ART OF EUROPE

Atom Egoyan - Calendar (1993)

Atom Egoyan's Calendar is shot through a series of locked down long takes (to simulate the POV of a still camera set on a tripod), cutting between shots of Armenian churches and the apartment of the Armenian-Canadian who's been hired to photograph them. Handheld video footage (of a markedly poor quality for 1993) of Armenia, taken by Egoyan himself, bookends the film, the only kinetic shots of Armenia to appear. The apartment footage is shot, with brief exceptions, from two vantages: in front of the dinner table, the phone in background; from behind the phone, the table in background.

The story crosscuts between Canada, "present" day, and the Armenian shoot, in flashback. An Armenian-Canadian photographer (Egoyan) was hired to photograph Armenian churches for a calendar; he brings his wife (Arsinée Khanjian, Egoyan's real life wife) as translator; she falls in love with and leaves him for their driver/guide (Ashot Adamian). The storyline is not so much depicted and understood as it is reconstructed from a record of events, most seemingly trivial, through a series of formulaic scenes. The scenes in Armenia center on the Egoyan character doing what must be done to get the shot, to capture the visual aesthetic of the churches, while his wife listens, enraptured, to their guide tell of the history and the legends surrounding each church. The photographer is more concerned with the job at hand, ruining delicately built moments of emotion with a curt, "Could you move out of the frame? The light’s really great right now." What she falls in love with is as much the country as the man who guides her through it.

"Present" day Canada is ambiguous: the calendar on the wall changes, but how much of this is part of the photographer's ritual of recovery cannot be known. His wife calls at the beginning to say she's received the calendar, at the end to say she's taking it down (as December has come and gone). But to say we are given the record of a year may be a stretch; we are only shown ten months, ten shoots, not the twelve one would expect (which could also be a sacrifice of formalist purity to the god of feasible running time). Egoyan is shown, with a few exceptions (once answering the phone, once watching video of his wife), dining with various women (one at a time). A ritual is established: he pours the last of a bottle of wine into their two glasses, she asks if she can use his phone, he tells her where it's at, she makes a phone call in Macedonian (and once, Turkish). The dinners are arranged, implicitly through an escort service, explicitly through a woman named Julie. Our ignorance of the ritual is played upon; as we become more accustomed to it so does the photographer. He does not speak at all during the first few (making the stimulus for his dates' departures blackly ironic), then makes small talk, kills the conversation, then, eventually, seems to regret having to stop talking to proceed with the ritual. During the first few, at the phone call, he simply sits mute, in thought; later he will write his wife; once he will write an Armenian girl he sponsors (through a starving-child aid program) to ask about his wife.

While the participative, reconstructive narrative is not on par with Egoyan's follow-up, , its technical ingenuity is remarkable. Egoyan creates a film that is a double metaphor for both photography and memory, for the things that made his character lose his wife and then to (in a sense) keep her. The static shots in Armenia convey something of the stasis of his character, the crosscuts in Canada something of his conflict, their set camera patterns the ritual. The camera used to film becomes as much a character, in a sense the body of Egoyan's character in Armenia. "We're both from here," he says of Armenia, "but in coming here I become from somewhere else." Egoyan's character is never on frame in Armenia; his voice is always heard from behind the camera. In Armenia he lacks presence, he lacks relevance. We see only her and the guide; we come to view only those two as having been there (the last shot of the film is of their backs), he as remembering them in Armenia almost hypothetically.

The technical analogy reshifts the elements of coexpressability, making a character analogous to camera, a film analogous to photography. In photojournalism narrative is not conveyed by a telling, but by a showing. A further analogy is drawn by Egoyan's casting choices (not so much in casting Khanjian, a staple of his work, as in casting himself). His real life wife plays the wife his character loses. His character is paid to stand behind the camera and capture the aesthetic; hers spends most of her time in front of the camera and is paid to speak. The implicit irony draws the content closer, makes it more real, draws another hypothetical: what if this comes from something real? But if it does so then Egoyan is capturing something he knows; his character was handed a list of buildings to photograph, and admits he would not have come top Armenia (of which he knows nothing) had that not been the case. The similitude is undermined; what is behind becomes obscured, and we realize we are seeing only the calendar on the wall, oblivious to the occurrences from which it came.



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