336) Speaking Parts (1989) Dir: Atom Egoyan Date Released: February 1990 Date Seen: October 11, 2009 Rating: 3.25/5
337) Calendar (1993) Dir: Atom Egoyan Date Released: March 1994 Date Seen: October 11, 2009 Rating: 3.75/5
As the lens through which he begs his viewer to see his films, Atom Egoyan's preoccupation with the camera as the meta-reflexive creator of both objective documents and indecipherable symbols is inherently confrontational. It insists that his audience pay rapt attention and constantly question what they're looking at, requiring an admirable level of vigilance that few of his contemporaries ask for quite so bluntly. That however means that when he doesn't deliver a film worthy of that attention, no matter how thoughtful its component scenes may be, the urge to dismiss Egoyan as a charlatan comes almost instinctually. Which isn't to say that that feeling of being cheated isn't warranted sometimes.
In Speaking Parts, Egoyan indirectly recalls the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, that great theory that most people probably know from Michael Crichton's novels (I learned about it in a Physics course; so there). Heisenberg suggested that the act of observing an object can inherently change the nature of that object's behavior. Here, Egoyan ditches the microscope for his usual VHS camera, following two characters as they inevitably fall prey to their need to assert their dominance over video tapes. They both believe films are stoic documents recorded for posterity's sake and each try in their own ways to control what parts of them are recorded. Lance is an actor (Shawn McManus) who tries to alter his first big role to suit Clara's (Gabrielle Rose), the writer/his lover(?)'s, wishes. At the same time, Lisa (Arsinee Khanjian) struggles to find a way to interrogate the static images of Lance's performances she watches so she can get closer to him. This being an Egoyan film, they both obviously fail in their respective goals* and the film ends with a moot, clumsy but effective finale where various haunting, staticky, pre-recorded images lead Lance and Lisa to be literally swallowed up by the technology they seek to dominate.
Egoyan's films posit that the camera will always be independent of its users' control. No mater how hard viewers or recorders try to assert control of events, certain key information will always prove elude them, like the fact that Lance was initially hired to meet Clara as a prostitute through the hotel he works for and she's staying at. This is only pointedly only mentioned in passing, to show that even we, the viewer, cannot have a comprehensive, God's-eye view of events. The camera sees and we just try to tease out what meaning we can.
That understanding is expressed in a less censuring tone in Calendar, in which Egoyan plays a man, identified only as "Photographer," as he struggles to respond to "Translator" (Khanjian again), his ex-wife, after she begs him to tell her what he sees when he looks at the photos he took for a calendar of Armenian churches the two collaborated on. Calendar's set-up welcomes the viewer into its protagonist's ritualized process of remembering events by showing us the mechanism he uses to do so. "Translator" arranges dates with bi-lingual call girls so that he can re-insert himself back into the images he took on camera and camcorder. He always asks his dates to make a phone call in another language after he's poured them a glass of red wine, insisting that the women speak in any language that sounds similar to Armenian. This allows "Translator" to submerge himself in the same feeling of impotence he felt at the time, when he watched jealously as his wife was bonded (and perhaps more) with their local driver (Ashot Adamyan).
It also allows us to start out appreciating Egoyan's premise of the Armenian-speaking driver, as guide and camera-stand-in, as impenetrable. From the start, both "Translator" and the viewer have to understand that there will be no big, or at least no complete, picture to decipher, just fragments. This may not sound like its substantially different from Speaking Parts, but considering how insistent Egoyan is on rebuking that film's protagonists' need for clarity/control, Calendar's more open but no less wounded characters' dilemma presents a more honest take on video culture.
*Spoilery Note: I don't think the kiss at the end is possible without the mental anguish of their respective breakdowns. She has to disappear into pixelated snow first and he to get dissolved into the conflicted video images. Their happiness is only possible after they get destroyed by media.