Friday, June 17, 2011

Atom Egoyan morning discussion hosted by Peter von Bagh

The School (Kitisenrannan koulu), Sodankylä, Midnight Sun Film Festival, 17 June 2011. Atom Egoyan showed three very impressive excerpts, of Next of Kin, Gross Misconduct, and Calendar.

Q: THE FIRST FILM YOU SAW? The Sand Pebbles. In the scene with the man trapped in the piston my grandmother covered my eyes. The Sound of Music. Jesus Christ Superstar. I had read Bible stories at school, but when my father brought me a record of Jesus Christ Superstar it changed everything. I was just a kid. My parents were painters. My father went to an art school in Cairo, and my mother ran a furniture store with Scandinavian furniture such as Arne Jacobsen. Movies came much later on. Persona was the film that opened film to me as an art form. It was inspiring.

Q: YOU ACTED AS AN INTERPRETER BETWEEN CULTURES. My grandmother spoke no English, and I acted as a go-between. The world of my grandmother was completely different, and my parents' customs and habits needed interpretation. When you are young, you learn a language easily. Personality is possibly a construction. You are aware that you come from somewhere else. That's natural when you are young.

My first feature film Next of Kin was about a boy of 23 who goes to therapy with his parents. The boy is almost catatonic. The therapy involves videotaping. By mistake a tape of another, Armenian, family is mixed up. It is about a daughter who rejects all their values. Peter the boy is going to find that family, they believe his story about his being a lost son, and he begins to solve their problems and bring them together. It is about someone who isn't in the right place.

The films that are shown here are all very personal. Even in commercial films I try to bring something of myself. A film for me is a story that must be told.

Q: EARLY TRACES OF THE ARMENIAN PAST AND PRESENT? This is very complex. All my other relatives moved to big cities. Where we went there were no other Armenians. My father was disillusioned with the conservative aspect of the Armenian world.

His early work was naturalistic, and he was adored by the community. He received a full scholarship for the Chicago Art School in 1952 in the heyday of Abstract Expressionism. When he had a show in Cairo people thought it was a joke. "You learned to paint like a child". It was a catastrophe, deeply humiliating. So in Canada, they moved away from the Armenian community. Assimilation was everything. At 18 in Toronto I re-learned Armenian. My Armenian heritage I learned to understand first at the university. Later I was exhausted by the ultra-nationalism, Armenian terrorist attacks against Turkish embassies. It was strange to reconcile this violence. Why custom officers are so prominent in my films? It might be an unconscious memory of a 3-year-old coming to the country, witnessing the battery of forms. As a student I was inspected as a suspected terrorist. It was about having to explain yourself.

Q: LITERARY INFLUENCES? I love theatre. I presented plays. As a child I read the usual stuff, Hardy Boy adventures, MAD magazine, etc. But then I read Martin Esslin's book Theatre of the Absurd, and it changed my life. I got familiar with Ionesco, Beckett, Genet, N.F. Simpson, Pinter. At the same time I was watching Monty Python on tv. You can't imagine how amazing that was. My theatre style was really influenced by these plays. I read Dostoyevsky (Crime and Punishment). I loved satire: Jonathan Swift, not only Gulliver's Travels, but also A Modest Proposal, about the Irish famine. George Orwell, besides Animal Farm his brilliant essays, The Road to Wigan Pier, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Homage to Catalonia, that's where he developed his concept of double speak - the absurdity of language, language robbed of meaning, someone being "more equal than the other".

Q: THE INHERITANCE OF MODERN THEATRE IN THE CINEMA? I didn't study cinema. Once I was rejected from the college dramatic society I joined a film club. At the time it wasn't trendy to make films. I joined the same club which David Cronenberg had belonged to before. I held this Bolex camera that had perhaps not been used by others since Cronenberg. I had studied so much theatre that I made of the camera a character that is watching. I thought this was a completely new idea: there is someone missing, and the camera has the point-of-view of the missing member. I have also directed opera. Samuel Beckett (Krapp's Last Tape, Eh Joe) had an influence on me. You have to have that delusion of doing something new. I hadn't seen a lot of films, and so I had the delusion of doing something new.

Q: STEPS TO FILM-MAKING? I was just working at the film-club. When I made Howard in Particular I was 18, and I won, I got a prize. I didn't understand cutting. I shot master shots and long sequences. I set monitors in the room and let the camera zoom into the monitor. I learned about coverage, but it was a nightmare. The whole didn't make sense, eyelines didn't match. It was almost early cinema, with the sense of the proscenium. It's not natural for me to film. I'm in awe of Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, the Dardennes: their film-making is impulsive, not considered. Filming is not second nature for me. I have a tendency of formalism. There is something forced. Q: THE "MISTAKES" ARE SOMETIMES THE SALT OF THE EXPRESSION.

[EXCERPT FROM NEXT OF KIN (1984).] "What does he do all day?" - "He pretends" [quotes from the dialogue of the powerful excerpt].

I tried to reject the other love, the theatre, and founded my own film company. In Canada because of the terrible tax shelters they made terrible genre films with faded stars. Cronenberg was the only one with a thing of his own, but he was not very respected at the time. - NFB (National Film Board of Canada) made fine documentaries and docudramas. CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation), too.

Gross Misconduct is based on a true story. I loved hockey. Brian Spencer was a hockey player who became an enforcer and a drug runner in Florida, and he was shot dead in a drug deal. I received the script which was a tragic rise and fall story, and I read the book on which it is based. In one paragraph there was the information that the night Brian played his first broadcast game the father who had trained him, he bought an antenna, set the antenna on the roof, but the game was not broadcast in the area where he lived. He got a rifle and held a CBC person in hostage demanding the game should be transmitted. There was an ambush, and the father was shot dead. - Father and son, they both were shot dead.

[EXCERPT FROM GROSS MISCONDUCT (1993)]: it never gets shown. This was by first experience with structure. It was quite rigid, made by the CBC, and I had access to kinescopes of all the hockey games, old b&w images. [The twin brothers have a tyrant father. "Skate figure eights until I say". "Control your fear. Learn how to use it". The father visits the graveyard with his sons to teach them a lesson, giving dismal descriptions of the people buried there. "You can live here and you can be buried here, or you can play hockey".] Films with more life were made outside Canada. Especially in the English-speaking Canada it was a struggle.

Q: YOU WENT FAST TO THE ESSENTIALS. Sweet Hereafter was more muted, very graphic. I like mystery, even though direct, the tension between what you see and what you're expecting.

Q: THE EARLY FILMS. Calendar was really important. In it, my themes found a clear form. There are 12 images of churches for a calender. Armenia was the first Christian state in the world, since 301 AD. The photographer has a tripod and waits for the perfect light. Meanwhile, the wife falls in love with the guide. A year later they are divorced, and the photographer has 12 very bad dates with escorts. This was a breakthrough for me for the perfect form. It gave room for amazing improvisation and interesting energy. It is my most perfectly constructed film, yet with real feeling. My wife Arsinée Khanjian plays the female lead. People thought Calendar was a documentary about our actual break-up! I love the simplicity, and there was no budget. With The Adjuster I won first prize in the Moscow Film Festival in 1991 and a one million ruble reward to be spent for a film production in the USSR. I was excited to get to shoot in my native Armenia at last, but then the USSR broke down, and the prize lost its value. Then in Germany, Das kleine Fernsehspiel offered me 80.000 USD for a film to be shot on 16 mm (and also with a video camera).  There is a texture between video and film there. These differences have now become invisible for instance in Michael Haneke's Caché. I now need to explain these differences.

[EXCERPT FROM CALENDAR (1993).] In Calendar, video represents memory, it is the imagery of his feelings. During the long shot of sheep he felt she reached out to touch him. The first date is with a Russian escort. There are 12 different escorts: Russian, Italian, Hebrew... more and more painful. The characters are trying to create their own therapy, assentuating their own pain, thinking it's healing, but it's just assentuating.

Q: WHEN YOU FINALLY GOT TO ARMENIA, THERE WAS A FEELING THAT YOU WERE ALREADY INSIDE. Oh yes. Arsinée was really opposed. She had had a nationalistic upbringing. The place was very different from what she expected. She was quite depressed. I fell in love with the amazing landscapes. It was a spiritual journey. I go back every year. I started a film festival, not quite like this, but we get drunk a lot. Projection conditions are not as good as here. Armenia is trying to recover. They had a strong film industry under the Soviet studio system. There was an effective distribution, and the film-makers enjoyed a certain freedom once they made films based on approved subjects. Paradjanov, Ivan Passer: the system allowed the crew to wait all day, and it meant a lot. Armenia was divided into the diaspora and the Soviet republic. We were raised in the Middle East, and our sense of custom is Middle Eastern, but Armenia is Caucasian. The language is very different: the pronunciation and the use. First and foremost I'm Canadian. In Canada, your ethnic background is part of who you are. I'm Armenian-Canadian. Multi-culturalism is a catastrophe in Europe, but it works in Canada.

Q: THERAPY AND FILM-MAKING. Film-making is an odd practice. There is an artificial family, with the actors and the crew, with incredible conversations. We don't see each other often except on set. It's a very unusual process, also the whole process of speaking about films, explaining Exotica. Arsinée's a playwright. Film has a miraculous ability of being re-energized by the live performances. Also Metropolis last night was amazing. There is something deeply therapeutic in the cinema. Most art forms took a long time to develop. The film grammar developed soon and hasn't changed. Even the technology hasn't changed until recently. How we knew to do it like that? It's the way we dream, in master shots and close-ups. We all dream like that. In films, dream sequences are corny. But otherwise, that's the way we play it out in our unconscious. From Murnau, Dreyer, cinema really hasn't evolved.

Q: ARE DREAMS IN BLACK AND WHITE OR COLOUR? Science cannot help, and we really don't know. Are there dolly shots? Crane shots? Helicopter shots. We really cannot capture that. A machine to play back dreams belongs to science fiction.

Q: PERSONAL SOULMATES? The friends in the festival circuit, such as Aki always inviting me and giving me the ultimatum: this is your last chance! Q: YOUR IDEA OF A FILM FESTIVAL: HOME VIDEO + ALCOHOL? Very little vodka, but we have very good Armenian brandy. There is a blessing by the high priest and then a visit to the brandy factory.

Q: YOUR ENSEMBLE, COMPARABLE WITH BERGMAN, GUÉDIGUIAN - ARSINÉE - FOCUS ON THE HUMAN FACE? The industry is cruel about ageing, almost demonic. Garbo, Dietrich were hidden from that process. Previously movies were difficult to access. Now it's effortless, we have absolute access to imagery. What does it mean about seeing a face in a movie? A face is vaguely sacred. I made a short film in a cinema for Cannes, Artaud Double Bill for Chacun son cinéma, with clips from Vivre sa vie and La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc with the most famous close-up of Artaud. The person send via a mobile phone a glimpse of Falconetti as an e-mail attachment, and Artaud comes as a bonus. The most magical thing is a close-up. It is deeply mystical. I don't know if we are continuing to do that. In Metropolis, there is the transformation of the beautiful Maria into the evil robot. Besides cinema, I have directed opera and created installations, such as Steenbecked in Manchester, with John Hurt in Krapp's Last Tape, 2000 feet / 20 minutes on 35 mm suspended all around the room, reconnected to the magical aspect of screening.

Q: WHICH FILM WOULD YOU TAKE TO THE DESERT ISLAND? Jesus Christ Superstar.

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