Atom Egoyan's films all share certain themes but 1984's Next of Kin and 1987's Family Viewing are so closely related that Zeigiest has wisely packaged them together in a wonderful two disc set. The similarities are striking: Both star young men with similar builds, hair, and vacant, disconnected stares, both concern families in the process of dissolving into nothing, and both reflect back on themselves with video sequences. These are constructs that Egoyan always explores, and these two films display the different degrees to which his academic notions translate to visual storytelling.
Family Viewing is about a young man, Van (Aidan Tierney), who finds that his father Stan (David Hemblen) has erased his childhood home movies with strange surveillance footage of his own sexual experiments. Nothing in the family fits together right. Van, a teenager with an off-puttingly quiet demeanor, is having an affair with the father's new wife (Gabrielle Rose). At the same time he plots to help his grandmother, his last connection to his absent mother, from her nursing home.
This introduces him to Aline (Egoyan's wife Arsinee Khanjian) who works as a phone sex operator and can help him release his grandmother. Each character has a detachment from their own emotions that leaves the film floating in a quiet, mournful vacuum. It comes alive when Van plots but for the most part this is Egoyan at his most introspective and least human.
An intelligent filmmaker, Egoyan uses techniques, like his ever-present video footage, to create walls between characters and to separate the audience from the film. While he is able to create unique visions, he also has a tendency to over emphasize the inaccessibility of his characters' inner lives. Throughout his filmography his characters stay remote. In films like Exotica and Calendar reality crashes in on them and in those moments they become sympathetic (The dynamic, visceral climax of Family Viewing reaches this point) but it wasn't until The Sweet Hereafter that he truly broke through to fully realizing how to move an audience.
Next of Kin, however, comes much closer. Peter leads a cold, distant life with his family, similar to Van's in Family Viewing. His mother and father join him in a family counseling session which is videotaped. During a viewing of the tape Peter finds another family's tape detailing their aggressive treatment of their daughter Azah (Khanjian, again) and their sense of loss over having given up their son as a baby. Peter convinces his counselor and his parents that a trip is what he needs to feel more alive. Instead, he convinces this other family that he is their long lost son and puts on a performance for them.
The emotions this situation stirs up are much more real and strong than anything in Family Viewing and, as Peter (or Bedros, as they call him) insinuates himself into their household, he is able to teach them positive, but difficult lessons about themselves. The new family, Armenian immigrants, are boisterous and loud, giving voice to their disagreements and dissappointments where his original family silently withholds any emotion. The Armenian parents George and Sonya Deryan (the outstanding Berge and Sirvart Fazlian) form a very real and moving bond with their fake son, one that touched me in a very personal way. The pride that George feels for his business and his hand-made success, as well as for his son, grind with the dissappintment he harbors for his daughter, who he sees as betraying the work ethic he believes in. Sonya, meanwhile, wants to play the peacemaker between her fractured family. That Peter steps in and fills this role allows her to really open up.
While Egoyan's films can feel cold and calculated, the emotions in the Deryan household are real and gripping. Happiness, tragedy, shock, surprise are all rendered in extraordinary detail. Contrasting a lively, heartfelt birthday party he is thrown by his new family with the silent one his real parents give, illuminates the difference between loving those you're born with and loving those you choose.
That is at the heart of both films. Both Peter and Van are unsatisfied with their families and they conspire to invent new ones. It is in these new environments that they find fulfillment and, even though neither film wraps up in a tidy Hollywood package, Egoyan does hold out some hope.
Three early short film are included on the disc with Family Viewing. These are more formally experimental than his features, with painted frames and non-narrative devices. They're a terrific addition to this set.
Behind the scenes footage is available for each film. Consisting mostly of rehearsal footage, this raw material is an interesting look into how the cast and director of such intense material communicate ideas at the earliest stages. Bios, trailers, and galleries are also included.