Odds are strong that at one point or another, a large portion of this website’s readership have contemplated making a movie, and if so, Tom DiCillo’s 1995 Living in Oblivion is the quintessential filmmaker’s movie for them. While there are plenty of movies about the rewards and pitfalls of making movies out there (The Artist, Singin’ in the Rain, and The Player to name a few), the majority take place in the wackily excessive world of Hollywood, glamorizing it as the dream-maker that so many grow up believing it to be. Recently, Damien Chazelle’s Babylon fought against Hollywood’s glamorization by highlighting the early days of the industry for the bloody, cocaine-fueled carelessness that defined it. But if Babylon seems to posit the question: what if your heroes were in fact ruthless megalomaniacs as corrupt and flawed as the rest of us, Living in Oblivion seems to more lightly ask: what if your heroes were just as troubled, lost, and insecure as everyone else you know?
A deadpan indie comedy, Living in Oblivion thrives in the mundane — ironic given that its subject is the stuff of so many people’s dreams. Centering on a rag-tag group of filmmakers as they repeatedly try and fail to nail a single shot, the film would be nothing without its kooky cast of characters. The ensemble includes Steve Buscemi as Nick Reve, a sensitive director on the verge of cracking under the pressure of maintaining such an eccentric set, Catherine Keener as an insecure lead actress named Nicole who constantly needs to find faith within her talent, Dermot Mulroney as the eye-patch wearing director of photography Wolf Überman, and James LeGros as the major Hollywood star who’s blessed this low-budget independent set with his power and presence (to the detriment of everyone involved).
‘Living in Oblivion’ Showcases the Grittiness of Set Life
With such a colorful precinct of characters and so much potential for endless situational comedy, one almost wishes Living in Oblivion went down the TV route, but if art is going to imitate life, then it’s important to recognize the film as representative of the indie art-house scene specifically. The film thrives on its depiction of characters with little experience in the industry, most of whom are there for ulterior motives, as even the gaffer is mostly there to get his own script off the ground. This is the movie that everyone’s making in anticipation for their next film and as a result, their efforts are misguided at best.
The film showcases the myriad of problems that can occur on set, whether it’s something as simple as a boom-mic falling into the shot or a self-obsessed star’s constant attempts to get into the foreground of the frame. However, beyond the practical obstacles that prevent them from getting the shot, there’s a large amount of indecisiveness characteristic to first-time filmmakers that leaves the final product without much artistic consistency. “I don’t know, what do you think?” seems to be a favorite line for Buscemi’s Nick, and throughout the film, in spite of the fact that we see three scenes shot, the audience never gets a sense of what they’re actually trying to make. Regardless, the actual final product is irrelevant, as Living in Oblivion is entirely about the struggle. Even among the greatest movies about making movies, none have portrayed the amateur grind as authentically as Tom DiCillo and Steve Buscemi did here.
‘Living in Oblivion’ Was Based on Real Frustrations
Art imitates life and few movies know that like Living in Oblivion knows that. Before it became a Sundance critical darling, making the film was an uphill battle. The film was allegedly inspired by DiCillo’s experiences making his debut feature Johnny Suede and his repeated struggles to garner financing for his projects.
Living in Oblivion was made without any producers even attached to the project — instead, it survived only through the financial backing of the actors and friends of the director. Even its wanton structure (in which two of the three shots the film portrays the struggle of pulling off are revealed as dreams) wasn’t in the initial vision as much as it was a clutch attempt at turning the overlong 30-minute short film (originally depicting the first sequence) into a feature. Just like any of the filmmakers here will tell you, the stars really need to align in order to get a movie off the ground, and Living in Oblivion (both the film and the film-within-the-film) is no exception.
The Film’s Structure Messes with Reality
One of the most stimulating aspects of Living in Oblivion is the constant manner in which it upends its structure and visual style. Divided into three segments (each depicting the shooting of a different scene), the film also takes place on two planes of reality, the one in the camera and the one behind the scenes. In order to shift between the two so seamlessly while still keeping things visually interesting, in the first segment DiCillo subverts expectations by shooting the reality scenes in black-and-white, while the film-within-the-film is in color. In the second segment, it’s revealed that the first act was merely Nick’s dream. The second segment flips the filter, with reality being portrayed in color and the film-within-the-film in black-and-white, only for another rug pull to reveal that the second segment was Nicole’s dream all along.
The third segment thankfully takes place in reality (in color). In a stunning twist of meta irony, the sequence they are now depicting is… a dream sequence! Featuring a cameo from the great Peter Dinklage as Tito (who berates the director for the use of dwarves for the shameless sake of a dream sequence), the crew struggles one last time to pull off a sequence that isn’t meant to look a particular way, but must feel like a reverie. After Tito’s meltdown and exit, the crew almost give up, before improvising the scene based on every character’s artistic motivation and finally getting the shot! It’s a joyous moment, that is until the crew is reminded that they’ve merely finished one shot, and what’s left is an entire movie.
This subtext regarding dreams is what elevates the film from a low-budget indie comedy to a statement on the industry itself and its relationship to its aspiring workers. The inclusion of so many dreams perfectly juxtaposes its realistic depiction of the struggle of filmmaking, as after all, no one walks onto a film set without having dreamed about it countless nights before. The dreams, however, are far from the reality, with the painstaking and quite frankly, often boring process of set life enough to make those who are nothing less than dangerously obsessed walk away from the movies all together. Buscemi’s character’s name is even Nick Reve, his last name derived from the French word rêve, meaning dream. If Living in Oblivion contends one thing through its comments on cinema and dreams, it’s that set life isn’t all movie magic; sometimes it’s just people trying damn hard to do their jobs right and get home on time. If you’ve ever been on an amateur film set, this is the movie for you.