When it comes to Canadian filmmakers who develop threads around technology and identity, the obvious name that’s going to spring to mind is David Cronenberg. However, just as Cronenberg was unleashing his Nostradamus-like take on the merging of man, mind, and machine in Videodrome (1983), a fellow Canadian was preparing to explore similar ideas in ways just as cerebral and bizarre. (Albeit with his own particular brand of alienation.) Born in 1960, Atom Egoyan saw the home video revolution grow from its infancy. Interviewed in the documentary Rewind This! (2013), which traces the history of VHS, Egoyan spoke of the integral role video played in the changing perceptions of not only viewing but the making of images “I think in the grand scheme of things that, there was the invention of film and that became domestic at one point. But that distinction between what was 8MM film and what was home video I think was just this weird, maybe 20 year blip in our evolution.”(1) and “You could just leave the camera running and you were also aware that it was easy to record sound. So that was really revolutionary and for someone who was raised on “home movies” on film, the idea of video was almost magical, this was too good to be true.”(2). A fitting moniker, “home movies”, with the “home” in “home video” eventually playing a crucial part in Egoyan’s films where video becomes a reoccurring presence in the narratives centered on families, often broken in one way or another with video acting as a therapeutic referee of sorts. While most international crowds rightly celebrated the poignant, fractured storytelling of Exotica (1994) and The Sweet Hereafter (1997), Egoyan had been traversing similar terrain from the beginning, Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter being the logical extensions of previous masterpieces like Speaking Parts (1989) and The Adjuster (1991).
Not unlike Cronenberg’s debut feature Shivers (1975), where the ideas that would mature in Cronenberg’s subsequent films, Egoyan’s curious 1984 debut feature Next of Kin already finds several of the threads that would tie Egoyan’s future body of work together well past their developmental stages. Affluent but aimless, 23-year-old Peter Foster spends his days lounging around on his bed listening to his parents argue about his lack of direction. The family attends regular therapy sessions at a clinic which are videotaped. After viewing one of his own family’s sessions, Peter watches another, that of the Deryan’s, an Armenian family who was forced to give up their son Bedros for adoption upon their immigration to Canada. In an inspired attempt to break free from his debilitating mundanity, Peter writes the Deryan’s pretending to be Bedros. The ruse works and the Deryan’s believe Peter to be Bedros and immediately accept him as part of the family. Peter/Bedros immediately takes it upon himself to mend the strained relationship between George, the Deryan family patriarch, and his daughter Azah (Arsinée Khanjian), who Peter first spied upon while viewing the Deryan’s taped session. Often categorized as a comedy, there certainly is a humorous air to Next of Kin simply based on the sheer absurdity of the premise, but the tone of the film is not one of an uproarious laugh fest. While it wouldn’t be fair to call the film completely dour, there is a fair bit of heaviness relating to all the feelings of alienation and the family struggles, though nothing on the level of Exotica or The Sweet Hereafter as the previously mentioned outlandish premise of Peter’s pretending to be Bedros does keep things fairly light throughout.
Egoyan, who was born in Egypt to Armenian-Egyptian parents, has credited wife and main collaborator Arsinée Khanjian, herself Lebanese-Armenian, with becoming more aware of his Armenian roots after admitting to having been more-or-less indifferent to his ancestry following his family’s immigration to Canada. The Armenian identity at the heart of Next of Kin is also a common fixture in Egoyan’s films, though with Eyogan there is always a slight ambiguity. Egoyan remarked to The Arts Desk in 2013 about his early work “These early films never even mention the word ‘Armenian‘, I don’t think – in Next of Kin, or Family Viewing, or Speaking Parts when they’re speaking Armenian. Maybe Calendar was the first time that you were aware of a specific place. (4) Egoyan and Khanjian would further explore their connections to their roots in later films like Calendar (1993) and more explicitly in Ararat (2002), the first major film to address the Armenian Genocide, the recognition of which Egoyan and Khanjian have both been very vocal about throughout the years. One of the more slyly funny things regarding Next of Kin is the subject of Peter baring no genetic resemblance to any of the Deryan’s never being brought up, he is immediately excepted into the family by George, though much like Azah’s initial skepticism of his true identity, Peter’s actual genetics seem to become a moot point. If made today, no doubt the film’s white centerpiece assuming the identity of an Armenian would result in apoplectic cries of “cultural appropriation”, though Peter could never be accused of maliciously grifting the Deryan’s Armenian “identity” as he begins to feel an actual sense of “home” among the Deryan’s, listening to George’s stories of coming to Canada with nothing and owning a shop. Ultimately it’s Peter’s dedication to his performance as Bedros that gives the film a peculiar feeling of happiness despite all the pretending.
Particularity interesting is the way in which Egoyan explores the budding relationship between Peter and Azah as again it’s never made explicitly clear as to whether or not Azah truly believes Peter is who he claims to be, though Egoyan makes it seem that at a certain point such things have ceased to matter. Peter’s insistence on repairing George and Azah’s relationship is perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the film given that Peter is essentially running from strained relations in his own home to another fractured unit. Knowing George and Azah’s issues from watching their sessions, Peter’s making the Deryan family whole again his mission from the start, making him the first of many Egoyan central characters who set out to put things into their own order or right perceived “wrongs” which would go on to become possibly Egoyan’s defining theme. As Adam Nayman wrote of Egoyan for Criterion “He’s interested in characters who cleave their burdens to their chests or else stash them up to their sleeves. Whether passive, obsessive, pathetically repressed, or just plain strange, these are people whose souls are weighed down.”(3) Next of Kin was a peculiar film, especially for a debut. Nayman’s descriptor of “just plain strange” is perfect for Egoyan’s follow-up to Next of Kin, 1987’s Family Viewing with Egoyan taking the idea of placing a burden upon his main character, or rather the main character finding themselves by placing a burden upon themselves to set things right as they see it within the home, as well as fractured families and video further and into more perverse but at times blackly comedic territory.
Nearing the end of his school days like Peter in Next of Kin, Van, the protagonist of Family Viewing is dissatisfied at home, spending most of his free time vising his grandmother Armen in a nearly run-down nursing home and living with his father Stan (David Hamblen in the fist of several roles for Egoyan) and Stan’s girlfriend Sandra (Gabrielle Rose also making her Egoyan debut). Concerned with Armen’s well being and happiness, Van hatches an elaborate scheme with Aline (Khanjian), a phone sex worker he meets at the nursing home visiting her mother in the bed next to Armen’s, to move Armen someplace more comfortable, Van becoming more determined upon discovering that Stan has been recording over old home movies of him as a child with Armen and his estranged mother to tape himself and Sandra having sex. In truth summarizing Family Viewing is a rather arduous task as the risk of convolution is high, though the film itself is anything but. Family Viewing, despite its still noticeably young look and feel, is even more of an indicator of what was to come with films like Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter. The film has all the makings of Egoyan’s future puzzle films with multiple plot elements all unfolding involving Aline’s mother factoring in Van’s plans, Aline and Van developing a relationship, and Aline’s profession tying in with Stan and Sandra’s sexual practices, it’s just still being told chronologically. Family Viewing is also the first instance of Egoyan dropping a real sense of mystery into the story. The whereabouts of the actual Bedros in Next of Kin are nearly irrelevant from the outset, in Family Viewing however the “presence”, so to speak, of the missing mother, while never mentioned by name and save for one scene is only seen on television screens via videotape throughout the film, is certainly felt from early on.
Video of course plays a much larger narrative role in Family Viewing than in Next of Kin with Stan’s obsession with recording everything, video acting as the classic window to and preservation of the past with Van switching out the old home videos to avoid Stan recording over them to show Armen, eventually solving the puzzle as to why the mother left. Egoyan is also experimenting with the video format, switching back and forth between 16mm film and video, Egoyan almost demonstrating himself the domestic evolution of film as a video that he would speak on years later in the Rewind This! documentary. Also felt just as strong if not even more so than the pretense of the missing mother early on is the aforementioned just plain strangeness, with the awkward and at times uncomfortable yet hilarious because of it domestic moments between Van, Stan, and Sandra, almost playing out like warped sitcom or stage play. The quasi-incestuous, one-sided (on Sandra’s part) co-dependent relation between Sandra and Van is one of the films most fruitful sources of tense hilarity, presented entirely context-free, by Egoyan as well as the gradual absurdness of Van and Aline’s plans with Armen to stay one step ahead of Stan makes moments of the film even more outlandish than then premise of Next of Kin. At the same time, however, the unhappiness and feelings of alienation and disassociation with home from Next of Kin are certainty heightened in Family Viewing. The social isolation and alienation would of course only grow stronger and the search for identity grows more elusive as Egoyan’s films characters leave the main household with the technology around video only advancing around them, Egoyan running starting to run parallel with his more visceral Canadian counterpart with Speaking Parts.
As off-center as the plots, tones and characters of Next of Kin and Family Viewing were, both films were still somewhat grounded in a conscious narrative reality. Speaking Parts is where Egoyan’s themes of alienation and video enter the unconscious and the tone of the film is really turned sideways from the start. In many respects Speaking Parts was the film Egoyan was working towards with Next of Kin and Family Viewing with an even more involved and interwoven plot, really his first that could be considered “labyrinthian”. Working in the housekeeping department of a hotel while occasionally being pimped by his boss to her friends stating at the hotel, struggling actor Lance slips his resume and headshot under the door of Clara (Rose), a screenwriter after eyeing her script for a TV movie in her room. Struck by the resemblance Lance bears to her late brother who passed after donating a lung to Clara, the scenario on which Clara’s script is based, Clara meets with Lance. The two begin an affair with Clara recommending Lance for the lead, which he ultimately gets, his first speaking part. The more the film develops however the more the changes the director (Hamblin) makes to Clara’s highly personal script, Clara pressuring Lance to convince the director to retain the integrity of her original screenplay. Lance is also constantly avoiding the unrequited affections by Lisa (Khanjian), his co-worker at the hotel who ritualistically rents videotapes of the film’s Lance has appeared in only to watch his scenes.
Obvious as the comparison is, it’s almost impossible not to think of Videodrome throughout Speaking Parts and that’s not just because a VHS copy of Cronenberg’s film, alongside other strategically placed copies of The Brood (1979) and The Fly (1986) are on display during some great video store-set scenes. Of course, Egoyan’s film is devoid of exploding cancerous tumors or tape-eating cheat orifices, but there is a sense that several of the predictions of Videodrome are playing out throughout Speaking Parts. Egoyan expands on the idea put forth in Videodrome by Professor Brian Oblivion of the video hallucination and television or video personality being preferable to actual identity and reality itself with the essence of the main characters formed around the illusions of filmmaking and video. Lance’s profession as an actor and the very nature of his job being adopting other personalities and identities to be viewed by others. Yet the character of Lance himself is essentially a blank slate even in non-professional guises, struggling to maintain an identity of his own while “playing” Clara’s deceased brother in more ways than one. Although out of the family home, video and family are once again intrinsically linked with Clara’s obsessive, longing viewing of the same video footage of her brother, the strange incestuous overtones of Family Viewing also carried over with the various implications of Clara’s affair with Lance after noticing his resemblance to her brother. Video also serves a new function, one of communication with the majority of Hemblin’s director’s scenes character happening via video conference, as well as most of Lance and Clara’s scenes together, including a sexual encounter, take place over a video call.
Lance and Clara’s long-distance video relationship is just one of Egoyan’s many remarkable foresight with Speaking Parts. Like Videodrome, Speaking Parts becomes more relevant and affecting as time and technology move forward and people grow more connected through technology yet at the same time more isolated because of it. It’s been remarked upon many times since the release of Videodrome how Cronenberg predicted the oncoming relationship society was to have with screens and the same could be said of Egoyan. Like the Betamax tapes of Videodrome, the technology on display in Speaking Parts may have been of the film’s time but re-imagining the film replacing tapes with cellphone video and video conferences with Zoom meetings or FaceTime proves how shockingly modern Egoyan still is. The emotionally manipulative power but also the bizarre feeling of intimacy of the screen, especially as a communicative vehicle, an especially relevant idea in the time of social media “connections”, is also touched on numerous times throughout the film with Khanjian’s Lisa and video store employee and part-time videographer Eddie. Despite technically being an ensemble trio piece, it’s Khanjian’s outstanding work that is really the anchor of Speaking Parts. Declaring Lance her “lover” after religiously re-watching his scenes, Lisa’s reality has in essence become the preferable Spectacular Optical sponsored hallucination long before the film even begins. Come to the film’s surreal final third and Egoyan adds yet another layer of metafiction with a talk show set within the film-within-a-film, accelerating the transitions from film to video. The various masks all finally slip under the weight of the pretending and the fractured, hallucinatory video mindset of Khanjian’s Lisa becomes the dominant mindset. Even with all the Cronenberg comparisons Speaking Parts is still uniquely Egoyan who was preparing to return to the homestead only to further warp identity and reality by make-believe.
Looking at Egoyan’s films as if they were various life stages, an early work like Family Viewing could represent the awkward late teenage years while Speaking Parts being early out of the house phase. The Adjuster is where Egoyan once again returns home, but with the contexts of adulthood, new families, and homeownership. Or rather a makeshift family “playing house” as it’s explicitly stated in the film, the principal players being insurance adjuster Noah Render (Elias Koteas) and his film censor wife Hera (Khanjian) living together with her son and sister Seta. As always telling a parallel story, Noah’s life becomes entwined with rich and strange husband and wife Bubba (Maury Chaykin in his first of several roles for Egoyan) and Mimi (Rose) who approach Noah and Hera for the use of their house as a “film set”. Where Egoyan was gradual with his distorting of realism in Speaking Parts, The Adjuster begins and seems to take place entirely within a mirror world totally contorted by artifice where everything, especially the behavior of its inhabitants, is slightly off. Egoyan takes the concept of “playing house” to a surreal and literal visual extreme by having Noah’s family reside inside a show home, complete with false bookshelves on an undeveloped real estate lot surrounded by two similar but physically desolate houses, dirt for a front lawn and the advertising billboard still on the property. Egoyan is also quite literal at times with the dialogue, a good chunk of Bubba’s being lengthy existential monologues on the pressures and expectations of adult society by the keeping of appearances and the alienation that comes with it. All the verbal exposition of how to properly “perform” never dulling but rather enhancing the film’s enigmatic hyperperformative (un)reality.
Much like his merging of the video image with conscious reality in Speaking Parts drawing comparisons to Cronenberg, Egoyan’s upending of suburban normalcy in The Adjuster is often compared to the work of David Lynch and for once that comparison is actually apt. Egoyan’s perverting of the most mundane of situations into nightmare scenarios, like turning a simple conversation into something vaguely threatening does indeed echo Lynch. Dark as the film is, The Adjuster is also unbelievably funny in spots, the humor slightly Lynchian with the tense discomfort so brilliantly mounted nervous, maniacal laughter seeming like the only appropriate response. Like Speaking Parts however and the Cronenberg parallels, for all the Lynchian touches The Adjuster is thoroughly an Egoyan work. Koteas’ Noah could very much be viewed as the adult version of Peter from Next of Kin or Van from Family Viewing, with the same ordered regimen and obsessive need to “fix” or as his last name implies, Render. The insurance adjuster job the ideal opening to become involved in the personal lives of others, “comforting” certain clients so much as to having affairs with them, both women and men. The “real” Noah however is not unlike the “real” Lance in Speaking Parts, a complete void having lost himself if there ever was a “himself” to begin with while attempting to fill the voids of others. In Speaking Parts, Egoyan used the classic idea of watching film or video as a means of psychological escape ultimately overtaking the actual psyche of certain characters. Like the literal playing house idea, Egoyan has the act of making the film the literal escape, Bubba and Mimi’s “film” is the latest in their line of elaborately staged and very public, often sexual, scenarios brainstormed by Mimi to clearly alleviate their terminal boredom. It’s Bubba who best sums up the film, telling Noah “Now you’ve come in just at the moment that the character in the film, the person who was supposed to live here, decides that he’s gonna stop playing house.”
Egoyan also does a fascinating gender reversal in The Adjuster as it relates to both film and video. In an earlier film like Family Viewing, it was a man, Stan, recording over old home movies with his own sex videos. In The Adjuster, however, it’s Khanjian’s film censor Hera who, in her own strange obsessive daily habit, secretly records the most graphically violent and sexual content of the films she views for her sister Seta to watch at home. Seta, the sister is played by Rose Sarkisyan who portrayed the absent mother seen through silent video footage in Family Viewing. Save for one scream let out upon being watched herself through the window by a derelict, Sarkisyan remains silent throughout The Adjuster as well, also burning photos from “home” after receiving them. As Egoyan alluded to in the previously mentioned Arts Desk piece, exactly where this “home” the pictures are coming from is never specified in The Adjuster, though that was about to change. Because of its budget, Koteas’ and Chaykin’s addition to Egoyan’s repertoire, and the recognition the film received on the festival circuit, The Adjuster is generally seen as the beginning of a new phase in Egoyan’s career, the phase that would lead to the breakout of Exotica. Both Egoyan and Khanjian set out to go “back to their roots” in a variety of ways following The Adjuster with Calendar, one of Egoyan’s most intensely personal films, being the missing piece between The Adjuster and Exotica. Calendar sees Egoyan turning the camera on himself as a nameless photographer traveling in Armenia who comes to the realization that his wife and translator for their tour guide, Khanjian, is falling in love with the guide.
If viewed simply as a surface drama then Calendar works on that level for its fascinating and experimental visual and narrative style. Very much the culmination of Egoyan’s work at the time, Calendar was also Egoyan’s most clever in terms of its narrative design. Once again switching between film and video as he did in Family Viewing, Calendar is also where Egoyan really begins to manipulate his timelines, structuring the film like an actual calendar and told vignette style. Unfolding the slow dissolve of the photographer’s marriage through flashback, Egoyan cuts back forth between the Armenia footage and present-day Canada, where Egoyan’s photographer repeats the same dinner date ritual with various escorts, narrating his thoughts addressed to his absent wife throughout the film. Although a much more visually refined film than Family Viewing, Egoyan uses video in a similar fashion in Calendar with Khanjian, like the mother in Family Viewing, seen only in the past tense in the Armenian scenes and on videotaped footage. Khanjian even makes the slow descent towards the camera with almost the exact same mannerisms as Clara’s deceased brother in video footage seen throughout Speaking Parts. This is contrasted with Egoyan’s photographer, who’s only on camera in the scenes at home in Canada and during his repeated dinner dates. Tonally Calendar may be worlds removed from a film like The Adjuster through the performative aspect from the former film is carried over with the photographers’ dates. While certainly recalling other Egoyan characters’ compulsive behaviors like Lisa’s devout viewing of Lance’s scenes and there’s secretly recording at work, the repeated ritual also explicitly foreshadows Bruce Greenwood’s future repeated trips to Club Exotica.
Like The Adjuster, Calendar is a film whose layers begin to reveal themselves fairly quickly, so much so that walking away from the film with a mere surface-level reading is basically impossible. The film again is one of Egoyan’s most personal and could be seen as his public recognition of his Armenian identity. Egoyan described Calendar as “a film about the making of images and how these images construct both a personal and a national identity”(5). In some ways his photographer character represents the younger version of himself indifferent to this portion of his identity he set aside during his early years in Canada, concerned more about the batteries in his camera than the incredible scenery that surrounds him in Armenia. The photographer even gives a fairly defiant “no” when asked by his wife if he would even visit Armenia if it wasn’t for the photography job. “You’re aware of what it is you’ve left behind”(6) Egoyan told The Arts Desk. As much as the dinner date scenes do give the film some moments of awkward levity, it’s ultimately this great sense of loss and leaving things behind that defines Calendar. Not simply the personal loss but as Egoyan alluded to but a national and cultural loss. More specifically a diasporic loss, the loss felt by the Armenian diaspora in the aftermath of the Armenian genocide which left an untold number of Armenian’s displaced. The sense of separation is felt from the beginning with Egoyan and Khanjian again never actually appearing on screen together though Egoyan uses several techniques to further the feeling of dislocation. Particularly effective are the static-filled voicemails left by Khanjian, calling from Armenia in the present, the distance further emphasized by Khanjian’s voice being heard over top both past and present-set scenes.
The diasporic connotations of Calendar also present certain elements of Egoyan’s previous films in a different light. The stand-out being the broken family units of Next of Kin and Family Viewing, and the sister Seta in The Adjuster, having been relocated from one home to a second. Like the relationship angle of Calendar, the splintered families of Egoyan’s earlier films serve their dramatic purpose, but in light of Calendar, the films hold even more resonance. It was of course after Calendar where Egoyan truly began the next phase of his career with Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter, both non-linear explorations of familial loss and grief through the video component, while present isn’t a driving force in the narratives. Egoyan would continue to utilize video in a variety of interesting ways that at times recalled his earlier works in later studio films often considered less personal like Felicia’s Journey (1999) and Where the Truth Lies (2005) though the intersection between identity and technically returned in a big way in Adoration (2008). A direct descendant of Speaking Parts with the narrative techniques of Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter, Adoration saw Egoyan take the quest for one’s past and self down the rabbit hole into the internet age. Like with Speaking Parts, Adoration was both perfectly timed while also looking straight into the future with its concept of identities and even communities being formed entirely through technology and the potential real-life consequences. Egoyan’s remark about identities being constructed by images, although specifically referencing Calendar, does in a sense best summarize just how pertinent his early crop of films was and still is. With so many identities, both personal and cultural, constructed through images and screens ensuring that everyone has a speaking part but so many are drowned out, Egoyan’s films are always close to home.
1-2. Rewind This! (2013)
3. Nayman, Adam. “Carry That Weight: The Films of Atom Eyogan”. https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/7028-carry-that-weight-the-films-of-atom-egoyan. July 27, 2020
4, 6. Hasted, Nick. 10 Questions for Atom Egoyan. https://theartsdesk.com/film/10-questions-atom-egoyan. July 29, 2013
5. Eyogan, Atom. Atom Egoyan Introduces His Film “Calendar”. Mubi. April 19, 2016. https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/atom-egoyan-introduces-his-film-calendar