Seldom Scene
Movie reviews by Gerald Panio

Living in Oblivion (1995)

“Anyone know where the camera truck is parked?”

–overheard on the set of Living in Oblivion

It’s fitting that this month’s review of Living in Oblivion hits the newsstands shortly after the Sundance Film Festival will have introduced audiences to the newest wave of independent films.  The director of Living in Oblivion, Tom DiCillo, would have appreciated the irony of Sundance’s venue for low-budget films having become so popular that it’s getting out of control–with almost as much hoopla & schmoozing and wheeling & dealing as one expects at Cannes.  Living in Oblivion is all about making movies and losing control.  DiCillo’s picture took the Sundance prize for Best Screenplay in 1995.  He deserved the award, and those of you who haven’t seen his outrageous-but-loving tribute to the perils of low-budget independent film-making can brighten up one of those grey winter days that are still with us.  A warning, though.  Living in Oblivion makes enthusiastic use of language guaranteed to offend most mothers who don’t ride Harleys.

This is a great movie for those of us who have never actually been on a film set.  We get a good look at the nitty-gritty of how small stories make it to the big screen.  We get to see what some of those people with the obscure credits at ends of movies actually do.  Gaffer?  Focus-Puller?  Boom?  And watching Steve Buscemi, as director Nick Reve, trying to get a fractious cast & crew of about twelve people to work together without a homicide, we gain a better appreciation of the logistical genius of directors such as Stephen Spielberg and James Cameron.  The challenge of juggling hundreds of Hollywood egos must rank up there somewhere between building the Ark and parting the Red Sea.

Living in Oblivion is also for anyone who at some point has wondered if he or she is really in the right job.  These moments of excruciating self-doubt usually come at the end of a day where the universe has conspired to ensure that nothing works as planned.  Such days are democratic, sparing neither venture capitalists nor duct cleaners.  These are the times one thinks of joining a circus, driving a cab, teaching English in Ouagadougou.  Fortunately, for most of us most of the time, the following day brings its healing quotient of laughter and/or success.  Nick Reve goes through the whole down-and-up cycle in a single day.  It’s every director’s nightmare (no money, bad food, bruised egos, hostile machinery, impossible deadlines, unrequited love), but somehow at the end of it all there are a few meters of celluloid good enough to get you out of bed again the next morning.

I loved all the performances, large and small, in Living in Oblivion.  I’m sure I’ve hung out with every one of these characters at some point in my life.  It might have been on a Vancouver city bus, sitting at a counter in an all-night diner, sharing the same hotel, listening to country & western in the same bar, doing a first-year drama class, or teaching high school.

As Nick, Steve Buscemi demonstrates once again why he’s an icon of the Indies.  One of the hardest-working actors in the business, he’s got a screen presence that’s impossible to overlook.  Sort of like James Woods, minus the more overt homicidal tics. Buscemi recently pulled off a one-man tour de force, writing, directing and starring in Trees Lounge, a powerful, honest portrait of an alcoholic.  In Living in Oblivion, his character is desperately trying to channel enough conflicting energies to set off the San Andreas Fault.  “I think you can see I’m under a little pressure here!” he screams as something finally gives and the cast and crew stare in stunned silence.  In a 30-second daydream Nick Cave sees himself vindicated at an awards ceremony where he gets the coveted Golden Apple for “Best Film Ever Made by a Human Being”.  If someone made a collection of still photos of Buscemi’s facial expressions, it would be a portrait of Everyman.  Unlike Brad Pitt’s or Tom Cruise’s, Buscemi’s is a face the rest of us can relate to.

Speaking of Brad Pitt, there was a rumor that he was the inspiration for Oblivion’s Chad Palomino (James LeGros), an egotistical, pretentious, predatory prima donna who makes a convincing argument against Darwin’s theory of the survival of the fittest.  Some genes should never have left the pool.  I hope the rumor’s unfounded.  DiCillo had worked with Brad Pitt on Johnny Suede (1992), the debut film for both of them.  LeGros’ performance is a gem, and so is that of another obnoxious male: the cinematographer Wolf (Dermot Mulroney), who dresses like Rambo but has the emotional stability of a jukebox.  Wolf spends much of the film insisting on hand-held camera shots and nursing his ego under a fake eye-patch.

Nick’s lead actress is Nicole Springer.  As played by Catherine Keener (who’s starred in all four of DiCillo’s films), she’s the girl next door.  Not glamorous, but sexy and real.  Nicole’s is a tricky role to play because it demands constant shifts between deliberately bad acting and moments of emotional resonance.  Inevitably, Nick has to stand helplessly by as Nicole’s finest acting moment is lost forever to the camera because…….Well, you’ll see if you watch the movie.

A word of advice to aspiring young filmmakers.  Never cast a dwarf in a dream sequence.  It’s one of the things that drives Nick off the deep end.  And it’s a good lesson to learn.  This particular little person (Peter Dinklage) is outraged: “Why does my character have to be a dwarf? ‘Oh yeah,’ you probably said, ‘We have a dream sequence so let’s stick a dwarf in it.’  Do you know anyone who’s had a dream with a dwarf in it?  Even I don’t have dreams with dwarfs in them!”  It probably doesn’t help that Nicole’s been accidentally calling him “Toto” since they were first introduced.  Had he stayed around longer, Tito might have also pointed out that none of the three scenes Nick is shooting has even the remotest connection with the others.

Living in Oblivion’s structure is as clever as its dialogue.  The dialogue manages to incorporate every theatrical and emotional cliché imaginable (“I’m just going to go with how I feel” “I’m pretty close to this character” “It’s all there–just let it happen” “I’m here for you, man”) while at the same time making it clear that for the characters these clichés are a form of crisis management, boards for castaways to hold onto in rough seas.  DiCillo mixes black and white photography with color, and his screenplay intersects dreams, daydreams and reality in a way that’s only slightly less puzzling than our own lives.

Mom ultimately saves the day.

It’s unclear whether anyone ever finds the camera truck.


Looking Back & Second Thoughts

I don’t have a lot to add to my original review.  Living in Oblivion is still a joy—great casting, clever writing, vibrant visuals.  I loved spending more time with Nick, Nicole, Wolf, Wanda, Tito, Chad Palomino, and everyone else in this most dysfunctional of all film families.  Steve Buscemi & Peter Dinklage have two of the most entertaining rants you’re ever likely to hear.  Here’s Dinklage as Tito:

[Little person Tito is not happy with the dream sequence]

Tito: Why does my character have to be a dwarf?

Nick: He doesn’t have to be.

Tito: Then why is he? Is that the only way you can make this a dream, to put a dwarf in it?

Nick: No, Tito, I…

Tito: Have you ever had a dream with a dwarf in it? Do you know anyone who’s had a dream with a dwarf in it? No! I don’t even have dreams with dwarves in them. The only place I’ve seen dwarves in dreams is in stupid movies like this! “Oh make it weird, put a dwarf in it!”. Everyone will go “Woah, this must be a fuckin’ dream, there’s a fuckin’ dwarf in it!”. Well I’m sick of it! You can take this dream sequence and stick it up your ass!

If you enjoyed this film, I’m recommending that you check out an amazing 2003 Canadian TV series from CBC Television called Slings and Arrows.  Starring Paul Gross, Martha Burns, Stephen Ouimette, Susan Coyne, and Don Mckellar, it ran for three seasons and did for dysfunctional theater families what Living in Oblivion did for indie cinema.  Slings and Arrows scores a remarkable 8.4 rating on Imdb.

Director Nick Reve may never get his award for Best Film Ever Made by a Human Being, but director Tom DiCillo did himself proud with his sophomore effort.  In the years since Oblivion, DiCillo has chosen to direct only a half dozen feature films.  Steve Buscemi has an endless resume and multiple awards.  Catherine Keener has two Oscar nominations to date, and has worked on four of DiCillo’s films. Dermot Mulroney is giving Steve a run for his money, with three completed films in 2020 and another half dozen in various stages of production.  James Le Gros is neck-in-neck with Dermot in total number of acting credits on Imdb (both approaching 130).  After Game of Thrones, Peter Dinklage needs no introduction.  My favorite driver, Tom Jarmusch (brother of Indie icon Jim Jarmusch), has acted in only three features films post-Oblivion.

The Sundance Film Festival, that mecca for independent cinema, has now branched out to include the Slamdance Film Festival for those indie films that don’t quite make the Sundance cut.  Check out the websites.  And let’s not forget the IFC Films Unlimited & the Sundance Now streaming services for those of us at home.  You’ll find them here:

Movie Information

Genre: Comedy | Drama
Director: Tom DiCillo
Actors: Steve Buscemi, Catherine Keeler, Dermot Mulroney, Danielle von Zerneck, Peter Dinklage, James Le Gros
Year: 1995
Original Review: February 1999


You Must Remember This

The Podcast about the secret and/or forgotten history of Hollywood’s first century

With an extensive archive, a film club, a book club, and many other features, you could spend a whole lot of time on this site.  Each podcast is about 45  to 60 minutes long and it’s a treat whether you’re checking out particular film-related topics you’re interested in or just dipping your toes in at random.  My last choices were “The Hemingway Curse” and “Disney’s Most Controversial Film.”  From the website:

You Must Remember This is the podcast dedicated to exploring the secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century. The podcast was created and is written, produced and narrated by Karina Longworth….Since launching as a passion project in April 2014, You Must Remember This has become one of the top film podcasts around. This podcast is a heavily-researched work of creative nonfiction. Every reasonable attempt is made at accuracy, but quite often when it comes to the kinds of stories we explore here, between conflicting reports, conscious and unconscious mythologizing and institutionalized spin, the truth is murky at best. That’s kind of what the podcast is, ultimately, about. 

Longworth began her career as a film journalist as the co-founder of the pioneering film blog Cinematical, and went on to serve as a staff critic at the Village Voice and the film editor at the LA Weekly. She has also contributed to Grantland, Slate, Vanity Fair and many other print and online publications. She is the author of books on George Lucas, Al Pacino and Meryl Streep, and she has lectured at the undergraduate and graduate level, most recently at Chapman University. Her latest book, Seduction: Sex, Lies and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood, was released by Custom House in November 2018.”

The Success of Dunkirk is proof that the World War II myth machine is still alive and well

A thought-provoking essay by Toronto columnist John Semley, contrasting the way in which the two world wars have been portrayed in film.  Here is Semley’s concluding paragraph:

Where an aspiringly arty blockbuster like “Dunkirk” trades as much in technical razzle-dazzle as it does moral lucidity, WWI films like “Gallipoli,” “Paths of Glory,” The Grand Illusion,” “King and Country,” “All Quiet on the Western Front,” “Westfront 1918” and “The Road Home” trade in complexity and more onerous ethical robustness. They dispel the absurd ideological machinations of global conflict like a searchlight piercing the fog of war. And in this way they don’t just depict an obvious, patent, clear-cut morality. They are moral. They offer hardy lessons and laments that reverberate into the present moment not by virtue of their gimcrack claims to “relevancy” but their evocation of an eternal truism: that the world is often ruled by desperate sadists, and that paths of glory lead but to the grave.

Film Education

This UK site has stopped adding new material, but still maintains active links to study guides and other resources teachers can use for film literacy.  As well as the Film Library section with study guides and weblinks, there’s also a Shakespeare on Film section, a section on the U.S. Civil Rights movement, and some film-related resources on the Holocaust.  Worth checking out if you’re currently involved in teaching.

Films Worth Talking About:

Casino, Waterworld, Underground, Batman Forever, The Brothers McMullen, Shanghai Triad, Babe, Mallrats, Braveheart, Rob Roy, Land and Freedom, La Haine (Hate), Leaving Las Vegas, The Usual Suspects, Clueless, Goldeneye, Die Hard With a Vengeance, Before Sunrise, The Horseman on the Roof, Mighty Aphrodite, To Die For, Smoke, When Night is Falling, Richard III

The Bigger Picture

FilmsSlings and Arrows (TV series, 2003), When You’re Strange (2009)


Books:  Monica Sullivan, VideoHound’s Independent Film Guide

The Word on the Street

Steve Buscemi may or may not have been the first choice by writer/director Tom DiCillo for the lead role of Nick, the director behind the three (err, one) film(s) being made within the film Living in Oblivion, but it works so well it’s impossible to see anyone else in the role. Buscemi, who is one of the prime character actors of the past fifteen years, has that range of being grounded, of being out of control, of being funny, and of being sincere even in the strangest circumstances. His character, as the quintessential indie film director of the film, tries to keep some control on what goes on, but as is seen, things don’t go quite as planned.

Living in Oblivion is one of those little delights for a film buff to see, or perhaps of a particular film buff. On a personal level I connect with some of this as I was a production assistant on indie films that were not far off from this. DiCillo, whether or not you’ve been in situations like this (which most of us haven’t) brilliantly captures the coldness on a set, the uncomfortableness, the technical difficulties, and just the plain old emotional toll that goes on with the film-making process (notably, when it’s under a million dollars being made). That it’s a comedy of errors helps a lot, and that you never really know which way the story will turn at times.   [Quinoa1984]

“Living in Oblivion” (1995) – is a 91 minutes long low-budget independent movie about trials and tribulations during making a low budget independent movie called “Living in Oblivion”. Writer-director Tom DiCillo made in 1991 a film called “Johnny Suede” starring a young and unknown at the time actor named Brad Pitt. “Johnny Suede” was a failure with both critics and viewers but an artist can learn from any experience however disappointing or devastating it is. DiCillo wrote a short story from his frustration and turned his experience into a smart, funny, playful, and highly enjoyable second feature “Living in Oblivion” that takes place during one day of shooting a low budget film. Photographed with the color-to-black-and-white transitions, “Living in Oblivions” has surreal, strangely poetic and amusing quality to it.   [Galina_movie_fan]

Danielle von Zerneck, who plays Wanda, the Assistant Director, is absolutely brilliant. This is apparently the last film she was in and I really have to wonder why. She did a fantastic job in this one.   [Schroeder-gustavo]  [NOTE: Ms. Von Zerneck seems to have chosen to specialize in film production, rather than continue her acting career.]

It should come as no surprise that the director of this film learned the trade under the wing of Jim Jarmusch. The film has a very Jarmusch quality to it, and if it had his name on it I would not have been surprised. Especially the black and white scenes.   [gavin6942]

Having spent the better half of the last 7 years working on both sides of the camera, I can sympathize with filmmakers and actors. Most people have this mistaken notion that “All you have to do is push a button and act a little here and there.” But that is not the case at all. Whenever the camera is rolling and the director calls “ACTION”, practically anything could happen… and often does! What’s so great about LIVING IN OBLIVION is that Tom DiCillo turns the camera around and shows us what really happens behind the scenes. And nothing is spared. We get to see the odd mix of nerves, ennui, exhaustion, desperation, disappointments, and surprises, deftly handled with a comedic touch. Steve Buscemi (who is no stranger to directing) gives his best performance as Nick Reve, the quirky director who tries to keep everything from falling apart.   [geminiredblue]

I initially thought “Chad Palomino” HAD to be a sendup of Brad Pitt — and while listening to the director’s commentary I nearly choked hearing him say Pitt was originally slated to play that role but ended up with a conflict (apparently finishing “Legends of the Fall”) and had to back out.   [JMTtor]

The fact that Steve Buschemi, Katherine Keener, and Dermot Mulroney are so wonderfully natural is proof that Dicillo has golden instincts. We are granted access to these artists’ most transcendent talents. I’ve seen them all in many different, fantastic roles, but here they are at their absolute best, their most real.   [eddiez71]

[NOTE:  Of course, not everyone was enamored….]

This is pure indie, to the bone: ad infinitum, ad nauseum, ad absurdum. There will always be a small hard-core audience for junk like this, just like the market for ’70s TV sit-coms, banjo music, political “documentaries”, etc.
“Bad & The Beautiful” (1951) and “Le Mepris/Contempt” (1963) are the real-deal films about movie-making, made by pros who knew what they were doing—but for grown-up adults only.   [mhantholz]