Speaking of Parts: Atom Egoyan

An Introduction to the Film Speaking Parts by Atom Egoyan


Ron Burnett

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Any examination of the Canadian Cinema at this time must wend its way through the work of one its most important artists, Atom Egoyan. “Speaking Parts,” demonstrates a profound insight into the status of the image in postmodern societies but lest this be seen as too much of a generalization let me add that Egoyan’s film is also very Canadian. It is thoroughly aware of the particular cultural configuration which now dominates the Canadian sensibility, a configuration which pivots on the ambiguous status of the image in our society. Given the many images which we watch it is not surprising we feel less and less secure about their origin and have reached the point where there is a felt need, not only to comment on those images but to reappropriate them, to find some ground on which to repossess that which we feel should most rightfully be ours. It is precisely one of the major thrusts of Speaking Parts to question whether that is possible, to explore the relationship between image and identity, to lay bare what should now be very obvious, images are ubiquitous and it is not all that clear whether questions of identity, both national and personal can ever be separated from the transformations which images have engendered. We have gone far past the point of some pure identity that can be traced back from the image to reality or vice versa. (We cannot in other words return to ground zero as Jean Luc Godard once hoped and find a point where images, so to speak, have no status, where the real and the image are separated from each other.)

It is not an accident that the term image refers as much to the pictorial as it does to something far more internal, to that which we hold dear as self-image, to images of self. Thus it is not surprising that Lisa, one of the main characters in the film, should seek her identity through television, through video. In so doing she merely confirms what we already know. The television screen is no longer a peripheral part of the household, of the home. It is not a device into which shows and ideas and news broadcasts and images are imported. The home is a generator of images, a place for the production of fantasy. The television has merely become one of many available tools which can be used to sustain daily life, to sustain the creation of images. This is of course a rather ambiguous position to be in and Egoyan explores what happens to a character who falls in love with the image of a person through the video screen. Lisa’s love turns into an obsession because she cannot see herself outside of the image which she has created, outside of the love which the image has made possible. Her love is a form of self-love and yet without the solipsism she would be nothing and is in fact sustained, not so much by narcissism as by the desire to capture the other, to capture her imaginary boyfriend precisely as image.

The paradox is that identity in the postmodern age cannot be stripped of the image with the result that solipsism may be the necessary condition upon and through which identity is constructed. In fact, no character in Speaking Parts evades their implication within images, their dependence upon a language of the pictorial, their desire to abandon themselves to the changes engendered by images. Those changes do not have a systematic base, have not been organized around a particular or privileged center but as the film reveals are scattered through our culture. On an everyday level the characters in the film deal with the consequences of cultural shifts over which they have no control and it is this contradiction which both guides them and dominates their sensibilities.

As a kind of internal bracket equivalent to a pun, and during an important scene in a video store, Egoyan places a number of Canadian films near the cash register including the work of Rozema, Cronenberg, Lauzon and Arcand. (Lisa is being lectured by a worker in the store about the videos which she has taken out, all of which have her imaginary boyfriend playing bit roles in minor films.) It is not all that clear how these films as a whole represent some sense of Canadian identity (given that two of the films are from Quebec) but they do represent that part of Canadian identity which is rooted in the cinema and to some degree all of the films by these filmmakers are part of a significant re-appropriation of the national image over the last six or seven years. But it will be the thesis of this article and I believe it to be one the central ideas of Speaking Parts, that the image, the most important constituent of modern representational systems, cannot be used in a simple sense as a guide to identity since images are now the very foundation upon which identity is built. This would suggest that it is very difficult to find a vantage point outside of image processes from which to examine their role and their impact and in this sense Egoyan’s film inevitably perpetuates that which it critiques. To some degree there is just no way of avoiding these contradictions but what is significant about Speaking Parts is the way in which it enters the bowels of the monster, so to speak and tries to both survive and map the encounter.

Let me begin with the title of the film which plays in an ambiguous fashion with the question of speech, and more particularly with the rather perplexing problem of the actor’s relationship to what they say during the roles which they take on. It is generally assumed that there is a large gap between acting and the real person, that is between a star for example and the characters which they play. After all it would be rather difficult for actors to move from role to role if they were not able to shift their identities in a substantial way. But what if those shifts as a whole turn into a composite image, a composite identity? And for practical purposes how do we gain access to the differences between an actor and the life which they lead? How do actors themselves gain access to their own identities? Through the media, that is through images. So there is a double irony here, a classic case of doubling, the real life of the actor is as much an image as the characters they end up playing. It is all a matter of degree, of how the part relates to the whole, of whether the actor can or should transcend the limitations of the roles which they are always playing.

So it is with one of the main characters in Speaking Parts, Lance, whose main claim to fame is that he is a bit player in a number of unknown films, a cleaner in the hotel in which he works and a man whom women find unbearably attractive. He shifts between the ordinary and the extraordinary, but all of the time he is to some degree playing a role. He must, if he is to survive, cater to the image which others have of him while at the same time he remains desperately unsure of his own identity. Yet this is precisely how images operate. They propose nothing more specific than a space for others, a kind of entry point for viewing with the exit points to be defined by the viewer. They also propose a form of speech, a kind of orality which must of necessity play second fiddle to the image. Your part, your speech in an image has already been spoken, has already been scripted and so, in a sense speech is a form of silence.

Let us return to Lisa for a moment. She works with Lance in the hotel and believes in her own mind that she is his lover. She turns to his image as a way of relating to him. She watches and rewatches his bit parts and fantasizes a relationship which doesn’t exist. Her viewing takes place in an empty room with a television and a videotape recorder in it. The room also represents her mental space which she has to fill with the something ‘outside’, with that is, the image. Finally, she is driven to the point where the image provides her with no points of departure let alone possible avenues of escape. And it is this sense of enclosure, of being enclosed which links her to Lance. His folly is to believe that the enclosure can be broken, that people are greater than their images, that the actor can transcend the limitations of his role. At the same time he cannot recognize how his identity is bound up with his image, how the bit parts he plays have slowly translated themselves into his daily life as the very motif upon which he bases his own existence. He shares this with another important character in the film, a teacher who has become a screenwriter. Her life has been shattered by the death of her brother who died while donating a lung to her during a transplant operation. She is riddled with guilt and depression and the story she has written for the screen has become a way of purging that guilt but also a means of bringing her brother to life, albeit in a fictional form.

She is seen many times throughout the film gazing at the image of her brother in a video cemetary, one of the most haunting sets in the film. Just like Lisa, but also like Lance she cannot separate that image from her memories and so conflates them into one. The story she has written becomes the premise for a love affair with Lance whom she invites to play the role of her brother in the film she has scripted. It is that love affair which shatters her illusions about the fantasy world which she has built up because Lance cannot be her brother, nor can his image protect the sacredness of her memories. It is in fact the opposite. Images take the sacred and drain it of significance. For example, Lance gets caught up in the machinery of the film industry, in the false ego-building of his producer, in the image others have of him and this finally overwhelms the image he has of himself. There is an inherent lack of balance to the way in which he immerses himself in the starring role which he gets. He becomes an opportunist and in so doing loses contact with any moral center, with any sense of what is important and what is not.

For Egoyan the image also substitutes absence for presence. There can be no co-existence between presence and absence, the former merely sits in waiting, as do all video screens, whether on or off, sits and waits for the loss, the inevitable loss of meaning, which crucially is the motor force for the continued production of images.

The video or film camera has become more than a mediator between the real and the image, it has become a necessary part of both. And this is where the notion of speech comes in, for it is clear that in Speaking Parts speech as such has ceased to be valued or understood in isolation of the image for which it is constantly preparing itself. The significance of that which is spoken is constantly bracketed by the way the image will, or has interpreted what is said. The link between the image and its referents has not only been broken, fundamental to the operation of the image is the autonomy of its own processes as if it has somehow, as object, transcended its progenitors. It is this elimination of subjectivity which is at the heart of Egoyan’s film, at the heart of a dilemma about the meaning of language in an age where the spoken and written word has been stripped of the consensus which normally guides its use.

At one point in the film Lance masturbates while observing the image of the screenwriter who has become his lover. She is on a large screen and also masturbates while watching him. This two-way mirror foreshadows a time in the not too distant future when people will be able to interact with friends and family through video screens. In the film both lovers masturbate and are excited by the manner in which they have become images one to the other. Masturbation is the only way in which they can express their love and it is during this crucial scene that one of the most of the important themes in Speaking Parts is raised. In order to experience each other the lovers have to disembody themselves. In other words they get excited by the act of seeing each other as imges and transfer that excitement to their bodies. Since Lance cannot so to speak touch the image he must look at it and touch his own body. This metaphor of the body in relation to the image, the body taking the image into itself and defining its sexuality in terms of the image puts into question the very nature of the body itself. Where are the boundaries? Our view of Lance is in a symmetrical relation with his view of (x). This doubling makes the act of masturbation possible, makes the act of masturbation an act of viewing, transforms the body into a fulcrum for sight. Another way of putting this would be to say that Lance’s body can only become a locus of pleasure if he keeps his eyes open. In this context Egoyan has him masturbate in a detached and cool manner like someone who has practiced the art and for whom the pleasure of self-love is in fact the defining feature of love itself. Take this a step further and we of course realise that both lovers are in fact faking their orgasms because they are actors, ‘speaking’ and playing their parts.

At no point then has anything really happened. Throughout this sequence the fake masturbation becomes a metaphor for the simultaneous power and emptiness of images, the power to eroticize the body and the power to strip the body of meaning. This links up with the video cemetary. The notion that the dead can be revisited and preserved as image is a powerful one. As camcorders drop in price and reach out to more and more people videotapes will become like sepia photographs transferred from one generation to the next, a home archive built on the notion that long lost relatives can be ‘seen’ if they are placed on the video screen, preserved in a form more trustworthy than memory itself. Of course it is memory as such which will lose its place and the language of memory which will become devalued. And to Egoyan this loss amounts to a loss of identity, a loss of self.

If it seems as if the word loss has appeared many times in this article it is because images are so often spoken of as fillers, as vehicles through which meanings are enhanced or communicated. This presumption guides arguments about their effects leading to an overinvestment in the authority of the image. It is I believe one of the points of Egoyan’s film to suggest that the investment which we make in the image needs to be examined if only to raise the further question as to why images can at one and the same time entice and undermine, provide meaning and pull it away. What does happen when a video image, like some floating and ethereal essence, substitutes itself for the death of a loved one? What does it mean to see a dead relative ‘preserved’ so to speak within the frame of a television set, neither able to reach out to the living nor able to die and disappear?

The video cemetary in Speaking Parts is a living archive. It proposes a world in which the body, caught so to speak by the camcorder, will never age. What an enticement! Yet as Lisa discovers, the video screen can be talked to and it can replay anything, but somehow it cannot account for the unpredictability of human interaction and human communication. It cannot, in other words, be anything more than a screen. So when (x) looks to television as a way of recovering her brother and then uses Lance as a surrogate she quickly ascertains that the substitution cannot be produced in a simple or direct sense. She tragically learns that there is a complex infrastructure called the film and television industry with very different motives from her own. But it is the fact that she has even conceived of using Lance as a substitute for her brother through a film, which raises the far more difficult problem of the gap between images and that which they depict. For it is clear that her desire to rediscover her brother merely gives the image as a process the credibility which it doesn’t deserve. The depiction she has in mind is a construct and as such needs to be produced by the very industry which she has rejected.

Images comes to us, as Roland Barthes so often mentioned, via processes which seem to have a life of their own, naturalized. They sever the bonds of reference, the very continuity which is at the heart of how they construct meaning and in response to this Egoyan proposes at the end of his film that it is the physical contact between two human beings which finally will allow the power of the image to be broken. Lance and Lisa discover their intense need for each other. Somehow the image of their touching cannot transmit the intensity of their feelings for though the human body can be disembodied through images feelings as such cannot easily be shown. At the heart of Egoyan’s film lies an important message. Identity, be it national or personal cannot be divorced from images but this does not mean that images are the only route to be followed. At this rather tenuous and fragile stage of our history it may be necessary to discover a new way of using images instead of creating more contexts in which we are used by them.