Monday, March 12, 2012


Is the magic and the meaning in the movies or ourselves?

“Some aspects of the film have aged severely. The heavy music-track, for example, especially the omnipresent organ tootling,
was meant perhaps to suggest a mixture of horror movie and automated toyshop, but now just provides noisy irritation. Films
have become a lot quieter since then — at least in the music department. And above all the acting seems weirdly dated,
with its deliberately sought-out stiffness and posing.…Now the performance just looks arch, and we know that stylisation in film requires more extreme measures — a real marionette-effect, for instance. It's notable that in this film Resnais succeeds best
with his anti-naturalist note when the actors are either quite still — so still you don't know whether they are in a moving picture
or a photograph — or dancing, rocking slowly, dully, to the sounds of an unearthly waltz.”

— Michael Wood, The Guardian, July 14, 2011

By Edward Copeland
The above quote appeared in a piece Wood wrote on the occasion of a 50th anniversary engagement of Last Year in Marienbad. Despite the way it reads, Wood's overall tone was positive. Putting aside that he must not go to new movies that often if he thinks film scores today have become a lot quieter, his words about the acting in Marienbad struck me as another reason why Resnais' film entrances me in a way other films that could be called "similar" don't. I can't imagine anyone, fan or foe of the film, watching it thinking that acting or characterization had occurred in Marienbad or even had been desired. Using the actors as props but attempting to make them "real" in other movies that could be lumped into the same category as Marienbad might be why works by a filmmaker such as Lars von Trier or each successive effort by Terrence Malick don't: They go to the trouble of pretending they care about narrative storytelling and their poor performers, such as a Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia or a Sean Penn in The Tree of Life, try to create characters in universes where that doesn't matter. At least Resnais and Robbe-Grillet made it clear to everyone that the actors' importance equaled that of the ceiling fixtures (probably less) in Marienbad so that doesn't get in my way. It's been a progression for Malick. His film that I tolerated best was Badlands. Then came Days of Heaven, pretty but blah with a voiceover from a poorly educated person with a Southern accent waxing philosophical as if she were in a Coen brothers movie, only not doing it for laughs. It got even worse in The Thin Red Line, so much so that I skipped The New World (with its Clue-like 15 different versions) entirely. So many spoke glowingly about The Tree of Life (I even let my contributior J.D. run a positive review of it before I saw it), even people who didn't care for The Thin Red Line, that I decided I'd give The Tree of Life a chance and went in with an open mind. I should have known better. Malick and I just aren't cut out for each other. I've been saying for a long time he really should be a nature documentarian because narratives aren't his forte. I can feel the anger of his fans exercising their fingers to beging composing their replies. Now, I didn't just write my anti-Malick feelings to get a rise out of them but also to remind people of one of the central objectives of this second, more generalized Marienbad-inspired post: All opinions about movies are subjective. Before we move on, just to calm the Malick fans before I whack on Lars von Trier, check out this interview with my good friend Matt Zoller Seitz, an ordained archbishop in the Church of Terrence Malick, and his five-part video essay series on Malick's films from Badlands through The Tree of Life for The Museum of the Moving Image.

As for Von Trier, we got off on the wrong foot with poor Max von Sydow's voiceover leading the somnambulistic tone of Zentropa. Somehow Emily Watson overcame his traps to give a good performance Breaking the Waves, which I otherwise rejected. I admit that I still would like to see The Kingdom and I liked Dancer in the Dark. Never saw The Idiots. Never wanted to see Dogville. The Five Obstructions sounds interesting as an experiment, not necessarily a movie. Perhaps a reality TV show. Then came Melancholia — ay caramba — though you definitely see the Marienbad influence there: He even had similarly sculpted trees. If you want to see a 2011 film that involves the sudden appearance of a planet in the sky, rent the indie Another Earth. It's shorter, better written and contains actual characters. It will mean sacrificing Udo Kier's appearance as a wedding planner complaining that the bride ruined his work. I'm certain I've said enough in this section to get blood pressures boiling, so now I can move on to what too many people — both moviegoers and critics alike — tend to do: Take what's said about their favorite movies and filmmakers way too seriously. Forgetting that the things I wrote above are my opinion and, more importantly, opinions about movies and filmmakers. This is hardly the equivalent of, let me think of a recent example, Rush Limbaugh calling a law student testifying to Congress about a friend's medical reason for access to contraceptives a slut who must have lots of sex and if health insurers cover female contraceptives, he should be allowed to see tapes of her having sex on his computer. Big difference between that and me saying I don't think Melancholia is a good movie. I'm giving a subjective opinion. Rush is being an asshole.

Thinking about how upset people can get when a favorite film has been attacked takes me back to my days as a working critic. I usually received angry letters or phone calls, since my paper fortunately didn't run movie critics' photos. I preferred anonymity, like a food critic. Ironically, given my physical state now, I once received a letter from an organization for disabled people taking me to task for referring to a character in a movie as being "confined to a wheelchair." They were right and I never used that phrase again even before I learned the hard way why those words are inaccurate. I recall the woman who called the day I gave The Beverly Hillbillies movie the smackdown it so richly deserved. (That's one plus to this nonprofit blog thing — with the exception of my obsession of trying to see all the major Oscar nominees each year, I only see what I want. I feel sad for those few remaining paid critics who still have to sit through Adam Sandler movies.) Anyway, this woman called almost as soon as I arrived in the office that morning to harangue me about the bad review — even though she hadn't seen the movie. What cracked me up was her question: "Do you think the people who made that movie appreciate you writing those things about their film?" I didn't have phone numbers for Penelope Spheeris or any of the cast members to get the answer. The absolute funniest phone call came from an older-sounding man horrified because I'd given something a good review. It was the Monday after The Crying Game opened in our city. I already had placed it at No. 1 on my 10 best of 1992 list, but its January 1993 opening gave me the first chance for a full-fledged review. The man couldn't believe I liked that movie. "It made me ill," he told me. "I felt like I needed to take a shower afterward." It took every ounce of restraint I could muster not to respond, "You found Jaye Davidson attractive, eh?" The final one isn't really funny and it took place in person. I was heading to a dreaded radio-promoted screening of something and I stopped by the concession stand to get a drink. The kid working knew who I was and gave me an unmistakably dirty look, so obvious that I had to ask what was wrong. "I used to respect you. Your reviews were the only good ones that paper ever had," he said. I asked him what I did wrong. Turned out that he couldn't believe how I tore apart Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers. He was working and so was I, so I didn't have time to try to explain subjectivity or how great I thought Pauline Kael was though I probably disagreed with her more than I agreed, but what can you do?

The other issue I wanted to address was whether meaning matters, though the person who responded most specifically to that query answered it more than 45 years ago and died nearly seven years ago. Susan Sontag's "Against Interpretation" struck me like a lightning bolt this week, probably quite annoyingly since I imagine many out there had read it long ago and I'm cheerleading it as if I just found out the world was round and am telling everyone I know. Sontag quotes a famous saying by D.H. Lawrence that I had heard before that might be the most concise warning against reading too much into art, be it literature or film: "Never trust the teller, trust the tale.” Sontag drops his line into Part 6, which I quoted a couple times in my review. She also writes there, "Interpretation, based on the highly dubious theory that a work of art is composed of items of content, violates art. It makes art into an article for use, for arrangement into a mental scheme of categories." Sontag carries it further, questioning (in 1966 remember) what role criticism should take. In Part 8, Sontag wrote:
"What kind of criticism, of commentary on the arts, is desirable today? For I am not saying that works of art are ineffable, that they cannot be described or paraphrased. They can be. The question is how. What would criticism look like that would serve the work of art, not usurp its place?
What is needed, first, is more attention to form in art. If excessive stress on content provokes the arrogance of interpretation, more extended and more thorough descriptions of form would silence. What is needed is a vocabulary — a descriptive, rather than prescriptive, vocabulary — for forms. The best criticism, and it is uncommon, is of this sort that dissolves considerations of content into those of form.…
Equally valuable would be acts of criticism which would supply a really accurate, sharp, loving description of the appearance of a work of art. This seems even harder to do than formal analysis."

Her essay really builds up a head of steam, so by the time she reaches Part 9, Sontag's words ignite a virtual bonfire of ideas, ideas that she had placed on paper decades earlier that I'd said and thought often before without knowing her essay existed. Part 9 added more to contemplate:
"Interpretation takes the sensory experience of the work of art for granted, and proceeds from there. This cannot be taken for granted, now. Think of the sheer multiplication of works of art available to every one of us, superadded to the conflicting tastes and odors and sights of the urban environment that bombard our senses. Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience.…
What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.
Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.
The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art — and, by analogy, our own experience — more, rather than less, real to us. The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means."

"Against Interpretation" is an essay divided in 10 sections, though Sontag's last section consists of a single sentence calling for "an erotics of art." As I've said, I've never been one who spent much time trying to decipher a film's meaning. As I read Sontag's essay, the words sounded like an echo of my present sent from someone else's past. When Sontag added how overburdened her senses were — in the early to mid-1960s — compared to the overload now, it was as if I'd found a holy text by accident — but I promised you a punchline and I will give it to you, but first I'm going to share all the friends kind enough to contribute to this with thoughts on Last Year at Marienbad, films they love but can explain, style vs. substance, etc. Thanks to all who replied. Here they are, in alphabetical order:


"I would offer Syndromes and a Century as a movie that defies conventional understanding yet totally transported and transformed me: I left the theater in an elated state, but not sure how I got there. Couldn't begin to tell you what it 'means': there's no 'story' in the usual sense, yet I knew I was in the presence of a masterful filmmaker casting a spell I didn't want broken. Apitchapong Weerasethakul's films are both abstract and down to earth, so that they never feel pretentious the way, say, the late (Theo) Angelopoulos often did, where every gorgeous frame asked you to admire his (sometimes ponderous) brilliance. But of course many people find these Thai films baffling and boring. Chacun a son gout."


"Great art fills you with awe and wonder — whether it’s through substance, a particular style (the hallmark of a great artist, who may eventually seem like a friend on the same mental wavelength as you) or usually some combination of both. Being able to explain it eventually helps, but ultimately art is an emotional experience that changes you or takes you to a different place. If you are in the same frame of mind afterward as you were at the beginning, it’s probably not great art."


(1) “Why does Movie X work for me, but not for Critic A or others?” Because something “working” is a two-way street between the text and each member of the audience. We all have movies we love that we know we shouldn’t, and we all have movies we greatly admire but dislike. There’s no accounting for taste.
(2) “How can a director…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?” In the case of Lars von Trier, it’s because he’s an agitator; his work is designed to provoke extreme reactions, and he wants you to either love or hate his movies — and I think he’d actually prefer you hate his work. (I’m actually on the dispassionate middle ground with him.) And remember that critics have agendas, too; some are simply provocateurs. More generally, directors/authors make connections with some people and not with others.
(3) “Does the magic reside in the movies or within ourselves?” Yes! The best critics don’t merely provide summary judgment; they show you how something worked or didn’t work for them. Essentially, they’re articulating and supporting a deeply personal reaction.


"'Substance' is such an abstract term when it comes to any discussion of the movies; I suppose, if you go by the conventional definition, Amistad has substance, whereas Bringing Up Baby does not…but does anyone reading this regard the Spielberg entry as the superior example of the filmmaker's craft? I think you need to accept each and every film on its own terms, and judge them based on how well they succeed in achieving their own objectives; you can't measure them all by the same scale, and it's probably a mistake to use subject matter, or even stylistic aesthetics, as your guide in determining the worth of any particular enterprise. There isn't a particular 'type' of film that I'm more inclined to like more than any other — you take them all on an individual basis (in reference to Marienbad, which I haven't seen, there are some very oblique films — The Tree of Life is a recent example — that have really connected with me…whereas others have left me absolutely cold.) That's the nature of the beast — whether it's gourmet cooking from a Five-Star Chef, or a damn good cheeseburger, a good eat is a good eat."


"I've always been a big believer in the idea that style is substance. I like this quote I found in the comments section of a Jim Emerson blog post: 'Style is supposed to express content, dammit — not disguise a lack of it! The meaning of a film is in what these images on the screen (and don't forget the sounds!) do to you while you experience them. (As you so eloquently put it: a film is about what happens to you when you're watching it.) If you ask me, we should stop seeing style and content as separate entities. In a good film, they're a natural unity.' I understand that this person is using 'content' instead of 'substance,' but I thought it still applied here. In fact, I liked it so much I used it as one of my blog's epigraphs."


"I, too, like Last Year at Marienbad. I like Delphine Seyrig. The formal garden. The chorus line of cypresses. It had the order and mystery of a de Chirico painting. I've often wondered why Pauline Kael and Manny Farber were so tough on it. But I saw it in the '70s, when it was an artifact of another civilization and not an expression of contemporary weltanschauung.

"When Pauline begged to be disinvited to the "Come-Dressed-as-the-Sick-Soul-of-Europe Parties" and Manny described the star of La Notte as 'Monica Unvital,' they were fighting a stealth battle against the New York intellectuals who assumed that film art came from Europe. (Manny and Pauline both grew up in the Bay Area and were somewhat suspicious of East Coast intellectuals. They saw art in American movies. My hunch is part of their irritation at the more Symbolist of the French and Italian new wave was because the intellectual quarterlies didn't respect American movies. Interestingly, Susan Sontag — who was raised in North Hollywood! — was one of those NY intellectuals they railed against.)

"As to the basic question: When we go to films we project ourselves and values on the screen. The beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

"Malick represents pure visual storytelling, which I find exciting as long as there are no lava lamps or dinosaurs."


"Last Year really builds on its predecessor, Hiroshima Mon Amour, which was a collaboration between Resnais and Margeurite Duras, the screenwriter/novelist. It kind of pushes the techniques of Hiroshima to the next level, juxtaposing elliptical or poetic editing and voiceover to create something very close to an experimental or puzzle film. I admire it more than I like it, and I think some of the people who made fun of it at the time as a film that was flattering art house audiences for 'getting' it when there was nothing to get might have had a point. It's mainly a stylistic and atmospheric exercise, I think, ultimately far less effective than Hiroshima because it's not rooted in psychological and historical specifics. It's a bit more aware of itself as a tour-de-force, as an attempt to top what the director had done before. It verges on self-parody rather often, and Resnais is not known for his humor, so I suspect most of this is unintentional."


"It doesn't take much for people to disagree about a movie, and that's partly because there's always so much to like or dislike: the story and the dialogue, the tone of the cinematography, the settings and costumes, the actors and their performances, the director's point of view. The closeness or distance of what's onscreen from your sensibility, and then how you feel about that. And it's complicated — loving a movie and respecting it are two different things. I don't care for Citizen Kane and I love Myra Breckinridge. I can't defend this preference on any sort of critical grounds…I know intellectually that Kane has all the virtues of script, acting, art direction, photography, and theme ('meaning,' in other words) and that Myra is an incoherent mess. But we don't evaluate movies intellectually. More than any other art form, they're an experience, and no two people have the same experience, even of the same event."


"I was once in a play called Slow Love. It was written by an Australian man who had epilepsy. He envisioned his work to come in a series of staged images that would be framed by lights up — some kind of abstract action — blackout. This would repeat maybe a hundred times to make up the content of the play. Of the many referenced works in the play was Last Year at Marienbad, which was quoted throughout. I think in the play it was meant to mirror what the writer was feeling, about the echoing of brief but substantial, memorable images. I suppose that film, therefore, does much of what every other art form does — it can be both abstract and entertaining. I think ultimately there is some kind of deeper meaning people take from even the most abstract works. It probably isn't a shared experience, the way it would be with a more accessible, universal story. In the end, I think it comes down to you, on that day, as to whether the film will piss you off or pull you in. I was far more moved and intrigued by what Von Trier did in Melancholia that what Malick did in Tree of Life, perhaps because Tree of Life felt like a singular experience of a certain kind of family — whereas Melancholia (Take Shelter, too) was closer to what I think life is really like in 2011.

But I guess I'd have to say that, ultimately, the magic resides within us — and depending on how much energy we have that particular day to struggle with a meaningless film. This year seemed to offer up many fairly abstract, challenging stories that sort of meant what you wanted them to mean. But too many of those and you tune them out, reaching instead for the ones that tell stories that aren't open to interpretation. Marienbad stands out because it was one of a kind. It's hard to find anything that is one of a kind now.

The great thing about it all, I guess, is that there is room for both — frustratingly opaque art and pleasingly transparent entertainment."


"All I can say is that I do think movies cast a kind of spell when they work for you. I've seen movies under different circumstances and have had totally different reactions, other times my attempt at rediscovering something I thought maybe I was unprepared for only leaves to the depressing realization I was 'right' the first time."


"At the risk of polarizing some people here, I'm one of those biased moviegoers who thinks movies always need to be entertaining and — for the most part — have a plot, in order for me to be invested. At times I'm willing to bend the rules, of course; whenever kids at my college campus tell me they can't finish 2001 because it has no story, I always try to tell them that the film is meant to be an experience, full of ideas, and that a plot doesn't emerge until two-thirds into the movie…but at least it's telling a story. On second thought, I guess Killer of Sheep didn't really have a story at all, but you know what? Burnett still drew me into that world. I got a feel for that environment. So, I love that movie too.

Again, though, being — for the most part — a proponent of movies with stories, I do have a bit of problem with movies that are all about exercises in style. This is why I have a more difficult time appreciating Godard than some of my peers in the blogosphere, or why I can't watch Soderbergh's Ocean remakes. The actors are clearly having fun on the screen, but I'm not having any fun watching them.

Again, though, there's always that Killer of Sheep-style of filmmaking: slow, slow case studies of slow characters. Uncle Boonmee and Gus Van Sant's Last Days both come to mind, and I love those movies, too. But those are the films in which all entertainment value derives from exploring those slow, introverted characters through repeated viewings. I had an even easier time appreciating Melancholia and Tree of Life because they have more of a narrative to them, though they're clearly also exercises in style.

I guess what I'm trying to say is: if I were a director, I'd want to be a storyteller, first and foremost. Have a good style, sure, but good substance first. Some of you guys are bringing up Howard Hawks, whom I do like, but the fact that most of his movies *are* mostly just full of talky sequences of camaraderie and bonding without much plot to them is probably the reason why you don't hear me raving about his work as much as others. Maybe that's why I enjoy John Ford's movies a little more.


By now, it certainly will seem anticlimactic, but as I previewed, I also stumbled upon an essay Susan Sontag wrote. Titled "Thirty Years Later," the essay was published in the Summer 1996 edition of The Threepenny Review to mark the reissuing of Against Interpretation on its 30th anniversary. What Sontag had to say as she looked backward began promising enough.
"The great revelation for me had been the cinema: I felt particularly marked by the films of Godard and Bresson. I wrote more about cinema than about literature, not because I loved movies more than novels but because I loved more new movies than new novels. Of course, I took the supremacy of the greatest literature for granted. (And assumed my readers did, too.) But it was clear to me that the film-makers I admired were, quite simply, better and more original artists than nearly all of the most acclaimed novelists; that, indeed, no other art was being so widely practiced at such a high level. One of my happiest achievements in the years that I was doing the writing collected in Against Interpretation is that no day passed without my seeing at least one, sometimes two or three, movies. Most of them were 'old.' My gluttonous absorption in cinema history only reinforced my gratitude for certain new films which (along with my roll-call of favorites from the silent era and the 1930s) I saw again and again, so exalting did they seem to me in their freedom and inventiveness of narrative method, their sensuality and gravity and beauty."

Then the essay turns decidedly toward the pessimistic side, not that you could argue with her much even though that is now almost 16 years old. "The world in which these essays were written no longer exists," Sontag wrote. "Instead of the utopian moment, we live in a time which is experienced as the end — more exactly, just past the end — of every ideal. (And therefore of culture: there is no possibility of true culture without altruism.) An illusion of the end, perhaps — and not more illusory than the conviction of thirty years ago that we were on the threshold of a great positive transformation of culture and society. No, not an illusion, I think." If Sontag felt this way in 1996, imagine what she'd think of our world today where the GOP presidential candidates try to outcrazy each other, little of good, substantive policy can be created in D.C. since both parties in Congress would rather do nothing that let the opposing team take partial credit for a "win" and, though film lovers such as myself hate to admit it, while television played a primary role in the debasing of our culture and still does with the various Real Housewives and Jersey Shores, the best shows that TV produces regularly exceed in quality the best in movies whether the films come from Hollywood studios or are produced independently. What grabbed me the most in "Thirty Years Later" were when Sontag wrote these words:
"So I can’t help viewing the writing collected in Against Interpretation with a certain irony. Still, I urge the reader not to lose sight of — it may take some effort of imagination — the larger context of admirations in which these essays were written. To call for an “erotics of art” did not mean to disparage the role of the critical intellect. To laud work condescended to, then, as 'popular' culture did not mean to conspire in the repudiation of high culture and its burden of seriousness, of depth. I thought I’d seen through certain kinds of facile moralism, and was denouncing them in the name of a more alert, less complacent seriousness. What I didn’t understand (I was surely not the right person to understand this) is that seriousness itself was in the early stages of losing credibility in the culture at large, and that some of the more transgressive art I was enjoying would reinforce frivolous, merely consumerist transgressions. Thirty years later, the undermining of standards of seriousness is almost complete, with the ascendancy of a culture whose most intelligible, persuasive values are drawn from the entertainment industries. Now the very idea of the serious (and the honorable) seems quaint, 'unrealistic,' to most people; and when allowed, as an arbitrary decision of temperament, probably unhealthy, too."

Surely, she can't be serious. I think she was and her name was Susan, not Shirley. It was enough to break my momentary spell. While I certainly agree with much of what Sontag wrote, where would we be without a little levity? (Watching nothing but Terrence Malick films, he said, followed by a rim shot from the drummer.)

I wish that I had had more time to organize these posts more coherently and given the number of comments I've received on the first two parts, I doesn't seemed to have sparked the conversation I'd hoped for either. Oh, well. Do you all think there was a subliminal message in Airplane!?

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Thanks for this thorough explication, Edward. I know I'll return to this when I sit down with the film again (probably this summer since it's been a long time since I've seen it).

I like what Adam says about how film works for him. I tend to agree with him, and I don't even think there's really anything antiquated about it. For a film to really work on me -- and this is almost always the case with the really, really memorable films -- it has to have both aesthetics and a narrative that moves me.
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