Sunday, November 20, 2011

Water For the Sand: Martha Marcy May Marlene

This has really been an amazing year for films, not just the topics and story lines, but the new techniques film makers are employing to tell their story.  Martha Marcy May Marlene has taken critics by storm, partly because of the amazing break-out performance of Elizabeth Olsen; I tend to be pretty hard on actresses, but she was amazing and deserving of the highest praise. Critics, in my estimation, have really failed to grasp the power of this story and intentionally overlooking its meaning and consequences, blaming the script for poor writing when it's really the critics who have failed to dig into the film.
Just a quick synopsis: Martha (Olsen) had problems to begin with. At some point she joined a kind of hippie commune lead by Patrick (John Hawkes); when she joins that, he changes her name from Martha to Marcy May; after breaking into a home in an attempt to steal, one of the girls, Katie (Maria Dizzia), stabs the homeowner in the back; unable to overcome her feelings about his murder, Martha flees; she contacts her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) who picks her up and takes her back to her beautiful vacation home in Connecticut. There, Lucy attempts to connect with her sister who has shut-down and keeps relapsing into memories of her life in the commune. Lucy and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) decide to take her to a therapist; as they are driving towards the appointment, it appears that one of the men from the commune has found her and is following her to take her back.
The film illustrates how culture will take a good aspect of Christianity, strip it of Divine Love, and turn it into a sin. The commune exists because Patrick finds young women emotionally damaged and then manages to control them by twisting his power to make it seem that he loves and cares for them when he really just wants to control them, mainly for sex. By using words such as "cleansing" and "freedom," "love" and "nirvana," anyone who doesn't all ready have a solid base is easily led astray into his vacuum of power. It's interesting because Patrick is very thin, like bony thin, and the film wants to point that out by specific shots of his physique. This is important because it shows that he's really "weak."
One of the opening scenes in the film, Martha has escaped and calls her sister Lucy to come pick her up. It's maddening, at first, for the audience, because Lucy begs Martha to just tell her where she is and Martha refuses; you later realize that it's the same manipulation Martha's using on Lucy that she learned from Patrick. Each time Lucy begs her to let her come and get her, Martha makes her beg just a bit more so that Martha is enforcing her own free will to want to take Martha in; when it''s obvious to Lucy and her husband Ted that Martha can't stay, it's taken Lucy a long time, and this is part of the reason: Martha employing Patrick's manipulation.
When a group from the commune wants to break into a house, they throw rocks and small debris on the top of the roof to distract anyone who might be inside; then they enter through a back door or window, take a few things and exit. This is a perfect illustration of how the group's brainwashing techniques also work. If the home is symbolic of the soul, they throw something on top (the mind) like catchy phrases, "You should share yourself," or "Learn to trust people," to distract the person about to be brainwashed what they are really going to do: specifically, if it's a girl, Patrick is going to drug and rape her. This is one way to understand the "breaking an entrance" but it's also going in through a "side door," such as it being celebrated by the older members when a girl's had her first night with Patrick, putting a positive spin on something the girl inwardly knows is wrong. When they stole something, it was silver candlesticks which had been in a wooden and glass case. The silver, if you remember from discussions on werewolves, in Hebrew sounds like the word for "Word," so silver symbolizes the Gospel; that they are candlesticks refers to the illumination which is given to us by the Gospel. The wood of the case is the Wood of the Cross and sacrifice and the glass, of course, is illumination. Yes, these are the "cult" qualities of the commune and what they attack to take over the soul.
This scene is a great example of Patrick's manipulation of Martha. He wants her to trust him about shooting some cats that are at her feet, but she doesn't want to; he uses the incident to prove to her that "she doesn't trust him" but that's Martha's fault and a sign of her weakness, she is letting the past hold onto her.
There is an intimate connection between the mind and food. 
When we first see Martha in the commune, she is setting the table for a meal; as she goes around placing the bowls at the places, she forgets to place one at the head of the table; she catches herself and puts one there and then we see that is where Patrick sits; Martha is willing to starve him as he has been starving her. The women don't eat until the men are finished and then it's obvious that the women are eating gruel or oatmeal compared to the more substantial meal the men had and we should understand this symbolically: the women are being "fed" a line of watered down philosophical nourishment to intentionally keep them weak so they are not strong enough to revolt at being sex objects. They eat only once a day in the commune and Martha's first sign of revolt is stealing bread.
Martha believes that the bartender handing her a drink is one of the men from the commune at a party her sister is having. Reflections are used to great advantage throughout the film, as in this scene: Martha "sees herself" in everything and everyone she encounters. This, regrettably, is a sign the film gives us that, despite the battle she's trying to wage, she will never heal. One night, when she's lying in bed, she turns and looks at the window; this is the bedroom, the most intimate space, so we are getting a clear "reflection" of her: there are bugs on the window, and this clearly indicates that "she has bats in the belfry" and, again, while she makes progress, it appears that she will never recover.
It's after the homeowner has been murdered that Martha helps Katie prepare a meal and, while cutting the bread that will go on the table of the men, Martha steals a bite of it and Katie (the one who stabbed the homeowner in the back) hits her on the ear and makes her spit it out. While all the girls are super thin, we can also see that they bruise easily. Yet this isn't merely a theft of bread: the Bread is the Word of Life, and no longer accepting the watered down and infrequent "teachings" of Patrick, she needs more to sustain her, physically and spiritually as well. It's after this (we know by the bruise on the ear that Katie gave her) that Martha makes her escape.
This is John Hawkes singing the "Marcy's Song" which Patrick sings in Martha Marcy May Marlene even though he's not in character in the video below; it's an eerily beautiful song and gives us important clues as to who Martha really is:
I could spend a lot of time on this song, but the important thing is: Martha, or Marcy May, is "just a picture" of what she's supposed to be, her characteristics are only vague outlines, but none of the details are filled in, and this is why Patrick likes her, on one hand, and why she's a challenge to him, on the other. I think the line, "water for the sand," is the point of the song: nothing grows in the sand, so to waste water by throwing it on sand is an act of futility. Until later in the film, you don't know if Martha has built up a significant fortress of defense mechanisms, or if there just isn't that much to her, you realize there's nothing to know, and the reason she is attracted to shallow philosophical systems is because she's shallow herself. This falls in nicely with films such as Immortals which demonstrates how evil doesn't give us knowledge about ourselves, but robs us of it.
In this scene, Martha has been crying because of the murder Katie committed; she locked herself in the bathroom (the place where our cleansing takes place) and Patrick got Zoe to get Martha to open the door and Patrick burst in and kinda threatened her. In this scene, he's coddling her--because that's how guilt works--and trying to re-establish his authority over her but she's caught on now and doesn't want to be a part of it anymore.
I do want to mention this one scene done particularly well, although every scene is done very well: Martha helps Lucy wash windows (the camera is on the other side of the glass from where they are) and Martha tells Lucy that she shouldn't smoke if she wants to have a baby. Lucy gets offended and claims that she doesn't smoke when we have seen her smoking. Because we are on the other side of the glass, the dialogue gets muffled, and so too does Martha's message. Lucy take it to be a mean act but Martha genuinely meant it, but her past behavior makes it difficult for Lucy to comprehend. Although "Lucy" means light, and she tries helping her sister, Lucy's way of life doesn't offer a really healthy balance to the hippie commune or a viable choice for Martha, which means "bitter." After Patrick renames Martha "Marcy May," Martha mentions that "Marcy" had been her grandmother's name, meaning, it was that generation of her grandmother's that gave birth to girl's such as Martha: the hippie girls and those "sexually liberated" by the revolution of flower power and birth control.
Lucy fixing up Martha for the party she's having. There's several interesting scenes, but one is when Lucy has given Martha her pink sundress to wear: sleeping on the floor, curled up, Martha urinates on herself. Waking up, she takes the dress off, wipes her self dry with it and then stuffs the dress under the mattress of the bed and walks away. It's actually possible that this is a dream because nothing comes back up about the dress and Lucy certainly would have mentioned it had she found it. Usually urination is interpreted as being cleansed or released, however, since Martha then stuffs the dress under the mattress, I think she's making an unconscious act of disrespect for her sister's lifestyle.
Nearing the end of the film, Martha sleeps on the living room couch and a man's hand reaches to touch her bare leg; because the entire film has seamlessly drifted through memories of the commune and her stay at Lucy's, like Martha, you are never quite sure where you are. Frightened, Martha starts crying and screaming, running to get a way from the man and at some point, you realize that the man is her brother-in-law, Ted (who you think has been ready to take advantage of her the whole time). Terrified of him, she runs up the stairs to try and get a way from him, kicking him backwards as he chases her, him falling onto the floor below. This is a hopeful sign for Martha: throughout the film, there is a lot of sex she participates in, so her not wanting to be touched is a healthy sign that she's starting to get her dignity back; this is re-enforced by her "going up the stairs" just like in horror films discussed last month. That Ted "falls" to the bottom means he has had a fall from grace and he was trying to take advantage of her but she has to take the blame for it.
There's a part that, I think is a dream like Martha wetting herself and hiding the pink dress. She finds a black SUV like the one the commune has. She knocks out the driver window and scratches the side of it. The problem is, Lucy also has a black SUV; if, however, this really happened, I think Lucy would have gotten really upset about it but nothing happens so that's why I believe this is a dream Martha has. The shattered driver's side window is Martha "reflecting" on who has been "driving her" and shattering that hold; her scratching the paint off the car means that she is scratching beneath the surface to see what lies beneath.
Another hopeful moment, after Lucy has decided that Martha can't stay any longer, is when Martha has gone swimming; she's in the water, and it's cold, but we hear the wind blowing, and wind chimes, it's very peaceful. This has all the ingredients of Grace and sanctity and you hope that, the appointment she is going to later that day will be a new start for her; yet she looks across the lake and sees a man in a white t-shirt and blue jeans sitting on a rock and staring at her (it deliberately invokes Patrick and the commune). While he doesn't do anything, he's important symbolically: sitting on the rock means that he "is the rock" upon which Martha has built her ideas (which continuously clash with her sister's). Later that day, Ted is driving them down the road and you hear him get upset and stop the car; the guy "from the rock" ran out in front of them and then jumps into a black SUV parked on the side of the road and follows them. Then the film ends. Critics have complained about this but I find it quite simple: her life in the commune is going to "follow" Martha wherever she goes.
Where does the name Marlene come in? Whenever the phone at the commune rings, the girls answer and give their name as being "Marlene Lewis," and we see Martha being Marlene, that is, bringing another girl (Sarah whose name is changed to Sally by Patrick) into the commune by giving that name over the phone. After an incident with her sister, Martha calls the commune, as if to see if she can go back and the girl on the other end answers as Marlene. So the tragic end result is that Martha helped to perpetuate the very abuse she wants to escape. As she escapes the commune, we see Sarah/Sally stand and look at her through the window, confused that her "teacher" is leaving the life she inducted Sarah/Sally into.
One of the most important lessons my film professor taught me was to ask the question, "Why has this film been made now?" What is it about this time period which finds this kind of film/story applicable to our time? To be perfectly honest with you, Martha reminded me of Molly the intern from The Ides of March: weak and vulnerable, equating sex with love and replacing the emotions with her appetites, Martha seems to symbolize the youth of the Democratic Party who have been caught up in the "charisma" of President Barak Hussein Obama and are now trying to get away from him but don't really find the Republican party (sister Lucy) to represent their ideas bequeathed to them from the hippies (Grandma Marcy's generation; please see The Ides Of March: Assassinating the Democratic Party).
I give this film the highest marks in all regards, but it's not for everyone: if you enjoy slightly different films, you'll like this one, however, there are disturbing parts. As I said at the beginning, this has been a great year for film and Martha Marcy May Marlene is up there with the best of them.