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Living in Oblivion

Living in Oblivion
Columbia TriStar
1995 / Color & b&w / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 90 min. / Street Date February 11, 2003 / $29.95
Starring Steve Buscemi, Catherine Keener, Dermot Mulroney, Danielle von Zerneck, James LeGros, Rica Martens
Cinematography Frank Prinzi
Production Designer Stephanie Carroll, Thérèse DePrez
Art Direction Janine Michelle, Scott Pask
Film Editor Dana Congdon, Camilla Toniolo
Original Music Jim Farmer
Produced by Hilary Gilford, Michael Griffiths, Robert M. Sertner, Marcus Viscidi, Frank von Zerneck
Written and Directed by Tom DiCillo

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

A somewhat claustrophobic but brilliantly written comedy about life on a lowbudg movie set, Living In Oblivion captures some of what it's like to see one's artistic aspirations evaporate in the face of breakdowns, compromises, and the disruptions of interpersonal emotional chaos. Steve Buscemi makes a fine director of his own pretentious script, who can't seem to make anything work right, between 'Action' and 'Cut'.


Low budget director Nick Reve (Steve Buscemi) can't get his small-scale, intimate, simple drama properly onto film, no matter how hard he tries. His leading lady, Nicole Springer (Catherine Keener) is doing fine, but having doubts about her talent. His cameraman Wolf (Dermot Mulroney) is a preening fool who wears an unnecessary eyepatch and lets his work be affected when his girlfriend Wanda (Danielle von Zerneck), the first assistant director, says she's through with him. And his 'star', Chad Palomino (James LeGros) is a womanizing ignoramus who specializes in bedding the talent and making a nuisance of himself on the set. If Nick could just get a simple shot in the can, just one good take, things might get better.

It's funny all right, and if you've ever been on the set of a cheap movie, it's painfully accurate. Even Ed Wood Jr. was able to get his vision on film, but perhaps his standards were just too low. Poor Nick Reve has a cooperative cast and crew, and nothing particularly difficult to shoot, but its all out of his reach. Small glitches require retakes until the actors no longer feel their roles or remember their lines. Camera flubs, boom mikes in the shot, extraneous noises, the beeping of a wristwatch conspire to ruin takes. Then Nick has to sit and die, while he sees an unfilmed rehearsal play out like the best scene ever written and acted, right before the idle camera.  1

Living In Oblivion plays several games of reality with the spectator, re-living the morning's shoot from Nick's POV, and then his leading lady's. Nicole has made the mistake of sleeping with her co-star, which proves fatal for their chemistry when he badmouths her on the set. For his part, 'name star' Chad Palomino is a total dolt who can't act and has bad instincts about everything. He also ruins Nick's momentum with his lame ideas, and reinvents scenes to favor himself, all the while feigning a phoney rapport with the crew. He's the perfect example of why a star attitude doesn't work on a lowbudget movie.

We see Nick trying to film a simple three scenes, and of course they're all disasters of one kind or another. There is a magical moment when it all comes together once, but otherwise nothing works. Nick's creatively-challenged idea of a dream sequence falls apart when a dwarf actor (Peter Dinklage) has a conniption fit over the concept of the scene. When he walks out, it's like Nick can do no right. The 'oblivion' he experiences, is the dread state of knowing all is lost, that one's talent is a mirage.

There are plenty of other complications to keep track of, in director DiCillo's inventive screenplay. Some of the acting is a bit stiff or obvious, but the right spirit is there to overcome the broader moments. Living In Oblivion was a genuine independent hit, and plays on IFC all the time.

Columbia TriStar's DVD of Living In Oblivion looks great, with the contrast between the starkly shot color scenes, grainy black and white ones, and sharp black and white ones maintaining a visual variety. The technical values are all fine - it's the perfect subject for a modest production like this one.

The extras will please fans of DiCillo and Buscemi. They appear in an interview before an audience and are basically charming, although DiCillo has that 90's brand of directorial arrogance that isn't needed with this much talent on view. Buscemi is instantly likeable. There's also a director's commentary, where DiCillo's sincerity and generosity toward his crew win us over. A sole deleted scene is amusing but is easily done without.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Living in Oblivion rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary by writer/director Tom DiCillo, trailer, Interview with Tom DiCillo and Steve Buscemi, Deleted scenes
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: February 13, 2003


1. You haven't lived until you try to make a student film with less-than-professional resources: those trucks and trucks of experts and supplies at movie shoots are all needed, and even then everything goes slowly. In a small film, one finds out right away how intolerable it is to have actors who aren't natural, who can't open a door properly or walk without being self-conscious. And it's not at all atypical to have a shoot drag on for hours, while little problems get worked out with the camera, endlessly. What you thought was an easy-to-film script quickly becomes compromised down to a few meaningless, vapid shots, just to get the thing in the can. God bless talented, coordinated film crews. I want one someday, to make me look good.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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