Egoyan As Auteur
- Monique Tschofen (Editor) and Jennifer Burwell (Editor)
Image and Territory: Essays on Atom Egoyan. Wilfrid Laurier University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Mark Harris
There’s something a little absurd about publishing a collection of essays about an auteur, as well as something heroic, since the very concept of auteurship has been under attack for more than 30 years—how could it not be in a critical universe where even novels are said to have composed themselves.
Nevertheless, if auteurs really do exist, there can be no doubt that Atom Egoyan belongs to this rarefied order of beings. Not only does he write and direct all of his own films, he consistently works with the same creative team, while his troupe of actors (headed by his real-life wife, Arsinée Khanjian) virtually never “plays against type.” In similar fashion, the Egyptian-born, BC-raised, Ontario-based cineaste’s concerns visibly recur in feature after feature. The malaise of the contemporary family; the role of video technology in the deconstruction of sexual identity; established authority’s compulsion to observe and control; the anguish of the half-assimilated immigrant; the many facets of incest; what it really means to be an Armenian: these elements can be found, to varying degrees, in virtually all of Egoyan’s feature films, although not necessarily in his plays, installations, operas, short films and other flights of the post-exilic imagination.
Editors Tschofen and Burwell have divided their book into four sections— “Media Technologies, Aura and Redemption”; “Diasporic Histories and the Exile of Meaning”; “Pathologies/Ontologies of the Visual”; and “Conversations”—each preceded by a thoughtful introduction by the co-editors, and concluding with the most complete Egoyan Filmography yet published in a non-bibliographical study. This is an impressively thoughtful assemblage of texts and this concise review will only be able to outline the most prominent features of the complex subject it addresses.
Tschofen and Burwell also deserve credit for relying almost exclusively on Canadian critics for input, as certain earlier studies of Egoyan (Jonathan Romney’s otherwise excellent overview being a case in point) have tended to blur the distinctions between our side of the 49th Parallel and the American one. Atom Egoyan is no more generically North American than Ingmar Bergman is generically European.
In addition to the outstanding filmography put together by Monique Tschofen and Angela Joose, for me, the most useful essays were probably the ones written by Kay Armatage and Caryl Clark (on Egoyan and opera), Lisa Siraganian (on Egoyan and the Armenian Genocide, even if she does forget about the Belgian horrors in the Congo that long preceded the dying convulsions of the Ottoman Empire) and William F. Van Wert (on some of Egoyan’s critically under-reported installation work). These might not be the best chapters in the book, but they were the ones that shed the most light on the subjects about which I knew the least.
Most of the other essays focus on features and groups of features, with varying degrees of success (Patricia Gruben’s is probably the most comprehensive, not least because she uses Laura Mulvey’s ideas more subtly than Mulvey used them herself). And, as always, William Beard’s contributions are elegantly composed.
Ironically, what might be the best-written paper of the bunch—it’s certainly the most intense—is also the most unintentionally misleading. Melanie Boyd’s “To Blame Her Sadness: Representing Incest in Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter” is part of this scholar’s ongoing research into the narrative representation of father/daughter incest. While she does briefly acknowledge in a footnote that the director has dealt with this most taboo of subjects before and since, that doesn’t really take the sting out of a sentence such as “[Source novelist Russell] Banks’ Nichole is angry and sad because her father
had sex with her, while Egoyan’s is angry and sad because he stopped.”
Now, as all Egoyan fans know full well, incest has always figured in Egoyan’s oeuvre, but this most notorious form has not. In particular, the filmmaker is seemingly fascinated by sex between non-blood relatives (stepmothers and stepsons; stepbrothers and stepsisters, etc.), as well as domestic sexual abuse that lacks a penetrative component (Hilditch’s humiliations at the hands of his TV show host mother Gala in Felicia’s Journey, for instance). What’s more, this perversion is 100% inseparable from Egoyan’s critique of the perversion of contemporary society as a whole, the “connected” culture that seems unable to connect with anything human at all.
The collection, however, does seem to ignore certain key elements in Egoyan’s work, of which his perverse use of montage is by far and away the most important. If Lev Kuleshov and his students figured out, shortly after the Russian Revolution, how splicing together strips of film in the correct order would invariably result in audiences jumping to the right conclusions in regard to the emotional relationships between characters, Egoyan has become world cinema’s anti-Kuleshov, the man who sets up scenes so we’ll jump to the wrong conclusions about who is who and why they do what they do (this tendency is probably most noticable in The Adjuster, but it’s almost as palpable in Exotica and Where the Truth Lies).
Finally, it would have been nice if someone had seen fit to write a piece on the similarities between the works of Atom Egoyan and Robert Guediguian. These are the most important cineastes still working in the Armenian Diaspora, and the similarities inherent in their working methods, especially in casting, might well be evidence of a more general transcultural/ethnic trait.
Even so, these last paragraphs should not be read as an excuse to ignore this work. Images and Territory is both useful and impressive, and belongs on the shelf of any cinephile interested in the work of the king of Armenian Canadian directors. What it does not do, however, is capture his “auteurhood” to the fullest extent possible, but then such a result may be theoretically impossible.
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MLA: Harris, Mark. Egoyan As Auteur. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 21 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #196 (Spring 2008), Diasporic Women's Writing. (pg. 189 - 190)
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