Creeping Marienbadism

Famous Shot from Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

I met Pauline Kael during my last year at Dartmouth. At the time, I was Assistant Director of the Dartmouth Film Society and involved in meeting and greeting visiting film dignitaries. We had dinner across the river in Norwich, Vermont, followed by an interesting conversation.

Pauline had just published her first book, entitled I Lost It at the Movies (1965), which I read and loved.

Although she went on to be film reviewer for the New Yorker between 1968 and 1991, Pauline had a strong streak of the old fashioned, with a strong preference for straight narrative and a disdain for art house films and Hollywood blockbusters. (She called The Sound of Music with the moniker The Sound of Money, which made her no new friends in Hollywood)

Film Critic Pauline Kael (1919-2001)

I am slowly re-reading I Lost It at the Movies, where I found some interesting ideas. She hated the Alain Resnais film Last Year at Marienbad and complained that “we can’t even leave Marienbad behind because, although it memorable (it isn’t even particularly offensive), a kind of creeping Marienbadism is is the new aesthetics of ‘poetic cinema.’”

She recalls:

In Los Angeles, among the independent filmmakers at their midnight screenings I was told that I belonged to the older generation, that Agee-alcohol generation they called it, who could not respond to the new films because I didn’t take pot or LSD and so couldn’t learn to accept everything. This narcotic approach of torpid acceptance, which is much like the lethargy of the undead in those failure-of-communication movies, may explain why these films have seemed so “true” to some people….

At the time, I was at the cusp of the whole postmodern movement myself. I remember being agonized by Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) because it so challenged my own way of thinking … at the time. (No longer: I now love the film.)

Liv Ullmanm and Bibi Andersson in Persona

I guess I have become thoroughly postmodern. A strong narrative line is no longer necessary for me to enjoy a film. I could just be drawn by a series of beautiful images, startling epiphanies, powerful acting, or something as wonky as my love of Geena Davis in Earth Girls Are Easy (1988).

Dragged Kicking and Screaming into the 21st Century

A Brave New World

A Brave New World

It used to be that, in fiction, the story was king—partly, I think, because God was in His Heaven and all was right with the world. A few things have happened since then: two World Wars, terrorism on a global scale, Charles Darwin, contraception, quantum mechanics, the Internet, and the Atomic Bomb. Mind you, I still love the great storytellers, men like Isaac Bashevis Singer, Nikolai Leskov (see illustration below), Charles Dickens, J.R.R. Tolkien, the authors of the Icelandic sagas, and John Steinbeck. But the world has changed, or at least is in the process of changing, and the only people who still stick with the fundamentalist view of society are the United States (particularly in the Bible Belt) and the Middle East (with the Jihadists).

Slowly, I have been dragged kicking and screaming into the postmodernist 21st century. In 1999, Martine and I walked right by the Picasso Museum in Paris without expressing any interest in its contents. I still actively dislike Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and most abstract expressionists. As for much of current architecture, I curl my lips in disgust. As for music, I tend to be pretty conservative, especially as I listen to most music while reading. Perhaps, for the time being, I am interested only in the literary impact of postmodernism. As for the other art forms, perhaps later….

Russian Stamps Honoring Nikolai Leskov, One of the Great Storytellers

Russian Stamps Honoring Nikolai Leskov, One of the Great Storytellers

What started me down this path is my clear enjoyment at reading such authors as César Aira, Geoff Dyer, Juan José Saer, and Samuel Beckett. Christopher L.C.E. Witcombe has attempted to define the postmodern artist:

The post-modern artist is reflective in that he/she is self-aware and consciously involved in a process of thinking about him/herself and society in a deconstructive manner, “damasking” [i.e., weaving with elaborate design] pretentions [sic], becoming aware of his/her cultural self in history, and accelerating the process of self-consciousness.

In an interesting Chinese blog by Xiaoqing Liu, two characteristics of postmodernism include “a tendency in contemporary culture characterized by the problem of objective truth and inherent suspicion towards global cultural narrative or meta-narrative” and the principle that “the perceiving subject cannot be taken out of the equation.”

One result is that postmodern literature can be painfully difficult to read. There is little respect for straight chronology. Sometimes, as in Geoff Dyer’s The Search, surrealism suddenly intrudes and plays havoc with the susceptibilities of more traditionally-oriented readers.

Still, there are rewards. The Godlike narrator is gone, and time and place are twisted out of shape. One interesting result is that reading becomes an activity similar to crime detection; and that’s partly why postmodernism has certain affinities with the mystery genre.

The painting at the top is by the British postmodern painter Francis Berry and is entitled “Tonic Moment: Search.”