Friday, August 2, 2013


I like to think that PINNLAND EMPIRE has always been a friendly place for Canadian filmmakers. From modern legends (David Cronenberg) to cult figures (Guy Maddin) to young emerging talent (Xavier Dolan) and everything else in between - there's always been a special place on this site for our friends in the north. But the one Canadian figure we almost never mention on here is Atom Egoyan. I'm almost embarrassed to admit but outside of The Sweet Hereafter, Adoration & Chloe I'm not very familiar with his work (I haven't even seen Exotica). I came across Calendar by a fluke (it was recommended to me on Netflix instant) and fell in love with it instantly. Without calling Atom Egoyan a copycat, this was like his version of Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies & Videotape - men dealing with heartbreak in an internally self destructive way, a realistic look at the deterioration of a marriage (due mostly in part to infidelity) and eroticism without the use of nudity, raunchiness or any kind of sex scene.
Calendar is also quite experimental. In a video essay on Clean, Shaven, Michael Attikson described Lodge Kerrigan’s debut as; an unorthodox, narritively uncooperative movie. An almost experimental feature in a sea of conventional indies from the mid-90's
The same exact thing could easily be said about Calendar - It's told out of order, the two main characters aren’t credited with any actual names for the viewer to reference them by (the lead characters are billed as: "Photographer" & "Interpreter" in the credits) and even though English is the primary language in the film, Egoyan intentionally does away with subtitles whenever Armenian is spoken which adds to the isolation & disconnect we're supposed to feel for the main character. Calendar also uses audio/voiceover in the same playful/experimental way as Kerrigan's Clean, Shaven by mix-matching audio & video to give off a disorienting vibe (a technique that was used in later films like Harmony Korine's Julien Donkey-Boy, which is heavily influenced by Clean, Shaven)

I do know enough about the cinema of Atom Egoyan to know that communication & voyeurism through various forms of technology (email, texting, video cameras, webcams, cell phones, etc) is a common theme in his work. These days technology makes it easier for humans to avoid contact with other humans as much as possible. Today we live in a world where couples break up through texts, over webcams or over the phone but 20+ plus years ago (when Calendar was made) you kinda had to face your soon-to-be ex lover and break up with them in person. Calendar, Egoyan's quietly excellent film about a couple who always communicates with some kind of a device or piece of equipment between them (a video camera, phone or an answering machine) was somewhat ahead of its time (made in 1993) as part of the film deals with a divorced couple trying to get some type of closure over the phone instead of in person.

Vouyerism: The Cinema of Atom Egoyan...
Calendar has a strong spiritual connection to Olivier Assayas' Irma Vep (1996). In Assayas' 1996 feature there's a scene where Maggie Cheung sneaks in to the hotel room of a naked woman, played by Calendar co-star; Arsinee Khanjian, as a ways to get in to character for a role she’s playing in a film (a cat burglar). Cheung proceeds to spy on a buck naked Khanjian as she fuses at her significant other over the phone. It's clear she was horny and expecting to have sex but has been stood up. Khanjian's ranting over the phone about her disappointments in the relationship she’s in echo that of the earlier role she played in Calendar (directed by her real life husband). A huge chunk of Calendar features Arsinee Khanjian's character leaving her ex-husband (played by her real life husband; Atom Egoyan) voice messages about her disappointment in how their marriage ended (she cheats on him) in the same irritated yet sad tone of voice that she uses on the phone in Irma Vep.

Calendar can’t really be boxed in to one genre - Egoyan mixes the personal/stream of conscious/diary-like style of Jonas Mekas mixed with the style of a traditional Ang Lee drama about a marriage on the rocks. It’s fictional yet at the same time it’s obviously semi-autobiographical. This was clearly an incomplete thought or dream that was expanded in to a feature length "cut-up style" film.

Calendar, of course, was a lot more personal. There was a defining structure, but a lot of it was improvised, and it was a little dream project for me - Atom Egoyan (AV Club)

In Calendar, Egoyan & Khanjian play a husband & wife team who travel to Armenia to take photographs of old churches (Egoyan is the photographer while Khanjian serves as his collaborator/bi-lingual translator). The photos they take are to be used for a church-themed Calender. They’re escorted around the city by a personal driver named "Ashot" (the only character in the film with a name) and Egoyan starts to suspect that Ashot and his wife are developing feelings for each other. We come to find out that she eventually does cheat on him and they separate. To cope with the separation, Egoyan's character uses an escort agency to screen/interview various women to be his next mate. Part of the screening process involves him getting the women to leave him dirty/sexy voice messages so he can listen back to them. This is very reminiscent of James Spader's character in Sex, Lies & Videotape (he videotapes random women talking about sex in order to "get off"). 
The (nameless) main character that Egoyan plays in Calendar has the characteristics of three outta the four main characters in Sex, Lies & Videotape - the stereotypical uncaring husband played by Peter Gallagher, the vulnerable & insecure spouse played by Andie McDowell and the strangely perverse yet heartbroken loner played by James Spader.

Sex, Lies & Videotape (1989)
Atom Egoyan uses a lot of quietly slick filming techniques in order to convey the lack of communication and chemistry between the married couple. The cinematography in this film acts as a mirror for their relationship. At no point do we see Egoyan & Khanjian on screen together at the same time. The camera that Egoyan uses in the film, which is always placed in between them, is like a wall, or obstacle, in their marriage. This is a similar technique used in The Spirit Of The Beehive. At no point in Beehive do we ever see Anna's mother & father together on screen in the same frame (it should also be noted that Anna's mother is unfaithful to her husband too).
Calendar is like a play on the phrase "Eyes Wide Shut". You have a photographer with a failing marriage and a wife making a connection with another man right in front of him yet he does nothing about it and allows himself to be eaten up by jealousy.

Was Calendar made as a way for Egoyan and Khanjian to work out some real life marital issues they may have been having at the time? Did he ever really suspect that his wife was falling out of love with him? This is one of those films that makes you speculate those kinds of things. I’m amazed that 20 years after this was made Egoyan & Khanjian are still together. From Godard/Karina (Made In The U.S.A.) & Cruise/Kidman (Eyes Wide Shut) to Cameron/Bigelow (Strange Days) & Lynch/Patrician Norris (Inland Empire) we've all seen quite a few real life relationships between actors & filmmakers fall apart following some kind of collaboration in front of or behind the camera. Obviously there are exceptions to this besides Egoyan & Khanjian (Cassavetes & Rowlands) but generally speaking, film collaborations between significant others can often push things to the breaking point in real life. 
Olivier Assayas & Maggie Cheung fell in love during the making of Irma Vep only to divorce 8 years later prior to finishing their 2nd collaboration; Clean (apparently they signed the divorce papers on set).
The same year Irma Vep was released, Steven Soderbergh re-emerged after a series of "flops" where he, like Assayas, directed, and co-starred with, his ex-wife (Betsy Brantley) in a film that partially deals with infidelity and the lack of communication in a marriage (Schizopolis).

Atom Egoyan (Right) in Calendar
Much has already been said in other reviews about the cultural/ethnic aspect of Calendar - The film is set in Atom Egoyan's motherland (Armenia) and it deals with the disconnect he has being there (he feels isolated and left out whenever his wife & Ashot casually speak Armenian around him because he doesn't know what they're saying). But I'm honestly more intrigued by Egoyan's focus on the insecurity of man. It takes a lot, especially for a man, to share the kinds of insecurities that many of us have. In film, women are generally portrayed as overly complicated, unreasonable, crying, psycho & childish when it comes to relationships. EVERYTHING makes them jealous and there's always the threat of them being cheated on. With men its usually simple - they suspect their significant other of being unfaithful and they resort to explosive violence. It's as if all men are incapable of complex feelings within a relationship or dont know how to deal with being cheated on without being violent. Calendar dispels that myth and shows a more complicated side of the stereotypical jealous insecure male partially thanks to the path James Spader helped make with his performance in Sex, Lies & Videotape. That performance was eventually "one-uped" by Danny Huston in the criminally underrated/barely seen Kruetzer Sonata (2008). Some credit is even due to Tom Cruise for his performance in Eyes Wide ShutNo matter how problematic Kubrick's final film was, that scene of Cruise in the back of the taxi after Nicole Kidman admitted that she almost cheated on him (used in my review of Only God Forgives) is pretty powerful.

Sex, Lies & Videotape (1989) / Kreutzer Sonata (2008)
It goes without saying that experimental cinema like Calendar isn't for everyone (especially in feature length form) but at the same time it branches out to so many other films & filmmakers that there's a good chance it's bound to be enjoyed by even the average movie watcher not familiar with Atom Egoyan (Calendar maintains a 100% rating on rotten tomatoes).


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