Film Review: Family Viewing (1987)

The title of the film is slightly misleading. The film is neither entertaining in the conventional sense, nor is it meant to be seen with one’s family.The film is directed by Armenian-Canadian director, Atom Egoyan, and the impact it had, at the time of its release was primarily limited to film critics. Deploying dark humour, as its tone, it is a wry and acerbic commentary on the media age, shot in Egoyan’s developing style of deadpan dialogue and voyeuristic, semi-documentary mise-en-scene.

Egoyan shot almost all of the film, not on 35 mm or 16 mm, but on home video DV format.

The story is that of a completely defunct family. Upon the disappearance of his mother, Stan feverishly tries to piece together existing clues. He’s not sure he likes the outcome, but given the extent to which his family has disintegrated, he’s not surprised, either. His father has a habit of capturing scenes from their daily life on home video. Faced with his own overwhelming feelings of alienation, and the emotional havoc wreaked by the fact that he is sleeping with his vapid stepmother, young Stan leaves home for good. He then visits the retirement community home where his Dad exiled his grandmother. And in one scene, Stan’s dad, affecting a great show of dutifulness, for example, arrives with flowers in hand to pay a visit to his mother (Stan’s grandmother) in the home, only to be told that the woman at whom he’s gazing so lovingly is a complete stranger; his real mother was transferred to a different bed a long time earlier.

This is where he meets Aline, an unlikely friend of his grandmother’s, who works for a phone sex service. Much of the action finds Stan and this young woman at the nursing home where her mother and his grandmother are coincidentally living side by side, a lot more interchangeable than anyone initially realizes. Stan moves in with Aline, but things get complicated again when his lascivious father becomes one of Aline’s most frequent callers.

The fact that most of day-to-day family life depicted in the film, is seen through the lens of a camcorder, adds a sense of voyeuristic reality to the events taking place in the family. The camera forces the spectator to become a voyeur. Moreover, this technique also adds a sense of detached viewership to the narrative, as seen from the audience’s perspective. The events themselves are mundane, yet at the same time, the images are, at times, disturbing. At once a satirical comment on the nature of television soap operas (the title may imply that), in terms of set design, fixed camera angles and positioning, set cinematographic patterns unique only to television shooting techniques, as the film progresses, it becomes a statement on sexual fetishes, ranging from telephone sex to BDSM, sado-masochism, and incest.

The idea of a sarcastic remark on the nature of television soaps becomes only apparent after the first few minutes. In the beginning, one is almost led to believe that the quality of acting and set design and camerawork is really shallow and artificially constructed, without an eye for detail or talent for acting. However, as the film progresses, the average viewer understands the intentional implementation of such clichés, from the point of view of an intellectual end that the film aims to achieve with its audience. The ubiquitous zooms, the steady pans, the complete lack of any variety in the shots, and in the overall mise-en-scene, are all techniques deployed by television soap operas. Stan steals videotapes of the mother who abandoned him years earlier, thus angering his father, who has been re-recording homemade porno footage over this material. And it is through these various tapes that the audience, and also Stan, are made aware of certain skeletons in their family’s cupboard.

Everyone in the film seems to be fighting some kind of battle against anomie, as when Stan complains, ”Everything I do feels like I could be doing it or not, and it doesn’t matter either way.” Family Viewing has an oddball humor and a sense of contemporary corruption that are very much its own. It is almost ironic, yet in sync with Egoyan’s style, that the characters seem much more real when looked at through the videotapes. The real diegetic action seems too intentionally artificial to gain any empathetic credibility.

The New York Times remarked: “Video cameras and monitors watch over the characters in Atom Egoyan’s ”Family Viewing” with the patience and passivity of vultures, but without the enthusiasm. The advent of this modern technology seems to have drained all vitality out of the participants in Mr. Egoyan’s very peculiar black comedy, and it’s their listlessness that makes them so funny and sad.”

The film seems hopelessly arch at first, but over time it develops real style and real feeling.

Yes, it is not one to be watched when you are looking for a lazy afternoon’s light comedy.

Vipul Ralph Shah

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