Memory and Marienbad


In David Lodge’s novel Nice Work there is a scene in which a group of academics play a game in which they named a canonical book they have not read.  If I had to name one canonical film that I have not seen it would be Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad, which begins a two-week run at the Film Forum on Friday.

The whole idea of a canon isn’t as prominent in film as it is in literature, but if there’s a film canon, it would be Sight & Sound‘s Top Ten list. Every ten years, starting in 1952, hundreds of prominent critics and directors are asked to list their 10 favorite films of all time. Last Year at Marienbad doesn’t appear on the latest list, published in 2002, but it’s an important film if only because it functions as sort of a litmus test for cinephiles: did Renais add "a new dimension of the filmmaker’s art — the process of actually portraying the drama that takes place within the human mind" (the 1962 New York Times review) or  was the film "a stone in the cemeteries of the dead"  (the 1962 Village Voice review)? Does the film represent a Bergsonian attempt to re-create the process of memory or is it merely an exercise in visual abstraction?

We’re no longer in Susan Sontag’s "feverish age of moviegoing," when we’re afraid to miss a movie or we’ll be excluded from furious cocktail party discussion or seminar room debate.  Marienbad was an important film in the early 1960s not just because it was a tantalizing collaboration between two major figures in the French avant-garde (Renais and the screenwriter, novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet), but because the film addressed problems with which society grappled. Renais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour was, arguably, a more successful treatment of the issue of time, memory, and history. The year Marienbad was released, 1962, was also the year of the pivotal Oberhausen Film Festival in which twenty-six German writers and filmmakers established the junger detuscher film, or as it became known later in the decade, das neue kino. The young German filmmakers of the time launched their furious assault on the unbewältige Vergangenheit ("unassimilated past") of post-war West Germany.   In a year in which saw the greatest level of violence in Iraq since 2003, yet nine of the top ten grossing films in the United States were science fiction, fantasy or animation films. Clearly, we’re having trouble linking up our personal memories and the recent unassimilated past. Hardly anyone went to see In the Valley of Elah, Rendition, or Redacted, so it’s unlikely that a 45-year-old film with lovers named X and A will be a hit. Yet Marienbad ‘s theme of unresolved memory and sleek surfaces may be an oblique allegorical comment on the present.  Otherwise, going to see the film will be an exercise in obligatory tribute to the film canon.

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