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 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.


Chris said...

You know, I'm of several minds on this.

Sometimes, I don't mind utter confusion, like with Mulholland Dr. or Inland Empire (Lynch is just really good as an example of this). At the same time, I get off on analysis (which probably wasn't the best way I could put it).

In the case of Lynch, specifically, I'm more interested in looking at the recurring themes and imagery in his work than in necessarily deciphering any one film. Looking at Lost Highway, Mulholland, and Inland together feels much more interesting. It's the desire to dig into the mindset of an artist.

The same can be done with multiple Hitchcock films, but those are more clear narratives that don't require interpretation to find the who's and why's of the events within them.

There was a great film at the festival this year titled "Energie!" It was non-narrative, with these close up images of moving electrical impulses. It was a fantastic experience.

I agree that sometimes experience is more important than understanding. When we go into a theater, often times we are looking to see a story, but regardless of our purposes for buying a ticket or popping in a DVD, we're looking to have an experience.

It all comes down to where you sit in the theater; what perspective you want to look from.

I think one of my favorite examples from recent films has been Southland Tales. It's just not a good movie in narrative terms, but on a meta-textual level, there's so much going on you could do a series of essays on it. Justin Timberlake's lip-synch of a Killers song is, for me, the most complex single scene in all the films I saw last year. Its equivalent would be Heath Ledger's Independence Day fight with the bikers in Brokeback Mountain. But I digress.

The point I'm trying to make is that I bought a copy of Southland Tales not at all because it's a good movie, but almost expressly because it's NOT a good movie. It's just interesting to me.

Chris said...

I love those moments when I say, "The point I'm trying to make is..." and then I look back on the post to find that it was utterly incoherent, and what I said was the point may not have been at all.

It reminds me of a time in high school when an English teacher responded to a question with a thirty-minute rant that included a discussion of how Titanic was a "market-driven film," and then concluded with the sentence, "So really, Stan, I can't answer your question."

I don't remember what the question was.

Pop Cultural Anthropologist said...

Long-time reader of your "flagship" blog, (or at least the archives - I have no interest in fashion, but you make it sound SO sexy, fascinating and glamorous), first-time commentator. This new blog is a godsend. I wish there was more papaya juice than articles on perfumes (and Sienna-bashing). But hey, it's your life.

You taste in movies and music runs fairly parallel to mine.

I had asked a fellow film buff (a long time ago) why we watch movies. I think it is because it is the natural extension of storytelling. Remember how as kids we begged our (grand)parents to narrate a story (even after we could start reading on our own)?

So why do we need stories? As you say, it is exactly for the experience. We can only live one life, but this is the most inexpensive (and practical) way to experience what it would like to be a completely different person. Since we can never truly be another person, we will always run into things that we do not understand.

I now absolutely have to see Last Year in Marienbad. I have seen Mon Oncle D'Amerique over a decade ago. I do vaguely remember the unique narrative - parts where the same scenes were repeated, but from a different (both human and visual) perspective.

I would have a hard time explaining the plot of Mulholland Dr to anyone, but (after years of auto-psychoanalysis), I think I can explain why I love the movie. I love the bright colors (the blue box stands out). I love that a city bathed in sunlight for so many days a year can be so perverted on the inside. I love movies that are able to subtly suggest that that the very industry that they are a product of would hardly be considered ethical or fair (Sunset Boulevard comes to mind). I love the fact that L.A. gets a bad rap in real life from people who have never lived there. So I am partial to films set there. And the gorgeous Naomi Watts gave the performance of her life.

Again, none of this is going to make sense to anyone, unless they actually take in the film for themselves. Even then, their experiences may end up being very different from mine.

And in closing - just to throw you another compliment: your writing is extremely mature for one so young. Keep blogging.

Raquel Laneri said...

Man, I wrote this long response back to both of your comments, and the tenuous Internet connection at my apartment decided to die when I hit "publish," wiping out everything I had written. Despondent, I went to bed. Okay, not quite, just too tired to write another.

When I say not enough importance is placed on experience, it doesn't mean that I don't think we should think about films. I think not understanding is fine, and I believe that not understanding does not impede your enjoyment of a particular film. Just because I think it's presumptuous of people to think they can ever "understand" a director's intent, it doesn't mean that I don't think we shouldn't try to understand. Well, try to understand is the wrong term, but I think we should think about what we see. But if we try too hard to "figure out" everything, we miss some very important stuff--we miss motifs (thematic or visual) -- I like your observation of color in MD, Pop Cultural Anthropologist, that is certainly one thing I found quite intoxicating about that film. People want to seem smart. But movies aren;t supposed to make us feel smart -- they're supposed to move us or to make us think more or to transport us or to change our perceptions on... well, anything, but my favorite movies are the ones that change our perceptions of what film should be.

(Lynch does that consistently I feel -- and yes, Chris, though his films are very experiential they are most fulfilling when viewed in relation to one another, or something; I feel the same way about Wong Kar-Wai films.)

Pop Culture anthro: I'm so happy you commented. I love knowing who reads me. And I like when they contribute to the conversation. And yes, I wish there were more Papaya too. I'm just getting into the rhythm of having a full-time job and such, so I hope once I balance out my life more, I can write about movies with more frequency. (I have about three movies I've watched recently that I really want to post about, but alas, time...)

BrilloBox said...

Many of Luis Buñuel's films share the quality I think you're getting at, in that they don't really amount to a definable meaning, but at the same time, we experience them. Something happens, you have to admit, just not in the schematic, plot-driven form that most audiences are willing to accept. I saw Harold Pinter's Old Times in March, and it actually reminded me of Last Year at Marienbad, because they both deal with similar issues of memory, identity, and a sense that the past is being recreated within the moment. We are lost outsiders experiencing the dislocation of modern life.

It's interesting to see two different mediums take on similar material: Pinter can't cut away, so the moment continues; it'd almost be like making Last Year at Marienbad in a single, continuous take.

I think that for most people, the experience of cinema is not enough. In this day an age, the kind of sensitivity, the playfulness in reading a film like Marienbad, has been lost. Television and the Internet have both done their part in desensitizing the average viewer to appreciate the experience. Things are appreciated only in how they gratify certain needs: the need to laugh, the need to feel highs and lows, the need for terror.

Often I find myself in this battle to reawaken my senses. I will detox, going without tv or the computer for a day-reading books and reawakening the mind. It's like working out those parts, the perceptional organs to soak in the value of something as basic as seeing a person move across the frame, of noticing how shots fit together and what those choices might mean.

Everything is a puzzle, only the solutions might not even exist.

ammie said...

I totally went and saw this in our local revival-type movie theater the other night and really enjoyed the atmosphere/weirdness/lack of plot quite a lot. Thanks for writing this and making this movie an interesting inclusion into one of my sporadic "date nights" with my girlfriend :) I totally didn't understand it, but I loved the faulty memory flashbacks and the still tableaus and the very deep dramatic dialogue.