Friday, November 11, 2011

On Naming and Animals: Sean Durkin's "Martha Marcy May Marlene" (2011)

by James Hansen

There’s something about this title, this name – Martha Marcy May Marlene. Of course, it is the name of a new movie out this week, written and directed by Sean Durkin. Within the film, it reflects the various states taken on by the lead character, most commonly known as Martha (Elizabeth Olsen). These stages are temporally dislocated by the film’s non-linear structure creating a constant slippage of who is on screen (is this Martha or Marcy May?), which events are impacting what (it certainly isn’t so easy as to be unidirectional), and who follows whom (who comes where? who is going where? when did they get there?) Because, while the plot bounces between two levels, there is a critical third register which remains absent from the narrative. This missing element has something to do with Martha’s origin, with Marcy May’s emergence, with the calling of Marlene. There’s something about a name.

MMMM begins with an ending. After a dash through the woods, Marcy May escapes from a seemingly nice group of people. There are some strange signs – the women stand outside the dining room as the men eat – but, at the start, nothing seems that off-putting. (Like Martha's own experience with the group, MMMM slowly wades into its troubling world.) Still, Martha calls her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson). Lucy is more than surprised to hear her voice. Quickly, Martha becomes hysterical and inconsolable. Confused and concerned, Lucy comes to the rescue. Whatever had happened before is over. But within this ending lies the potential for it to begin again, for it to violently reemerge, for it to appear like a mirage across a serene lake. For Martha, her new beginning follows this ending, while, at the same time, it is followed by the ending. The end is, then, not an end, and the start not a beginning. They are one in the same, despite personalized attempts to pull them apart. Like an alliterative series, there may be separate fragments, but they are bound together, they have a role, and they demand a chained circular cycle.

MMMM shows that the chain’s breaking is just another way of the cycle extending its reach, deepening its impact, and claiming new victims. Before long, Martha isn’t the only one damaged. Unable to remember details (or unwilling to share them) Martha cannot communicate her inner-torture to Lucy. Try as they might, Lucy and her husband lash out at Martha’s blank stares, indifference to life, and unwillingness to communicate. As MMMM develops, they perpetuate the same cycle as the one from which Martha ran away. Durkin perhaps overstates the case, reaching for unexpected (not to mention unbelievable) histrionics and building upon far too many trying-to-be-clever match cuts which come across as cutesy rather than instructive. Nonetheless, the message is clear, controlled, and effective. Once the cycle is instilled, it cannot be thought away. In all likelihood, it cannot be cut off, only extended further.

It starts so simply. It starts with a name. Martha arrives at her new home (How did she get here? Why did she come here? Only Martha knows.) She meets a group of men and women. The men hummmm songs while playing guitars. (Footnote: given what I go into later, it should be noted here that only Patrick sings songs with lyrics. He is the only one granted a voice. If, as we'll see, naming plays a large role here, then its dominance extends into larger concerns about language as a whole.) They work together in the garden. They all contribute. They are all assimilated into the group. At the start, Martha seems happy, but her role is uncertain. She meets Patrick (John Hawkes). In their first exchange, she introduces herself as Martha. With a sly smile, he responds, “You look like a Marcy May” and walks away. Following Derrida, God allows Adam, without his intervention, to name animals. Man, and man alone, is given the ability to name. First and foremost, this not only asserts man’s dominance over animals, but, indeed, the power and authority of man over all living things. This creates a dangerous position in which all living things are stripped of their subjectivity and treated as lifeless objects. Marcy May has been named. Marlene is the name which the women must answer when (literally) called. Patrick’s ability to name (and Martha’s inability to assert her own name, which came before Patrick but is obliterated by him) isn’t merely in the name of appearance (“You look like a Marcy May”); rather, this singular act of naming initiates his dominance over the secondary creatures in his Garden of Eden. Moreover, it is the first step which feeds into the systematized violence, rape, and murder which he commits, oversees, and directs throughout the course of MMMM.

It starts with the animal. Marcy May is in the woods learning to shoots guns. Shaking, her first shot flies astray. Patrick comes along and gives her a hand. Emphasizing a feeling of hate, fear, and anger, he tells her to channel those tensions through her body and into the trigger. Bullseye. But, after shooting the glass bottle, Patrick isn’t done. He asks her to shoot a cat. She refuses. He tells her it has cancer and is suffering terribly. She can’t. He gives her another option – shoot one of the men, Max. He’s worthless and doesn’t do his work. Max stutters and almost giggles until Patrick grabs her hand and raises the gun towards him. He freezes. Marcy May balks. Patrick pushes further. Death is a kind of nirvana. Max tries to walk away, but Patrick commands him to stop. He does, for a moment, until, fearfully convinced of Patrick’s threat, he walks toward Patrick and shoots the cat. “Why did you do that?” Patrick asks. “You said it had cancer.” “One of the cats had cancer. Zoe knew which one.” Max apologizes and runs away.

Marcy May is off the hook, but Patrick’s dominance is further entrenched. Marcy May refuses to shoot the cat or Max. To her, they are equally living beings. Max, on the other hand, is willing to kill the cat (and save himself.) It is, after all, just a cat. Known as “cat,” it doesn’t have the same subjectivity as Max. Though Max proves his misplaced dominance over the cat, Patrick affirms his authority over everything. Patrick is willing to kill the sick cat or Max. Both are under his control and both are weak. Not only weak, but he doesn’t know them and doesn’t take their death seriously. By ignoring mortality (“everyone just exists”), every creature in his house functions as an object to be dominated. In fact, Patrick extends this beyond just his house and into all the surrounding areas. His creatures, like a well-greased machine, break into houses and steal various items. When they are caught by a man, they cannot take any chances. Patrick’s group watches as the man is killed. Patrick appears less rattled by this than by the death of the cat. It creates a sort of breaking point for Marcy May and, still, Patrick chides her weakness to which Marcy May apologizes. It starts with making the animal an object for dominance. It starts with a name.

His world is in place. Its chains are locked. MMMM begins with Marcy May breaking from it. Yet the further she gets away from it, the larger the circle becomes. The deeper the cycle goes. Once in place, it subsumes everything around it. It ensures new beginnings are neither new nor beginnings. It follows everywhere and becomes its own following. It says “follow me” while it is simultaneously in front and behind. In the film’s brilliant final shot, Durkin locates the impossibility of resolution in the recognition of the film’s own resolve. Martha sits in the back of the car. The car has nearly been hit. “Some kind of maniac.” In a medium shot, we see her confused, slightly worried face and out of the rear windshield behind her. The car starts to move forward. Yet, here, what is behind her – a lurking SUV – does not recede in the distance. Instead, it gets closer as she remains static – moving in the car to some new destination, some new beginning, some answer, while also resolutely in the same place. The SUV approaches. It gets nearer and nearer, so close as to almost hit the car. There isn’t a wreck, but the wreck is obvious. This SUV, Patrick’s world, is following from behind, but it is inevitably what she is heading towards. Inescapable, it is already waiting at her next destination. It is there before her and following after. She doesn’t know where she’s going, but she know what’s coming with her – Martha, Marcy May, and Marlene. But who is following whom?


Jeremy Richey said...

I just saw this film James. It really shook me up. Thanks for this piece...

James Hansen said...

Thanks for the comment, Jeremy. I hope it provided some food for thought. The film certainly does, even when it's formal structure plays as a little too on the nose (for me, at least.) Still very much enjoyed it, obviously. Thanks for reading.