Living in Oblivion (1995): Tom DiCillo’s Response to Truffaut’s Night for Day

Living in Oblivion, Tom DiCillo’s follow-up to Johnny Swede, offers a smart, amusing look at the perils of filmmaking, low-budget style.

It’s DiCillo’s version of Truffaut’s Night for Day–a valentine to the independent film world.

Of course, the bleak title, which suggests a crime-gangster flick, indicates nothing about the film’s clever treatment and intricate structure. Originally designed as a short to showcase actress Catherine Keener (Johnny Suede’s co-star) and Dermot Mulroney, who also appears in the film, it’s a picture in which reality and fantasy double back on one another.

Highlighting every problem a struggling filmmaker might encounter, each of three sections involves a scene that put-upon director Nick Reve (Steve Buscemi), a cineaste who displays a poster of Fritz Lang’s M on his wall, is desperately trying to shoot. Modest in scale, and sophisticated without being self-absorbed, it examines the anxieties and mishaps that befall creators of low-budget indies, with observations that apply to any artistic collaboration where egos, libidos, talents, and technology collide.

Chad Palomino (James Le Gros), the heartthrob star of the film within film, declares upon arrival: “I’m watchin’ you buddy, like a hawk! I wanna learn from you!” Chad, whose more typical roles are a rapist whom Michelle Pfeiffer falls in love with, and a sexy serial killer who shacks up with Winona Ryder, wreaks havoc on the set. Despite DiCillo’s repeated denials that his character’s diffident dudehood has nothing to do with Brad Pitt, the implication didn’t escape audiences. When a journalist asked Pitt what sort of character he played in Johnny Suede, he said: “He’s just an idiot trying to figure out how he can sit comfortably in a chair.”

Chad’s antics are only part of the trouble plaguing Nick, whose black-and-white nightmare gives the film its opening salvo. In the first sequence, an actress named Nicole (Keener) is forced to repeat the same scene with her mother over and over again while mishaps ruin every take. There’s nothing new about seeing a shot go fuzzy, or a sound boom lurch comically into a close-up, but DiCillo turns the accumulation of such screw-ups into funny material.

With endless patience and misplaced optimism about his artistry, Nick plays peacemaker on his strained set. He handles Wolf (Mulroney), a cameraman who wears beret, armband, leather
vest–and fake bravado. “I love the shot; hell, I designed it,” Wolf says. On the verge of panic, Nick must contend with Wanda (Danielle von Zernick), a cutthroat assistant director who unexpectedly softens when Chad appears; a driver (Tom Jarmusch) loaded with free advice; crew members with plans to make their own movies. Nicole and Chad become just well enough acquainted to turn their romance into a catastrophe–Nick learns that real-life love scenes usually turn troublesome onscreen.

The best segment is the central one in which Chad, for all his casual manner, turns out to be a ruthless scene-stealer, sneakily outmaneuvering his director and co-star–until he’s forced to make the ultimate power play (“I’ll pay for it myself!”).

The last reel raises serious doubts about Nick’s artistry as he stages a dream sequence involving Tito, a indignant dwarf in a formal attire. Tito voices a rant against dream sequences and the aesthetic of bizarreness–fed up with lending what can be described as the Lynch touch to movies. Resenting stereotyping, Tito asks, “Have you ever had a dream with a dwarf in it” If Nick had an answer, he would be making a better film. In a perfect coda, DiCillo shows the longings of his characters, lavish lunches, romantic love, and prizes–including one “for the best film ever made by a human being.”

With the fresh spontaneity that signals a labor of love, Living In Oblivion’s subject is narrow, but it’s blessed with infectious good humor and a delightful ensemble that keeps its energy high. Inhabiting a world that becomes seductively real, the performers display a shared sense of purpose. Wickedly playful, Living in Oblivion celebrates mischief so deliciously that it could only encourage neophyte directors to follow suit.