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RIOT ON THE SET

A wise man--or was it a wise guy?--once cautioned that there are two things you should never watch being made: sausage and movies. (Consider the ingredients.)

Nonetheless, directors have convinced themselves from time to time that the moviemaking process itself is suitable material for a movie. Most notable was the late Francois Truffaut, whose Day for Night lovingly revealed the constant tedium and the occasional glory of the enterprise. As a valentine to craft, it still glows, 22 years later.

Tom DiCillo's Living in Oblivion is a considerably rougher, hipper and--in places--funnier piece of business. The auteur of just one other film, Johnny Suede, DiCillo hardly sports Truffaut-like credentials. But he clearly knows the problems filmmakers face, and he parades them here--from sour milk on the set to a lovesick cameraman (Dermot Mulroney) to a dwarf with a bad attitude.

Rail-thin Steve Buscemi--Reservoir Dogs's sneery "Mr. Pink"--stars as Nick Reve, a harried director trying to bring a low-budget feature in on time, without anyone getting killed and before his own love-hate relationship with his job lands him in the nuthouse. With bloodshot eyes and frazzled nerves, he cajoles his neurotic leading lady (Catherine Keener), flatters the scene-stealing idol, Chad Palomino (James Le Gros), who's stooped to working with him, tries to keep his imperious assistant (Danielle Von Zerneck) in line, even finesses a surprise visit from his mother, who's apparently just walked away from a mental hospital.

It's all pretty surreal (for a couple of reasons you'll discover), but filmmakers and movie buffs will probably delight in the mad tangle of traumas and personal intrigues. There's a movie within a movie, of course, in which DiCillo looses his sharpest gags and insider jokes. That culminates in a hilarious attempt at a "dream sequence," in which all the vanities of the artist at work are laid bare. Interconnected miniplots? Don't even ask.

DiCillo, a 1979 NYU Film School grad, got Oblivion off the ground (somehow) as a thirty-minute short, then expanded it to three acts when some investment money fell into his lap. Such are the vicissitudes of shooting on a shoestring--for real or for fiction. Happily, DiCillo keeps this comic take on art and life featherweight and bluff--although the obstacles Nick Reve faces seem real enough. After all, DiCillo worked with difficult glamour boy Brad Pitt on his first movie.