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Atom Egoyan’s The Adjuster

Tom McSorley

(University of Toronto Press; US: Sep 2009)

The Adjuster, by Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan, split critical opinion when it premiered at Cannes in May 1991: some critics praised the film’s visual style, intelligence and insight into contemporary society while others found it pretentious, confusing, and tedious. It won several international honors but was not a huge commercial success although in the context of the times it achieved broad release for a Canadian feature film.


In a new book, Atom Egoyan’s The Adjuster by Tom McSorley, executive director of the Canadian Film Institute, the author attempts not only to crack the code of Egoyan’s film but also to place it in the context of Egoyan’s other works and of Canadian cinema as a whole. He manages all three in admirable fashion, writing in a straightforward style with a minimum of jargon resulting in an analysis accessible to any interested adult.


A quick summary of the characters and their actions in The Adjuster may seem to support the charge of intellectual preciousness. Noah Render, an insurance claims adjuster, is extremely solicitous to his clients, most of whom see him as a hero, but also has sex with many of them. His wife Hera works as a censor of pornographic films which she surreptitiously records for her sister Seta. Mimi and Bubba are a wealthy couple who spend their time acting out sexual fantasies, often in public places.


Noah and Mimi live in a large and isolated show house with Seta (who spends her days burning photographs of her former neighborhood in Beirut) and their son Simon. Noah and Hera agree to let Mimi and Bubba shoot a film there but instead Bubba torches the house while Mimi is upstairs taking a shower. In the last scene Noah is seen apparently meeting Hera (accompanied by Seta and a baby, perhaps Simon) for the first time in front of a different burning house.


Not your usual dramatic narrative, but McSorley makes a good case for the film’s strangeness being purposeful rather than an indulgence in strangeness for its own sake. He argues that Egoyan wants to place the audience in a condition of uncertainty and force them to piece together scattered bits of information in order to make sense of the fictional universe on screen. Egoyan deliberately withholds some of the information necessary to make sense of the film’s characters and their relationships until the last ten minutes or so, and even at the film’s conclusions some matters remain ambiguous.


This is the opposite approach to the classic “invisible” style perfected by Hollywood in the first half of the 20th century in which all aspects of a film are carefully orchestrated so the viewer can absorb the story without noticing the cinematic technique used to deliver it. Many popular films still aspire to this ethos of invisibility so it’s not surprising that some members of the general public would find Egoyan’s film confusing, although it’s more disappointing that many critics totally missed the point, as well.


McSorley argues that the peculiar remoteness and disconnection of the characters which has exasperated critics of The Adjuster make perfect sense within the film’s universe which is exaggerated to make a point about contemporary Canada. He interprets the film as a criticism of a materialist society dominated by technology which stunts the emotional lives of its members who respond by relating only through objects and media and who are always performing rather than living their lives.


This volume devotes almost as many pages to Canadian film history and Egoyan’s previous films as to analysis of The Adjuster, a wise choice because neither Egoyan’s early films nor the general history of Canadian film are well-known to most readers—certainly not to most Americans. Until the 1960s the National Film Board of Canada emphasized documentary production while leaving the creation of feature films for the most part to Hollywood, and several different government funding schemes to support Canadian feature films between the mid-‘60s and early ‘80s produced few films of note.


Most young filmmakers of Egoyan’s generation bypassed the official route and instead got their start at local cooperatives which gave members access to cameras, lights and the other equipment required for filmmaking. The directors working out of these cooperatives had to make do with small crews and tiny budgets but maintained artistic control over their work so Canadian feature filmmaking was little influenced by the assembly-line production methods developed in Hollywood.


Egoyan’s early shorts show the influence of both the Theatre of the Absurd (he wrote, directed and acted in plays while in college) and of directors such as Jean Luc Godard, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Michelangelo Antonioni. His first three feature films demonstrate concerns developed more richly in i>The Adjuster including the idiosyncrasies of family dynamics and the influence of technology on memory and identity. They also feature ambivalent and remote male protagonists similar to Noah Render, a type of character included in many Canadian feature films. Given this background the themes and techniques of The Adjuster seem less arbitrary and more comprehensible.


You may not agree with McSorley’s interpretation of The Adjuster but it’s cogently stated and backed up with many references to specific scenes in the film. Atom Egoyan’s The Adjuster is a masterful example of film criticism accessible to the general reader and as such provides an excellent model for film studies classes as well as a useful explication of a film which has puzzled many viewers.

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