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‘Speaking Parts’ (NR)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 02, 1990

That the video age has mesmerized us into a collective state of emotional frigidity, spiritual emptiness and self-absorption couldn't be better illustrated than by Atom Egoyan's "Speaking Parts," a Canadian movie in which people find their deepest emotions buried, not in their hearts, but in their TV monitors.

I can't say watching this movie is an uplifting experience -- the effect left after watching "Parts" is a chilling, depressing one. But the bummer is, I presume, what Egoyan intended, and despite its disturbing implications, the movie has an emotional heart of its own, deep within those omnipresent video waves and that trance-inducing synthentic score, that asks us all to drop our channel-flippers and check our pulses.

The plot in "Parts" is appropriately banal, a rather ordinary melodrama of human whims and desires, in which movie extra, aspiring gigolo and hotel sheet-changer Lance (Michael McManus) finds himself the obsessional object of two women: Clara (Gabrielle Rose), a scriptwriter he has hustled for a part in an upcoming movie, and Lisa (Arsine Khanjian), a hotel maid who hangs on the all-but-tranced cover boy's every word and deed.

The obsessional triangle (Lance, who reciprocates scriptwriter Lisa's desires, has his own suspect ambitions in the movie business) becomes the base for Egoyan's meditations on our video-embracing culture. The main joke, if joke is the right word, is that all the characters project their feelings, their dreams and their perceptions of other people in video; their isolated moments of passion seem only possible in or around video.

The puffy-faced producer (David Hemblen) who is in the process of changing Clara's personally felt screenplay into a scripted TV game show is seen mostly on a teleconference screen. "Sorry I couldn't be here," he says, via monitor, at a wedding. Clara makes regular trips to a futuristic video mausoleum to watch a repeating home video of her dead brother, and later on, she and Lance enjoy the teleconferencing version of mutual masturbation.

A video-store clerk (Tony Nardi) develops an obsession for Lisa based on her videotape-rental records and moonlights as a videotaper of weddings and orgies. At one such wedding, he gets the father of the bride to shed tears, with an emotion-goosing question that begins "Now she's leaving the nest and about to embark on a new life . . ."

Egoyan keeps the viewer at an emotional distance from the human characters (whenever anything passionate is about to occur, he cuts away from it) just as he makes the video, in effect, take over the movie. When, late in the movie, Clara watches her dead brother for the umpteenth time in the video vault, the home video suddenly changes. Now Clara can be seen in the movie, filming her brother. It's as though her emotional act of will has altered the video. Like the other characters in this oddly beguiling movie, she has entered the video looking glass.

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