The Unsettler

From our next issue, a profile of Atom Egoyan, whose Adoration premieres at Toronto this week

Photography by Steve Pyke

Crouched beneath a protective shroud, the Steenbeck awaits a future that will never come. Perhaps that’s why Atom Egoyan treats this massive anachronism with the reverence accorded an altar. On the second floor of his office in downtown Toronto, it is the first thing he wants to show me.

The Steenbeck flatbed editing table is the editing system for celluloid. For most of the history of cinema, lengths of film were passed through cogs, a soft light projected frames onto a translucent plastic screen, and editing decisions were executed with the slice of a specialized guillotine. Farther up the machine’s bed, magnetic film stock provided the audio playback. The Steenbeck is the ultimate expression of the term “analog” — hence its obsolescence in the digital age.

Egoyan pulls back the cover and flicks on the rear-projection lamp. Looped onto the Steenbeck is a print of his telefilm Krapp’s Last Tape (2000), an adaptation of the Samuel Beckett stage play and the last project Egoyan edited on this machine. Since then, all his films have been edited using non-linear digital technology.

The image on the Steenbeck’s small screen is of the actor John Hurt hunched over a table, speaking into a microphone wired to a reel-to-reel tape recorder. “Watch this,” says Egoyan. He shunts the Steenbeck’s heavy lever into forward mode: its hubs of film stock turn, Hurt’s voice is heard, and onscreen the reel-to-reel turns as well. “See,” says Egoyan, “it’s exactly in sync.” He is transfixed, smiling. “I love things like this.”

Of the several Atom Egoyans, this one exists, in his own words, in the world of his imagination, free from the grind of critical scrutiny and the necessary evil of promotion. The ground floor of the three-storey Victorian house — he lives elsewhere, so the building is effectively his office — contains a vast and haphazard trove of mementoes, most of them pinned up like a first-grader’s valentines.

On one wall is a 1997 note to Egoyan from the Italian master Michelangelo Antonioni. Scribbled on the letterhead of the Hotel Majestic in Cannes, where Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter played in the Official Competition, it reads simply “Auguri” — “Good luck.” On the opposite wall is a fax of a baffled review of another Egoyan film, The Adjuster, from the Fredericton Daily Gleaner, with a handwritten comment below from Egoyan’s long-time producer and collaborator Robert Lantos: “This one’s a gem.” Egoyan points to the latest addition, the crossword puzzle from the June 8, 2008, edition of the New York Times Magazine. The clue for 17 Down is “Ararat director, 2002.”

At this stage in his career, Atom Egoyan is at the height of his estimable powers. This summer, he directed Liam Neeson in a reprise of his stage adaptation of Beckett’s teleplay Eh Joe at New York’s Lincoln Center Festival, a production he first mounted with Michael Gambon at Dublin’s Gate Theatre in 2006. Apart from the moving image, he has also directed opera and theatre in major centres in Europe and North America. As we speak, he is preparing to fly to Los Angeles, where he is trying to drum up financing for his next film project, Seven Wonders.

Last May, he was in Tel Aviv to receive a share of the $1-million Dan David Prize (given in 2008 for “creative rendering of the past”), which he split with the English playwright Tom Stoppard and the Israeli writer Amos Oz. Then he flew straight to the Cannes Film Festival, where his latest film, Adoration, had its world premiere.

Of the many great moments in Adoration, one comes about two-thirds of the way through. A character in an online video forum — a critical motif in the film — says, “There is a deep, earthy satisfaction in seeing the consequences of your actions.” This is true for the Atom Egoyan who likes watching the reels go round, who sits writing in this safe space surrounded by his keepsakes. But for another Egoyan, the public intellectual, the consequences of his actions — namely his films — can cause exquisite torture.

Unlike many of his peers, Egoyan reads his reviews and takes them seriously, even the one from the Daily Gleaner. His last two films elicited the harshest critiques of his career. “Critique” is an understatement: Ararat, a film within a film that contrasted historical and contemporary views of the Armenian genocide, earned him death threats from outraged Turks. By comparison, Where the Truth Lies was dismissed as a failed genre exercise. For many critics, Adoration is a return to form.

More so than even David Cronenberg, Egoyan is a filmmaker only Canada could create. Whereas Cronenberg, whom he considers a mentor, could have pursued a career in Hollywood but chose not to, Egoyan could only be a Canadian filmmaker. Unlike the rebarbative images of Cronenberg, Egoyan’s films push at a distant part of the cultural envelope, telling us things we didn’t know we didn’t want to see or hear. The intention is every bit as transgressive; it’s just subtler.

Ironically, this inaccessibility makes him eminently acceptable as a cultural ambassador for Canada — safe because the complexity of his films makes him easier to ignore here in his home and adopted land. Born in Cairo in 1960, he emigrated with his Armenian parents in 1963. His life and art have been shaped by the cultural bureaucracy that supported his formative years; his first five films were conceived as arts council projects. “It’s a holdover,” he admits. “When you apply, you have to describe the conceptual idea behind the work you’re doing. I was schooled in that, in being able to defend ideas, to talk about textures and structural strategies.”

Egoyan’s worlds feature neutral “Canadian” surfaces that conceal unfathomable complexity, ordinary people who betray extraordinary impulses. He loves baggage, the stuff we drag around with us that isn’t apparent until we either divulge it or it spills out despite our intentions. His first feature, Next of Kin, begins with the main character as literal baggage, the camera following him as he rides along an airport conveyor belt toward the luggage carousel.

Among his favourite moments in his films, he says, “are these simple scenes between two people where they don’t necessarily understand the agenda of the other person but there is something drawing them toward that. I love deciphering what someone is carrying, and the essential mystery of any meeting between two people where they have to negotiate that.” Whereas Cronenberg tends toward entertainments in the Graham Greene sense, Egoyan’s films are first and foremost intellectual. Even his perceived failures are never less than interesting. When he attempted genre with Where the Truth Lies, his critical pals abandoned him, but the audacity of his casting was breathtaking in its perversity.

Normally, a film is cast according to the exigencies of the story. A flashback to a character’s childhood requires a child actor. But Egoyan chose his actress, Alison Lohman, because she could convincingly play herself as an adult and as a little girl. Of all the shortcomings for which the film was pilloried, Lohman’s performance predominates. “It was the right decision, but I understand, in terms of that film generating the support it needed commercially, it was wrongheaded.” But, he adds, “it was an intellectual decision.”

Similarly, Ararat was deemed a lesser work because of its perceived moral relativism. “That again put me into a philosophical argument between certain thinkers who were decrying what in our culture has become most symptomatic of a certain laziness, which is the ability to always see both sides of a story,” he says. “I had to say that was not what I was doing, that ultimately the film was constructed to speak to the way trauma is transmitted from one generation to the next.”

As a rebuttal, in 2003 he presented a lecture at his alma mater, the University of Toronto, that was later published in the University of Toronto Quarterly under the title “In Other Words: Poetic Licence and the Incarnation of History.” He wrote: “There are those who feel I should have told the story more simply, focused on setting the record straight. But I never saw this as my cinematic responsibility.” This was the act of a true public intellectual. Rather than retreat or ignore, Egoyan added something new to the discourse. No doubt this sensibility was central to the Dan David selectors. Says Egoyan, “The first few days in Tel Aviv were about seminars and engaging with an audience that had curiously absorbed a film as their own, even though it’s not. It’s interesting how few films about the Holocaust deal with this notion of the transmission of trauma, and how it’s possible as a grandchild of a Holocaust survivor to be still living with that.”

Atom Egoyan is very good at talking about his work, but his talk puts a neutral face on what he commits to posterity: incest in The Sweet Hereafter, pedophilia in Exotica, genocide in Ararat, and, in Adoration, the true nature of the war against terror.

Adoration is a classic set-up, a series of intellectual mousetraps. As is his forte, he uses our society’s obsession with communication technology as the wedge that drives his characters apart; media isolates us even as it connects us. And he uses and abuses narrative conventions to tell us one thing while actually telling us something else.

A teenage boy, Simon, has a school project, a translation exercise. Encouraged by his teacher, he takes a French news story about an Arab man who married a Western woman, impregnated her, and then put her on a plane to Israel. The woman is stopped by Israeli security before boarding. Inside her luggage is a bomb. The boy makes the story his own, much to the consternation of his uncle, who is raising him. Simon’s own father was an Arab and his mother a beautiful blonde, and his father killed his mother.

Of course, you have to take my word for it. These are the connections I made, the conclusions I drew: this viewer’s responsibility. This is Egoyan the unsettler, the creator who draws out of the viewer the inner racist, the inner psychotic. He lays bait for the demons within us. Using our unconscious knowledge of film grammar, Egoyan lures us into assumptions: the beautiful Western woman is sad because she feels the Arab doesn’t love her. The Arab is untroubled by her sadness because he is sending her to her doom.

And yet the entire sequence is a fabrication, an imaginary flashback. The images are Simon’s internal projections from his mother’s last days on earth. But Egoyan hasn’t shown us her last days on earth. Merrily making connections and predictions, I wandered into his snare. When the truth is revealed, Simon’s projections take on an entirely different meaning. Nothing has actually been said in the scenes between the two actors that wouldn’t have been said in the context of two lovers parting. It’s simply the power of filmic suggestion combined with my undeniable bias toward beautiful blondes and against barbarous Arabs.

Egoyan is using film against me, against us. The always-in-touch modern world gives us a false sense of knowing what’s going on around us. The slender slices of “reality” delivered by the news media create a simulacrum of the world, which each of us then distorts into our own projection.

The irony is Egoyan shows us this in Adoration — in the guise of an Internet video forum in which Simon shares his appropriated history — and you don’t notice you are participating. Simon’s video screen is divided into increasingly smaller screens, each with a person who is interpreting and refining or regurgitating a new version of Simon’s “truth.” And, sitting in the cinema, we unwittingly do the same.

Never mind the intricate plotting; never mind the dialogue that says one thing but suggests something else; never mind the acting, which would be infuriatingly stylized in any other film. What Egoyan achieves in Adoration is a gift to the viewer: a mind tremor. You can walk away from this film feeling many things, but what stays with you is the intimation that you don’t know yourself as well as you think.

Egoyan is nodding his head. Mentally, he’s back in the safe room. He’s talking about the challenge and privilege of remounting Beckett’s Eh Joe.

Written for television in 1965, Eh Joe involves one actor sitting listening and reacting to a woman’s voice — “each sentence a knife going in,” directed Beckett — while the camera slowly dollies forward. With no one to speak to, Joe’s face mutely addresses the emptiness before him and thence expresses the emptiness within. It’s considered one of the most difficult performances an actor can undertake. It was Egoyan’s idea to adapt this teleplay for the stage. And it was his triumph to convince Michael Gambon to take the role.”

This is what amazes me about the point I’ve reached in my career,” Egoyan says. “I was a theatre geek in high school. I loved Beckett, Pinter, Genet, all these absurdist writers, Ionesco, moulded with my love of Monty Python. There was something about harnessing lunacy with despair that I found seductive and attractive.”

He credits the late Richard Bradshaw,artistic director of the Canadian Opera Company (“God rest his soul”) for wondering if the Atom Egoyan who directed Exotica could do something new with Salome. “Being plugged back into theatre has been so amazing to me. To do these operas, to do these plays, but to do them with a sense of what they have meant to me as a filmmaker or a visual artist, has been really gratifying.”

The reel-to-reel in Krapp’s Last Tape, the video camera in Family Viewing, the television watching of Felicia’s Journey, the videophone and Internet chat groups of Adoration: Egoyan’s obsessions are the reasons he is the ideal interpreter of Beckett’s own forays into other forms. Eh Joe has everything Egoyan the theatre nerd turned filmmaker turned theatre nerd could wish for. Onstage, on a simple set, Gambon is sitting in profile on a bed. But his face, captured by a camera offstage, is projected onto a scrim stretched before him. The audience gets a double dose of turmoil: Joe’s body and his face.

“It’s the longest reaction shot ever,” says Egoyan, the beatific grin returning to his face. “Thirty minutes.” He stops the interview to show me.

Denis Seguin
Denis Seguin is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker who has written for the Globe and Mail, Slate and the Guardian.