Living in Oblivion

Tucson Weekly

DIRECTED BY: Tom DiCillo

REVIEWED: 10-12-95

AT THE CENTER of the immensely entertaining Singin' in the Rain is a sequence that ranks among the funniest in film history. While silent-screen movie star Jean Hagen attempts to perform in her first "talkie," everything that can go wrong does: the microphone rustles, the sound drops out, and a romantic scene's effectiveness is ruined by the once-mute actress' shrill squeaky voice. Singin' in the Rain has many other pleasures, but this scene has the educational benefit of accurately depicting the real on-set frustrations of filmmakers trying to create sound pictures in the late '20s. For movie buffs it's a must-see.

In Living in Oblivion, director-writer Tom DeCillo takes the rhythm and structure of the afore-mentioned scene and successfully expands it into a full-length movie. His subject matter may be different--he depicts the frustrations of modern-day independent filmmakers--but the source of humor is largely the same. Moviemaking is revealed as a small war between the cinematic dreamers and the multitude of egos, accidents and other irritations that get in the way of capturing their dreams on celluloid. Though Living in Oblivion has a small scope, as far as movie fanatics are concerned, it too is a must-see.

The film is neatly divided into three parts, each one of them detailing the struggle of a first-time director (Steve Buscemi, as fun to watch as ever) to ward off Murphy's Law during the creation of a scene. He's fighting a losing battle: While trying to capture the raw emotion of a revelational mother-daughter conversation, one of the grips drops the boom mike into the frame, a cameraman's assistant loses control of the focus, the uninspired actors forget their lines and the cinematographer becomes ill from some bad milk left sitting around. I won't give away this segment's punchline, but let's just say that even when things finally go right, they still go wrong.

Tom DeCillo got his start as a cinematographer (he worked on Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise). From there he made a terrific independent feature of his own, Johnny Suede--which stars Brad Pitt in one of his most enjoyable performances. Knowing this makes Living in Oblivion's second segment, in which the low-budget crew must contend with the production's sole star--a very Brad Pittish heartthrob played by James LeGros--doubly amusing. LeGros' character is an overconfident dolt who lazily seduces most of the female crew and intimidates the director into letting him steal a love scene with his co-star, played by the appealing Catherine Keener (an alumna of Johnny Suede who starred opposite Pitt). Buscemi, trying to be diplomatic about the soiled off-screen relationship between the actors, aims for appeasement but only alienates them further. This second segment, like the first, ends in hilarious chaos.

What's most satisfying about Living in Oblivion, aside from the spirited ensemble-acting and playful mix of black-and-white and color film, is the accuracy of the picture's mini-reality.

Though I've only hung around a few movie sets in my day, the characters in Living in Oblivion comically represent many of the types of people you might find investing their energy in a low-budget picture. There's the too-cool cinematographer (Dermot Mulroney) who sports a beret and eye patch; the ruthless assistant director (Danielle von Zernick) who affects a phony sweetness with the director while maintaining a demeaning tone with the less-powerful crew members; and a lighting man who dreams of making his own movie, even carrying the script around in his back pocket. DeCillo also nicely touches upon how the uneasy sexual relations of the crew add to the overall tension on the set. All of this he does while maintaining a gently quirky comedic style.

In the third segment, efforts to create a dream sequence with a dwarf go awry wen the dwarf resents being typecast. "Have you ever had a dream with a dwarf in it?" he asks, making a good case against the formulaic weirdness of filmmakers like David Lynch. By the time this third and silliest segment ends, director Buscemi has become negative about his abilities as a filmmaker, Keener has almost decided to give up acting, and yet somehow everybody pulls together and makes things (sort of) work. In a brilliant coda, we take a peek into each character's final thoughts while everyone waits silently so the sound man can record room ambience. This scene, with its series of brief fantasies, may be the longest 90 seconds ever filmed. And that's somehow fitting, since Living in Oblivion is so fun to watch that it's one of the shortest 90-minute movies I've seen in a long time.

--Zachary Woodruff

Other Films by Tom DiCillo
Box of Moonlight
The Real Blonde

Film Vault Suggested Links
Spike & Mike's '97 Festival of Animation
Not a Love Song
Gray's Anatomy

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