Sunday, March 11, 2012
What's so funny about critics, taste and Marienbad?
when one did not ask of a work of art what it said because one knew (or thought one knew) what it did.
From now to the end of consciousness, we are stuck with the task of defending art."
— from part 6 of "Against Interpretation" by Susan Sontag
By Edward Copeland
For those of you who read my Wednesday tribute to Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad, you already know the genesis of this post. For those who didn't, I'll try to explain briefly. In exploring my love for Marienbad, a type of film I usually don't like, it got my mind wandering to questions about criticisms and movie tastes in general. What makes a film such as Marienbad magic for some and a misfire for others? I also thought deeper because while so many of the original and later fans of Marienbad spent much time developing theories as to what Resnais' film ultimately meant, that's never concerned me. As I began working to put this post together, uncertain exactly what form it would take, how it would turn out — quite frankly how I'd allowed myself, already behind and overburdened with editing of other contributors' pieces and writing my own future posts, to promise to readers that something else related to Marienbad (but not exclusively about that film) would be coming. I even did the thing I try never to do: Promise a date, though at least I stretched it to Friday with a "maybe." (As you can see, I blew that date.) Anyone who has ever watched or read many interviews with film directors likely knows that often on movie sets, sometimes incredible moments happen "by accident." Thursday night, while searching the Web for something related to this, I experienced a happy accident of my own. I'm certain many of you out there perusing this have read Susan Sontag's 10-part essay "Against Interpretation" before, but I had not. Another one of those Burgess Meredith Twilight Zone moments for me. You know what Forrest Gump always said, "Life is like Google's algorithms, type Manny Farber Last Year at Marienbad and you never know what you're gonna get." What I got was one helluva chocolate-covered raspberry creme candy in the form of "Against Interpretation." Part of me wanted to print Sontag's entire essay, but you can click on the link in the pullout quote above and read the entire thing if you wish. In part 6 of Sontag's essay, she wrote, "From interviews, it appears that Resnais and Robbe-Grillet consciously designed Last Year at Marienbad to accommodate a multiplicity of equally plausible interpretations. But the temptation to interpret Marienbad should be resisted. What matters in Marienbad is the pure, untranslatable, sensuous immediacy of some of its images, and its rigorous if narrow solutions to certain problems of cinematic form." Not only did her essay tie directly into the discussion I wanted to have here, for about an hour the essay in its entirety changed how I thought about my own film criticism. Against Interpretation became the title of Sontag's first collection of essays published in 1966 so, being a stickler, I figured the essay must have been published somewhere else first and I spent a while trying to track down the when and where (especially since the place where I found the complete 10-part essay had a 1964 at the bottom). During my hunt, I found another Sontag essay called "30 Years Later" that was published to mark the 30th anniversary republication of the 1966 book. That's the punchline of this story, so I'm saving it for later while we get back on track to my original purpose for this post. Why do we feel compelled to ascribe meaning to a movie? It's not like I don't do it, it's just that when I find myself discussing a film's point (or lack of one) that usually happens because I have problems with a film (read my review of The Artist, for example), but if it has worked, I don't. (I have to swipe another bit from part 6 of Sontag's essay here as well: "It is always the case that interpretation of this type indicates a dissatisfaction — conscious or unconscious — with the work, a wish to replace it by something else.") With Marienbad, critics worked overtime trying to explain its meaning or tearing it down (reading all of the great Pauline Kael's cutting remarks on the film prompted this in the first place). The 1960s proponents of Last Year at Marienbad loved to expound on the film's surreal nature, which is why I enjoyed what Resnais himself said in a 2008 audio interview recorded for the Criterion DVD:
"I don't think we were true surrealists but we certainly had very strong emotions. We didn't take ourselves seriously but when we started filming an atmosphere set in during the shoot…I was caught up in a kind of spiral, a kind of labyrinth, in which I felt like I was pushing buttons but had no control over the outcome…"
I haven't tried to assemble this type of post before, but as I've developed it, it's become clear that I should provide separate pieces: one relating specifically to Last Year at Marienbad , the second devoted to more general questions about all movies. Both posts will use thoughts from critic friends across the blogsphere and other writings that have appeared dating from the 1960s to now. I hope it's enjoyable and illuminating. Before we begin, I'm going to grab a quote that Sontag borrowed before she began "Against Interpretation."
— Oscar Wilde in a letter
In my Wednesday piece on the film itself, one of the last things I wrote about was my lifelong use and love of nonsequiturs, though usually of the quirky or humorous variety, and how, in many ways, Last Year at Marienbad was composed of 93 minutes of nonsequiturs and I wrote, "but Resnais wasn't going for laughs — was he?" When I decided to query some of my critic friends across the web about the issues, one of the first responses I received was from Matt Zoller Seitz, TV critic at New York magazine and publishes the Press Play blog on Indiewire, and part of what he sent said, "It verges on self-parody rather often, and Resnais is not known for his humor, so I suspect most of this is unintentional." Matt hadn't read what I wrote, so he didn't know I'd asked that question about whether Resnais could have been going for laughs, but the possibility of parody has been raised often in the half-century since the release of Last Year at Marienbad, by the film's devotees and detractors alike. Resnais almost hinted at that when he said that he and Alain Robbe-Grillet didn't take themselves seriously, but later in that DVD interview Resnais tells François Thomas, "It felt like we were in the realm of the conscious and the unconscious and that there were 'dark forces' guiding the mise en scene…we were almost afraid of what we were doing." What's truly funny is how many different stories you can get out of Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet, the avant-garde French novelist who wrote the film's screenplay, concerning Marienbad's origin. Granted, most of the information in my original post came from Resnais, who is pushing 90 and was in his late 80s when he recorded it, so perhaps fuzzy memory could be blame — and given the film we're talking about that would seem appropriate. How long the four story ideas that Robbe-Grillet gave Resnais changes as does the time the director took to pick one. Resnais says the producers asked him to meet with Robbe-Grillet while the novelist says the exact opposite. The puzzler comes from the amount of support they received from the producers. On the Criterion interview, Resnais specifically praises producer Raymond Froment for always standing behind the film his entire life. In an interview with Shusha Guppy in the Spring 1986 issue of The Paris Review, Robbe-Grillet said:
"The joke is that no one wanted to buy Marienbad! The producer decided that the film would never be shown, that it insulted and mocked the public, that it meant nothing. I was in a particularly awkward position, since I was “the bad Alain Robbe-Grillet” who had corrupted “the good Alain Resnais.” So for a year the film lay fallow. By chance, the Venice Film Festival saved it, and the absurd, idiotic film became a roaring success overnight."
Back to that idea of whether Marienbad could be a parody. With all the games that they play, particularly Nim, the pick-up-sticks game where only the player who goes first can win, I confess that this time I thought momentarily of Robert Altman's loony 1979 film Quintet, where on the DVD commentary Altman all but admits he made the movie as a joke on the audience, saying he enjoyed holding moviegoers hostage for two hours wondering what was going on. I can't pretend that Marienbad doesn't transfix me and lines that I jotted down I couldn't see myself laughing at in the right mood, but I've never laughed at them while watching the film. That's not been the case with others, especially critics such as Kael who disliked the film. She wrote in 5,001 Nights at the Movies, "The dialogue about whether the characters met the year before is like a parody of wealthy indolence. The settings and costumes seem to be waiting for a high romantic theme or fantasy; the people, pawns who are manipulated into shifting positions, seem to be placed for wit, or for irony. But all we get are pretty pictures." As I started searching through reviews of the film, both from the time of its release and since, it began to be difficult to find any that didn't mention parody — in either the plaudits or the pans.
In his capsule on the film in The Chicago Reader, the esteemed Jonathan Rosenbaum acknowledges both Marienbad's possibility as a tease while still recognizing its magnificence. "The overall tone is poker-faced parody of lush Hollywood melodrama, yet the film's dreamlike cadences, frozen tableaux and distilled surrealist poetry are too eerie, too terrifying even, to be shaken off as camp. For all its notoriety, this masterpiece among masterpieces has never really received its due." Long before being unceremoniously evicted from his longtime perch at The Village Voice by the dullards at New Times (oops — sorry — Voice Media Group. To think Norman Mailer helped to co-found this once glorious alternative newspaper. I digress.), J. Hoberman penned a piece on Marienbad in its Jan. 8, 2008, issue, ahead of an engagement at Film Forum. Headlined "The House of 1,000 Corpses," Hoberman began, "Back in the day, literal-minded audiences had great fun pretending to be baffled by this artiest of European art films." I have to admit — I love the idea that it wasn't Resnais and Robbe-Grillet putting the audience on, but moviegoers doing the pretending, much as The Academy acted as if they thought Tom Hooper directed The King's Speech better than David Fincher directed The Social Network (This isn't a joke — I had to look up Hooper's name. He slipped my mind that fast). Later, Hoberman wrote, "…the spectator is similarly obliged to surrender to the movie's incantatory rhythms and sublimely maddening mannerisms — or else leave the theater.…Hopelessly retro, eternally avant-garde, and one of the most influential movies ever made (as well as one of the most reviled), Marienbad is both utterly lucid and provocatively opaque — an elaborate joke on the world's corniest pickup line and a drama of erotic fixation that takes Vertigo to the next level of abstraction." (Since Vertigo has come up, this is as good a spot as any to place a screenshot of the moment in Marienbad where Resnais placed a cardboard cutout of Alfred Hitchcock.) The word parody doesn't stand alone as an oft-repeated word in writings on Marienbad: Both those who love it and loathe it like to link it with some form of the undead. Vampires and zombies get a lot of ink (or the online equivalent) though no necks get bitten or brains get eaten. It's understandable since, as much as I love the film, acting isn't required. Dennis Lim, writing in The Los Angeles Times on June 21, 2009, to mark Criterion's reissuing of Marienbad on DVD hit on both zombies and parody. His piece said, "Marienbad, with its solemn mannerisms, geometric topiary and cast of waxwork zombies, has inspired more parodies than any other art-house hit, save perhaps for Bergman's The Seventh Seal (also just reissued by Criterion). But what often goes unacknowledged is the edge of awareness beneath the movie's straight-faced absurdity.…On one hand, it's a proudly unsolvable enigma, an attempt to resist chronology and rational analysis and instead to mimic the associative flow of dream logic. On the other, it's the driest of high-concept comedies: an elaboration on the old 'Don't I know you from somewhere?' pickup line."
To finish off our Marienbad discussion (for the most part), I thought I would share a few of the interesting comments sent to me personally or that I found on the web about the film before I begin work on the second post. First, I'm going to share comments from Rialto Pictures' press notes for a re-release of the film about the various theories about what Last Year at Marienbad meant. Beginning on page seven of the booklet, it reads, "Inevitably, the authors were pressed to disclose the 'meaning' of the film. Among the possible solutions suggested have been the Orpheus-Eurydice myth; a visualization of the process of psychoanalysis (Giorgio Albertazzi as doctor pushing patient Delphine Seyrig to go deeper); Albertazzi as Death; or the whole as a kind of stream of consciousness of a single mind, presumably the woman’s, encompassing truth, lies, and visualized what-ifs, all taking place within a few seconds of 'real time’…(As if to illustrate the general ambiguity, at one point in the film a prominent statuary group elicits three different, equally convincing, interpretations.) To this day, the authors have studiously avoided endorsing any single interpretation." For his part, Resnais actually offered an abstract explanation once, suggesting that Marienbad's purpose "is an attempt, still very crude and very primitive, to approach the complexity of thought, of its processes." Robbe-Grillet steered clear of any maps, but he did write in the introduction to the published book of his screenplay that the film only can be watched two ways and only one will work. "(E)ither the spectator will try to reconstitute some 'Cartesian' scheme — the most linear, the most rational he can devise — and this spectator will certainly find the film difficult if not incomprehensible; or else the spectator will let himself be carried along by the extraordinary images in front of him…and to this spectator, the film will seem the easiest he has ever seen: a film addressed exclusively to his sensibility, to his faculties of sight, hearing, feeling." Robbe-Grillet's second description does sound like the effect that Last Year at Marienbad has on me. More frightening, one of the old, squarest of past critics wrote of his positive reaction using nearly the same terminology.
In general, during his 27-year reign as chief film critic for The New York Times, Bosley Crowther gained a reputation as a fuddy duddy and a moralizer, despite the fact the he was outspoken against McCarthyism and generally promoted foreign films. However, some of his pans (Throne of Blood, Psycho, Lawrence of Arabia, Bonnie and Clyde) put alongside his more enthusiastic picks (Ben-Hur, Cleopatra) earned him a reputation as someone out of touch. In particular, his infamous Bonnie and Clyde review signaled that perhaps his time had passed. However, Crowther happened to be present on March 7, 1962, when Last Year in Marienbad made its U.S. premiere. Resnais' film excited Crowther so much that he actually had a review in The Times the next day. His immediate, overstimulated first mash note to Marienbad starts like this: "Be prepared for an experience such as you've never had from watching a film when you sit down to look at Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad, a truly extraordinary French film, which opened at the Carnegie Hall Cinema last night. It may grip you with a strange enchantment, it may twist your wits into a snarl, it may leave your mind and senses toddling vaguely in the regions in between. But this we can reasonably promise: when you stagger away from it, you will feel you have delighted in (or suffered) a unique and intense experience. And that, it appears, is precisely what M. Resnais means you to feel — the extreme and abnormal stimulation of a complete cinematic experience. For this is no usual movie drama that he is dishing up from a script of radical construction by Alain Robbe-Grillet. This is no lucid exposition of human behavior in terms of conventional dramatic situation, motivation and plot. This is an eye-opening example of the use of the cinema device — the machinery of visual image-making, conjoined with musical sounds and the contrapuntal assistance of vocalized images and ideas — to excite the imagination as it might be excited by a lyrical poem, or, better, by the tonal colorations and rhythms of a fine symphony." In 1962, March 7 was a Wednesday. Crowther obviously didn't get all he wanted to say out of his system on deadline because he published another piece on the film (under the headline "ESOTERIC POETRY") that ran Sunday, March 11. Highlights: “In truth and beyond any question, this is the ‘furthest out’ film we’ve ever had."; "Alongside of it, such esoterica as the rare fantasies of Jean Cocteau, Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura and M. Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour have the structure of fairly lucid dramas with some temporal continuity, at least." and, finally, the words that mirrors Robbe-Grillet's advice and my viewing experiences: "…if one sits down to it in a normally relaxed and pliant mood, with no rigid or stifling preconceptions of what a motion picture has to be or say, but ready to go along with it into whatever fancies it leads, one is likely — indeed, almost certain — to find it a fascinating film, productive of lovely sensations and provocative abstract ideas.” Interestingly enough, one of The New York Times' current film critics, A.O. Scott, said last year in The Times that, "I don’t feel guilty about not caring for Last Year at Marienbad."
Since I never could locate those Manny Farber pans against Marienbad, the main naysayer from that era I knew of was Pauline Kael. When Pauline launched her most-targeted missile at Last Year at Marienbad, she combined it in a piece taking down Fellini's La Dolce Vita and Antonioni's La Notte in the same article. As anyone who has read Kael much knows, she doesn't write brief so you can imagine that when she is covering three films together, under the heading "The Come-Dressed-As-the-Sick-Soul-of-Europe Parties." It is part of her collection I Lost It at the Movies. I'm only picking a few choice plums relating to Marienbad such as when she wrote, "The mood of the protagonists, if we can call them that, is lassitude; there is almost no conflict, only a bit of struggling — perhaps squirming is more accurate — amid the unvoiced acceptance of defeat.…It's easy enough to say ‘They are alienated; therefore, they exist,’ but unless we know what they are alienated from, their alienation is meaningless — an empty pose. And that is just what alienation is in these films — an empty pose; the figures are cardboard intellectuals — the middle-class view of sterile artists. Steiner's party from La Dolce Vita is still going on in La Notte, just as the gathering of bored aristocrats in La Dolce Vita is still going on in Marienbad." She finally makes the point that I made reference to in my actual piece on the film as a possible subliminal reason that I might have been swept up by Marienbad. "All these films have their source, I think, in Renoir's great The Rules of the Game  — but how different his party was: it was a surreal fantasy, the culmination of the pursuit of love, a great chase, a great satirical comedy, a dance of death," Kael wrote. "The servants were as corrupt as the masters. And how different were the games — the shooting party in which almost all living creatures were the targets, and then the unplanned shooting party. But the themes were set - the old castle that seems to symbolize the remains of European civilization, and the guests with their weekend activities — sex and theatricals and games. Renoir's film was a dazzling, complex entertainment, brilliantly structured, building its themes toward a climax. These new party films are incoherent message movies."
Kael, of course, earned her greatest fame once she became ensconced at The New Yorker. As luck would have it, after I wrote my original piece, Richard Brody tweeted me with links to two articles he wrote for The New Yorker in May 2010 that come the closest to convincing me that Marienbad might have had reason behind its rhyme. Brody attended an invitation-only screening of a documentary called The Making of Last Year at Marienbad that was built around 8mm footage filmed by Françoise Spira, an actress in the film who committed suicide in 1965. In the article, Brody writes how this documentary came to be, quoting what Bernard Henri-Levy, one of the film's producer, wrote on The Daily Beast.
"Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée, Spira’s last companion, found the lost work hidden in the back of a basement and gave it to Alain Robbe-Grillet, who had written Marienbad’s original screenplay. A few weeks before he died [in 2008], Robbe-Grillet passed it on to Olivier Corpet’s Institut Mémoires de l’édition Contemporaine, with the rest of his archives, and Corpet, in turn, gave it to me to broadcast on the website of my review, La Règle du Jeu."
Levy contacted director Volker Schlöndorff, who worked as a second assistant director on Last Year at Marienbad Working from his notes, Schlöndorff assembled the film reels in order and only added his own voiceover. Brody describes a particularly fascinating part of the documentary which, unfortunately hasn't been released on DVD. Brody wrote, "An extraordinarily illuminating detail emerges, in the course of the documentary, at the one point that the action departs from the set of Resnais’s film: Spira filmed an excursion by the cast and crew to the Munich suburb of Dachau. There, they visited the remains of the concentration camp (which Spira didn’t film)…I’ve always thought that the film is noteworthy for the pre-war atmosphere it conjures, with no actual calendar reference. 'Marienbad' is, of course, a German name ('Bad' means 'bath,' referring to a spa), and the title of the film could (with a tiny tweak of the French) mean the last year at Marienbad — as in, this is how life was in Germany before all hell broke loose, or even, this is the sort of passionately decadent frivolity — and the sort of breakdown of memory — that results in disaster on a historical scale." Brody goes on to make the connection my mind already had leaped to as I read the early part of his piece: Marienbad might really have that connection to Renoir's film my subconscious sensed. While Rules mostly takes the form of a human farce, the entire rabbit hunt sequence heralds the impending sounds of war in Europe. Of course, Renoir made his film before the fact. Resnais, who came from a documentary background, earning much praise for one called Night and Fog that visited the sites of Nazi death camps. Perhaps the movie without a meaning concealed one all along. Brody explored these ideas in intriguing detail when he picked Marienbad as his DVD of the Week in the March 22, 2011, issue of The New Yorker.
I did happen to stumble upon another prominent figure who didn't go for Last Year at Marienbad when the film originally came out in the early 1960s. He wasn't a critic, he was three-time Academy Award-winning director William Wyler.
“Look at Marienbad honestly. What is it? It’s just another talking radio show with pictures. Nobody acts. People stand around while the author talks about the woodwork. There is nothing clever about confusion.”
As much as I like Marienbad, I always did think those long corridors could use a chariot race. I also found that when Michael Medved offered ill-informed opinions on movies with his brother Harry, they included Last Year at Marienbad as one of the 50 Worst Films of All Times. I know — that violates my edict about the equality and subjectivity of opinions about movies, but Michael surrendered that when he switched to giving ill-informed opinions on politics. I know I promised the punchline to the Sontag story, but I'm going to have to save it for the second post. It fits better thematically there. I did have one more famous opinion on Marienbad I wanted to include part of because it's just so damn evocative. Written by Roger Ebert as part of his Great Movie series on May 30, 1999.
"Yes, it's easy to smile at Alain Resnais' 1961 film, which inspired so much satire and yet made such a lasting impression. Incredible to think that students actually did stand in the rain to be baffled by it, and then to argue for hours about its meaning — even though the director claimed it had none. I hadn't seen Marienbad in years, and when I saw the new digitized video disc edition in a video store, I reached out automatically: I wanted to see it again, to see if it was silly or profound, and perhaps even to recapture an earlier self — a 19-year-old who hoped Truth could be found in Art.
"Viewing the film again, I expected to have a cerebral experience, to see a film more fun to talk about than to watch. What I was not prepared for was the voluptuous quality of Marienbad, its command of tone and mood, its hypnotic way of drawing us into its puzzle, its austere visual beauty. Yes, it involves a story that remains a mystery, even to the characters themselves. But one would not want to know the answer to this mystery. Storybooks with happy endings are for children. Adults know that stories keep on unfolding, repeating, turning back on themselves, on and on until that end that no story can evade.
"'I'll explain it all for you,' promised Gunther Marx, a professor of German at the U. of I. We were sitting over coffee in the student union, late on that rainy night in Urbana. (He would die young; his son Frederick would be one of the makers of Hoop Dreams.) 'It is a working out of the anthropological archetypes of Claude Levi-Strauss. You have the lover, the loved one and the authority figure. The movie proposes that the lovers had an affair, that they didn't, that they met before, that they didn't, that the authority figure knew it, that he didn't, that he killed her, that he didn't. Any questions?'"
The bigger question that I wanted to get to was, "Should there be questions?" Especially if a film works, but we'll get to that part as I finish it up later today along with other issues related to criticism such as one inspired by this paragraph from Mark Harris' New York Times piece in January 2008:
“The chief difference between Marienbad in 1962 and Marienbad in 2008 may be how many people are willing to tolerate that distress and walk into the theater in the first place. To revisit Marienbad today is to glimpse a vanished moment when American audiences drank in European films not because they were universal or ‘relatable,’ but for their otherness, their impenetrability, their defiant contrast to the simplistic and elephantine Technicolor epics that much of Hollywood was then embracing.
By March 1962, when Last Year at Marienbad opened, the pump had been primed; New Yorkers were ready, even eager to wrestle with pictures from abroad that tested their ability to ‘read’ a film. In the preceding 12 months moviegoers had had their first encounters with L’Avventura, Michelangelo Antonioni’s story of a young woman’s disappearance that seemingly abandoned its own interest in her halfway through; with La Dolce Vita, Federico Fellini’s more user-friendly take on sexually charged European ennui; and with Ingmar Bergman’s stern, uningratiating spiritual meditation Through a Glass Darkly.”
Those old THX ads used to shout THE AUDIENCE IS LISTENING, but is it to the movie on the screen, let alone critics? To be continued...