A low-budget film about low-budget filmmaking, Living in Oblivion captures an intense and potentially demoralizing wrinkle of communal creation, whether the endeavor in question is filmmaking, writing, dance, or painting—that nothing’s a given. A memorable gesture in a film might appear to be transcendentally spontaneous, but it may be the result of intense preparation, pained conversations and blown takes, or of actors or craftspeople who were replaced at the last minute. If someone arrives on set hungover, their mood may ripple ineffably through the entire atmosphere, setting off a chain of small catastrophes or triumphs. If an actor is sleeping with another, it could morph the subtext of their performances without the writers and directors’ knowledge. Not to mention the constraining, or even liberating, realities of finance and deadlines.
Critics often approach art as if its creators have entire control over their faculties—as if every resonance and element is a preordained expression of sensibility. But artists themselves understand their process to be rooted partially in the practicalities of chaos. Living in Oblivion is a farce devoted to these very practicalities.
Director Tom DiCillo ingeniously structures the film as a trio of overlapping shorts that cumulatively suggest ripples emanating from a stone tossed in a pond. In the first act, we meet the protagonists of the entire film, the cast and crew of a threadbare movie production who are attempting to get a huge scene in the can. It’s a big moment for novice actress Nicole (Catherine Keener), who’s performing it opposite Cora (Rica Martens), the woman playing her character’s mother. We learn that Nicole personally relates to the scene, as it taps into her unresolved feelings about her own mother. Nicole and Cora ride in an amusingly dilapidated cab to the set, sharing a poignantly chilly silence. Cora would appear to regard the day ahead of them as just another shift at the grind, exuding the no-nonsense air of a veteran, failing or not caring to empathize with Nicole’s obvious insecurity. Or Cora could be practicing a subtle bit of character-building, emulating the relationship between her and Nicole’s characters.
The scene ahead of them is a painful encounter in which Nicole’s character confronts her mother about familial abuse. Nicole’s first few takes are solid. The director, Nick Reve (Steve Buscemi), appears hopeful. And then the shooting is upended by one calamitous fuck-up after another. A light explodes, the smoke wafting up in expressionist fumes. The actors get so bored with the technical tedium of capturing the scene that they begin to forget their lines. Worst of all, when Nicole unexpectedly nails the scene, spurred by a gesture of kindness on Cora’s part that reminds her of her own mother, the cinematographer, Wolf (Dermot Mulroney), is sick from spoiled milk, failing to capture it. And so these artists must resign themselves with something less than ideal.
This is the best of Living in Oblivion’s episodes, offering a remarkably fluid blend of light comedy and crushing disappointment. Keener’s performance in these early moments remains the greatest work of her career; her technical, emotional differentiation of Nicole’s various takes are virtuosic. It’s difficult for an actor to be bad on purpose, and they usually make a broad joke of it to evade vulnerability. Keener doesn’t appear to hold anything back, which charges Nicole’s one great take with an unexpected fullness of feeling that intensifies the stakes of the casual jokes about the crew’s bumbling machinations.
Nicole’s one great take haunts Living in Oblivion. Because we now know what these people are hoping to achieve with increasingly remote odds of realizing it. The entire sequence is revealed to be a dream—a mirage. The aesthetic intensifies the dream quality. DiCillo shoots the reality of the film production in gritty 16mm black and white, while the film that Nick’s shooting is imagined in hyper-saturated color, representing art that takes transformative flight out of its grubby, dreary context of creation. The other episodes are shot in attractive 35mm color, suggesting a less conveniently diametric separation of art and life. Complicating these matters further is another cheeky existentialist joke: The second episode is also a dream, while the third offers a hint of fleeting closure.
DiCillo casually detonates the self-congratulatory sentimentality that often dogs films about filmmaking, even something as revered as François Truffaut’s somewhat starry-eyed Day for Night. The process of a shoot is never not understood to be work above all, as well as a precarious balance of egos, particularly in the second act, which features James Le Gros’s hilarious caricature of a pretentious emerging star. Throughout the film, DiCillo emphasizes the fragility and limitations of community without indulging cynicism; there’s a warmness to his point of view that’s born of tough love earned by his own career in the lo-fi indie trenches. When Nick and his gang finally win the smallest of victories, successfully staging a dream scene that appears to be a ludicrous rip-off of Twin Peaks’s red-room scenarios, we feel this vindication as being just enough to keep everyone going for the next day. It’s nothing more, though it might be less.
The image has an appropriately earthy, gritty intensity. The heightened grain attractively pops in the 16mm sequences, which also boast nuanced facial detail. The saturated colors are vibrant, particularly the reds and blues of the film-within-a-film scenes. The blacks and whites are crisp and hard. The soundtrack subtly immerses one in the particulars of filmmaking, most notably the clicks and hisses of sound recording, as well the popping and click-clacking of lights and clipboards and various other gadgets and devices. Jim Farmer’s terrific score, which walks a tightrope between tongue-in-cheekiness and melancholia, resounds with newfound clarity.
The supplements tend to repeat one another, but they’re uniformly engaging. Tom DiCillo’s audio commentary is the best one-stop shop, allowing the filmmaker to regale the audience with the story of the film’s inception, elaborating on the perils of working on extremely low budgets. As has often been reported, Living in Oblivion was born partially out of DiCillo’s trouble shooting Johnny Suede, and from the subsequent problems he had financing Box of Moonlight after the former closed in New York after only playing in a few theaters for a week. DiCillo is blunt and eloquent, memorably describing how a friend at a wedding inadvertently inspired him to write Living in Oblivion’s opening act. Brad Pitt was also originally slated to play James Le Gros’s character, but had to bow out when Legends of the Fall created scheduling problems. Rounding out the package is an interview with DiCillo and Steve Buscemi from a Living in Oblivion screening held several years ago, a deleted scene, and a documentary, "In Our Own Oblivion: The Miracle of Making a Film," which contains new interviews with most of the principal players.
The presentation is attractive and the supplements diverting, but the real draw is the film itself. Twenty years have done little to diminish Living in Oblivion’s acute comic mercilessness.