intellectual matter: we may be curious but we don't actually care. Speaking Parts is a stronger film in that it's based not on the revelation game but rather around some actual story arcs — will the writer of a film in development have her vision compromised by the asshole director? will the pathetic stalker chyk ever catch the eye of the male bimbo she's fixated on? — but merely lacking an annoying quirk isn't enough to recommend a picture, so.

That brings us to the two good films in this batch. Next of Kin is a high-concept piece in which a bored slacker passes himself off as the long-lost son of an immigrant family; what makes it more than just another intellectual exercise is the way this story is made flesh by the actors, especially the fellow playing the patriarch who thinks he has his son back twenty-three years after giving him up for adoption upon arriving penniless in Canada. Calendar provides the flip side to this: whereas Next of Kin offers up an anglo who comes to be embraced by the tightly-knit Armenian community, the character Egoyan plays in Calendar is of Armenian heritage (as is Egoyan himself, needless to say) but considers himself a regular ol' Canadian and watches his relationship dissolve over his inability to bond with his ancestral homeland. Which is gorgeous, as is the film. Egoyan plays a photographer taking pictures of Armenian churches for a calendar, and the photographs are stunning — and each one doubles as the backdrop to a scene in which the photographer (firmly behind the static camera) bickers with his lover (played by Egoyan's own wife, Arsinée Khanjian, a major player in every one of his films back to Next of Kin) and their Armenian guide. It's a bit gimmicky and mechanical, and feels padded even at 75 minutes, but it feels like a story close to the filmmaker's heart (as opposed to the "insert family drama here" just-in-time content that crops up elsewhere) and is amazingly lovely to look at.

And having succeeded with that strategy, Egoyan went on to put even more lovely stuff to look at in his films, like rippling fields, snowcapped BC mountains, and Sarah Polley.

Return to the Calendar page!