Thursday, June 25, 2009

MY LIFE IN ANAMORPHIC WIDESCREEN: Last Year at Marienbad (Blu-Ray)

When people say, “They just don’t make them like that anymore,” they tend to refer to the great film dramas of a bygone era. The major classics of the 1970s come to mind (The Godfather, Taxi Driver, or The Last Picture Show for example); I’ve certainly heard it from elder patrons at any retrospective of films that have come to be classified as film noir. But of course, they do still make them like that. Oh, sure, the trappings are a little different and the technology has allowed for greater variance of style, but with more and more filmmakers emerging who have been bred in great cinema, even the greatest of modern films have ties – often, very striking similarities – to the great films of the past (a recent video series by Matt Zoller Seitz insisted that it was precisely those influences that make Wes Anderson such an important modern director).

No, one of the only films from that bygone era of which I would feel comfortable saying, “They just don’t make them like that anymore” would be director Alain Resnais and screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Last Year at Marienbad. But then again, they didn’t really make them like that back then, either.

It’s hard to say if Marienbad is as great a film as I know it to be, because it absolutely allows no objective viewpoint. Literature accompanying original screenings, even the trailer itself, entices audiences by saying that for the first time, they will be coauthors of the film, that whatever they bring to it and whatever they get out of it defines what the film is. And I suppose the fact that the film actually lives up to that challenge, that there truly isn’t an “answer” to the question mark that is Last Year at Marienbad, is exactly why the film is a great one.

The truly cynical, and those who maintain that films can really only be a handful of things (derived from other narrative forms like novels or plays), will insist that throwing a bunch of half-realized, elliptical scenes together is easy, and that if there is no resolution to the mystery, then the mystery is both meaningless and shoddy in its construction, but I maintain that there is nothing “easy” about Last Year at Marienbad. For many, it isn’t easy to watch, as it meets none of the narrative signposts that both audiences and producers increasingly require of their films. That, in turn, requires that its assembly must be so specific in nature as to at once give the hint of something that could really take place, the way the characters perceive these events, the method by which they arrive at these perceptions, while still maintaining the distance necessary to allow for the fact that it might not actually be trying to do any of these things. No, it’s not “easy” to make something as mysterious and enigmatic as Last Year at Marienbad (otherwise, more people would do it); but even if it were easy, it would not make it any less wonderful.


This Blu-Ray presentation defies all categorizations I can come up with to describe home theater presentation. It is quite unlike anything I’ve seen either at home or in a theater; it’s that good. There are screen captures available through multiple sources, but they do not begin to do justice to the experience of watching this thing in motion. Fine grain is present throughout, along with a slight, persistent flickering, akin to what one would see in a film projection. But I have never seen black and white photography represented like this, with a slight haze of sorts over the picture that causes whites to bleed into blacks. Nor have I seen such detail in the black area of the picture; I had seen the movie once before, but I had no idea how much detail was in the film. Criterion’s restoration is nothing short of a revelation, something perfectly suiting this amazing work of art.


God bless Alain Resnais and his insistence on including both the original sound track and the restored track. That said, while I totally respect his reasons for the inclusion – a restored track could absolutely lose some of the finer detail, just as scrubbing too much grain from the video can lose some of that detail – I tried it out, and it was just too distracting. It wasn’t just the persistent hiss, or the occasional pops and crackles. I kind of like all that stuff. It’s the warbles, where the audio will dramatically change pitch in the middle of a sentence. But, again, I love that it’s there for those who want it.

That said, the restored track is phenomenal, and if nothing else the ability to hear each track allows us to see just how much work goes into audio restoration, something I know I have a hard time grasping. The restored track is slightly louder, much crisper, and while it’s noted as monaural by Criterion, the slight dispersion to the front side channels created a wonderful, enveloping environment.


While some have bemoaned the lack of scholarly, critical material on the disc, I’m actually okay with that. I do slightly fear the day someone comes up with an all-too definitive reading of the film. Even reaching my own conclusion was kind of a disappointing moment; while the film still holds some mysteries in its telling, it can no longer be the absolute mystery it once was. It’s akin to finally learning the lyrics to a favorite song – suddenly this wonderful, melodic progression is actually ABOUT something. And what could be sadder than that?

That said, there are some pretty fine supplements:

ALAIN RESNAIS AUDIO INTERVIEW – Less an interview than Resnais’ answers to questions we never hear, it’s nevertheless a great account on the process of making this unusual film. It includes the support he received from producers, his introduction to and subsequent collaboration with Robbe-Gillet, as well as reflections on the production. Resnais and Robbe-Gillet’s collaboration was, by each one’s account, a harmonious one, with each approaching their respective arts from a formal perspective first (Robbe-Gillet was a renowned novelist at the time, and Resnais had just taken the cinema by storm with Hiroshima Mon Amour). Even though they didn’t always agree on the direction the film should take, it’s one of those wonderful instances where the better angels won out every time.

UNRAVELING THE ENIGMA: THE MAKING OF MARIENBAD – Ever imagine what the day-to-day work is like on such an odd, avant-garde film? How does one account plan out costumes and check for continuity when there’s not exactly a timeline? This documentary answers those questions through interviews with various crew members – first and second directors, the production designer, and best of all the script girl – who were interested in the larger ambitions of the film, but whose primary interests and responsibilities revolved around those day-to-day tasks, and it’s pretty fascinating.

GINETTE VINCENDEAU ON LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD – This is the set’s only real attempt to explain the film, which, again, is probably for the best. Ginette Vincendau does a great job of rounding up critical interpretations and reactions at the time of the film’s release. Most fascinating is just that the film made as large an impact as it did; it’s impossible to imagine many people even showing up to see a film like this these days, much less it getting an Oscar nomination for, of all things, Original Screenplay.

DOCUMENTARY FILMS BY RESNAIS – These are the sort of special features I just go mental for. I love this kind of stuff. Toute La Memoire Du Monde (1956), a short film about the inner workings of the Bibliotheque Nationale (or National Library) in Paris is one of the most fascinating documentaries I’ve ever seen, in large part because the setting. As in Marienbad, Resnais’ camera wanders through the aisles of this centuries-old library, stopping to show us how information was gathered and stored in the heyday of the analog age. I can’t recommend watching this enough (oh, and if you can, try to spot future New Wave director Agnes Varda…I couldn’t, but I’m sure someone has a better idea what she looked like circa ’56).
Le Chant Du Styrene (1958) is noteworthy for two reasons – one, it’s a documentary with Saul Bass-style opening credits. And two, it’s a documentary made in the late 50’s not only in color, but also in anamorphic widescreen, which just seems absurd. It’s basically about how various objects (mostly plastic) that we encounter in everyday life are made. It’s inventively shot – the Criterion disc boasts the way it shows the movement of color, and they’re right – but the subject doesn’t quite hold up as in does in the first doc. At thirteen minutes, though, it’s certainly worth a watch, particularly if (like me) you enjoy finding traces of a director’s developing style.

TRAILERS – Well, there’s the original trailer, and then there’s a ever-so-slightly tweaked version for the film’s rerelease. But in either, see it advertised as a film you coauthor! It’s like choose-your-own-adventure, only somehow we all follow the same path.

A 44-page booklet is included. Mark Polizzotti offers an overview on the making of the film, its reception, the author’s own appreciation of the film, and its influence on some better-known, modern films. The second section deals with Robbe-Gillet’s evolving (public) attitude towards the film, contrasting his views when he has a film to promote and when he’s speaking off the cuff, through an introduction he wrote to the published screenplay (which is fascinating; the guy had an innate understanding of film storytelling, and how to use it to his ends), and a follow-up with some nice research by film scholar Francois Thomas.


Last Year at Marienbad is one of those films charitably described as "not for everyone." That said, it is absolutely essential viewing for anyone who claims they love movies, and really most anyone who has an appreciation for great art. In the end, it could be about many things, but most importantly it's about the experience of watching it. Love it, hate it, be confused, be enraptured by it, these and so many others are valid responses, but by all means, see it. Just don't try to figure it out. That's a sure path to finding nothing in it.

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