Living in Oblivion (1995)

If the mark of a great actress is the ability to turn in the worst performance on demand, Catherine Keener may be America’s most talented performer. In one of Living in Oblivion‘s most wrenchingly comic and cringe-worthy scenes, Keener’s Nicole, the self-conscious and self-effacing star of a seemingly doomed independent film (also titled Living in Oblivion), spends take after take of her big scene turning in a progressively worse performance.

By the final take, her readings are drained of all emotion except exhaustion and frustration. And Keener gets it to a tee — few actresses could achieve such pitch perfect blank-faced desperation. Her eyes roll almost involuntarily, her voice drops to a flat, dulled tone, and her body language becomes both stilted and droopy. Of course, Keener turns in the worst performance possible in the way that only a great actress, such as she is, can. She’s so good that it’s easy to forget you’re watching a fictional movie and not a documentary on the dismantling of a film.

Living in Oblivion is Tom DiCillo’s smart, often hilarious look at independent filmmaking. Besides a devoted cadre of film students and DiCillo junkies, very few saw this film in theaters, making its current DVD release a very welcome occasion. While the extras are nice (a very few funny deleted scenes and director’s and actor’s commentary by Tom DiCillo and Steve Buscemi), the best thing about the DVD release is that Living in Oblivion‘s many pleasures are now accessible to a wider audience.

Certainly, many of those pleasures (like exceptionally well drawn characters and well cast actors) appear targeted to filmmakers: the stressed and bug-eyed director Nick (the always impeccable Steve Buscemi), the leather outfitted and eye-patch-wearing cinematographer Wolf (Dermot Mulroney), the studly, winking, moronic leading man Chad Palomino (the sublime James Le Gros, playing a role reputedly based on Brad Pitt), and, of course, Nicole (Keener). But this is truly an ensemble movie in the best sense of the term — Living in Oblivion‘s fine cast works together like a dream.

So, too, does the film’s narrative structure — literally. Although “it was only a dream” sequences usually bog a film down in buckets of clich√©, Living in Oblivion‘s three-part structure tweaks the formula by providing insight into several characters’ nightmares. In so doing, the film exposes their private fears and hopes and reveals how, to cast and crew, the emergence of a good — or even coherent — film from the muck of production often does seem like a faraway dream.

So perhaps unsurprisingly, Living in Oblivion itself lacks some coherence; the dream vs. reality play never really lets up, and may leave one wondering exactly whose dream the film occupies at any moment. Still, DiCillo obviously has a strong command of his material. His purpose is not to offer a plot-driven movie, but a mood and character driven one. If that involves some sacrifice of narrative coherence, so be it. What matters, in the end, is the humor.

Living in Oblivion‘s pokes at David Lynch and boom mic operators may seem less than subtle, but DiCillo achieves such a good-natured and sweet brand of humor that even the most obvious set-ups feel fresh. A film-within-the-film dream sequence of the film being shot within this film, for example, is nothing short of hilarious. Nicole, clad in a wedding dress and veil, reaches for an apple held just out of reach by a tuxedoed dwarf (referencing Twin Peaks, which contained similar baffling and at times strained metaphors) as a temperamental smoke machine spits and sputters little coughs of fog.

The dream sequence is obviously overwrought and ill conceived, which makes Nick’s desperation to get it right (and the cast’s inability to do so) all the more amusing. While physical gags and strained metaphor are easy targets, DiCillo’s clever referencing and wonderful cast make them very funny, even if familiar.

In fact, Living in Oblivion‘s charm tends to depend directly on its adept tweaking of familiar material: the dream sequences, the plucked-straight-from-an-independent-film-set characters, the dwarfs, the fears and hopes of filmmakers. It’s possible that a knowledge of the filmmaking world is necessary for a total immersion in this particular film; it’s part of that small, details-of-filmmaking genre that includes such diverse pictures as Truffaut’s Day for Night and the recently released Lost in La Mancha. But Living in Oblivion also comes from the “let’s put on a show” tradition of movie musicals like the Golddiggers series from the ’30s (especially the wonderful Golddiggers of 1933) and The Bandwagon. While Living in Oblivion has a deeper irony and world-weariness than most musicals, its philosophy really boils down to “the show must go on,” and so escapes the limited confines and audience of the filmmaking film.

In all its depictions of the frustrations of making a movie, Living in Oblivion still celebrates the drive to make art — even bad art. That’s why it’s fresh and familiar at the same time. Unlike musicals of the ’30s and ’50s, Living in Oblivion understands that, sometimes, the finished product isn’t even worth the heartache of making it, here a delicious, if saddening, irony. But like those wide-eyed extravaganzas, Living in Oblivion also recognizes the sometimes unbelievable drive to work towards the goal of a good film (or show). In the end, Living in Oblivion is so charming because it showcases people who really care about making movies, including Tom DiCillo.