There are lots of ways a piece of art can be “mind-blowing.” The easiest is to create something that looks weird and makes no dang sense. And that’s probably the easiest way to go about it — because making something not make sense doesn’t actually take a lot of work. But one of the hardest, and most effective, is to create something extremely personal and extremely relatable under the weirdness. Something that, when you step back from it, makes complete sense.
Living in Oblivion starts out as one, slowly pulling its strings together and becoming the other over the course of the movie. Because somewhere between the flashbacks, the explosions, and the apple-wielding dwarfs, there’s something a lot of us can relate to: the anxiety of doing our job well.
American filmmaker Tom DiCillo made his directorial debut with Johnny Suede in 1991, starring Brad Pitt and Catherine Keener. And the experience was apparently so amazing and enlightening that his second film was all about a director losing his absolute mind.
Shot on a $500,000 budget, Living in Oblivion became DiCillo’s attempt to give form to the frustration he faced during Johnny Suede, and in his efforts to get his next film, Box of Moonlight, off the ground. But if you’re looking for a completely accurate glimpse behind the curtain of filmmaking, this may not be the place to go. Oh, you’ll get to see the nuts and bolts, and you’ll hear plenty of industry speak thrown around. But then it gets weird. Really, really weird.
Saying you’ll question what’s real and what isn’t within the first half hour or so is an understatement. You’ll find yourself looking for visual and artistic clues to tell you which bits are true and which are — well, less true. We can’t give too much away, obviously. But as hard as the film’s events may be to pin down, there’s one thing that is accurate and real across every act of the story: anxiety.
When the Thread Snaps
Steve Buscemi’s Nick Reve (rêve means “dream” in French, by the way) just wants to get the Perfect Shot for his film. “Close enough” isn’t good enough: his vision requires very specific angles and camera moves. And the longer he tries, the more things get in his way.
Catherine Keener’s Nicole just wants to do her job well. She was in one good movie recently, and that’s (as far as she knows) all she has going for her. And the way her scenes go, with Hollywood star Chad upstaging her or her best takes not making it to film because the cameraman is throwing up in the bathroom, it seems there’s no hope of that ever happening. She also might have a thing for Nick.
Anxiety steers the entire movie. Human error, impossible coincidence, mechanical breakdowns, actor breakdowns… it seems to be a study in how nothing can ever be assured of going to plan. And, really, that’s sort of what it is.
No industry is immune to Murphy’s Law. Things will go wrong whether you’re a director, a waiter, or a stay-at-home parent. And while some things can be accounted for, there are time when — like broken smoke machines or angry actors — things are going to happen no matter what you do. And as long as Nick and Nicole try to maintain a firm grip on the way their scenes run, things continue going wrong.
It’s only when there’s a willing release of control that any progress is made, and we start to see Nick’s film-within-a-film come together as he wants it.
Despite how true (uncomfortably so) the message of Living in Oblivion is, that’s only a portion of what makes it wild and mind-blowing. DiCillo’s magic comes from taking that message and mixing it with visuals and plot that are simultaneously humorous and baffling.
In particular, the 1995 film takes more than a passing jab at 1990 genre series Twin Peaks. Nick’s nightmare sequence appears to be a little — okay, very — inspired by David Lynch’s Black Lodge scenes, right down to the height of their respective hosts. (Peter Dinklage, in his first-ever cinematic role, has quite a bit to say about this very thing.)
Visual weirdness aside, Living in Oblivion almost demands multiple watches. Once you realize what the true format of the film is, giving it a second go helps you appreciate the various perspectives of the scenes. And random moments — an actress forgetting her lines, for instance — suddenly make much more sense when you have the full context of the characters’ lives.
It’s not a movie that needs to be “cracked” to be understood, but it’s one that will continue to bring you more understanding the more you watch it. And, whether you’re in a creative field or not, its message is a good one for us all: sometimes it’s best to just let things happen instead of holding too tight to the reins.