Saturday, April 12, 2008
It's Not a Puzzle
Before I get to the fun stuff--ie. the film stuff--I want to take the time for some shameless self-promotion. (Those who read my other blog have surely seen it by now.) I got a piece published in Forbes.com about perfumes. It's a fun little trifle. I knew almost nothing about (and, in fact, for many years, hated) perfumes. But I found the topic quite fascinating and now have the urge to begin--maybe--wearing one or two. We'll see.
Okay, now that you have read--or bookmarked, or chosen to ignore--my piece, we can proceed.
I guess I'll start with a question: Why do we watch films?
I have been asking myself this question because lately I feel like I watch films for completely different reasons than most people do.
I was thinking about this after watching Last Year at Marienbad, a 1960s French film by Alain Resnais (who had previously directed Hiroshima, Mon Amour). Last Year at Marienbad is notorious for being "difficult," impenetrable, divisive. People who love Marienbad say something like "I've watched Last Year at Marienbad X amount of times, and I still have no idea what happened last year at Marienbad" (as if obtusity gave the film some sort of artistic cred); people who hate Marienbad say they hate it because they have "no idea what it's about" (as in, they think after seeing it, "What the hell just happened?").
Somehow, I think, both are missing the point.
First, I don't think the film is meant to be a puzzle. I think it's a meditation on the past, memory, how memory distorts reality, idealism, madness, obsession -- with some social commentary thrown into the mix (those 1960s French auteurs loved to poke fun at the bourgeoisie).
Basic summary: An unidentified man (X) meets an unidentified woman (A) at a summer retreat in Marienbad and claims that they have met before (last year). The woman insists she has never seen him before in her life, and he tells her again and again, upon every subsequent meeting, the details of their affair last year and how they had promised to meet again this year at the same place. Of course the story goes through several variations and permutations, flashbacks and the present are conflated, and there's not so much conversation as there are cryptic utterances and stream-of-conscious rambling. (Sounds like a film snob's wet dream and various other people's movie hell, doesn't it?)
Since the events of the story keep changing with everyone of X's re-tellings, it's clear that X, himself, doesn't really know what happened. He's played a romanticized version in his head so many times in the past year, slightly tweaking details, that he has obliterated the truth. (There's an interesting moment where he's telling A of their romantic rendezvous in her bedroom, and then, entirely unprovoked, as if trying to convince himself, he insists that it wasn't rape, that she was willing, that the act was pure.)
Perhaps the only one who knows what actually happened is A, but she remains tight-lipped, she's not telling anyone--not X (the narrator), not the director, not us.
But it's not the fact that we will never know the plot that makes Marienbad an interesting film--it's its handling of tangible themes that make it interesting, and, ultimately, relateable. It's also its sumptuous cinematography, its gorgeous shot compositions, its eerie mood and the impossibly beautiful Delphine Seyrig (who plays A)--and her covetable wardrobe, designed by Coco Chanel--that makes us watch, that makes us appreciate the beautiful artificiality that somehow can convey truths of cinema.
Which brings me to my second point, why do people feel the need to understand a film in order to like it? I don't know what happened last year at Marienbad, but that doesn't prohibit me from enjoying what is transpiring before me on the screen. The same goes for, say, Mulholland Dr.. I hate when I tell people I liked that film and they respond with "Well, can you explain it to me?" or "Did you understand it?" Can we ever really truly understand film--or any work of art--anyway? I mean, we can't know what the director intended when he or she made a specific film. We can only interpret, experience. And interpreting is different than explaining. Who wants to have art explained anyway? Isn't it much more fun to ruminate and discuss and argue anyway?
And isn't it much more fun to experience? To let the images move you, to yield to them and let them take you on some sort of little journey? I think solving the puzzle of a film like Marienbad--or trying to solve the puzzle--is missing out on the film itself.