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Atom Egoyan interview, conclusion


Is art just a futile attempt to cover up trauma and an illusory substitute for loss? Is the internet, like cinema, a reflection of the subconscious processes of the mind? Sometimes I wonder how these people have the patience to put up with me, asking questions like that.

PK: I was reading Roger Ebert's  review of your film "Ararat," and he's saying that it's a very powerful story, but why do you have to make it so difficult, , why not just tell one of the stories instead of having it a film within a film and so forth. How do you respond to criticism like that?

AE: It's funny when critics' tell you what should have done as opposed to what you have done. I think the other extreme reaction I had was, oh, it should have been a documentary. And it's like, well, , no, it shouldn't have. That's not the story I wanted to tell. So the question is, given what I did want to tell, I mean, what's the feeling about the actual telling? You could say that it's too complicated for it's own good, maybe. My own feeling about that film with a bit of distance is that it's wildly ambitious. I'm really proud of it, I think it's probably, it's not the best film I'll make, but I certainly think it's the most important one in terms of what it's actually trying to deal with.

 I think it's quite unique, , it's unwieldy for sure. I mean, I think it's actually a film that probably should have been written as a novel first and then adapted, but that wasn't the way it evolved. And it's still seven years later, a film of mine that's really discussed a lot. There's some seminars about it. It's dealing with a really important issue, which is:  how do we deal with the legacy of trauma through generations? And how does that distort our entire relationship to history? I had a specific agenda with that, and it wasn't about trying to present the Armenian Genocide. I wasn't trying to make the film within the film, the film within the film actually is not for me to make.

 It's weird that my wife [Arsinée Khanjian] starred in a version of that film that the Taviani brothers made, called "The Lark Farm." It was made three years after "Ararat." It's dealing with the Armenian Genocide based on a very successful Italian novel and it's just not my interest to make that type of a historic epic...I wrote the film that I had in mind and I think with some distance people can appreciate it for what it is. Or not, again, time tells. I think the wonderful thing about films is that, unlike theater, they last, they persist.

Sometimes things, especially in this very accelerated kind of culture we live in...some things that need attention may find that they get attention after the fact, that they don't necessarily think up to a particular moment that they have. But, the tragedy is when those films are not even available for distribution. I mean the great thing about a film like "Ararat" is because it had Miramax and it's available through their output deal that they had with Disney, so, that film is widely available. And that to me the triumph of a movie like that, that it's accessible to people and they can make their own choice. I think what's really sad is when a film doesn't even have that opportunity to enter into people's consciousness.

And then finishing going back to what you were saying, with the Internet being kind of a source of a collective subconscious, so you could say that maybe it can find it's way somehow, through YouTube or some other alternate way of distributing it. But I wonder whether or not that that really gives some work its fair due. It's interesting, I wrote a piece for "The New York Times" on summer films - I don't know if you read it, about a week ago, or ten days ago - and I was talking about Frank Perry, who is actually one of these forgotten figures of American independence cinema. He made films like "The Swimmer" and "David and Lisa" and there was this film called "Last Summer," and I tried to find it.

It was never released on DVD, it was never released on VHS, but someone has posted scenes from it on YouTube. And you go, ok, well, I guess it's there somehow. It has a few hundred hits...people, somehow, have exchanged it. So then it becomes this other product, right, it's not really the film, it's this sort of composite of scenes so the rest of it exists in people's imagination. And that's fascinating, isn't it? That's a new type of cinephilia, right, constructed of these particular moments people wish to download or have access to and share.

PK: Sort of like with the modernism, like T.S. Eliot or something, taking these broken fragments of past culture and making them into something new..

AE: Yeah, and , that's a very fascinating process to me. And in a way that's what Simon's doing, right, he's taking these items and these objects and he's kind of breaking them down, right, and fracturing them, and kind of creating a new culture around them that's relevant to himself. Because the old one certainly doesn't work anymore.

PK: I read a quote that you had about film, "film grammar is similar to dream grammar" and then you suggested that's why it caught on so quickly not only with film makers but also audiences are able to adapt to the language of film so readily. It's natural. What do you think the internet is, I mean, that caught on as quickly as film did, certainly. Is that another form of dream grammar or dream structure?

AE: Hm, that's a really good question. I don't think in the same way, no, because it's not as hypnotic and we're not as spellbound just because the nature of how we receive a video image. It's not made for the same concentration, and I'm talking about it as the whole. I think there are individual images that are obviously made that way, and you can find an individual image maybe on YouTube that is made that way, but as a collective concept the internet is so open., the thing about a film is that it unspools, or it - again that's an old concept - but it is being played in a certain way, that, in a way, there's an inevitability about it. I mean, it's going to end at a certain point, and so there's a fixed chain of images which have been predetermined. And in that sense, we are in it's thrall. In a way that we are not in the thrall of the internet. It's by it's nature...There are so many other possibilities that are open for us to explore at any given time that we commit ourselves to the idea and that becomes part of a ...It's very much rooted in our conscious world, I think. Because it involves us, it requires us to make very clear, strategic choices in terms of how we navigate it. Film allows us to drift a lot more, and that's its beauty, I think, and what makes it so intoxicating.

PK: There seems to be a catastrophe or some sort of trauma, as you put it, at the center of most of your films, and it's sort of a pearl affect; you get more and more layers covering it in order to make it something beautiful and also to make the pain something far away. Do you think that's an accurate description?

AE: Well yes, and often those are layers that have been constructed by people to either hide or to protect, right? I mean, and maybe, a grandfather thinks that he's protecting his grandson from certain realities [as in "Adoration"], but doesn't really understand that he's also harming him. I don't think that necessarily these things are done maliciously, but they end up being very damaging.

PK: He wasn't a nice man though, you have to admit that.

AE: He was not a nice man, no.

PK: Your recent film, "Chloe...something traumatic happened during the making of that. [the death of Natasha Richardson,  the wife of that film's star, Liam Neeson, in a skiing accident].

AE: That was crazy, that was an insane thing.

PK:  Has that every happened to you before while making a movie?

AE: No, I think it's happened very rarely, I mean, I've talked to film makers and it's a very rare situation where a whole production comes grinding to a halt, , and where it's as traumatic as that was. Yeah, very sobering, and it also really affected the crew, because I think, , we're in a profession where people are away from their families sometimes, so the idea that something like that could happen of that scale, that you wouldn't be there. We ended up making it...but it was just so freakish. I mean, the whole thing was just so...and it also alerted us to [the fact that] we all fall, and we all know the situations where someone says, "are you sure you're ok?" And we go, "Oh yeah, I'm fine, I'm fine."

PK: You took a couple weeks off, was that right?

AE: Yeah, and then he came back,  which is so amazing. He was able to resume.

PK: It's also probably a way to cope too, is to focus on something.

AE: Yes, and I think it would have been more difficult for him to come back now, say. There was a great, for him, this moment where his whole family was there, and the boys were being looked after and he knew that he could come and finish it, and that would be with family while he was able to come for the four days that he had.

PK: And you've worked with him a lot in the past. You did "Krapp's Last Tape" with him, the Beckett play.

AE: That's right, yeah.

PK: Beckett seems...I mean, the sort of starkness of Beckett in this and the almost rococo structure of your films seem, like, along diametrically opposite lines...

AE: I don't know if you ever saw the film version if "Krapp's Last Tape?"  That to me was one of the most amazing projects I ever had, with John Hurt, and it was like, again, this idea of using different sort of structures, but in that case, in that play, it's all within a linear, sort of real time. You have a 69 year old man listening to his 39 year old self on tape, referring to his 24 year old self.

PK: Right, that is a little convoluted. 

AE: Yeah, but beautiful, and so carefully wrought.

PK: When is "Chloe" coming out?

AE: It'll be ready for the festival [Cannes]

PK: And you didn't write this?

AE: No, no. This is the first project I've done where I didn't have any say into the writing. I mean of course, what am I saying...I spent a year working on it, but it was with Erin [Erin Cressida Wilson, the writer]. I mean Erin did all of the writing. 

PK: And you're working on something else now?

AE: No, just editing "Chloe."

PK: Well, it's always rewarding to see a new film of yours.

AE: Thanks, Peter. 

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  • said:

    Mr. Keogh - thanks for another excellent interview. I must say, it is so nice to read in-depth answers to a series of informed, multi-layered questions in a longer form. I wholeheartedly agree with your take on Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter. While Ararat, and Egoyan's early films - Speaking Parts, Family Viewing, Next of Kin, Calendar, et al are sometimes, perhaps, a tad obtuse, that exploration of film/video, and the various levels of awareness his characters (and obviously he in his own life) possess about their lives and the process are fascinating, and one always feels a certain sense of truth behind the work - or, at least it seems obvious Egoyan is genuinely following his intellectual and emotional pursuits and trying to work them out in his art. There is, because of this, I suppose, an identifiable thread running through his work. That post-modern/meta aspect of the films can be seen from Kiarostami, Makhmalbaf; Haneke, Charlie Kaufman and others so it's not as if Egoyan is totally unique in this aspect, but these kinds of personal motivations/obsessions and the way they are explored so often separate and define and differentiate auteur directors- in the way that Bergman is Bergman, Allen is Allen, or Godard is Godard.

    May 20, 2009 6:24 PM

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