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Next of Kin, 1984

Tierney/KhanjianA pensive and aimless young man named Peter Foster (Patrick Tierney) lies on his bed listening to his parents' all too frequent arguments and, attempting to drown out their incessant bickering, turns up the stereo, shuts his eyes, and retreats into his own private and impenetrable world. Concerned over her son's seemingly frequent disconnection from reality through these episodes of inscrutable playacting, Mrs. Foster (Margaret Loveys) enlists the assistance of a family counselor (Phil Rash) who videotapes his encounter sessions as a means of encouraging the family to review their interaction and gain insight from their objective observation. Peter dutifully returns to the counseling center - not surprisingly, alone - to view the videotapes before the next appointment, but soon finds his attention diverted to the case file of an immigrant Armenian family named Deryan whose son Bedros was given up for adoption years earlier, shortly after arriving into the country, and whose palpable absence still hovers over the emotionally wounded family - perhaps manifesting in the intractably traditional father, George's (Berge Fazlian) estrangement from his westernized, progressive thinking, artistic daughter Azah (Arsinée Khanjian), the Deryan's sole remaining child. Captivated by the plight of the Deryan family, Peter, with the counselor's approval, proposes to leave home - ostensibly to go on a soul-searching trip where he is to periodically chronicle his thoughts on a running audio journal - but instead, initiates contact with George and Sonya Deryan (Sirvart Fazlian) claiming to be the receptive couple's long lost son.

Marking Atom Egoyan's first feature film, Nextof Kin a visually assured, lucid, and thoughtful exposition on alienation, displacement, and the amorphous nature of home and family. Incorporating innovative narrative devices of circular structure and video imaging, Egoyan explores the dichotomous role of technology as both a convenient tool for communication and an impersonal barrier to true human connection (a modern-day existential angst that is similarly portrayed in Mike Nichols' The Graduate, to which Egoyan pays homage in the film's early sequence): Peter's voice-over that is visually reinforced by the recurring shots of an airport baggage carousel, reflecting his sense of aimlessness and disorientation; the Foster's videotaped counseling session that ironically serves, not to facilitate dialogue, but to further alienate the self-conscious Peter from his family; the tape recorder that becomes a literal surrogate to Peter's articulated thoughts. Furthermore, in illustrating the residual trauma caused the Deryan's 'lost' son Bedros, Egoyan introduces his recurring theme of the absent child - an unresolved emotional fracture that would propel the psychological (and emotional) trajectory of his seminal films, Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter. By exploring the dynamic - and often necessary - function of compassionate role-playing and deception in social and familial relationships, Egoyan creates a haunting and affectionate contemporary humanist fable on identity, impersonation, and connection.

© Acquarello 2004. All rights reserved.

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Speaking Parts, 1989

McManus/Khanjian Speaking Parts opens to a curious and baffling sequence of fragmented images, beginning with the medium shot of a lone, dark haired woman, later identified as Clara (Gabrielle Rose), as she makes her way through a cemetery that immediately cuts to an image of another lone, dark haired woman, Lisa (Arsinée Khanjian), a hotel laundry room operator as she fixedly stares at the television screen while watching an unremarkable videotape of a piano recital at an intimate concert hall. A progressive magnification of the video footage reveals the dissociated image of her myopic focus - the object of her unreciprocated gaze - as a near imperceptible actor working as a screen extra among the seated audience for the scene named Lance (Michael McManus), a hotel co-worker. The seemingly incongruent images then converge as an oblivious Lance washes his clothes in the basement laundry room of his apartment building as Lisa silently observes him from a nearby stairwell. Lisa's somber image of unarticulated longing then carries into a cutaway shot back to Claire who now solemnly sits on an unoccupied bench surrounded by the sterile and impersonal burial placards of the anonymous occupants in the mausoleum, as she views an archived videotape image of her unidentified beloved: a cheerful, attractive young man walking down a hill who then smiles broadly, but enigmatically as he pauses in his approach to rendezvous with the unseen operator behind the camera. A remote teleconference with a film producer subsequently establishes that Claire is the screenwriter of an autobiographical story who has been called into town in order to provide input towards resolving and finalizing the details of the script prior to the planned film production. At work, Lisa continues to try in vain to engage the disinterested and self-absorbed Lance in a conversation under the ruse that she has saved the last available set of towels for him so that he may complete his housekeeping duties - an obvious, desperate act that only serves to further repel him away from her. Meanwhile, Clara has checked in at the hotel where the unrequited couple are employed and Lance, having seen Clara's script during the routine housekeeping of her room, soon begins to seduce her in the hopes that she can exert an influence over the production company and cast him in his first speaking part in the film. Captivated by Lance's passing resemblance to her mourned beloved, Clara assents to Lance's transparent advances and in the process, unwittingly becomes entangled in the fragile, unraveling web of Lance's one-dimensional liaisons.

Exploring the fragile and dynamic bounds between reality and image, Speaking Parts is an indelibly haunting, visually hypnotic, and exquisitely tactile exposition on obsession, grief, connection, and perception. Using recurring episodes of videotaped and broadcasted images that emphasize the distance and estrangement between the viewer and the subject, Atom Egoyan thematically illustrates the inherent paradox in humanity's inverted cognitive registration of visual images: a process that becomes increasingly singular, dissociated, and amplified to the point of abstraction and unrecognizability as the observer moves (uncomfortably) closer towards the object of the gaze (a visual composition of film and processed video images that Thierry Knauff similarly experiments with in the hybrid, ethnographic documentary, Wild Blue: Notes for Several Voices). Egoyan further integrates processed and manipulated video images that create texturality and distancing, narrative layers that reflect the isolation of the characters in their obsessive search for (or to recapture) love: Lisa's familiar, evening routine of renting home videos in order to view the fleeting episode in which Lance can be seen as an extra (a paradoxical moment where his anonymous, unobtrusive presence is singled out in the eyes of the beholder and becomes the lead actor from her emotionally invested perspective); Clara's direct, matched gaze as she recalls her beloved's recorded smile before a camera during a working teleconference call that reveals their profound connection even after his death; Lisa's bizarre encounter with an apparent surveillance video from the hotel on the aftermath of a heartbroken guest's suicide. In the end, it is only through the destruction of myopic affectation and delusive perception - the systematic dissolution of the image - that Lisa and Lance's final encounter can be seen, not as tenuous moment of resigned consolation, but a true act of seeing... an illumination.

© Acquarello 2004. All rights reserved.

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Calendar, 1993

KhanjianA sputtering automobile slowly traverses an irregular dirt road on the side of a hill towards an ancient church on the summit (in a spare and elegant long shot that evokes the opening sequence to Andrei Tarkovsky's Nostalghia) amidst the elegiac sounds of a rhythmic, traditional chant. Inside the lumbering vehicle, a pragmatic and dedicated photographer (Atom Egoyan) has been commissioned by an Armenian cultural society to create a landscape calendar framing the region's many historical churches (and occasionally, their only surviving ruins). Estranged from his own ancestral roots, the (appropriately) nameless photographer enlists his attractive and genial wife (Arsinée Khanjian) to serve as a translator for their motivated - and perhaps, singularly over-attentive - guide (Ashot Adamyan), a proud native eager to impart his knowledge of the richness and troubled history of the land and the people to his foreign-born, ethnic brethren. However, as the film begins, evidence of the inevitable dissolution of the couple's failing relationship is revealed, represented by the recurring image of the published ethnographic church calendar marking time on the wall and an integrated telephone answering machine that occasionally records the receptionally distant, fragmented messages from his estranged wife as she tries to communicate with him. Attempting to live in the memories of a lost love that had been left behind, the photographer begins to construct his own reality, hiring a series of bilingual escorts in order to recreate an experienced flood of memories from their final days together among the idyllic, desolate churches of their alien, ancestral homeland.

Atom Egoyan creates a deeply personal, humorous, spare, and elemental meditation on cultural identity, rootlessness, disconnection, longing, and spiritual exile in Calendar. Recalling the incorporation of desolate, metaphoric landscape in Roberto Rossellini's Voyage in Italy, Egoyan juxtaposes the serene, panoramic grandeur of the ancient churches against the detailed, often close-up and interior shots of crumbling structures and ruins that manifest the internalized turmoil and devastation of a dissolving marriage. Egoyan further fuses past and present through episodes of invariable, reenacted obsessions, selectively replayed (and consequently, intrinsically manipulated) recorded home videos (a referential narrative device that recalls Samuel Beckett's hermetic, one-actor play, Krapp's Last Tape, that would subsequently be adapted for television by the filmmaker), and personal and professional patterns of estrangement and self-imposed isolation (note the photographer's designated "darkroom day" that coincides with the commemoration date of the Armenian genocide, April 24) in order to convey a visual sense of existential continuity and performance of normalizing ritual after a profound loss. In capturing the confluence of temporality, recollection, and enlightenment in the processing of personal memory and collective consciousness, Calendar illustrates mankind's innately noble propensity to struggle against the erasure of personally - and culturally - traumatic human history.

© Acquarello 2004. All rights reserved.

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The Sweet Hereafter, 1997

Polley/HolmAtom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter is a serenely powerful, deeply moving tale of loss and healing. At the heart of the tragedy is a school bus accident in a small Canadian town, resulting in the death of fourteen children. First, we meet Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm), a tort lawyer who comes into town in order to shore up clients for a class-action lawsuit on the accident. He seems dispassionate and mechanical about his work, except in his resolute belief that someone must ultimately pay. Harboring an inner guilt and pain over his inability to save his own drug-addicted daughter, he, too, bears the scars of a lost child. The bus driver, Dolores Driscoll (Gabrielle Rose), severely injured from the accident, then provides her deposition under the gaze of her invalid husband. Surrounded by photographs of the school children, it is evident that she sees them as the children she never had. A local mechanic, Billy Ansell (Bruce Greenwood), lost his children in the accident, but refuses to participate in the lawsuit, and is overtly hostile to the interloper. Having earlier lost his wife to cancer, he is already a survivor who understands the cruelty of fate, and the futility and divisiveness of Mitchell's actions. Nicole Burnell (Sarah Polley), permanently crippled from the accident, provides the final testimony. Robbed of her childhood, she sees the destructive toll of the lawsuit, and exacts revenge.

The aftermath of the tragedy is achronologically documented through four different narrative perspectives: Mitchell, Dolores, Billy, and Nicole. Egoyan uses non-linearity as a means of exploring the process of grief. The bus accident is almost incidental, an accepted fact that only serves as the catalyst in the film. Inevitably, The Sweet Hereafter is a story of individual survival: the painful, intensely personal struggle to find a reason to continue after a profound loss. We see a glimpse of it in Billy's morning ritual, following his wife's death, of waving to his children while driving behind the school bus. Mitchell continues to accept inopportune collect calls from his incoherent, manipulative daughter, if only to find solace in the knowledge that she is still alive. At the end of the film, it is the idea that life does go on, albeit through new and different rituals, that sustains these characters after their emotional evisceration. The Sweet Hereafter is a truly remarkable film, an elegantly realized, heartbreaking testament to the tenacity of the human spirit.

© Acquarello 1999. All rights reserved.

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