by David Prosser
YOU HAVE TO WONDER WHAT brings a person to the point where they'd go into a bookstore to buy dialogue from the movies. One can understand the impulse to buy and read works for the theatre: given that most stage plays are lucky to get more than one professional production, reading them is often the only way most of us can keep up with what's out there. But movie scripts are a different matter: unless one had been personally autographed and/or coffee-stained by Quentin Tarantino, why on earth would you want to buy a mere script of, say, Pulp Fiction, when you could pop down to the video store and get the thing itself'? Possession of a script, which inevitably implies some intent to commit at least portions of it to memory, suggests that you've got nothing better to do with your life than to become over-familiar with ephemera, like those people who used to recite the entire Dead Parrot sketch at parties.
But there are always exceptions. Coach House Press has just published the script of the film Exotica, written and directed by Atom Egoyan, who at 35 has made a reputation for himself as Canada's most intelligent, stylish, and -- next to David Cronenberg -- best-known English-language filmmaker. In Europe, Egoyan has been regarded as a talent to be reckoned with ever since 1987, when Wim Wenders, receiving his $5,000 award for Wings of' Desire at the Festival of New Cinema and Video in Montreal, insisted that the prize more properly belonged to Egoyan's Family Viewing. In Canada, though, Egoyan's output, which has also included such feature films as Next of Kin, Speaking Parts, and The Adjuster
, had been acclaimed by critics but largely ignored by the public, who perceived it as strictly "an house" material. That changed with Exotica, which won the International Critics' prize at last year's Cannes film festival, subsequently picked up eight Genie Awards, and at last brought Egoyan to the attention of mainstream Canadian moviegoers.
If Exotica the movie has captured the popular imagination -- at least as much as any Canadian film ever does -- Exotica the book vindicates the idea of the published script by making it only part of the package. At least half of the book comprises other material: a brief filmography; an essay by the critic Geoff Pevere, charting Egoyan's life and career and analysing his work; and the transcript of an illuminating interview in which the Egyptian-born Armenian talks with engaging self- deprecation about the themes, preoccupations, and techniques that make his work so distinctive.
The central questions in Egoyan's art pertain to identity and motive. "You have to ask yourself what brought the person to this point." Those words, spoken by a customs officer observing potential smugglers through a two-way mirror, are the first we hear in Exotica, and the question they phrase can be applied to all of the characters. At the movie's core is the bizarre relationship between Francis, a Revenue Canada auditor, and Christina, an exotic dancer in a high-class strip joint. Francis regularly hires Christina to dance at his table wearing a schoolgirl's uniform -- an obsession that becomes creepier as we learn that many years earlier Francis's own teenage daughter was raped and killed by an unknown assailant. Further startling connections are revealed that make all the characters' motives at once much murkier and much clearer.
Striptease is an example of the ritualizing of a primal sexual urge, and for Egoyan, such rituals are the means by which we discover and define ourselves. By objectifying our own experience and obsessions, turning them into acts or artefacts, we can manipulate and hence to some extent control the mysteries of our lives. Sadomasochists do it when they engage in elaborately staged games of domination and submission. Parents do it when they videotape their child's first birthday party. Filmmakers, as Egoyan points out in his interview with Pevere, do it for a living: "Every couple of years I assemble 45 people together and we create these scenes. That's my ritual."
The script itself is best regarded as an appendix to this absorbing "introductory" material. The movie is designed to tantalize the viewer with promises and ambiguous hints, withholding coherence until the very last. But on the page the story loses much of its potent mystery, like a striptease performed under fluorescent light. In a movie theatre (and at home, if you deny yourself recourse to the rewind button) you're forced to fall in with the filmmaker's pace. If something perplexes you, you have to live with your perplexity until the next clue comes along. Viewing the film, for example, we are baffled by the first brief shot of what we will later learn are volunteers searching for the body of Francis's daughter. We wonder if we've missed something crucial that, if we'd been more alert, would have made sense of the shot. We experience the pleasurable frustration of being shown only as much as we are meant to see -- which is, of course, the basis of the ecdysiast's art. In print, we see this: "Exterior. Field. Day. An empty field in summer. People begin to slowly appear, walking over a large distant hill." That's clearly all there is, so the only question that can be raised is about what the author is up to. There can be no questioning of your own perceptions as a viewer -- which is precisely one of the things Egoyan, as a filmmaker, seeks to achieve.
The print edition of Exotica, in short, should be regarded not so much as a record or memento of the film, and far less a substitute for it, but rather as an invaluable and eminently readable discussion of the art of a leading cinema artist, with a free sample thrown in. Display it on your shelves without shame. Just be sure to rent the movie first.