The Ur-Art Film

There has been an inordinate amount of ink spilled lately in discussions of "art-house" cinema and the alleged death of cinephilia. Thirty-odd years ago, at the peak of my dedication to the auteur theory and the search for great American directors, I might have cracked wise and suggested that a true cinephile was more interested in Boetticher than Bergman, Aldrich than Antonioni or Ford (of course) than Fellini. (Come to that, if those were the dualities proposed, I would still choose the former(s) over the latter(s).) Of course in the past couple of decades guys like Quentin Tarantino have spoiled that ploy by diving deeper than I would care or dare to into the lower depths of genre films. (Fulci over Fellini? Now there is a Hobson's choice of ghastly proportions.) At the same time, I have become increasingly committed in my own aesthetic to a certain vision of narrative film that is both critical and sometimes even anti-narrative.

Moreover, it would be worse than disingenuous to deny the historical connection between the arthouse and the grindhouse in most of our lives in film. I can recall days when I would race from an Aldrich double-bill at the New Amsterdam on 42nd Street to a Bunuel pair at the New Yorker. I still delight in juxtapositions like that, but have to make do with my living room as a screening venue. Viva DVDs!

So, truthfully, I've never had that hard a time reconciling "high" and "low" film art.

What got me wrapped up in this line of thought is the showing at Film Forum over the next couple of weeks of a new 35mm print of Alain Resnais's Last Year at Marienbad, which I've always considered a sort of ur-artfilm. Resnais himself is an aficionado of comic books and similar artifacts of the pop culture world, although you'd be hardput to prove it from his filmography, which is strictly highbrow all the way. (Even his ostensible musicals and bedroom farces are the product of deep theoretical thinking, sometimes but not always to their detriment.)

It must be over 30 years since the last time I saw Marienbad. My memory of it was hazy, as befits a film about the unreliability of human recall and the pliability of our experience of time. The new print on view at Forum is serviceable; it gets a bit grainy at times but that actually works to the film's advantage, amplifying its oneiric quality and Delphine Seyrig's impenetrable sang-froid. Regrettably, Seyrig is about all the film has to offer.

It wouldn't be hard to apportion blame mainly to screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet for the film's obstinate resistance to any fundamental analysis. Compare Marienbad's arch, cryptic anacrostic dialogue and aimless repetitions to Resnais's previous feature, the Marguerite Duras-scripted Hiroshima, Mon Amour and you have the difference between a glib parody of modernist writing and a deeply felt exercise in it. It's a comparison that makes it clear why Duras's reputation continues to grow post-mortem while Robbe-Grillet's evaporates like spit on a hot griddle. Duras's elliptical style conceals deep hurt and real emotion; Robbe-Grillet's is merely so much adolescent game-playing. Their work as filmmakers is similarly disparate: Duras plays elaborate and stimulating games with gender and storytelling, while Robbe-Grillet is basically a high-end pornographer.

But it would be wrong to throw all the blame on one Alain R while letting the other one off the hook. After all, it was probably Resnais's decision to have actors freeze on-camera (bringing to mind unfortunate memories of the ZAZ Police Squad series) and to deliver R-G's dialogue like a cross between the Sermon on the Mount and a fortune cookie enclosure. At the start of his feature film career, Resnais was very much a part of the nouveau roman circle. His work was certainly congruent with the basic attitudes of their own, elliptical, detached, even a little chilly, with a certain formal elegance. Even I, who disliked Marienbad intensely this time around, will readily admit that it is a gracefully crafted film. The precision of Resnais's cross-cutting on synchronized camera movements to link temporally unrelated sequences is frequently breathtaking.

But Robbe-Grillet's strengths and weaknesses are too similar to Resnais's and the glacial cast of the film only emphasizes the problems. As his career progresses, Resnais finds other ways of addressing his own lacks and the results are frequently quite powerful; La Guerre Est Finie, Mon Oncle d'Amerique, Providence, and last year's Private Fears in Public Places are masterful examples of how a repressed style can make its emotional content reverberate all the more powerfully.

But I could happily go another 30 years before I see Last Year at Marienbad again.


I saw Marienbad for the very first time at Film Forum and it was EXACTLY what I expected: the artiest of art films and vaguely absurd but sort of fun in its lack of interest. It wa amusing to think of people back then puzzling over the film and what it might mean when of course it's not a puzzle meant to be solved. The film's "sophisticated" ambiguity is all it's meant to convey. There's nothing in it but a pose. No wonder it inspired Obsession perfume ads. But quite the artifact. I enjoyed finally seeing it and would argue it should be seen for its totemic place as an ur art house movies as you say but I have absolutely no desire to see it again.
Like I say, everyone should see it once. I swear I think it was made for the express purpose of giving Mad Magazine and Woody Allen something concrete to poke fun at.