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Cult Caravan: Living In Oblivion (1995)

Posted August 28, 2012 by Lisa McInerney in Ramp Archives
Living In Oblivion (1995)

Living In Oblivion is a low-budget independent film about people making a low-budget independent film. It’s a satirical take on the pretentiousness and over-earnestness rife in American indie cinema – in any creative sphere – and as such it’s frequently disorientating, occasionally wanky, and very, very funny.

Written and directed by Tom DiCillo, its cast is populated by actor friends of the director, none of whom got paid, and the film’s somewhat optimistic investors. The making of Living In Oblivion so closely resembles the plot of Living In Oblivion that if it weren’t for the dream sequences, which occur with dizzying regularity, you’d do well to identify it as fiction. Here we have a camera behind the camera. Direction behind the director. We’re through the looking glass, and we’ve got the splinters to prove it.

You will, of course, recognise many of the actors in Living In Oblivion.

Catherine Keener (Nicole) and Rica Martens (Mom)

There’s Catherine Keener, American indie darling. She plays Nicole, a struggling actress desperate to turn in an emotional performance because her career highlight has so far been a shower scene in a Richard Gere movie.

Peter Dinklage (Tito)

There’s Peter Dinklage, Game Of Thrones icon and unconventional sex symbol. He plays Tito the very fucking angry dwarf.

Dermot Mulroney (Wolf)

There’s romcom leading man Dermot Mulroney (who at the time was married to Keener). He plays Wolf, the sensitive cameraman who’s positive he’s actually an alpha male.

Catherine Keener (Nicole) and James LeGros (Chad)

There’s James LeGros, who you’re as likely to spot on the small screen these days. He plays Chad Palomino, suave leading man and borderline Muppet. To this day, DiCillo has to frequently assert that he did not base Chad on Brad Pitt, who starred in his first feature, Johnny Suede.

Steve Buscemi (Nick)

And then there’s Steve Buscemi, living legend and weird crush extraordinaire, who plays Nick, our director and hapless hero.

Our story begins on set at 4am, where our crew are preparing to shoot the potentially heartbreaking scene ‘Ellen Talks To Mom’. Nick, the director, is full of best laid plans, which naturally all go to shit because he’s not making a film all by himself. Having to factor in distracted actresses, incompetent boom operators, gone-off milk and, consequently, exuberantly puking cinematographers means that he just can’t pin down that perfect scene he’s pictured in his head. Eventually deciding that he’ll just have to settle for ‘passable’ rather than ‘perfect’, Nick’s concession to compromise turns sour when the scene is interrupted once again, this time by a mysterious noise that makes him turn Hulk and wreck his own set. He turns on his cast and crew and lets loose with a barrage of pure and beautiful insults. This scene was entirely improvised by Buscemi, so his fellow actors’ reactions are all real. And it is glorious.

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Turns out it doesn’t matter, though, because it was ALL A DREAM.

Cut to reality, and we watch Nicole prepare for her big scene with Chad Palomino, who is the star of the film and is keen to ensure no one forgets that. Nicole has done a little prep work beforehand, too, mostly in Chad’s pants. But hey, they’re professionals, right? And as such their midnight pokery won’t get in the way of their creative obligations, right?


Nick, desperate to keep his bankable leading man happy, makes change after change to the scene, despite the fact that every allowance made for Chad’s diva-like behaviour makes him even more insufferable. Nicole finally flips out when she overhears Chad intimate to Nick that Nicole’s poor concentration on set is down to her singing hormones, which were moved to arias by his schlong the night before. Cue a punch up between leading man and leading lady, which is only brought to a conclusion when Nick’s fist rearranges Chad’s best side. Free of the uncouth superstar, Nicole and Nick are finally able to express their true feelings for one another, tenderly acting out the big romantic scene as Nick wrote it.

Turns out it doesn’t matter, though, because it was ALL A DREAM.

Cut to reality reality, and Nick is shooting a dream sequence. And in a shock truth-is-stranger-than-fiction move, his dream sequence goes horribly awry due to the unbridled fury of a dwarf scorned…

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… and is saved by a senile old dear with a nose for an eyepatch.

Living In Oblivion is easily one of the best films ever made about making films, due in no small part to how painfully authentic it is. Despite its ludicrous characters with their exaggerated quirks – the cameraman who feels he doesn’t need both eyes, the leading man with the talent of a staircase, the make-up artist who swears by haemorrhoid cream – the central premise is one that can be clasped to the bosom of any creative professional: that of the visionary scuppered by the morons orbiting him.

Not that that was the case in the actual making of Living In Oblivion. The movie itself was a labour of love for all involved. Again, one has to bear in mind that the central cast worked for free, and investors were rewarded with small parts – essentially, what you’re watching is a group of talented friends getting together to put on a highly conceptual show-in-the-barn. The result is something very special: a warm, witty and loopy independent film about the warmth, wit and utter insanity of trying to make independent films.

The entire thing can be found via this playlist on YouTube. God bless independent distributors!

There’s an accompanying filmmaker’s diary too – director Tom DiCillo’s Eating Crow, which is at once an essential read for anyone with an interest in indie cinema and also just the right side of gonzo to be brilliantly entertaining. See if you can find it somewhere.

About the Author

Lisa McInerney

Lisa’s soul is so damn sensitive, she has to invent and occupy parallel universes just to spread herself evenly. This is also known as being a frustrated novelist.

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