Living in Oblivion [50 New-Old Movies for the 51st Year #45]

Mid-last year, I turned 50 years old!  And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of my life (thus the “Old-New” terminology), and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #45.  Spoilers ahead.  

Living in Oblivion

Directed by Tom DiCillo

Release Date:  July 21, 1995
My age then:  25 years old

What it is about:  Filmmaker Nick Reve struggles to get through an emotional scene in his low-budget film Living in Oblivion. The stresses on set result in anxiety dreams for Nick and for leading lady Nicole Springer. When things completely fall apart on set, help comes from an unlikely source: Nick’s senile mother.

Starring Steve Buscemi as Nick Reve, Catherine Keener as Nicole Springer, Dermot Mulroney as Wolf (the cinematographer), Danielle von Zernuck as Wanda (the Assistant Director), James Le Gros as a big-name actor involved with the project, Rica Martens as Nick’s mother (who is presented as an actress in one of the dreams), and Peter Dinklage as Tito, a dwarf-actor who is making a brief appearance in the movie.

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  I only discovered this film when I was researching for this series, and so knew nothing about it except that it was a comedy about filmmaking, and that Peter Dinklage and Steve Buscemi were in it.

Reality: Living in Oblivion is surprising fresh and engaging. It is genuinely funny–somehow farcical without ever becoming silly–and contains enough character drama to also feel real.

Part of the interest for the film is its surprising structure and its unsettling tone. The entire movie is built around a single day in the shoot of a low budget film, and as it starts out the first thing we notice is that it is all in a grainy black & white–but that the images of the movie that is being created are in color, which immediately makes the atmosphere a bit surreal.

As thing get underway, we see that a serious dramatic scene between an insecure leading lady, Nicole, and an older actress called Cora is hampered by a series of onset mishaps: crew members making mistakes, the performers forgetting their lines and becoming disconnected with the material, and the movie’s cinematographer getting sick from bad milk in his coffee. Through it all, the film’s director, Nick Reve, attempts to keep things on course, but becomes more and more agitated with each mishap. Finally, an incessant beeping from a watch that nobody can find pushes him over the edge, and he starts hurling abuse at everyone on set…

…until he suddenly wakes up, and the whole thing is revealed to be an anxiety-induced dream that the director is having related to the day’s work. The film continues with the cast and crew heading off to the set once again, to film a new scene and face a whole slew of different problems, until it turns out that this is also a dream being had by someone else, and it begins to run through again.

But we’re not just talking about some sort of time loop story, or even a story about dreams. Each scenarios we see is completely different (although all built around putting together the same low budget movie, which is also called Living in Oblivion), and dream-device allows us to explore different aspects of what the characters are doing (and in different stages of relationship) without having to bother with actually showing us progress in their work.

And so as we get to the third part of the movie, where the surreal dreams give way to the crew filming a surreal dream sequence, we assume that everyone is awake now, but of course we can’t be sure. I kept waiting for the rug to be pulled out from under our feet one more time, but I was glad that it didn’t happen: the stuff happening in that section with a disgruntled dwarf actor and an unexpected visit by Nick’s mother was even more delightfully weird and funny because it was supposed to be “really happening.”

There is a good cast in the middle of all this oddness. Steve Buscemi is the one everyone else revolves around, as a well-meaning director struggling not to lose his mind with all the challenges of film making. Dermot Mulroney is particularly funny as Wolf, the pretentious but emotionally broken cinematographer, and James Le Gros is memorable as the conceited big-name actor who can’t see how much of a jerk he is. And not surprisingly, Peter Dinklage is a scene stealer in his first movie, as Tito, a dwarf actor who is frustrated at the way dwarfs are cast in films.

Living in Oblivion has got a lot of cursing going on (although not as much as Glengarry Glen Ross) and a small amount of nudity, which if you know me, are both things I consider to be pretty unnecessary. For a while it threatened to put me off the movie, especially because I didn’t feel confident in the script or direction to actually make its unusual journey worthwhile. But by about a third of the way through the film it had won me over, for it’s characters and comedy, but also for its highly detailed look at life on a film set.

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? Living in Oblivion doesn’t exactly “go anywhere” from a narrative point of view, but it is still tremendously satisfying.

See here for the Master List.

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