Wednesday, September 21, 2011

OpenPlan for Film/Literature: Sample Lesson

Incorporating media in an online course is extremely useful, whether it be for a film / literature course, or a course (undergraduate or graduate) that uses movies, television, and other media to illustrate aspects of the content (leadership, business ethics, and history come to mind).

In this post, we look at film and consider it as a part of the OpenPlan series for teaching different topics, subjects, and disciplines online. This OpenPlan is for developing strategies for viewing film.

OpenPlan for Film: Where the Truth Lies (dir. Atom Egoyan, 2005)

Overview / Analysis

If you take the plot alone, or simply analyze the various subplots, you're likely to be very disappointed in Where the Truth Lies (Dir. Atom Egoyan, 2005) about a 1950s comedy duo, Lanny Morris (Kevin Bacon) and Vince Collins (Colin Firth), who broke up at the pinnacle of their success. (Spoiler Alert! This article contains information about the plot.)


However, Egoyan uses the plot to create a complex rendering of perception in the same manner as in his utterly brilliant Exotica (1994).

In Where the Truth Lies, the action begins fifteen years after the duo's breakup when a writer, Karen O'Connor (Alison Lohman), wishes to chronicle their story. We come to find out that the reason for the breakup was the attempt by a young journalism student, Maureen O'Flaherty (Rachel Blanchard), to blackmail them when, during an encounter in a hotel room involving the three of them, the "straight man" of the duo reveals he has been physically attracted to his partner and begins to act on it, only to be rebuffed. Seizing on the information as a way to pay for her future, the budding extortionist stays in their suite that night, just to turn up dead the next morning.


There are many ways to develop the plot, and Egoyan's process is slow and sometimes painful as he unveils each character's defining weaknesses, fears, and desires, which are jarringly discordant with their smooth, polished, often ethereally beautiful surfaces. This is metafictive noir at is finest (and most agonizing for some viewers).

Egoyan is never simply cerebral, and his mise-en-scene suggests perceptions of time present and time past are relentlessly mediated by a body that bridges fantasy and reality. The film moves back and forth from 1957 and 1972, both are gorgeously, impeccably true to the times and the feeling of privilege and glamour. There are noir elements in Egoyan's film, with edgy ambivalence about women and women's physicality: one can be drawn to them, but they will inevitably lead one to one's demise.



It's not too surprising that the tree planted by the mother of the the young femme fatale extortionist who was murdered in the hotel room turns out to be an apple tree, its limbs hanging heavy with bright red apples, ready for Eve's temptations. When the duo attempt to re-enact the "badger game" and pressure the writer to stop writing the memoir by taking photos of her in a compromising situation with a female (supplied by the duo), the effort backfires. Vince commits suicide (in a poetic way) after Karen tells him how she knows he had something to do with the murder.

Egoyan's approach to cinematography is very structural, and all his core shots and scenes are repeated and echoed often in four or five separate scenes in order to build interpretative possibilities that are both complex and undeniable.

The scenes are not perfect echoes of each other, however, and the disconnects and incongruities can frustrate the viewer who craves verisimilitude, while they delight those who welcome a hallucinatory bending of reality in order to tease out the underlying fears and psychological archeoliths -- the "truth" embedded in the lies one tells oneself.

Even texts do not truly represent: while Karen seeks to write the definitive story of the duo, they themselves are writing a "tell all" memoir. Instead of staying together as a full, cohesive text, Karen receives chapters. It is not clear who wrote the chapters, who sent them to her, or even if they are complete. But, even the "truth" in the text they are writing cannot be trusted, and it is never quite clear who is responsible for the writing of it, and then the sending / delivery of it. In a similar way, beingness itself breaks apart, along with attempts at a linear unfolding and narrative denouement. In the fragmented reality, the only remaining touchpoints are emotions and ambition.

In this case, the lies involve the nature of Lanny and Vince's friendship, and their vexed relationship with females, which is masked by their aggressive womanizing. It does not seem too coincidental that all three seducing women (Karen, Maureen, and "Alice") in the film are femmes fatales who physically resemble each other. It is also not too surprising that Karen, who claimed to have overcome polio through force of mind demonstrates a no-holds-barred will to power in her dealings with Lanny and Vince.


Perhaps the most poignant potential message in the film is embodied in Kevin Bacon's performance: all the strength, passion, anger, loyalty, and good fortune in the world do not knit reality into a seamless, understandable fabric.

To use another image to represent Egoyan's approach to narrative, reality, and perception: think of a big, rotating, mirrored ball, where all is fragmented, infinitely repeating and reflecting, but not ever quite knowable, slowly, slowly revolving.

Personal Viewpoint: While this film is not the brilliant Exotica, it contains the elements that made me love Egoyan's directorial vision, and it is well worth watching.

WORKSHEET QUESTIONS (for discussion board and reflective journal)

How to practice "active viewing" while watching films for courses:

1. Camera Work: What types of establishing shots are used? When are they used? What are they followed by?

2. Are there any tight-angle shots? How are they used? Any strange angles?

3. What is the narrative structure? What does it do to the film?

4. When do you see two-shots and tight close-ups? How do they make suggestions about the relationships of the people in the film?

5. How are different times, worlds, or emotional landscapes differentiated from each other? Are there differentiating sets? lighting? colors? How, when, and where? List at least two scenes.

6. What is the basic narrative flow? Jump cuts? Different narrators? Unreliable narrators telling their stories?

7. What do the spaces look like where the protagonists spend their time? Are they open? claustrophobic? elegant? down at the heels?

8. How does the cinematography emphasize certain behaviors that the protagonists engage in. How does the approach suggest a moral value judgement?

9. How do the costumes, soundtrack, and sets contribute to the idea that reality is often nothing more than a hallucination; that the truth is not in the appearance of things or unfolding of events, but in the fears, desires, and taboo attachments that one might have.?

10. Discuss the nature of the memoir that is being written. Who is writing it? Who is sending the chapters? Where? When? To whom? If anything, by fragmenting the text, it suggest fragmentation in the narrative, the lives, and also the explanations...

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