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    Adoration – Atom Egoyan’s Internet Chat

    By Ron Holloway | July 9, 2008

    He’s one of the auteur directors the Cannes festival takes pride in supporting. Atom Egoyan’s Adoration (Canada/France, 2008) marks his 10th appearance at Cannes. No mean accomplishment for the Armenian-Canadian filmmaker, whose CV reads more like a diplomat’s Who’s Who.

    Born (1960) in Cairo to refugee Armenian parents (Joseph and Shushan Yeghoyan), Atom Egoyan (the family name was Anglicized) was raised in western Canada (British Columbia), studied International Relations and Music (plays classical guitar) at the University of Toronto, received an Oscar Nomination for Best Director (The Sweet Herafter, 1997), won seven Canadian Genie Awards, and was nationally honored as an Officer of the Order of Canada (1999). That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

    For Atom Egoyan also directs opera and television (Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape), finds time to serve as president of the Yerevan “Golden Apricot” International Film Festival (dubbed a “crossroad of cultures and civilizations”), has opened a 50-seat cinema lounge in downtown Toronto (called “Bar Cinema”), currently teaches at the University of Toronto (“dean’s distinguished visitor in theatre, film, music and visual studies”), and was recently awarded the lucrative purse-endowed Dan David Prize (for “creative rendering of the past”) by Tel-Aviv University.

    Among cineastes, however, Atom Egoyan is best known for his regular appearances at Cannes, where he has bagged four major festival awards, in addition to serving in 1996 as a member of the international jury. Over the past two decades at Cannes, mostly during the délégée général tenure of Gilles Jacob (currently festival president), Egoyan has been a regular guest on the Riviera. Queried in 1999 as to the reason for his unswerving regard for the vagabond filmmaker, Jacob simply cited his own liking for “balance” in the competition – meaning a mixture of art and entertainment. “Sometimes we get both in one film,” he mused. “As in Atom Egoyan’s Felicia’s Journey – and that’s always a welcomed sign.”

    As a teenager, Atom Egoyan set his sights on becoming a playwright along the lines of Beckett and Pinter. However, during his studies at the University of Toronto, when he tried his hand at making a couple short films – Howard in Particular (1979), After Grad with Dad (1980), Peep Show (1981), and Open House (1982) – he caught the bug. In short, he found the film-and-video medium more appropriate for exploring his favorite themes of isolation and alienation. Further, Egoyan became fascinated with the medium’s possibilities for non-linear dramatic structure, particularly the ploy of deliberately placing sequences out of chronological order. By thus teasing audiences, usually by withholding vital information, he sought to provoke a pro or contra response.

    This multi-layered approach to cinematic expression has been criticized as both a strength and weaknesss in the later films of Atom Egoyan. All too often, his critics say, Egoyan submerges the narrative in a labyrinth of intellectual games – like role playing inside close circles, reality perceived through memory, painful interactions spurred by media technology, exotic soundtracks underscoring a psychological mood. Moreover, once the viewer is on to his games, the viewing experience easily runs adrift on intellectual sandbars. Besides role-playing and catch-phrases, he also takes pleasure in a pandora box of images and citations thrown in just for the fun of it.

    Atom Egoyan’s first feature film, Next of Kin (1984), won him a Genie Nomination for Best Director. Shot in 16mm on a minuscule budget of C$ 37,000, it was invited to participate in the competition at the Mannheim film festival. The story of a lad unhappy with his own family life, Next of Kin explores a mind immersed in video therapy that’s supposed to help resolve his antipathy towards his parents. During the therapy, however, he hits upon the idea of posing as the missing son of an Armenian couple, who in turn deeply regret having given their child up for adoption in infancy.

    Family Viewing (1987), Egoyan’s second low-budget feature film, focuses on the troubles of a disturbed young man in search of his missing mother. His search takes him through a labyrinth of video tapes, telephone sex, mistaken identities, family breakdown, cultural alienation, and the dark humor of the porno trade. Invited to compete at the Locarno film festival, Family Viewing was awarded the FIPRESCI International Critics Award. Presented afterwards at the Montreal World Film Festival, where Wim Wenders’s Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire) was awarded the festival’s Prix Alcan, Wenders publicly requested that his prize be given instead to Atom Egoyan’s Family Viewing. With such spectacular festival launches at Locarno and Montreal, Family Viewing went on from there to receive eight Genie Nominations, including Best Director. Almost overnight, Atom Egoyan had become Canada’s best known independent film director. Adding to his mystique as an authentic auteur director was a jury decision that occurred two years later at Cannes. With Wim Wenders serving as head of the international jury, the Palme d’Or was awarded to Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989), a film remarkably similar in theme and style to Egoyan’s Family Viewing.

    Invited to present his next three feature films in the Directors Fortnight at Cannes – Speaking Parts (1989), The Adjuster (1991) and Calendar (1993) – Atom Egoyan was swiftly proclaimed by press and public as a major writer-director-producedr to keep an eye on. All three films, each made in collaboration with his actress wife Arsinée Khanjian, work their magic like intricate detective stories that have to be pieced together backwards. Or, as one critic put it, like elaborate visual jigsaw puzzles. In Speaking Parts, a movie about a movie, the setting is a movie office in an elegant hotel. Sex and death are examined in close range with callous movie-making and video technology, the central figure being a woman screenwriter whose script focuses on the tragic death of her brother. When the film was screened in the Cinéma Les Arcades venue at Cannes, the third reel jammed in the projector and prompted a delay – a happenstance that added to the programming event. In The Adjuster, an absurdist take on social mores, the central figures are a couple whose lives are warped by their demands of their jobs, she as a movie censor and he as an insurance adjuster for fire cases. The film, remarkable for its black humor, is often cited for its satirical blast aimed squarely at the Ontario Censorship Board. In Calendar, his wittiest film to date, a dim-witted calendar-photographer (Atom Egoyan) loses his wife (Arsinée Khanjian) to an Armenian taxi-driver while the pair are on an assignment to photograph ancient churches in Armenia for a calendar. It turns out that the taxi-driver, who knows Armenian architecture like the back of his hand, transcends the photographer’s bland interest in just getting the job done. And, to the photographer’s surprise, the taxi-driver wins the heart of his wife. Inspired by Sergei Parajanov’s illegally shot Sayat Nova (aka The Color of the Pomegranate) (1968), Calendar also took the pulse of the Armenia shortly after the republic had declared its breakaway independence from the former Soviet Union.

    Following these three critically acclaimed entries in the Directors Fortnight, Atom Egoyan was invited to present his Exotica (1994) in the competition at Cannes. Set in a strip club with the same name, it was billed as an “erotic thriller” by some critics in an attempt to define the core of the film’s title. “For me, the obvious definition of the exotic is something outside our immediate experience, Egoyan said in a fumbled-through interview. “But ultimately what really drives the film is the exoticism we feel towards our own experience, that point at which our own memory, and our own relationship to the things that are closest to us, become exotic.”

    Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter (1997), his first large-scale production, marked a new direction for the Canadian director. Based on a haunting novel about the disintegration of a community by American writer Russell Banks, who also collaborated with Egoyan on the screenplay, The Sweet Hereafter was awarded the Grand Jury Prize, the Ecumenical Prize, and the FIPRESCI Critics Prize at Cannes. In this story of an apparently good-willed “ambulance chaser” on a round of queries as to what really caused an tragic schoolbus accident in ice-bound British Columbia, the film also questions why the legal wizard couldn’t save his own daughter from drug-addiction. When the Oscars rolled around, Atom Egoyan was nominated for Best Director and Best Screenwriter.

    For his next feature, Felicia’s Journey (1999), Egoyan again adapted a novel to the screen. Based on William Trevor thriller, the story of a serial killer who preys on young women in the British Midlands, the film failed to convince as a psycho thriller with a fresh twist. It’s mostly memorable for a visual citation from Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (France, 1946), inserted to plumb the depths of dream-state perversity. Apparently believing that the thriller was an apt genre for his puzzle-pronned cinema, Egoyan adapted another crime novel for the Cannes screen, this time with rather disastrous results. In Where the Truth Lies (2005), adapted from a Rupert Holmes novel, he squeezes his time-worn obsessions into a Hollywood whodunit without rhyme or reason. Set in the 1950s, with one-upmanship played by an entertainment team reminiscent of Martin & Lewis, the story line is lost in the game.

    In between these two lean crime tales, however, Atom Egoyan returned to his Armenian roots to make Ararat (2002), presented out-of-competition at Cannes, and Adoration (2008), awarded the Ecumenical Prize for aptly “exploring cultural intolerance and misinformation.” In Ararat, a film within a film, Clarence Ussher’s 1917 memoir, An American Physician in Turkey, is effectively explored in a docu-drama that underscores one of the frightful genocides of the past century. Charles Aznavour – of Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste (Don’t Shoot the Piano Player) (France, 1960) fame – plays the film director, whose performance supports the best moments in the film.

    In Adoration, linked to the chat phenomenon of the internet age, a high school lad attempts to come to terms with clichéd prejudices of Canadian society. Of far more significance for Egoyan fans, however, Adoration echoes Atom’s own Toronto high school when, as an adolescent, he immersed himself in film and video technology to explore role playing at its most fundamental level. This time, however, the internet chatters assume identities online. And few of these blabbermouths have anything relevant to add to the story, which may or may not be the point of the film – for, after all, the ploy itself is part of the lad’s school project to explore the reasons behind a known terrorist act. For, as it had happened in real life, a husband had once tried to smuggle a bomb explosive into his wife’s baggage on a plane flight. In the schoolboy’s fantasies, however, he expands that news event to probe the reasons behind his own parents’ death in a car accident, all the more significant because he is the offspring of a muslim-christian marriage. Further, as it turns out, his schoolteacher, who subs as a drama instructor, also had been previously married to his father. Finally, to add some symbolic depth to the film, this just happens to be the Christmas season, and there’s a dying racist grandfather who still suspects foul play somewhere along the line that caused his daughter’s death.

    Sound confusing? It is, but nothing really to get too concerned about. Because, as in most of Atom Egoyan’s films, this is only the tip of the multicultural iceberg. The only puzzle that begs solution is where “adoration” fits in. That’s anybody’s guess. And apparently the way Egoyan likes to have it.

    – Ron Holloway

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