Thursday, August 8, 2013

 Marnie - Hitchcock (1964)

Tippi Hedrin shines as frigid man-hating kleptomaniac Marnie. Her placid exterior--exuding old-time glamour under a beehive coiffure of sumptuously golden locks--sparkles in the soft-focus photography of Robert Burks. The cinematographic double standard traditionally sparing the female face of a certain age unflattering scrutiny by imposition of a diaphanous veil, here reflects the duplicity of the main character: outwardly unblemished, inwardly fractured and dirty. Oscar Wilde's observation that "A man's face is his autobiography--a woman's...her work of fiction," comes to mind. The incongruity of apparent perfection masking inner filth draws us in, inviting us to savor the spectacle of a beautiful woman rotting in her core. 

Marnie’s issues are classic fauxmale-ic hang-ups: a cold mother, an absent father, the dialectic appearance vs. reality, the lure of compulsive mendacity, a love of horses, and fear of phallic males. Most complicated of all, her sense of unworthiness precludes intimacy with men, who all want the same thing--desecration by way of penetration. Marnie throws up every road-block she can to keep her pristine interior from being invaded. The irony is that her depravity of mind is far impurer than any physical 'pollution' could ever be. What she's really attempting to keep separate, as will be shown, is not male and female anatomies, but the memory of maternal malfeasance. An even darker, more primordial trauma masquerading as the antimony 'pure vs. profane.'

As she pulls up in a taxi to visit her mother against a grand panorama of tenements abutting a ship-filled harbor, rope skipping girls recite with ritual joylessness:  
                                       Mother, mother, I am ill
                                       Send for the doctor over the hill
                                       Call for the doctor, call for the nurse
                                       Call for the lady with the alligator purse.

The chanting echos the scene in Lang’s M where children play a game of elimination in the courtyard. It's a brilliant homage to the much admired German director. Marnie rings the bell and a saccharine little girl her mother is baby-sitting--the rival for Mother's affection--answers. Catching sight of red gladiolas Marnie’s color-phobia inflames the screen. Regaining her composure, she replaces them with her own white chastity blossoms. The mother doesn’t waste any time finding fault with Marnie. “Too blond hair always looks like the woman’s tryin’ to attract the man. Men and a good name don’t go together,” she muses censoriously. Reproached for spending money on her, Marnie replies: “That’s what money is for. Like the Bible says: money answereth all things.” Visibly irritated Mother admonishes: “we don’t talk smart about the Bible in this house, missy!” Common ground is found only in disparaging men.  

They move to the kitchen, where the mother rebukes Marnie for being jealous of the little girl. Marnie lays it all out, despondently: “Why don’t you love me mama? I’ve always wondered why you don’t.” Reaching out for her hand, her mother draws away. Maybe, she wonders aloud, Mother imagines she's done indecent things in her attempt to earn her love: “You think I’m Mr. Pemberton’s girl. Is that how you think I get the money to set you up?” Her mother slaps her face, sending a bowl of pecans crashing to the floor. Embarrassed, Marnie apologizes, but before she can pick up the nuts she is sent off to rest. Just as well, she concludes, as the pie was meant for the upstart.

Marnie embodies the woman who can’t love because self-loathing and defensiveness have sealed her opening. Like some modern day St. George, one-time zoologist Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) steps into this hot-house of female dysfunction to get to the bottom of things. With his superior powers of discernment it doesn’t take him long to smell decay and begin sorting her out.  

“Does zoology include people, Mr. Rutland?” Marnie facetiously inquires. “We’ll, in a way. It includes all the animal ancestors from whom man derived his instincts,” he replies. “Ladies’ instincts too?” Marnie asks. “Well that paper deals with the instincts of predators, what you might call the criminal class of the animal world. Lady animals figure very largely as predators.” Marnie smirks but remains silent. His observation accurately characterizes Marnie’s modus operandi as a thief. And yet this predator wears the mask of a victim valiantly attempting to appear normal. T
he screen's ultimate borderliner, she feels entitled to dissimulate and take what doesn’t belong to her to redress the balance of cosmic injustice.

A storm erupts with eerie red flashes of light and a massive tree limb crashes through the window, sending Marnie into Rutland’s arms. To the soaring violins of Bernard Hermann’s effusive score Rutland presses his lips to Marnie’s forehead in extreme close-up, slowly running them down to her lips as her hysteria subsides. Through her own dumb luck she's found a savior. The only remaining question is: will she surrender?

Dogging her relentlessly, he calls her bluff after she robs the safe of her new employer. Marnie's a tough nut to crack, but he’s up to the job, becoming her husband-analyst and tracking her into her darkest, most treacherous dimension. On their honeymoon she stubbornly guards her maidenhood until Rutland forcefully asserts his matrimonial prerogative. Afterwards she attempts suicide in the ship’s pool. “The idea was to drown myself, not feed the damn fish,” she quips upon being pulled from the water.

Eventually the repressed complex tying her into a hysterical knot of reaction-formations is untied. It turns out her stay-at-home mom did transactions on the side, making herself available to sailors who could afford her favors. In a
 textbook primal-scene scenario little Marnie would have to give up her bed for the couch, then listen to strange sounds coming form the bedroom. Was mom alright in there? One night there was a thunderstorm and Marnie was crying. When a sailor--a young Bruce Dern--came out to comfort her, mom insisted he keep his filthy hands off. One thing led to another and little Marnie wound up bludgeoning the kindly dimwit to death with a poker-iron. Ever since red hues (into which the screen repeatedly dissolves during the climactic return-of-the-repressed scene) have induced hysterical fits in her disassociating fear-male psyche.   

Rousseau remarked that there is a moral element in all imitation, and Truffaut said the same of tracking shots. Our disdain for process-shots and back-projection acquires its force from our sense of being manipulated by technique. Try as we might to disabuse ourselves of our undifferentiating perceptions, as spectators we're prepared to suspend skepticism--the precondition for ‘global’ perception. In return, we expect a film to have the self-evidence of a dream.

Hitchcock's use of rear-projection in the scenes where Marnie rides horseback, strikes me as a provocation of this expectation. He was still using rear-projection in 1964 at a time when its shortcomings should have been obvious. Apparently he used the technique as a convenience, accepting its jarring incongruity. I can't help wondering whether he wanted to confront us with the artificiality of this technique.

It was to disrupt the illusion of naturalistic theater that Brecht famously had his actors turn to address the audience. By this Verfremdungstechnik he hoped to disrupt the audience's comfortable anonymity and collusion with the illusion of naturalistic verisimilitude, forcing them to transcend their merely aesthetic participation to assume the attitude of reflective moral beings. When filmmakers use certain techniques that disrupt our immersion in illusion, it may be understood as an intentional stylistic device, albeit one serving no purpose beyond inducing an awareness of the artifactual nature of cinema. 

I propose the term abstract-syntheticism for Hitckcock’s style. Every shot is determined down to the minutest detail à la Lang. It’s almost as if Hitchcock preferred artifice, going so far as putting horses on giant tread-mills for the hunting scene. Tippi Hedren’s fall is spliced (or rather painstakingly cobbled) together with great emphasis, as if Hitchcock wanted to demonstrate how the amalgamation of various shots creates a single event. The finished product, assembled out of perspectival fragments, hasn't a whiff of real spontaneity. Maddeningly stilted in its stitching together of elements, the sequence reads like a comic book. It's as if Marnie were wrought to make an impression of even the most inattentive viewer. 

Lack of realism is the criticism of cinematic dolts. A want of realistic in-scene-setting may in some instances be preferable to an all-out documentary style. Films are constructs, after all. Likewise, improbability in a plot ought not detract from enjoyment of its twists and turns. Such criticism is more often than not an enjoyment of our own cleverness in detecting failure’s of realism. They are momentary disruptions of the illusion of compelling reality that force one to (re-)suspend disbelief for the sake of continued emergence. There are degrees of probability and willingness to “go along” with fantastic coincidences.

Marnie made it onto Bertolluci’s top ten list in the Sight and Sound pole. If you don’t like Marnie, he declared, you don’t like cinema. This suggests that loving cinema involves loving the techniques that going into staging action. But first and foremost, it is a matter of immersive participation in human conflicts that implicate us all. What makes Marnie compelling and affecting is the tragedy of a little girl wondering what is happening to mother in her abandoned bed, and the collusive denial her whoring necessitated. The universal theme is the (phase-specific) rejection of the sexually submissive mother, a rejection of the circumstance by which she, temporarily, becomes a stranger. The realization that beneath the failure to love (dis-identification) lies a traumatic fear of the unimaginable constitutes her transformation. For Marnie catharsis and resolution come only when, under the steady guidance of unfoilable Male Virtue, the circuitous and long-delayed path of hysterical denial is traced back along the route of repression.

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