How do you begin a comedy if you choose not to kick off with a big opening gag? Writer-director Tom DiCillo (Johnny Suede, 1991) takes a risky option at the start of Living in Oblivion.
It is a very early morning call on the shoot of a low-budget, independent movie. Director Nick (Steve Buscemi) and lead actor Nicole (Catherine Keener) are driven to the set. The conversation is so low-key and the humour so mildly droll that you wonder if this film will ever manage to become funny.
But, about ten minutes in, the laughter starts – and once up and running, it rarely stops. On an unfussily art-directed sound stage – the essential location for most of Living in Oblivion – everything goes wrong with Nick's precious movie.
The actors are repeatedly destabilised by their personal, off-screen traumas; the crew's makeshift technical apparatuses explode or malfunction. When, eventually, a token star (James LeGros) and Nick's senile mother (Rica Martens) appear to wreak their havoc, DiCillo's film completes its hilarious catalogue of cinematic misadventures.
There was a rash of satirical films about filmmaking during the early '90s. But this one distinguishes itself from the pack in several important respects. It does not depict the life-and-death struggle between the Artist and either a malevolent studio (The Player, 1992, The Big Picture, 1989, Swimming with Sharks, 1994) or shady financiers (In the Soup, 1992, Mistress, 1991). Nor does it service the Bad Movie cult indulged lazily by The Making of... And God Spoke (1993), and illuminated brilliantly by Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1994).
In Living in Oblivion, Nick is an independent writer-producer-director, a one-man band. He has his crew and cast to deal with, but essentially the demons he must wrestle are his own, inner ones. In an affectionate and completely unpretentious way, this aligns DiCillo's film more with Fellini's classic Otto e mezzo (1963) than with any of those contemporaneous films about the tawdry, behind-the-scenes truths of Naked Hollywood. And, just like Fellini's hero, Nick is beset by some truly phantasmagoric nightmares.
There is often a regrettable tendency in films-about-films to make the pretend movie – the one that we see everyone busily shooting – either monumentally stupid or bizarrely unreal. Even in Abel Ferrara's utterly serious psychodrama about filmmaking, Dangerous Game (aka Snake Eyes, 1993), the specimen movie (improbably titled Mother of Mirrors) does not manage to look convincing for a second.
Nick's beloved project – which we glimpse in vivid on-set snippets – is clearly no masterpiece either, and DiCillo pokes gentle fun at its clichés and pretensions. But it is part of the achievement of Living in Oblivion that it makes us feel for Nick every time a shot goes wrong – and it allows us an unexpected feel-good thrill when, near the end, a particularly troublesome dream scene is miraculously salvaged in one magical take.
A lot of what's good about this movie can be attributed to the marvellous comic performance of Steve Buscemi. He is an extremely stylised, even expressionistic actor who tends to stick out like a sore thumb in conventional comic vehicles such as Airheads (1994). But here DiCillo uses Buscemi's familiar mannerisms – the anxious eye-squinting, the silent, panicked freezing, the sudden spastic outbursts – in a focused and delicious way.
The funniest and most pleasurable aspect of Living in Oblivion is its novel, three-part plot structure. To give this structure away would spoil some of the best jokes. But, suffice to say, DiCillo exploits a certain prismatic narrative effect which has become the hallmark of American independent cinema, from Pulp Fiction (1994) to The Usual Suspects (1995). In such prisms the conventional, linear, cause-and-effect links of the story are prised apart; certain characters or events are viewed repeatedly, from a number of different perspectives.
The hip American filmmakers of today rarely take the game to its radical conclusion of utter disorientation – as Alain Resnais did thirty-four years previously in Last Year at Marienbad (1961). But there are nice moments when Living in Oblivion recalls another film of Resnais' which was also about the fantasies, torments and perils of artistic creation – that blackest and most beguiling of comedies, Providence (1977).
© Adrian Martin December 1995