There aren’t as many films about aspiring filmmakers as there are novels about fledgling novelists, but the low-budget American cinema may be catching up. Robert Altman (briefly) re-energized his career with The Player, and since then we’ve also seen such minor-league efforts as My Life’s in Turnaround, Mistress, and And God Spoke, as well as the Belgian Man Bites Dog. Though not as audacious as some of these predecessors, Tom DiCillo’s Living in Oblivion has a crucial advantage over them: It’s funnier.
DiCillo made Oblivion after—and in reaction to—his first film, the arch and commercially underwhelming Johnny Suede. Where Suede was a feature that should have been a short, Oblivion is a short that grew into a feature. Originally conceived as a 30-minute showcase for Suede leading lady Catherine Keener, the film tripled in length after director, cast, and crew decided they were having so much fun they didn’t want to stop. The expansion of the project was financed entirely by people who worked on it; the film’s various producers can all be seen on screen in small roles.
Any of the three discrete segments could play as shorts, although the first two are sharper than the third. Shifting from black-and-white to color and back again, DiCillo chronicles the attempt of director Nick Reve (Steve Buscemi) to make an underfinanced (and apparently downright stupid) film called, of course, Living in Oblivion. He encounters just about every possible complication, from inept crew members to malfunctioning equipment to collaborators who are less interested in the task at hand than they are in a.) furthering their own cinematic projects or b.) sleeping with the only bankable star, Chad Palomino (James LeGros).
A self-aggrandizing stud with a hilarious command of hollow hipspeak, Palomino may owe just a bit to Suede star Brad Pitt. (When the film showed at the Hirshhorn earlier this year, DiCillo didn’t deny the inspiration, although he also said he offered the role to Pitt.) Palomino appears only in the triptych’s center panel, which is devoted to his interest in hogging every shot and his sexual designs on co-star Nicole (Keener) and assistant director Wanda (Danielle Von Zerneck), the latter much to the disgust of the A.D.’s boyfriend, arrogant but unreliable cinematographer Wolf (Dermot Mulroney, Keener’s real-life husband).
Though less swaggering, the first part is nearly as amusing. Nick is clearly smitten with Nicole, but gradually comes to realize that the anxious actress can only deliver her lines convincingly when the camera isn’t running. As in the other chapters, Buscemi’s astonishment and exasperation are as entertaining as the cast and crew’s shortcomings. His bug-eyed reactions make it clear that he can’t believe that what he sees is actually happening—and sometimes it isn’t. (The director’s last name is French for “dream,” and dreams play a role in all three segments.)
Despite the existential title, Oblivion is not remotely philosophical. It relies on such classic comic elements as mishaps, misunderstandings, and people who clearly aren’t as bright as they think they are, and has nothing profound to note about the relationship between cinema and reality. It’s distinguished instead by sharp gags, deft performances, and the good humor and high spirits of its ensemble cast. If the making of all bad movies were truly this ingratiating, Waterworld would have been a treat.
In 1991, a group of older women protested an L.A. department store’s decision to close the tearoom where they played “pan,” a form of gin rummy. I didn’t learn this from Young at Hearts, the film that director Don Campbell was inspired to make when he read about the protest in the L.A. Times. I found out about it from the film’s press kit.
That’s the problem with Hearts, a no-budget semi-documentary that introduces eight women ranging in age from late 70s to early 90s, including one who was featured in that Times story. These women clearly have interesting stories to tell, but Campbell rarely lets them. Instead, he stages a card game—one that never seems actually to involve playing cards—in order to interrupt it with awkward reconstructions of some of the events the women discuss. The effect is to take a naturally interesting prospect—old people talking about their eventful lives—and render it mannered and fragmented.
The Youngsters relate such diverse memories as hiding from the Nazis during World War II, attempting suicide, and appearing on The Gong Show. All the women are Jewish, but that doesn’t provide much of a conceptual thread. As good Californians, they’ve come to accept a variety of nontraditional views on life and death: One woman extols reincarnation, another thinks she was spared death by the prayers of “lovely gentile people,” while a third hopes to continue playing pan in heaven.
Though one of the participants says she’s the daughter of a dedicated suffragette, what we hear most about her mother is that she once rode down Chicago’s Michigan Avenue on an elephant. Another remembers the guy who almost didn’t hire her for her first job because Jewish women are “loud.” But Campbell gives such sociopolitical concerns no weight; to him, apparently, they’re just more chatter from a bunch of old ladies.
Later, the director herds the women into a van for a trip to a spa. A similar journey sets up Cynthia Scott’s The Company of Strangers, a charming not-quite-documentary about a group of older women whose success in repeated Biograph runs probably inspired Hearts‘ booking. That film achieved a natural rhythm, however, letting its subjects talk rather than constantly interrupting them for skits and water aerobics. Unlike Campbell, Scott didn’t squander her film’s natural resources: the women themselves.