Having A Movie Moment with Jon Longhi: Us at Marienbad

Posted by The Bay Area Crew, October 25, 2019 07:17pm | Post a Comment

By Jon Longhi

Welcome to this month’s Having A Movie Moment With Jon Longhi where I review recent Blu-ray releases.

Us, Universal Pictures Home Entertainment:
Jordan Peele has done it again. Just as Get Out was the most interesting movie of 2017, his new film Us may be the most thought provoking mainstream movie released in 2019. I don't tend to review a lot of contemporary films in this column, but that's not because I have anything against them. I watch a new release movie almost weekly and while many are good and perfectly entertaining, there are few great ones. The main reason for this is that movie production is so expensive these days that the studio accountants don't let directors take too many chances. Too much money and too many jobs are on the line, so the studios stick with formulas and franchises these days. Sure, I loved the new Avengers movie, but it was really just another superhero movie. Recent films all have the same general structure. It's like you can almost look at your watch an hour and fifteen minutes after the opening credits and realize that it is time for the big budget special effects to start showing up. Even when a new director has some kind of "vision," the studios rarely let them pursue it. Jordan Peele seems to be kind of an exception to this trend. Part of the reason for that is that despite being quirky, his films still do well in the mainstream marketplace. Us is no different. On a certain level, it is a straightforward horror genre picture or at least that's what it feels like for the first two thirds of its run time. Even if it was "just" a horror movie, it would have been one of the best horror films of the past two years. I was trying to eat my dinner while watching it, and it was such a gripping and suspense-filled ride that I kept having forkfuls of food get ice cold as I sat there for twenty minutes at a time, too engaged in the movie to even take another mouthful. 

In the unsettling opening scene, a child named Adelaide has a horrifying experience on the Santa Cruz boardwalk in 1986. Then the movie flashes forward to the present where Adelaide is the matriarch of the Wilson family who is vacationing in Santa Cruz. She now has a husband and two children of her own but is still haunted by the trauma of her childhood experience. The vacation is uneventful until one night when the family appears to be the victims of a home invasion. The only thing is, the home invaders appear to be weird twisted versions of themselves. When a family member asks, "Who are they?", the son replies, "It's us." For the rest of the film, the Wilsons fight for their lives against their doppelgangers. The rest of the world is also being attacked by twisted copies of themselves and in most cases the original versions of people are on the losing end. For the majority of the movie you have no idea what is going on and there is a real zombie apocalypse sense of doom created by the screenplay. I thought it was all very impressive but, to be quite honest, I expect a little something more from Jordan Peele. And then in the last twenty minutes to a half hour, I got it. That's where the plot started to make some completely unexpected twists and turns that opened the story up to multiple possibilities, and turned everything into a complex metaphor worthy of multiple interpretations. After watching Us, I had numerous conversations with coworkers who had seen it. When I asked them what they thought it meant or what Peele was going for I ended up with a total of four different interpretations. It was interesting how the interpretations varied based on people's age, income level,and ethnicity. Any film that leaves people thinking this much after the credits roll is a true work of art. The best art is that which makes us question the world around us and our place in it, and on this level Us is a smashing success.

Last Year At Marienbad, Kino Classics:
In the name of full disclosure, I have to admit that I'm the only person I've talked to who ever sat through this whole movie in one sitting. It's a difficult film for casual viewers. Despite that, in certain ways, Last Year At Marienbad is one of the most unique and important movies in the history of cinema. It's the ultimate art house film and one of the cornerstones of surrealist cinema. Its effect on movies that came after it is incalculable. There are whole schools of experimental and avant-garde filmmakers who only exist because of this picture. Without this movie there would be no Guy Maddin and David Lynch's Eraserhead would never have been made. Critics have described the movie as "an elaborate puzzle box." This is a pretty good description but this is a film where the puzzle pieces don't all fit together or some of them are just missing.

In the trailer for the movie, the makers claim that the audience are participants in solving the mystery of the film's story but anyone who watches this will come away with more questions than answers. And that's kind of the point. Almost every scene in this movie frustrates our expectations of what we expect from conventional narrative. It is a film meant to frustrate instead of illuminate. Scenes don't conclude, instead they just sputter out or go to ambiguous places. The movie takes place in a large old-fashioned luxury hotel in Europe. There an unnamed man meets an unnamed woman. The man insists that a year earlier he and the woman had a passionate affair. He's kind of vague on the location but thinks it may have occurred "in Marienbad," hence the movie's title. The only problem is, the woman has absolutely no memory of their affair. The more she denies their affair, the more desperate the man gets to prove it to her in one elliptical monologue after another. Many of these monologues trail off into long winded descriptions of the hotel itself that have nothing to do with the two of them. Is the man telling the truth? Is he crazy? Is the woman crazy? Are one or both of them lying? Lots of possibilities are laid out but few are actually confirmed. We think some kind of relationship took place between the two of them but we are never quite sure. There is also another man who drifts in and out of the scenes who is probably the woman's husband. The other main star of the film is the large old fashioned luxury hotel. Director Alain Resnais almost turns the building into the central character of his movie as he lavishes one breathtaking wide screen shot after another on its beautiful exteriors and interiors. At times the human beings almost feel like supplemental parts of the story. This is also quite purposeful. Alain Robbe-Grillet, who wrote the screenplay, is an experimental novelist whose books often focus more on descriptions of a story's setting than the characters, action, or plot. There is a dreamlike quality to the film that makes us question whether anything we are viewing is actually real. All the actors act like somnambulists. Sometimes when there is dialogue no one's mouth is actually moving. There are party and banquet scenes where everyone is frozen in place and no one is making a sound. Even the most ordinary scenes have something out of place in them. All this is obviously purposeful to build up to some effect but we never seem to know what that effect or payoff is. Maybe that's the point. By not satisfying any of our expectations, the viewer is forced to question why he or she is watching this movie in the first place or any movie for that matter. 

Kino Classics did a great job on the latest edition of this classic of cinematic mindfuckery. The 4K restoration of the film looks immaculate. This is a movie that can be an enjoyable experience just for its cinematography alone and the beautiful widescreen tracking shots have never looked more lovely. I have always enjoyed this film just because of its odd rhythms, surreal scenes, and beautiful photography. I used to own the old Criterion Collection edition of this and would frequently pop it in and watch it for twenty minutes to a half hour at a time. It's kind of like reading William Burroughs' cut-up writings. Since the film borders on being useless as a narrative, it can be easily enjoyed just based on its surface attributes. I would start the movie at a random place in its run time and just watch it for a half hour or so until I got bored or started to desire a storyline. Since there is no traditional "climax," you never have to worry about finishing it. It's even better if you add a little cannabis to the experience. Some of you may have to smoke as much as a bale of weed to get into this but that might just add to the fun.

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Jon Longhi (34), Movie Moment (20), Film (202), Horror (218), Blu-rays (19), Jordan Peele (2), Art Films (2), Alain Resnais (3), Alain Robbe-grillet (1), French Film (3)