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Martha Marcy May Marlene

 


Powerful, complex and difficult, Martha Marcy May Marlene had the audience booing so loudly during its final 10 seconds that you’d have thought it was a remake of Joe Dirt and not the finest film of 2011. Staggering out of the darkness, I heard one bitter woman turn to her companion and snarl, That’s it?

I’m afraid so and at the risk of sounding patronizing, you shouldn’t go see Martha Marcy May Marlene if you are a fan of Law & Order, enjoy reading guidebooks more than visiting the exotic locations they describe or need a scratch ‘n sniff to tell you what an orange should smell like. Because unlike the last Woody Allen rehash, Martha Marcy May Marlene is, like, hard and stuff.

The story of a young woman’s psychological and emotional voyage out of a cult and into her sister’s bourgeois world, Martha Marcy May Marlene will never satisfy you like a good romance novel or soap opera. Its main character (Elizabeth Olsen) is conflicted and opaque. She doesn’t have the good graces to explain her motivations, doesn’t guide us by the hand to a happy resolution.

Told through a series of flashbacks, Martha Marcy May Marlene explores a mystery at the wild heart of the American experience: Cults. Why do they flourish in a country that prizes individual freedom? What in our national character explains Charlie Manson, Jim Jones, and David Koresh? And why do these charismatic men seem at attract young women willing to die and kill for them?

The unnamed cult seems a clear alternative to late-capitalist America. Its charismatic leader Patrick (John Hawkes) tells Martha that the farm is as much hers as his own. The small group shares the workload at a farm that lies in the heart of the Catskills. Although they still sell rugs in the nearby village, the cult is on the verge of sustainability, relying mostly on food grown right in their own backyard.

Patrick is virile and sinewy, bred of the old American stock that has given us zealots of every stripe, and his rhetoric will be familiar to anyone who grew up in the 1960s or seventies. “It takes time for people to find their role in a new family,” he tells Martha after renaming her Marcy May. Later he chides her that she cannot hide her light and that in order to have deeper relationships she must learn to share herself more openly.

Eventually she does fit in at the farm. This means accepting the contradictory egalitarian dreams of a community that shares the work as well as its leader’s bed and holds a cultural perspective that segregates men from women in the dining hall. Sitting at Patrick’s feet, Martha (now Marcy May) listens as he defines her new role in a song or confirms that she is now a teacher and a leader.

Equivocating and apportioning, Patrick has the power to name things in the cult. He defines the social fabric of the farm, sees what is invisible to others, but there is a violent secret to the life they share. At its heart, the community is founded, not on egalitarian principles, but rather on ritualized rape, home invasion and murder.

When Martha finally flees in the night, she has nowhere to go but to her estranged sister. She lives with Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law Ted (Hugh Dancy) at a big house on a lake. Her sister tries to understand her by bringing home organic groceries, granola and exotic smoothies – that is the bourgeois equivalent to what she perceives as her sister’s hippie tastes – but Martha seems torn between the two worlds.

There are many uncomfortable similarities between the farm and the big house on the lake. In both situations, men define the roles women must play, determine “normal” sexual relations, and set limits on what is appropriate. We imagine that the cult’s influence is what drives Martha to want to break the confines of her sister’s tight-lipped bourgeois home, but it is, in fact, Ted’s narrowly defined worldview.

Ted (like Patrick) stands in for the father than has abandoned the sisters. In the absence of that father Martha has sought out a cult leader and Lucy has found a substitute in a husband who is happy to define household roles. Both the cult and the family are constellations of the oppression of the masculine gaze, but neither world makes sense (or can make sense of) Martha.

In the cult, Martha’s secrecy both intrigues and frustrates Patrick. He can’t read her the way he can others and at a critical moment understands that his definition of her doesn’t hold. She is just not the person he thought she was, and this uncertainty is a strange and exciting experience to a megalomaniac who feels justified defining life and death.

For Ted, Martha is a threat to family stability. Where he has the power to define his wife forever with childbirth, but can do almost nothing to make sense of her batty sister who persists on living a life outside of the margins. She has no place in the world he has built and he lashes s out one night when she crawls at the foot of his bed when he and his wife are having intercourse.


“It’s a big bed … you guys were on the other side,” Martha cries, misunderstanding that not only does she not belong in that bed, but she doesn’t below in that world, either.

Incorrectly constituted both by the bourgeois worldview and the counter cultural perspective of the farm, Martha literally falls out of the drama around her and the audience echoes the frustration of the male protagonists. We want her to choose which world she belongs to – to accept a master that can once and for all define her for us – but she seems to prefer to exist in the nowhere between Martha, Marcy May and Marlene.

The girl is unknowable and the film remains in this circle uncertainty, defying us, telling us that we must live with ambiguity, that all we do is exist in a place between memory and dream.

 
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The Way

 

There is a quiet tug-of-war at the heart of The Way, a movie written and directed by Emilio Estevez and starring his father Martin Sheen.

 

This tepid, little film knows it is lying, but it doesn’t want to give up its grand presumptions and instead banishes its true meaning to the hinterlands, where it lives like a beggar. It’s a ghost in the margins of the film, a reminder that not only is the journey bogus, but the emotional and spiritual impulses that leads to it is also empty and artificial.

 

The only interesting thing about The Way is how it excommunicates its better instincts.

 

Tom (Martin Sheen) is an optometrist living an ordered, structured life in a small, upscale California town. He’s a man of modest temperament, happy on the golf course or chit chatting with his patients. The only chaos is his life is his son Daniel (Estevez), a middle-aged man who has decided to travel abroad. D

 

Daniel is an idealistic vagabond who seems to thrive on the idea of challenge. His father’s life – staid, dull, manicured -- repels him. When Tom reminds his son that his life might seem dull to him, but it is the one he has chosen, Daniel chides him by saying that we do not choose life, we live it.

 

Tom’s snow-globe of a life is shattered when he receives a call that his Daniel has died while hiking the Camino de Santiago, an ancient trail pilgrims have made throughout the ages. Daniel died of exposure on the first day of his journey. Tom flies to Spain to receive the remains, but decides instead to continue his son’s journey.

 

Walking ahead of his son along the trail, Tom attracts a small group of fellow travelers: a Dutch man making the journey to lose weight, a self-destructive Canadian who appears to be trying to shed guilt over an abortion, and an Irish writer who has lost his muse. If this sounds like a re-envisioning of the Wizard of Oz, you’re on the right track, although the man behind the curtain here is God.

 

The Way is basically a movie about salvation, but there’s not much to save here. The characters feel wooden and inauthentic, spiritual questions are never probed in any serious way, and at its very core The Way is lost. In searching for a religious answer to what is essentially a spiritual problem, Estevez forgets the central character of the film: Tom’s missing son.

 

Daniel’s ideals are purer than Tom’s, but the father cannot know the son simply by following his example. Instead of choosing the road less traveled, Tom decides to turn the trip into a sight-seeing tour of Spain. Rather than turning his light inward to examine its inner dimensions, he becomes the De facto leader of a small group of narcissists who could be on a self-help retreat.

 

The movie is aware that he falls short of his son’s life, but it doesn’t seem to care. Daniel appears as a ghost throughout the film, off the beaten trail, in the garbs of a priest, always as a sort of reprimand to Tom that he is, in fact, not on the truth path at all. Daniel’s austerity is too much of a sacrifice to Tom. He wants to have the religious experience and the modern conveniences that remove actual risk from the journey.

 

Complaining early on, when Daniel leaves a message on his machine, but not a return number, Tom says: “Everyone on the planet has a mobile phone except my son.” Is it so hard to imagine a spiritual journey without your e-mail? Is it such a stretch to believe that an arduous pilgrimage should be difficult?

 

And yet life on the road is full of conveniences. People carry around bedrolls, tents and sleeping bags, but almost always stay in hotels and hostels, drinking wine by the bottles, eating gourmet cheeses and truffles. Daniel made this same trip to lose himself and rediscover God in the world; for Tom religion is just ceremony and the majesty of the road is only an excuse to walk fast.

 

In a rare moment of revelation, one of the merry band asks Tom, “What are you doing here … Except taking a long walk?” This is essentially my question, as well. There are certainly gestures that this film wants to be about big issues, but it feels false, contrived, even corny at times.

 

I’ve experienced more heart walking between berms at the mall.

 
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