Living in Oblivion finds humor in the frustrations of filmmaking

Sports fans like sports movies. Foodies love food porn. So it’s no surprise that we cinephiles have a soft spot in our hearts for movies about movies.

Few movies about movies are as funny as Living in Oblivion, Tom DiCillo’s low-budget comedy about the making of a low-budget drama. Released in 1995–when independent filmmaking’s popularly was reaching its zenith—Living in Oblivion presents the process of shooting a film on the cheap as one frustrating disaster after another. DiCillo both wrote and directed the film.

I first saw Living in Oblivion when it was in its theatrical release over 20 years ago. I revisited it Tuesday night on Fandor.

Steve Buscemi stars as a director who should probably consider a career change. For one thing, he doesn’t do well under pressure, and when things go wrong (which is always), he makes it worse. For another, he doesn’t appear to have much talent. His screenplay is filled with clichés, and he couldn’t coax a decent performance out of Meryl Streep.

But instead of Streep, he has to coax one out of a woman whose main claim to fame is a nude shower scene in a Richard Gear movie. Catherine Keener, an excellent actress, does a fine job playing a mediocre one.

Living in Oblivion shows the filmmakers struggling to shoot three separate scenes. In the first section, the director tries to shoot a dramatic dialog scene that he insists must be done in a single take. Actors blow their lines. Lights explode. The boom mic drops into frame. And the two actors give a brilliant, natural performance when the camera isn’t on.

In the second part, the director has to deal with a handsome and egotistical movie star who’s agreed to act in this edgy independent (James Le Gros). Every woman on the set wants to sleep with him, causing conflicts. And his overinflated ego crowds everything else off of the set.

In the third part, the hapless director tries to shoot a stupid and cliché-ridden dream sequence. It has Keeler in a wedding gown (it’s supposed to be her dream). It has smoke. And it has a dwarf in a powder blue tuxedo (Peter Dinklage in his first film role). But no one knows how to properly run the smoke machine. The director doesn’t really know what he wants. And the dwarf blows his cool with a spot-on, hilarious rant that made me fall in love with Dinklage way back in ’95.

Living in Oblivion has some dream sequences of its own. But you never know they’re dreams until someone wakes up.

DiCillo and cinematographer Frank Prinzi use an interesting mix of color and black and white. In the first section, the real world is in black and white, but scenes shot for the film within the film are in color. In the second section, that’s reversed, showing filmmakers in color apparently shooting a black-and-white film. The third section is entirely in color.

Both the real movie and the film within it are called Living in Oblivion. The name suggests living your life with no understanding of what it’s all about. But it can also refer to filmmakers and other artists who toil for a fame they never receive.

If you’re not on Fandor, Living in Oblivion is available on pay-per-view via YouTube and Google Play. It’s worth catching.

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