Friday, May 15, 2009

You Don't Know Him From Atom

After barely a week to recover from the San Francisco International Film Festival, the parade of rare screenings has started up again, with a two-week series of obscure film noir titles screened in 16mm at the Roxie starting last night, and a six-days of gems by Nick Ray, Andrzej Zulawski, Abel Ferrara and more, collected under the title Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, at the Castro. The Yerba Buena Center For the Arts continues a terrific early-summer calendar with new films by Phillipe Garrel and Hong Sang-soo and older films starring Laurel & Hardy, Fred Williamson and more. The Pacific Film Archive is closed for now, but will reopen May 29th with the first salvo in this much-anticipated stop on the Nagisa Oshima touring program.

But there's also a surfeit of promising titles to catch up playing commercial runs at the local arthouses. One of these,
Adoration, opens today at the Embarcadero here in Frisco and at the Elmwood near the Berkeley/Oakland border. Adam Hartzell caught the film and has written a piece on it, beginning with a personal reflection on its director's first name:

My appreciation for Armenian-Canadian director Atom Egoyan comes from a unique place. Like many a high school kid anxious about their identity, I decided that doing something funky with my name would help me make my mark. So I began spelling my name with a backwards capitol 'D' (which I don’t know how to actually do here, so you’ll have to flip the 'D' in your head). Adam Ant was my favorite artist at the time and he did the same thing. However, this had to stop when one day my sophomore English teacher took me aside after class and asked me if I was dyslexic.

I didn’t want to have that happen again. But I still wanted to make a mark through my name. I was a lucky kid in that I could jump around from clique to clique. I had a fairly natural athletic ability, so I started on the Ohio-obligatory gridiron football team. I was also fairly smart in the sense that I knew what the teachers wanted me to know, the key to surviving industrial scholastics unscathed. Yet in spite of this cynicism to how knowledge was commoditized in high school, I still aspired for knowledge. I saw how 'nerds' were treated in pre-Geek-Chic pop culture and wanted to jam what I saw as the ill-minded promotion to dumb down the commons.

One way I wanted to do this was through my letter jacket. The point of the letter jacket was to advertise your success on the playing field, be it football, track, or even golf. I wanted to put chemistry and math on mine. I wanted to subvert the dominate paradigm. Sadly, my parents wanted to divert their son from being a freak, so that never happened. They were the ones paying the bill so they nixed that one. In compensation, I decided to start spelling my name A-T-O-M, rather than my given spelling.

Everyone in my high school knew everyone else’s business. So everyone knew I spelled my name that way. When I got to university I found myself surrounded by quite a few Adams, so I began spelling my name out. 'Hi, my name’s ATOM, that’s A-T-O-M, not A-D-A-M' was how I introduced myself. It sounds dorky, but, thankfully, I had a personality that could make it work, at least for the people who mattered to me, those people who became my friends. Since dorm-living was required for all first year students, people began to hear about this guy who spelled his name 'A-T-O-M'. I’d meet a new person who’d say upon meeting me, 'Oh, you’re A-T-O-M Adam'. And that’s how people began just calling me, 'A-T-O-M'. Later on, it was shortened to 'A.T.', which melded nicely with the fact that my middle initial is 'T'.

And then one day I was walking along the Delmar Loop in St. Louis and came upon a poster advertising an upcoming flick at the Tivoli Theatre. It was called The Adjuster and was directed by someone who also spelled his name 'Atom'. I was shocked, shocked, SHOCKED!!! This Egoyan character stole my name! Distraught, I was worried.. 'If this guy’s successful, people might think I’m copying him?!' My youthful hubris, a nice way of saying my bullshit, was busted. I protested by not going to see the film.

I still haven’t seen it. However, I have seen Ararat, The Sweet Hereafter, and Family Viewing, thoroughly enjoying each. So I think I’ll get around to seeing The Adjuster one day. The peculiar psychological space that places Egoyan in my mental matrix is fitting since his films are such a psychological and metaphysical treat.

Egoyan’s latest film comes to the Bay Area this weekend, Adoration. Egoyan again features his wife, Arsinee Khanjian in a major role. This time she plays a high school French and Drama teacher with an agenda for 'The Method' which provides a method for revealing her agenda. Her student Simon (Devon Bostick) is the ruse for her muse. Simon had lived with his Uncle Tom (Scott Speedman) since the 'accidental' death of his parents. Uncle Tom's character development is wonderful. We get to know Uncle Tom through his daily work tasks, the monotony, the slights, the subtle humiliation. We can see why he would be willing to become an unwitting player in this drama of layered truths and lies.

Egoyan’s films are the perfect festival films. Adoration was selected for Cannes last year and for the San Francisco International Film Festival this year. They are slow-paced, yet never lethargic. They softly reveal layers of plot and character, aspects for which many of us flock to festivals. Egoyan’s artifice works rather than grinds against our enjoyment because in displaying artifice, Egoyan is investigating how we perform ourselves, an often visited topic of Egoyan’s oeuvre. He has been interested in how we mediate ourselves for some time, from the video works in Family Viewing to the The-Brady-Bunching of live video chatrooms on Simon’s computer in this film. The way internet video is incorporated into the story is particularly engrossing as we watch Simon immerse himself in stories that are frightening to behold, stories he has become a part of in his youthful willingness to ‘lie’ (or is he?) to play with the truth. Here Egoyan touches on the frightening paths we might find ourselves drawn towards and how the web makes those paths, hypothetical before the internet, so much easier to take.. Rather than shock us graphically, it is the dialogue that traumatizes Simon and the viewer of this viewer.

The film is powerful, but not perfect. As is often the case with films, I can’t make my case for a major flaw in the film without ruining one of the reveals. So, as cryptically as possible, let me say this - whereas the performances around truth throughout the film allow for ambiguity, one point of the film is presented as real when no one could have possibly been there to testify to its truth, nor was there any medium through which the truth could have been extended.

This doesn’t ruin the film for me. It just tempers my appreciation so as not to engage in my own adoration of Egoyan. It’s still a lovely film in spite of this flaw. And it’s clear Egoyan will be the most famous person to ever spell his Adam A-T-O-M. I’ve grown to accept that reality.

Thanks, A.T.! -Brian


  1. Laurel & Hardy AND Hong Sang-soo? All those other filmmakers are an added bonus. Filmgoing doesn't get much better than this.

  2. You're so right, Peter. Though I'm pretty excited about another chance to see Jeanne Dielmann too, this time with all its reels intact, unlike the recent SFMOMA screenings where reel 2 had to be sourced from DVD.

  3. Adam, as ever, a clever piece. Not only on the evanescence of how we identify and name ourselves, but in how our tastes and distastes shift over the years. You're always a pleasure to read.