FAMILY VIEWING (1987)

BEYOND VIDEODROME

For this dark film, director Atom Egoyan also functioned as writer, film editor, and the solitary producer. He was born in Egypt to Armenian parents, but he was raised in Victoria, British Columbia. When he was born, in recognition of a newly constructed nuclear reactor, the first in Egypt, his parents decided to call him “Atom”. His last name originally was “Yeghoyan”, but for simplicity his parents changed it. His parents were both painters, by choice, and owners of a furniture store by necessity. Atom grew up very westernized, becoming a fine young Canadian. He did not truly appreciate his Armenian heritage until he attended Trinity College at the University of Toronto. He studied music, mastering the classical guitar. [He performed numerous solos in several of his own films.] He also studied International Relations! —wanting to be a diplomat. But early on, the “film bug” bit him.

He graduated from the U of T in 1982. By that time he had directed four short films (1979-1982). Immediately he started winning awards and stipends with these films. He was only 27 years old when he directed his second feature film, FAMILY VIEWING in 1987. It won honors at both the Berlin and Moscow Film Festivals. Film directing yawned out in front of him like the road less traveled. He never looked back. He already has enjoyed critical successes that have eluded many more famous directors. He is a four-time winner at Cannes, has won four awards from the Toronto International Film Festival, and has been a seven-time winner of Canada’s top “Genie” award. He considers himself a proponent of Canadian culture in the world. In 1994, his film, EXOTICA, was the first Canadian film screened at Cannes for over a decade, and it won the International Critic’s Prize that year. As an accomplished musician, in 1996 he directed a production of SALOME for the Canadian Opera Company. He has been called,” One of the most remarkable figures of the contemporary independent filmmaking scene.” And it has been said about him,” As with the goddess Athena’s birth, this particular director seems to have come to the land of Cinema, fully formed, with the tools of his trade finely honed, firmly intact from the very moment he took his place behind the camera.”

His need to revisit and to reconnect to his Armenian heritage emerged in many of his early films. After graduation, his first feature film was NEXT OF KIN (1984). It presented the story of a disenchanted young man who decided to pose as the long-lost son of Armenian parents. It began to illustrate Egoyan’s long-standing fascination with his ethnicity, video, and the dysfunctional family. His protagonist underwent “video-therapy” sessions as part of his family counseling. The family would then view these tapes together, observing each other’s confessions and their own confrontations. He, for himself, went on to do the semi-autobiographical film, CALENDAR in 1993, in which he appeared in front of the cameras. Several scenes for the film were shot in his “ethnic homeland” of Armenia.

Armenia, called “Hayastan” in the native tongue, is considered to be part of Asia. Its national flag consists of three bold stripes of color; red on the top, then blue, then orange. Until 1990, Armenia was considered to be part of the U.S.S.R. It sits landlocked north of Iran, south of Georgia, east of Turkey, and west of Azerbaijan. It won its independence in 1991, but there are still constant border clashes with its western neighbor, Azerbaijan. Armenia, the entire country is slightly smaller than the American state of Maryland. There are many mountains, but very little forestland. The energy crisis of the late 1990’s led to deforestation when the citizens had to scavenge for firewood.

Egoyan’s first film, NEXT OF KIN was only 62 minutes in length, but it set the mold for many of his future directorial traits. It featured his lovely wife, Arsinee Khanjian, in a lead role. He, later, featured her prominently in most of his movies, bringing to mind Federico Fellini using his wife, Giulietta Masina in many of his earliest films, or Woody Allen first utilizing his live-in girlfriend, Diane Keaton, and then later his wife, Mia Farrow in his films. Egoyan used his “friends” in a lot of his movies, creating a mini-repertory company—a common decision arrived at by many famous directors—from John Ford to Clint Eastwood. He often cast David Hemblen and Gabrielle Rose in his films. In 1984, in his debut effort, NEXT OF KIN, he cast Thomas Tierney (Aiden’s father), whom he had used in one of his earlier student short films. In the lead he cast Patrick Tierney (Aiden’s older brother), who only went on to appear in two other films. Egoyan, with his first several projects, began to show a fascination with technology—both the sheer wonder of it, coupled to the alienation from it. He frequently incorporated television and video monitors into the plots of his early films. As a young man, he worked for a time at the famous Empress Hotel in Victoria, B.C. This provided him with the artistic inspiration for settings and situations for FAMILY VIEWING (1987), SPEAKING PARTS (1989), and THE ADJUSTOR (1991).

He has directed 28 films, counting his first four short ones. He enjoyed great critical success with THE SWEET HEREAFTER in 1997, featuring Ian Holm. I liked FELICIA’S JOURNEY (1999) with Bob Hoskins and Elaine Cassidy, and his esoteric television special, YO-YO MA DOES BACH in 1997. Back in his halcyon college days, he also wanted to be a playwright. He has kept his hand in writing film scripts. He wrote the script, and worked on the crew for one of my favorite independent films, THIRTY-TWO SHORT FILMS ABOUT GLENN GOULD, with Colm Feore.

The musical score, all the original music was written by Mychael Danna. He has been busy since 1978, scoring 58 films. FAMILY VIEWING was only her third effort. He has worked on several Atom Egoyan films. In addition he did the scores for THE ICE STORM (1997), 8MM (1999), RIDE WITH THE DEVIL (1999), MONSOON WEDDING (2001), and last year BEING JULIA (2004). The cinematography for FV was credited to two men. Peter Mettler was the first. He is very well rounded as an artist. He has lensed 16 films since 1982, most Canadian movies, and he has been a writer, editor, sometimes actor, and a film director himself. Robert MacDonald was the other, and he has captained the crews on six films. FAMILY VIEWING was his first.

In FAMILY VIEWING, Aiden Tierney played Van, the angry resentful son. When Aiden was looked up on the IMDb, this was the only film listed in his filmography, but when his name was “Googled”, he is listed as appearing briefly in NEXT OF KIN, and later in SPEAKING PARTS (1989). In FV, he reminded me of a young Michael Sarrazin—all dreamy blue eyes and dark curly hair—so handsome that he approached androgyny. He was still a college student in Toronto when Egoyan cast him in FV, and it won him a New York Times Critic’s Pick award.

Somehow, this fine young actor, with all his potential, became disenchanted with “film”. He was a graduate of the Professional Acting Course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, at the University of Toronto. When they made FAMILY VIEWING together, Egoyan, as a UofT alumnus, was only a decade older than him. Aiden Tierney moved on to directing and acting in Canadian and American Regional Theatre. It is said that he teaches acting now, and is a qualified yoga instructor. As a graduate myself of the Professional Acting Training program in the School of Drama, at the University of Washington, I can assure you that this is a much too common scenario—classically trained actors who gravitate away from film and deep into the heart of theatre, and teaching.

David Hemblen played Stan, the father. He played Stan, on the surface, as a man with a flat affect, colorless, and without distinction—a character who would have bored you to tears in mere minutes; but under that veneer, we found Hemblen playing a seething, twisted dark soul, lost to even the semblance of normalcy. He has appeared in 57 films since 1974. FAMILY VIEWING was his fourth film. He has been in four other Egoyan movies. I remember him in IRON EAGLE IV (1995), and in FLY AWAY HOME in 1996. He reminded me a lot, with his Everyman features, of an old friend of mine, actor Biff McGuire, who was so good as the crippled father in THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER (1968).

Arsinee Khanjian played Aline. She, of course, is married to Atom Egoyan, and has appeared in almost every one of his 24 features. She has an M.A. in Political Science from the University of Toronto. She has made 31 films since 1984. She is a very striking looking actress. This film only really came to life with her first entrance, appearing in her beret and long scarf, with her long curly black hair flowing, and her beautiful dark eyes sparkling with sadness.

Gabrielle Rose played Sandra, the live-in lover or possibly the second wife. She, too, is an Egoyan regular. Her film career started out in 1984 as well. That was a landmark year for this cast. She has appeared in 48 films, and has appeared 28 times in guest shots on Canadian television. I remember her in THE JOURNEY OF NATTY GANN (1985). Rose Sarkisyan played Van’s mother. FAMILY VIEWING was her first film. She has been in two other Egoyan movies, and has made 8 films all together. I was struck by how similar she looked to Arsinee Khanjian.

Selma Keklikian played Armen, Van’s grandmother—Stan’s mother-in-law. I thought she was very effective. Perhaps Egoyan knew her, and she was not really an actress. This was her only film.

FAMILY VIEWING seemed to have been shot entirely on videotape. It was very grainy and gray. Muddy colors were predominant. Even if much of this was intentional, it made the movie droll and unattractive to look at. The film was mostly a hit with the critics, but it hardly made a ripple with the public. Perhaps it was because Joe Public could not fully connect with most of the characters—like in a Pinter play or film. It does take a lot of patience to stay focused on a story that plays out in the distance, beyond Videodrome, with gray figures almost blending into the dull landscape. Watching the first few scenes, I felt as if I was trudging through a Kafka or Camus experience. The scenes felt so detached; they were almost alien, bordering on futuristic, like watching those buzzed out automaton characters in THX1138 (1971). One critic wrote,” This story takes place on the Far Side of the tube.”

Atom Egoyan in this film, and in many of his earlier efforts presented the titans of technology versus reality; proposing that the flickering reflections of reality appearing on television screens, or computer screens, captured on video tape, played out in pornography, or just fleeting images caught on surveillance cameras—could somehow pass for what was real, or even was preferable and could become “real”, taking on a celluloid life force of its own.

There have been several scientific studies illustrating how sensory bombardment can become a form of “brain-washing”. Our televisions become babysitters for our toddlers, and our computers become learning tools for our very young children. They say that many of our youngest soldiers fighting in Iraq today have better eye-hand coordination while using sophisticated weapons, secondary to their many years of practice with video games. I would submit that Egoyan saw the seeds of this “imagery worship” over two decades ago.

Even thirty years ago, while watching THE PARALLAX VIEW (1974), we began to understand how frightening sensory bombardment could be. Remember-- the Parallax Organization was a shadowy entity that recruited and trained assassins? Part of the training was countless hours sitting in viewing rooms being overwhelmed with imagery that had lethal and bizarre juxtaposition, like mother’s apple pie/Adolf Hitler—puppies in a basket/Auschwitz bodies lying in broken pile—a Corvette/a Sherman tank—and carving up a turkey/stabbing a woman. In addition, there were those several “Violence Channels” on the television sets in THX1138, hour after hour of black leathered, chrome-faced robots pounding on people with aluminum clubs and long-stranded nylon whips. In both films the suggestion was that “reality” can be twisted up like taffy, and formed into any shape that is wanted or needed to achieve an end.

The utter fascination, to some people, for pornography conjures up for me David Cronenberg’s 1983 film, VIDEODROME. In it James Woods hacked into a perverse maverick video feed, and it was saturated with sado-masochistic sex and extreme violence. It was a kind of “Snuff TV”. It turned out to be a master conspiracy whereby they used television transmissions to permanently alter the viewer’s perceptions, giving them a form of brain damage, and pushing them into madness. This whole subject is also reminiscent of Paddy Cheyefsky’s script for Sidney Lumet’s NETWORK (1976), wherein we watched an independent network that was floundering, substantially boost their ratings with outrageous programming. The best ratings showed up when Peter Finch announced that he was planning to commit suicide on the air. And God help us, who could have predicted the glut, the plethora of “Reality” programming that is on the tube today. My own wife watches 8 or 9 of them religiously. I have explained to her that these shows are not “live”, that they are as carefully rehearsed and choreographed as professional wrestling, but she will hear none of it. My daughters have succumbed to the same lie. I read somewhere,” That one of the greatest ironies of our Communications Age is that the very tools we designed to bring people closer together often estrange them, and push them even further apart.”

So FAMILY VIEWING is a tall tale of family dysfunction, influenced or even brought on and exacerbated by technology. The father, Stan, is more than fascinated by video imagery. He videotaped his little family for years. He worked for one of the earliest video components distributors, and so he had access to much of the pioneer video equipment. Then we discover that Stan is also addicted to pornography and phone sex, and this created a family unit of twisted “watchers”—voyeurism gone off the edge, dropping psyches into a dark place. We were informed that Stan’s first wife, Van’s mother, had abandoned them—just left, disappeared without an explanation. Van, still in high school, became very resentful of his father. He responded passively-aggressively at first—carrying on an affair with Sandra under his father’s nose. Sandra was Stan’s live-in girlfriend and sex toy, who might have been his second wife and Van’s stepmother, which would have made the whole affair even kinkier. It was never made very clear exactly who, or what she was. As viewers, we could see this much older woman coming on to the young Van—and I felt some trepidation that it might even have been his own mother. She seems a little bit in love with him, and he seemed to just dally with her.

A pivotal plot point, brought up early on the film, was that Stan, after his first wife ran off, put her mother in a Convalescent Home. He paid the bills, but he rarely visited her. This was Van’s grandmother, Armen. Against Stan’s wishes, Van would visit her almost daily. He would sit by her bed holding her flaccid hand, as she would stare almost catatonically one of those chained-down television sets on the wall high above every third bed. While Van was visiting, all that seemed to be on TV were Nature shows, demonstrating primal survival only of the fittest.

Enter the lovely Aline, who would come to visit her mother, who occupied the bed next to Armen. All four would sit wordlessly staring at the television for countless hours, for days, for weeks. Van would beg his father to let Armen come and live with them. Stan would not consider it, would hardly discuss it. Sandra was put off by the prospect too.

Philip Larking once wrote:
In our family
Love was as disgusting as lavatory,
And not as necessary.

Van began to stand up to his father, and reject his “family” at his father’s home. He began to create a new family in his mind, a makeshift one where he could become a fully integrated person, where kindness and affection would not be strangers, where dignity and respect could be regular visitors.

Rip Taylor once wrote,” Not be loved is miserable, but not to love at all is catastrophe.” Even George Bernard Shaw once added to the fray,” Life is not about finding your self. Life is about creating your self.”

It is revealed that Aline is a phone-sex girl, and she has been making a living at it for some time. Seeing her as just human, with all her foibles and doubts, being caught up in that vocation reminded me of some of the better moments in Spike Lee’s GIRL 6 (1996). One of her regular clients turned out to be Stan. He would strip down, and get Sandra to do the same and sit on the bed beside him. Then he would call Aline, and as she would describe what she would like to do to him, Stan would have Sandra actually be doing it simultaneously. In addition, to add spice, he would videotape the sex play. Stan seemed incapable, at the point we meet him, of having a normal physical relationship. He seemed lost, in over his head, completely addicted to video fantasy and video kink. Sandra was a willing, albeit depressed, participant. That was probably one of the reasons she was so attracted to young Van. I am sure that he would just screw her brains out in a teenage straightforward manner.

Egoyan used the videotaped memories of Van’s childhood extremely well. In the beginning, Stan taped everything the family did, the meals, the play, and the trips. On tape we actually see Armen, the grandmother, as a real person, active and happy. We saw Van’s dark and beautiful mother being a domestic, and a loving parent. We saw Van as the only child, precocious and intelligent, staring into that camera lens as he would into the face and eyes of another person. Children are very “natural” on film. They have not yet learned to be self-conscious. Van always seemed to be in the company of his mother and his grandmother.

When Van found out that those precious memories were being systematically taped over by Stan, replaced with the home porno he performed with Sandra, he asked her about it.

Sandra said of Stan,” He likes to record.”

Van’s responses was,” He prefers to erase.”

Van liberated those family tapes, and replaced them with blanks, putting on Stan’s old labels. Later in the film, when Van was viewing some of them, he stumbled onto a brief scene featuring his mother. She was in the bedroom, bound to a chair and gagged, sitting awkwardly in her black bra and panties, with the silken gag tied tightly around her mouth—and she was staring directly into Stan’s video camera lens. Her sad eyes spoke volumes. Suddenly we could understand why she left Stan and fled the whole perverse scene. It does not, of course, explain why she left her son and her mother too.

How lovely it was that Egoyan had Aline meet Van at the Old Folk’s Home, and that ultimately after some weird and wonderful circumstances, they ended up as a couple. Often, slyly, the plot touched on farce. When Aline went out of town on a paid tryst, Van was tasked to watch her mother. Then her mother died and Van began to hatch a plan immediately. He switched Armen into the other’s bed, and announced to the officials at the Home that his grandmother had passed away. To them, the residents were faceless, so they did not notice the switch. Armen, still non-verbal, made no fuss either.

With a touch of Commedia, Van forced Stan to pay for the funeral, but requested that he not attend it—mentioning that Armen had expressed that wish. Van put up a blank headstone; convincing Aline that he had buried her mother hurriedly and just didn’t know what to have carved on it. Soon, he confessed his deception, admitting that Armen was masquerading as her mother. He recruited Aline to assist him. She removed her “mother”, and all three of them went back to live in Aline’s apartment.

Stan, in the meantime, discovered the blank tapes, and decided to hire a detective to spy on his son. The film shifted into kind of a PINK PANTHER mode as Van stayed one jump ahead of the detective and Stan. Van was working in a fancy hotel. He moved Armen into one of the vacant rooms in a wing that was closed down for the season. But the detective told Stan where the new “family” was hiding, and Stan rushed to confront them. Desperate, Van called the hotel management, and turned Armen in as a homeless vagrant—knowing they would turn her over to the authorities, and that she would be place somewhere as a Jane Doe.

In a marvelous bit of comic closure, Stan was foiled, rushing red-faced into an empty room, and Van was able, with Aline at his side, to find his grandmother. When they entered her dormitory room, they found that she was not alone. Armen was sitting on a clean bed, fully dressed and smiling, carrying on a conversation with—Van’s long lost mother. We are tossed a fairy tale ending, and after all the tedium and dark farce that preceded it—we were caught completely off guard. Van, now, would have a real “Family”, complete with his mother, his grandmother, and Aline. This little group of persons would reflect in flesh the happy family that in the past he was only able to imagine as he viewed the videotapes of his childhood.

Ironically, Stan’s lesson for his son was that when your life becomes so empty and unfulfilling that you are miserable; then it is up to you to fabricate, or imagine a “new” one. Technology can be used to express, or evade, what should be “real” emotions. If you tell a lie often enough, it is very hard to discriminate it from truth. But in Van’s case, he lucked into a “happy ending”—and I was pleased to see it.

Every day we all move closer to becoming a totally image-based culture. Sound bites on the evening national news are mostly “image-bites”. Atom Egoyan was prophetic within his postulations and projections for the future. With FAMILY VIEWING, he produced a richly and densely layered film, that when viewed in its entirety, has a hypnotic quality to it. It was many things—a black comedy, a dramedy, rampant with bleak views of humanity, full of dysfunctional characters, and loaded with disturbing undercurrents of sexual deviancy and implied incest. There is some plot similarities to the young man Dustin Hoffman played in THE GRADUATE (1967). In Egoyan’s film, somehow when the end credits rolled, I felt that all the absurd farcical pieces of the puzzle had snapped together—and I felt a definite emotional lift.

I gave this movie a rating of 3.5 stars.
Glenn Buttkus (2005)