Family Viewing and I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing

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2.2 Egoyan’s Family Viewing: Sex, Lies and Videotape

The title of this subchapter was chosen because it is “Sex, Lies and Videotape” that characterize Egoyan’s early films, including Family Viewing, precisely. As discussed above, Egoyan’s early movies have similar characteristics—preoccupation with themes like family, technology, trauma, erasure, violation, and forgetting. They also had limited budget and similar tone, editing pace and acting style. Moreover, in virtually all of his films, including Family Viewing, Egoyan managed to retain a complete control: he wrote, directed, produced and edited them. Another typical feature of Egoyan’s cinematography is the fact that he surrounds himself with regular collaborators who cooperate on most of his films. For all, let’s name at least his wife Arsinée Khanjian, who played in almost all his movies, including all the early ones.

Family Viewing is the story of “mistaken and found identities,” observing the “breakdown and restoration of a dislocated family. Darkly humorous and unpredictable, Family Viewing is a complex journey into a world of brutality and sentiment” (“Family Viewing”).

The movie budgeted at $160,000 and was financed with private money and state-funded grants (Taubin 28). Egoyan did not aspire for a bigger budget because of the formal considerations. Therefore, even though he finally decided to ask Telefilm and Ontario Film Development Corporation for money, he had to marginalize himself and hired only limited crew in order to ensure a complete control over the production (Egoyan, “Interview with Burnett”).

Family Viewing received a glowing response: it was awarded the “Best Canadian Feature Film” at the Toronto International Film Festival and received eight Genie Awards’ nominations. Some negative reactions also appeared, like that of Adam Barker who argued that Van’s “crucial role increasingly makes the film look like a piece of adolescent wish-fulfilment, culminating in his mothers’ reappearance from nowhere at the end” and that “[with] so many boundaries of so many genres, it is not surprising that it is often confused and unsatisfactory” (300). Despite this and several other negative responses, it can be argued that Family Viewing was highly successful with film critics who considered Egoyan “well worth watching in the future” because Family Viewing develops “real style and real feeling” (Maslin, “Family Viewing”).

2.3 Synopsis

Family Viewing centres on the life of the members of a family. Van is a young man in his late teens, living with his father Stan and step-mother Sandra who occasionally tries to seduce him. Van spends a lot of time with his grand-mother Armen, whom Stan placed in a nursing home so as he could forget about the past and his wife. Armen provides Van with what Stan is afraid of so much—with the access to Van’s childhood, his Armenian roots and above all to his mother who left the family many years ago for a reason that is only alluded to later in the movie. In the old people’s home, Van meets Aline, a telephone-sex operator, who comes to visit her mother there. Gradually they become friends but at this moment Van does not know yet that Stan is one of Aline’s regular customers.

Stan, the head of the family, is a video equipment salesman and his profession influences his family life profoundly—screens fill the flat the family lives in. Stan’s passion is especially connected to video: he likes to record sexual adventures of himself and Sandra over the home video tapes from Van’s childhood.

Soon after Van fails in persuading his father to take Armen home, he finds out that Stan erases the tapes from his youth. At this moment Van takes his life into his own hands: he grows angry and secretly takes the tapes away from his father’s bedroom. He also decides to help Armen out of the old people’s home where she is unhappy.

To accomplish his plans Van takes advantage of the first opportunity and when Aline’s mother kills herself with the overdose of pills, Van switches the identity of his grandmother and Aline’s mother thus fooling the people around into thinking that it was his grandmother who died. With the help of Aline, who was at first shocked by what happened, Van manages to take his grandmother out of the nursing home and Aline offers him to keep her in her own flat where Van joins them. However, Stan soon begins to suspect that Van took Armen somewhere and hires a private detective to spy after the young couple. Van needs to move Armen into a vacant wing of the hotel where he works. Stan tracks them down but in the meantime Van arranges to take Armen away in an ambulance. The movie closes with a happy family re-union: Van and Aline come to visit his long-lost mother and beloved grandmother into a homeless shelter. In the meantime, Stan in a frantic pursuit after his son collapses in the hotel room.

2.4 Family Viewing: Let’s Have a Look … on the Viewer

Family Viewing’s distinctness lies first and foremost in the use (or abuse) of various audio and visual media technologies—tape and video recorders, screens and cameras. The plot is non-linear and almost fragmented, which has the effect of heightening the viewers’ attention and involvement: they are thrown into the middle of a story not knowing where they are and at least for the first fifteen minutes wondering what is happening around them before they manage to make it at least partly clear. Egoyan thus forces the viewers “to approach his films like detectives, piercing the narrative from broken fragments” (Chappell, “Alain Resnais”).

The necessity of being an active and observant viewer is stressed from the first to the last scene of Family Viewing. The opening scenes of the movie enclose the viewer in a very limited space behind the camera that overlooks the scene and their view is partly blocked by two racks with trays. They are able to see only some fragments of the furniture in the room in front of them and the bottom of a television placed in its right upper corner. The scene is made complete by a voice presumably coming from the TV, speaking calmly and mildly. A young man, whom one later identifies as Van, appears in front of them but he only looks around, doing nothing at all. Here for the first time in the story, the viewers are made aware of their viewing and of the distance between themselves and the characters in the story. The use of the screen in these opening scenes augurs the tone and mood of the whole film: Egoyan reminds the viewers of the artifice of the movie and thus invites them to “restage” their own relation to what they see and forces them to “give up the comfortable illusion of straightforward relation to reality” (Tschofen and Burwell 23).

The omnipresence of the screen is then stressed again immediately after the first scenes of the film. The viewers are placed in a position of a TV set in the upper corner of another room occupied by several elderly women. Van comes directly beneath the TV and looks into the camera as if studying it, as if suspecting someone or something is hidden there. He then starts switching channels on the TV, presumably looking for something interesting to watch together with his grandmother. At this moment the spectators are freed from the TV box and placed in front of it, thus watching the TV screen within cinema (or another television) screen. This use of the double screen makes the viewers aware that the image is a construct (Egoyan, “Family Romances”). More importantly, however, Egoyan’s strategy embodies what Bolter and Grusin call “hypermediacy”—a style of visual representation whose goal is to remind the viewer of the medium—strategy that can be oppositional to the “transparent immediacy” which is typical of conventional cinema:

In the logic of hypermediacy, the artist (or multimedia programmer or web designer) strives to make the viewer acknowledge the medium as a medium and to delight in that acknowledgement. She does so by multiplying spaces and media and by repeatedly redefining the visual and conceptual relationships among mediated spaces—relationships that may range from simple juxtaposition to complete absorption. (42)

Bolter and Grusin, the theoreticians of new media, thus provide a useful guide for interpretation of Egoyan’s work. In their book Remediation: Understanding New Media, they claim that all new media strive for immediacy but although each medium promises to reform its predecessors by providing a more authentic experience (i.e. remediation), the promise inevitably leads one to become aware of the new medium as a medium. Even the most transparent form of media—virtual reality—remediates other technologies and especially film, its subjective style and point of view. Thus, immediacy leads to hypermediacy (Bolter and Grusin 17). “Hypermediacy” does not leave the viewers forget about the medium but rather reminds them of its presence (sometimes subtly and sometimes obviously) and consequently also of their desire for immediacy (Bolter and Grusin 34).5 Therefore, while conventional cinema (e.g. classical Hollywood cinema) tries to evoke the idea of immediacy by a unified visual space that strives for transparent immediacy, Egoyan employs, in line with the logic of hypermediacy, a heterogeneous space, in which “representation is conceived of not as a window on to the world, but rather as “windowed” itself—with windows that open on to other representation or other media” (Bolter and Grusin 37).
Egoyan sets the interplay of various technologies and media within the context of a family. While family is usually understood as the basic unit of society, a unit that is stable and endures together despite the pitfalls of life, Egoyan’s family does not fulfil this unproblematic pattern: it is incomplete, disorganized and without a deeper mutual interest of individual members in each other. Home is not, therefore, the place of safety and sanctuary. Due to the omnipresence of various screens it is rather depicted as a “constructed and artificial place” (Baronian 148).

As Egoyan himself acknowledged in an interview with Ron Burnett, the characters of Family Viewing function as archetypes: “[the] whole film is about people being convinced that they can reduce themselves to their archetypes” thus simplifying themselves from complex human beings to something schematic and trivial. As Egoyan further explained, this process is possible when people allow technology to trivialize themselves.6

The family in Family Viewing is dominated by a strongly patriarchal Father figure of Stan who exercises substantial amount of control over other family members: he tries to control the life of his son (by forcing him to forget about his Armenian part of self and erasing his childhood memories from videotapes), keeps his mother-in-law in a nursing home and controls also his lover Sandra in many areas of her life, including the sexual one. Stan is presented as an indifferent character who believes to be a much more simple person than he in fact is (when talking about his lover he implicitly acknowledges this fact by saying: “I… appreciate her simplicity. I’m tired of complications”) and is not able to deal with his own complexity (Egoyan, “Interview with Burnett”). The mother figure is missing in the story but her presence is indirectly mediated through video footage from Van’s youth. Father’s lover Sandra is a submissive woman who endures his lover’s sexual abasement and probably as a part of her rebellion against her dominant lover she tries to seduce her stepson who seems to be innocent and easily manipulated (at least at the beginning of the movie). The Son figure of Van is at the beginning quite submissive, he even overtakes some of his fathers’ habits (like his obsession with video) but as the plot develops he undergoes a personal transformation and becomes an independent adult with a mind of his own, thus releasing himself from the influence of his father and establishing his own identity.

As the result of the portrayal of the characters in Family Viewing, it may be quite difficult for the viewer to find a way how to identify with them. The identification process is then made even more difficult due to the dialogues which, as Peter Harcourt suggests, are “intentionally flat, delivered in a deadpan way”—inspired by the theatre of the absurd. The characters speak in “a series of absurdist statements that enact a dimension of alienation” (Harcourt, “Imaginary Images”). The following conversation between Van and Stan is delivered coldly and thus only enhance their alienation:

Van: Where’s Sandra?

Stan: She’s sleeping.

Van: So early?

Stan: She hasn’t been feeling well.

Van: What do you mean?

Stan: She’s been depressed.

Van: About what?

Stan: I don’t know.

Van: Haven’t you talked with her about it?

Stan: If she had something to tell me, she would.

Similar dialogues used throughout the whole film cause the viewers to question their own relationship to the characters. Egoyan explained his aim by saying that “[rather] than inviting the viewer to lose himself in the screen presence, the actor asks the viewer to question what it is about the character he’s supposed to identify with. In this way a more profound relationship can be established” (Egoyan qtd. in Harcourt, “Imaginary Images”). This kind of dialogue is not typical of Family Viewing exclusively, but can be found in most of Egoyan’s early movies. When commenting on Speaking Parts (1989) and The Adjuster (1991), the director admitted that “[there’s] not really any invitation to identify with any of the characters. As a matter of fact, you’re always very aware of the fact that you’re watching them, and that becomes what those experiences are about” (Egoyan, “Family Romances”). The following part of the thesis will develop the discussion of the viewing experience in detail.

As suggested by the title of the movie, apart from the family, “viewing” also plays a crucial role. In her famous essay, Laura Mulvey argued that Hollywood film enacts that way of looking associated with the male gaze because both the camera work and narrative structure cause the viewers to identify with the (usually) male main character. Looking is thus, according to Mulvey, one of the sources of pleasure—the so called scopophilic pleasure arising from “using another person as an object of sexual simulation through sight” (Mulvey 836-7). She concludes her paper by stating that:

The image of woman as (passive) raw material for the (active) gaze of man takes the argument a step further into the structure of representation, adding a further layer demanded by the ideology of the patriarchal order as it is worked out in its favourite cinematic form—illusionistic narrative film. […] [It] is the place of the look that defines cinema, the possibility of varying it and exposing it. This is what makes cinema quite different in its voyeuristic potential from, say, strip-tease, theatre, shows, etc. Going far beyond highlighting a woman’s to-be-looked-at-ness, cinema builds the way she is to be looked at into the spectacle itself. […] It is these cinematic codes and their relationship to formative external structures that must be broken down before mainstream film and the pleasure it provides can be challenged. (Mulvey 843)

The pleasure of the “male gaze” of which Mulvey speaks seems to be what Bolter and Grusin call the desire for transparent immediacy that may then become a male desire to possess the female that is characteristic of the Hollywood cinema. However, as described at the beginning of this subchapter transparent immediacy is not the only way of achieving immediacy and it is rather the opposite approach of hypermediacy that characterizes Egoyan’s work:

In such cases, we do not look through the medium in linear perspective; rather, we look at the medium or at a multiplicity of media that may appear in windows on a computer screen or in the fragmented elements of a collage or a photomontage. We do not gaze; rather, we glance here and there at the various manifestations of the media. This immediacy is not based on a desire to control and appropriate the female form, or any form, and may not be univocally gendered. (Bolter and Grusin 81)

By the use of the fragmented narrative structure (“a collage or a photomontage”), Egoyan forces the spectators to piece the various elements together from a multiplicity of clues: settings, characters or props (especially the media: television and video screen, surveillance cameras, etc.). Family Viewing thus cannot be analysed in terms of the male gaze as defined by Mulvey. Instead of acquiring the possessive gaze, the viewers need to “glance here and there,” and put individual pieces of the story together (Bryson qtd. in Bolter and Grusin 54). Egoyan thus makes them aware of the process rather than just the product—therefore, both the process of creation and the process of viewing play an important role.

This may be the reason why some reviewers criticized the movie. As Egoyan explained, the viewers “have to be always aware of their position and their relationship to these images” (Egoyan, “Family Romances”). Timothy Shary develops this idea further by arguing that Egoyan’s techniques, such as shifting the visual time frames of video images, relating them to filmic contexts and thus changing their meaning, portraying spectators as “explorers of a visual landscape” (thus questioning the “truth” of what one sees), and by cutting, distorting images or slow and fast motion, ultimately force the audiences to observe their viewing process and make the movie highly self-reflexive. By the instant stressing of the filming techniques the spectators are finally made to acknowledge and examine not only their viewing, but also its artificiality in comparison with “real life” (“Video” 27-28).

Egoyan’s Family Viewing provides the spectators with an immense number of impulses and challenges with which the viewers have to cope as the movie progresses. As discussed in the previous part of the thesis, there are many obstacles which have to be overcome in order to appreciate the film: fragmented narrative structure, a kind of detached acting style and dialogues, or importantly, the omnipresence of various screens implying the need to cope with a different way of achieving immediacy. The following part of the thesis will address the issue of media from yet another perspective—as artefacts vulnerable to alterations and manipulations.

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