“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: