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I caught a late Saturday night showing at the Carnegie Hall Cinema, where a strange intensity radiated from the audience. Nothing could divert their visual attention from the screen, no conversation was allowed to interfere with the narrative.
Then, after fifteen or twenty minutes the film went blurry. Not impossibly blurry, just enough so that one might attribute it to technique. Eyes strained, faces contorted into strange, squinting positions.... But when the little man on my left began to clap, his wife grabbed his arm and the entire audience ssshhhed him violently. Squelched, he looked at the distended, hazy figures on the screen and muttered something to his wife, who snapped "Shut up, Morton."
At last he turned my way: "If the guys are all speaking French and their voices sound clear, why are the English titles all blurry?"
Impressed by this logic, I suggested that we notify the projectionist. We got up to leave, drawing scowls from two young women in peasant blouses seated behind us.
The usher in the lobby, a frowsy little thing, was disconcerted by the suppressed violence in the man's voice when he asked "to have a few words, please, with the projection man." She led us to him hesitantly. His chair was tilted against the back wall of the projection room. He was reading Little Lulu.
"The film has been off the track for fifteen minutes," I said as tactfully as possible. The projectionist looked up, ready to deny this: "Nobody," he said logically, "whistled or nothin.'"
Pleading now, the little man confessed: "I didn't want to come to this movie. My wife said I had to come to it. For fifteen minutes it has been blurry and I have gone half blind. Please, mister..."
The projectionist rose, looked out at the screen, nodin surprise, and with a flick of the wrist restored the focus. From down below came no reaction. No collective sigh of relief. Not even an honest "whew."
When we returned to the auditorium no one glanced our way, and one of the two young women in peasant blouses said "not again" as we writhed through the aisle to our seats.
The little man, expecting a thankful or congratulatory look from the hundreds of eyes he had just saved, grinned naively....
But then, suddenly, he wheeled around to the audience-at-large and shouted: "THIS FILM'S SO ARTY NOBODY KNEW IT WAS BLURRY." His wife did not turn. Without looking away from the screen she reached out a fleshy arm and yanked him down into his seat, so that he looked even smaller than before.
Some very unsettling arguments have been set forth in defense of Resnais' well-publicized hit. In the swamp of praise this one bobs to the surface most frequently:
"Last year at Marienbad" operates by suggestion, confronting the viewer with a series of images that force him to refer to his own experience. Thus the film takes on a distinct and unique meaning for each individual viewer.
Ambiguity is peddled as the great democratic virtue of Resnais' work. He and his scenarist (to the critics' pleasure) publicly dispute whether the girl does in fact leave with her lover at the film's end. (Only her hair-dresser knows for sure.)
Now no one condones over-baked Message Films, and no one wants to have his opinions manipulated. But is this negative, chaotic response the real alternative to artless naivete or subliminal sophistication? The critics have answered with a happy yes.
Thirsty for anti-social art, they have assumed that a hundred different meanings for a hundred different people are per se an artistic value. Bosley Crowther, well-suited to a supporting role in The Emperor's New Clothes, picks up the chant and after that you can't tell the tabloids from the suave cinema quarterlies without a pretty damn good scorecard.
Along with the psychological dots that we individuals are supposed to connect, what has Resnais given us? The film not only lacks a plot ("Haven't I met you somewhere before?"--it's a mediocre line at a party), it has no characters. The leading man is reduced to a one-dimensional figure who stares intently at a girl. She scratches her right shoulder with her left hand ten or fifteen times, and turns away from his PIERCING glance.
Philosophically, Marienbad raises only cocktail questions. Nor has Resnais experimented with his medium, for he takes no real risks. On the basis of Hiroshima Mon Amour, interestingly enough, he was virtually assured of wide critical attention and box-office interest. A true risk, artistic or otherwise, never really takes the form of a publicity stunt.
The one real success of the film, and here Resnais deserves full credit, is the ease and brilliance with which it shuffles the past, present and future in exploring a single situation. This type of synthesis, Resnais shows, is a specific virtue of the cinema.
Somebody has said that after fifteen minutes at this movie you get the joke. Maybe ten.
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