Wednesday, March 07, 2012

 

No explanations for the inexplicable
Why do we feel the need to force meaning upon magic?


By Edward Copeland

"Conversations took place in a void, as if words meant nothing or weren't meant to in any case.
A sentence, once begun, hung suspended in the air, as if frozen by the frost,
and picked up, probably where it left off — or elsewhere.

"Perhaps it's here by chance.

"On a realistic level, how many conversations in your life have you had,
probably with a significant other, but not necessarily,
that you have again and again for years?"

How did Alain Resnais pull it off? Most films that aim for the abstract and teeter toward pretension just bore me or piss me off. One need look no further than Lars von Trier's recent Melancholia for an example of the type of film of which I speak. Now, I stand by my belief that there is no right or wrong in film criticism since all opinions are subjective (even though when reading positive reviews for films such as Melancholia I often visualize the writer struggling to convince himself of the film's worth, as if daring to say otherwise could mean the loss of her membership privileges to the hip critic tree house). Knowing my tastes, that makes my affection for Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad all the more mystifying — even to me. I can't explain my love for this film, which marks the 50th anniversary of its U.S. premoere today, but I do. It's not that I'm an across-the-board disciple of the French New Wave — a lot of Godard's work leaves me cold (though I worship Truffaut). Then Resnais differed from the other New Wavers in that he wasn't a critic first. He started out as a documentary filmmaker. Each time I see Last Year, those black-and-white images and nameless characters in its essentially plotless universe mesmerize me more than the last time. I couldn't give you a coherent explanation as to what Last Year is about and, what's more, I don't care. I just know it's beautiful and infused with the magic that only great cinema can conjure.

As I pondered what to say in this tribute, since I lack the desire to force an interpretation onto the film that would bore me to write even more than it would any reader to read and any attempt at synopsis surely would reach the higher rungs on the ladder of Fools' Errands, my thoughts drifted to more general areas of film and criticism. I loved Pauline Kael, though I'm certain if added up, I probably disagreed with her more often than not. Kael was not a fan of Marienbad. She'd bring it up frequently in reviews of other films, such as when she reviewed Antonioni's Blow-Up for The New Republic in 1967. "It has some of the Marienbad appeal: A friend phones for your opinion and when you tell him you didn't much care for it, he says, 'You'd better see it again. I was at a swinging party the other night and it's all anybody was talking about!' (Was there ever a good movie that everybody was talking about?" Kael wrote. Of course, that review was published more than two years before I was born and I haven't been to any swinging parties (or nonswinging, for that matter) of late and I sharply disagree with her about Resnais' film (I'm more mixed, leaning to positive, on Blow-Up, though it and L'Eclisse remain the only Antonionis I truly tolerate). Despite our differing opinions on Marienbad, how can I not laugh out loud at Kael's parenthetical punchline? As Fat Tony (voiced by Joe Mantegna) said once on The Simpsons, "It's funny 'cause it's true." So while I firmly live by what I said earlier about all criticism being subjective and you should avoid what Kael called "saphead objectivity," in this world we live in today the cruder saying, be it about movies or politics or religion or whatever, rings louder than ever: Opinions are like assholes: Everybody's got one. The question writing this tribute sparked in my mind is "Why does Marienbad work for me, but not for Kael or others" and continuing along those lines, "How can a director such as Lars von Trier have either fans who think he walks on water or people such as myself who mock him mercilessly but seemingly few who look at him dispassionately from the middle ground?" Does the magic reside in the movies or within ourselves? With these conundrums circulating in my head, I decided that two posts would be necessary, since a large portion wouldn't be dealing with Marienbad directly. Therefore, today the tribute to the film, Thursday (or maybe even Friday), the broader discussion.


I decided two posts were required not only because of length and the larger issues bubbling in my brain but because I thought Last Year at Marienbad deserves separate words on its anniversary, especially after devouring its two-disc Criterion DVD. One of the most interesting special features is an audio interview with Resnais by François Thomas, author of the book The Workshop of Alain Resnais, recorded specifically for Criterion in 2008. (Resnais, who turns 90 in June, maintains an active filmmaking life, having made the great Wild Grass that opened in the U.S. in 2010. It also has little in common with Marienbad and should be accessible to most.) Resnais talks extensively about the process that led him to collaborate with highly regarded French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet and produced Marienbad as a result. Two of the film's eventual producers, Raymond Froment and his friend Pierre Courau, suggested to Resnais the idea of a partnership with the novelist. "I'd never read a book of his, not a single line. I remember my first response was 'From what I've read in the press, he's a very difficult writer whose books are quite off-putting. I really don't know if we could collaborate on a film,'" Resnais admits in the interview. The men asked if the director would at least meet the author and so Resnais did. "(T)he meeting with Robbe-Grillet was so pleasant and friendly that I believe we spent the whole afternoon together discussing life, cinema and the arts. We realized that we had similarities as to certain (things) and even works of literature. I hadn't hidden the fact that I hadn't read his works and I wanted to read his four published books. I was as won over by his writings as I was won over by Robbe-Grillet in person," Resnais says. That sounds like a stroke of luck, but it pales compared to the actual process that occurred that produced this landmark (if you like it) film. "…Robbe-Grillet offered to write four ideas for screenplays, each a page in length, and if I found one of the four interesting enough, we could move forward with that. A week later, (he) did in fact give me four ideas and I took another 24 hours to make a decision because those four pages could easily have made four films and it was hard to decide and it was hard to decide on the most enticing and most captivating. I decided on Last Year. The words 'at Marienbad' were added later," Resnais explains. The full screenplay was written in less than two months — an extremely detailed script that had visuals on the left-hand side while dialogue and even stage directions filled the right-hand column. In fact, Resnais told Thomas that what they produced had so much spelled out, anyone could have picked it up and made the same movie. When Resnais composed his usual shot breakdown, it barely differed from the screenplay. The way Resnais conceives images on all his films turns out to be fascinating by itself. He has his screenwriters record all of a film's dialogue on tape without identifying which characters are speaking. Resnais then lies on a couch and listens to the tapes until the images come to him. While I wouldn't try to slap a meaning on Marienbad, I know what appeals to me. Part of it is its fluid nature, something best shown by this YouTube clip.


Resnais insisted on real sets because he needed shadows from the "molding in the decor, on doors, or even the actor's shadows to fall on something three-dimensional," he also says in the interview whose existence practically ensures that a first-person account of the mechanics of making Last Year at Marienbad should outlast us all. Though even as a fan, I wouldn't label this as a film about acting (Hell, the characters aren't given names, just letters), yet Resnais wanted the performers to know the tone he had in mind so he screened for the cast and crew G.W. Pabst's silent classic Pandora's Box. He also claims to have been influenced by the Stanislavsky acting method, even though his book hadn't been published in France yet, because the female lead A (Delphine Seyrig) had studied with Lee Strasberg in the United States. Seyrig did ruin one of Resnais' plans unexpectedly. He wanted her to have her hair cut similar to Louise Brooks' look in Pandora's Box, but she trimmed it after a break ruining any chance for that. The collaboration between Resnais and Robbe-Grillet only had one disagreement — over what did happen last year between A and X (Giorgio Albertazzi). The novelist scripted the encounter as a rape, but Resnais hated that idea, but everything in the movie plays with time and memory. "To me it was a simple love story, so I like to express the emotional love, precisely the opposite of the idea of a rape. I don't know how the film is interpreted, but I know my mind when I shot it," Resnais says. As I perused many reviews of the film for my larger question, I found a couple that connected the film to Hitchcock's Vertigo. Now, I don't know whether Resnais has mentioned this a lot, but he admits its influence in the DVD interview, even acknowledging that somewhere in the film you might spot a shadow of Hitch, though I couldn't spot it. "If you glimpse Hitchcock's profile in the film, it's an homage, a friendly wink of the eye, a way of saying to Hitch if he saw the film, 'We love you,'" Resnais tells Thomas. Those French New Wave filmmakers. (You know how much this film hypnotizes me? I decided to Google search for the Hitch image and discovered I had made a screenshot of it and NOT realized it. It will be in the second post.) As for the memory of what happened, it's as good as time as any for the other clip.


Since he's prominent at the end of the second clip, I probably should point out the film's third main character (main as he received a letter designation). The tall, gaunt-looking man standing at the table playing a game has been given the moniker M and presumably is A's husband. The actor Sacha Pitoëff portrays M. Last Year in Marienbad technically proved to be somewhat of a bridge between nuts-and-bolts moviemaking in France as well. While even detractors would find it hard to make a case against the beauty of Sacha Vierny's black-and-white cinematography, the actual camera operator, Philippe Brun, insisted on using the old-style hand-cranked camera, especially impressive considering the nearly constant movement of those shots. Brun wasn't an old timer either — Marienbad marked his third film as a camera operator, though he served as a cinematographer on two films in the 1950s. He's remained a camera operator through 1991's Impromptu and included such classics as Buñuel's Belle de Jour, Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows, Costa-Gavras' Missing and Bertrand Tavernier's A Sunday in the Country. Widescreen was a rarity in French films in 1960 and in order to get the look that Resnais wanted, they created their own lenses that were cut so both foreground and background stayed in focus simultaneously. Their modifications also allowed them to shoot split screens within the camera itself. Two of the film's most famous sequences took amazing planning. The classic room of mirror sequence required two days of rehearsals before actual shooting. The long corridor sequence looks as if it were one continuous tracking shot but they filmed it in three separate sections and at three different locations months apart. Because Resnais wanted the baroque look for the hotel and not much of that style of architecture existed in France, Marienbad filmed largely "mostly at the Nymphenburg Palace in Munich, with additional scenes at the Schleissheim Palace just outside the city," according to page five of press notes compiled by Rialto Pictures for a re-release of the film. Interesting enough, since much filming took place in Germany, one of the second assistant directors happened to be Volker Schlöndorff, who would go on to direct films such as The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, The Tin Drum and The Handmaid's Tale. Though she took no credit, Coco Chanel designed the film's costumes, the first film she had done that for since Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game. When they finished the film and screened it for the first time, Resnais says in the interview, the first audience openly mocked it for nearly the first half (and at 93 minutes long, there wouldn't be much left), but he tells Thomas that eventually the audience grew quiet as the film won them over. At the end, it received a standing ovation. That seems perfectly understandable to me. As much as I adore the film, I also can appreciate the potshots. That's why it's such a puzzling film for me. They submitted it to the Cannes Film Festival but (and this I find utterly ridiculous), the festival refused to accept Marienbad unless they dubbed all the dialogue of Italian actor Giorgio Albertazzi (X) with a French actor's voice. Resnais and his producers refused. The Venice Film Festival accepted it and it won the Golden Lion for 1961. It also received the best film prize that year from the French Syndicate of Critics. As it opened elsewhere in 1962, it joined 17 other nominees up for the BAFTA for best film from any source including Truffaut's Jules and Jim, Bergman's Through a Glass, Darkly, The Manchurian Candidate and West Side Story, though all lost to Lawrence of Arabia. The Oscars nominated it for best story and screenplay written directly for the screen and look at what kind of nominees joined Marienbad back then: Divorce — Italian Style, Freud, That Touch of Mink and Through a Glass Darkly. Three foreign films, a John Huston-directed biopic and one piece of fluff but no best picture nominees and certainly no piece of crap such as a Bridesmaids. Imagine that today. Unfortunately, Divorce — Italian Style, a fairly lame foreign comedy, won.

It can't be an accident that Coco Chanel provides a concrete link between Last Year at Marienbad and my favorite film of all time, The Rules of the Game, because I'd thought that subconsciously, though the two films couldn't be more different, that part of the appeal of Marienbad for me came from the large gathering at its hotel reminding me of the weekend gathering at the Marquis' chateau for Andre in Rules. In a piece Kael wrote on Rules, which she loved, that I re-read while searching for her Marienbad references, that she speculated that Resnais used Rules subliminally and that's why so many embraced it. For my part, the eerie feel Resnais creates with those long trips down seemingly endless corridors couldn't help but put me in mind of David Lynch and the halls of the high school, the hospital, the sheriff's station, the Great Northern, etc., in Twin Peaks. Though by and large I'm a Lynch fan, I found it dispiriting to read this by Mark Harris in The New York Times ahead of a two-week engagement of Marienbad in January 2008:
The people who walked out (literally) of INLAND EMPIRE, David Lynch’s Marienbad-influenced 2006 film, saying 'What was that all about?' will find similar though more elegantly concise cause for discomfort here.

What the hell? I scanned about the Web and found that Harris' words weren't isolated ones. I may be puzzled as to the hold that Marienbad has on me, but I'm not confused at all as to why I found INLAND EMPIRE to be an inexplicable mess. In comparison to Lynch's film, Marienbad plays as a rather conventional story about a love triangle. There lies why this post prompted my contemplation and, more importantly, why these issues deserve a separate forum. The influence of Last Year at Marienbad has been acknowledged by some filmmakers, seen by even more people. In Bergman's works starting with The Silence and stretching through Persona and beyond, it's been spotted. Everyone recognizes the signs in Kubrick's take on The Shining. It's set in a hotel after all. I wonder if anyone has spotted signs in the film of Neil Simon's Plaza Suite. (I know — they're referring to Kubrick's hallway shots, not the fact it took place in a hotel. Can't a fella make a joke? You all are way too Malickserious.) Some also think Kubrick sneaked some homage into the later scenes of 2001. Peter Greenaway did go on the record admitting its influence on his work. If you want to believe the list on the Inaccurate Movie Database, it popped up in an episode of I Dream of Jeannie. I do recall Don Draper watching Marienbad in the second season of Mad Men. The list even claims it influenced a video game.

Now that would be appropriate. I may not attempt to snap a lid on this movie with an all-encompassing theory as to its meaning as if I was sealing it in Tupperware, but games play a key part of Marienbad. That is obvious. The characters play all sorts of games, the kind you do for fun and the type you do to toy with people. "If you can't lose, it's not a game," X tells M when challenged to a game that M says he always wins. Within the walls of that hotel, everyone plays and everything gets debated. In a way, perhaps I'm too quick to declare INLAND EMPIRE incompatible with Marienbad when the headline I posted on my review of Lynch's film was "Film as nonsequitur" and Marienbad really runs on nonsequiturs. Anyone who knows me personally realize that my entire life I've been a fan on nonsequiturs, though mine usually lean to the comical. Those loopy lines you would hear in an Airplane! or Police Squad! or even Twin Peaks, but Resnais wasn't going for laughs — was he? I took very few notes from the film itself, but most were just lines that struck my fancy such as "These silences to which you confine me are worse than death. These days we spend here side by side are worse than death. We're like coffins lying side by side in a frozen garden." Did I find that profound or funny? In Kael's brief mention of the film in 5,001 Nights at the Movies, she refers to that very line after calling the characters "a tony variant of the undead of vampire movies."

There will be time for that in the next post. Today, I celebrate Last Year at Marienbad neither for its story nor its message, its acting nor its dialogue. I celebrate it simply for its pure cinematic beauty, its mystical power to transfix, its fluid imagery, its ability to be repetitive without becoming redundant and its unusual use of sounds. I never even brought up the organ.

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