Movie Review – Living in Oblivion

Living in Oblivion (1995)
Written & Directed by Tom DiCillo

1990s America was fertile soil for independent film. We all know the ones that got the most attention: Reservoir Dogs, Clerks, Dazed & Confused, etc. This was when the Sundance Film Festival became something many people outside the festival circuit might talk about if they loved movies. By the 2010s, many of these pictures’ elements had become cliche. The quirkiness of an indie film that was once a unique strength had become a joke. What once was seen as edgy was now looked at as old-fashioned. Some filmmakers have proven this true. Look at what Kevin Smith has been up to lately. Yikes. Several directors just kept making movies, whether the big audiences kept showing up or not. Tom DiCillo was already experiencing frustration with making the kind of movies he wanted in 1995 and expressed that in the strange, intriguing comedy Living in Oblivion.

DiCillo had worked as a cinematographer throughout the 1980s. You won’t have heard of most of his movies, but you might have seen Stranger Than Paradise, directed by Jim Jarmusch. In 1991, DiCillo had his feature directorial debut with Johnny Suede. That experience was not enjoyable for the director as he was working at Miramax. If you don’t know the stories of Harvey Weinstein, you should look those up. His sex crimes are by far the worst things he’s done, but he also had a habit of ruining people’s movies so they would be how he wanted them. Four years later, DiCillo made Living in Oblivion the story of a low-budget being made. Throughout the film, problems, both mundane and bizarre, occur, driving the director increasingly crazier. 

It’s a little more complicated than that. Characters from the movie keep waking up from dreams about working on set just around the time they need to go to set. But then someone else wakes up and it turns out the whole sequence had been a dream. Then that happens again until we enter a strange space where reality & dreams are no longer separate. Is there even a movie being made? Are these all the dreams of DiCillo flowing out onto film before our eyes, trying to make something good out of what might otherwise just be chaos on the film set?

Nick (Steve Buscemi), the director, is clearly new to the role and has difficulty wrangling parts of his cast & crew. The shoot is in the middle of New York City in a dingy little warehouse. The catering crew has provided terrible food and spoiled milk. That milk will prove a problem later for cinematographer Wolf (Dermot Mulroney). Finally, they are ready to shoot the heaviest scene of the picture. Nicole (Katherine Keener) is playing Ellen, a woman confronting her elderly mother about not intervening when Ellen’s father beat her. Cora (Rica Martens) plays the mother, who keeps forgetting her lines. Nicole also feels distracted and getting the scene how Nick would like it becomes increasingly impossible. At one point, Ellen nails it during rehearsal as the camera is reloaded, but when they start shooting, technical problems pop up.

Having never worked or even been on an actual film set, I really enjoyed how this film portrayed it. Like any job, you are trying to do the task a certain way, but so many things happen to sidetrack you. This has to be even more frustrating in acting, where conditions have to be just so for an actor to become lost in the scene, forgetting about “having to act” and just being the character. 

Because of my love of movies, I’ve ended up in ActorTok on my TikTok For You Page, which is very interesting. I see there being two things: acting & performing. Most people do Performing; it’s getting on stage and doing something, being able to repeat that thing. This could be delivering dialogue as a character in a believable way. You see this all the time on television & movies. Many movie stars are great performers; they lean on their popular persona and just deliver dialogue as that persona. Acting is more spiritual; it’s a ritual of finding psychological methods to put your Self aside for a while and replace it with the Self of a character. When someone is doing incredible acting we no longer see them, we see the character. This can also take a toll on a person because they essentially box up their Self each day and then unpack it when they head home, only to do it again the next day. This is not just Method Acting, which is a way of doing this. Most actors disconnect between scenes, but they leave the character idling so they can slip back in when the next shot is set up. In behind-the-scenes footage, you might see an actor continue using the character’s accent between takes or scenes. That’s not method acting; it’s just a way to not lose that voice. 

Living in Oblivion does an excellent job of differentiating between acting & performing with its characters. Nicole is an actor; she is trying to embody the character of Ellen, not just saying the dialogue but feeling the emotions that Ellen would feel in this confrontation. In the second part of the movie, we’re introduced to Chad Palomino (James LeGros), a pretty boy actor with “star quality” that is meant to boost the audience appeal of the movie during marketing. The thing is, Palomino is an arrogant asshole. Nicole & Palomino have sex the night before without the film crew knowing, and there’s tension on the set between them. Palomino keeps making suggestions about the blocking & lighting of the scene that work to upstage Nicole, which she is entirely aware of.

Unlike in part one, Nicole is no longer focused on acting but on elements of the scene’s making. Palomino is about the worst scene partner you could imagine, concentrated on that screen persona rather than the character he is playing. To appease the “big name,” Nick agrees with Palomino that Nicole isn’t very good, unaware she can hear them via the sound mixer’s headphones. This new distrust of the director now acts like a virus and plagues the rest of the scene. If your director doesn’t believe in your ability, then you are likely to shut down for them. It takes a lot out of talented actors to do what they do, and they rely on the director to show them the boundaries of the performance and support them as they act. If you can’t trust the director, then no acting will happen. So the actor will just perform the dialogue, which Nicole does to show she’s upset.

In part one, we had a tense scene between Ellen & her mother. In part two, it was Ellen and her lover. And for the finale, Ellen is in her own dream, which is rife with cliche and looks terrible. Tito (Peter Dinklage), a little person, is brought in to act as some dream figure, but even he points out how cliche this is to cast someone like him in this sort of role. Finally, some unexpected events allow us to watch how Nicole goes from performing the scene, rolling her eyes in disgust, to becoming lost in that character’s emotions. It takes one change, a recast of the dream figure, and then suddenly Nicole can be Ellen and feel the scene.

Living in Oblivion is undoubtedly an artifact of its time, but it has aged quite well. It makes an indie film set into the setting of a screwball comedy while also showcasing how hard it is to film a good scene. Nick is an actor’s director, always working with them to try and help them connect with the character. He’s certainly not flawless and makes many mistakes throughout the picture. Because we’re watching dreams within dreams, you might think each segment feels disconnected, but somehow there are threads linking the moments. Nick even remarks that he’s learned from a dream about what not to do that day on the set. There’s also a lot about embracing the moment, not trying to force something great through. It’s a tricky balance for a filmmaker because of all the costs associated with simply an hour shooting a picture. But when you find a way to give the actors time & space to understand the characters, you will get something beautiful on camera.

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