Watching Martha Marcy May Marlene and Margin Call at the Cinema

I missed out on Martha Marcy May Marlene when it screened at The Little (240 East Ave.) a few weeks back, but I got a chance to see it at The Cinema TheatreMySpace link (957 South Clinton Ave.) as part of a double-feature with Margin Call.

I'll start with Margin Call and say just a little: it's the story of the 2008 financial meltdown convincingly told with a sympathetic eye to the people closest to the problem. It really only served to reinforce my opinion that the stock market is nothing more than gambling with no relevance to any real value in the world. It was good, solid entertainment.

Martha Marcy May Marlene plays out largely in flashback: the tale of a woman indoctrinated into a rural cult. I think most people watch the film as a sort of horror/thriller, exposing the layers of lies, power, and brainwashing that get an otherwise reasonable person to embrace completely absurd notions. But I guess I come from a weird perspective, and saw it as a tale that compares two cults: one at a rural farm, and the other, American industrialized society. When Martha (a.k.a. Marcy May as named by the cult leaders, or Marlene when any of the women answered the phone) is reacquainted with her sister Lucy, she returns to Lucy and her husband Ted's summer home (none of who utters reference to a "cult" as none either knows or believes it). She first showers and when she rejoins Lucy on a bed, Lucy says, "oh, you're dripping", referring to Martha's wet hair. Particularly given the more important things going on, why is this even remotely important?: it is the Lucy/Ted/American culture's set of arbitrary and irrelevant rules.

Like Kynodontas (Dogtooth) (which I saw at the Dryden), the film acts as a mirror to our own society. My culture's foundation is violence: if I don't do what I'm supposed to do, society responds with force (which may sound familiar, taken from Derrick Jensen's philosophy). For instance, if I decide that the house I have been living in (exclusively, for the last 12 years, and no other person has come by to claim it is theirs) is mine and I decide to no longer pay my mortgage, eventually someone will come with a gun and tell me I have to leave. That is the incentive for paying my mortgage. Of course, it's conditioned from an early age, so it doesn't seem like that's the reason, but it ultimately is.

I of course know the differences between my culture and the cult, but the lines were pretty severely blurred by the end of the film. It's kind of a "choose your own poison" kind of tale. Martha is a pawn in the game where she's either enslaved to pay for her existence, or, well, enslaved to pay for her existence. There's happiness and misery to be found in both places only at different times and in different forms. But ultimately she's asking the right questions: why do I have to?

Dogtooth at the Dryden

I headed out to the Dryden Theater at George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) to see Kynodontas (Dogtooth). I suspected so, and sort-of confirmed when I checked Google's Language Tools: Kynodontas is the phonetic spelling of Κυνόδοντας which means "bicuspid" or what we'd usually call the "canine tooth". Breaking things down a bit, σκύλος is "dog", but κυνικός is "canine" and δόντι is "tooth" so it appears to me that the Greek is, as in English, literally "canine tooth". But in a way, calling the film "Dogtooth" makes more sense — the whole premise of the film is as if social customs were "translated" to another language then back again, repeating until no further changes happen.

The Dryden calendar describes the film as a "jet-black comedy about sexual repression". Their write-up implies that the universe where the film takes place is essentially the same as our own, and that the depicted family is highly unusual. I took away that the universe of the film is represented by the family — that the family is more a typical family than anything else. Since almost the entirety of the film is within the family's securely secluded compound of a home, there's little evidence to support either case.

The title comes from the notion that the central couple's two daughters and son must wait for a "dogtooth" to fall out before they are permitted to leave the compound. In the mean time, the family has fabricated games, they lie about language to their children (i.e. a "zombie" is a small yellow flower), and the outside world is said to be inhospitable and dangerous. But the story is told in an extremely dry fashion: as if it's all just a day-in-the-life of any family, with all the mundane details. Except, of course, that the behavior is so strange to us as to be disturbing — the father hires a woman at his workplace to engage in ritualistic, loveless sex with his son, for instance.

I saw the film in two ways. First was that it represented an example of fundamentalist logic. The father was the only one permitted to leave, and he provided for all the family's needs, and supplied all their information as he saw fit. Second, and more strongly, I felt it was just as bizarre as an outside culture may see how we live.

As it is, I spend a lot of time frustrated with the status quo and how it goes against logic, reason, and goodness. How can it be, for instance, that a person can be killed by a car and it's likely they will be blamed for it? Is it not the driver's responsibility to be in total control of their machine? It seems that an outside culture would be horrified to learn that we think this is okay.

The film just flooded me with more of the same. Has anyone ever killed a spider, bee, or snake for no logical reason other than we learned at an early age that these things are evil or dangerous? Can you think of a time when your parent (or you as a parent) ever told a child a lie about what a word means because they weren't "ready" to understand it yet? And what of all the myths that are passed off as fact in this supposed time of reason? — cell phones never caused a gas station fire (it's the static charge from getting into and out of the car), and insisting that patrons wear shoes does not make a restaurant more sanitary, to name a couple.

I will add that the film stirred quite a bit of controversy (and discussion).  Several people walked out during the screening, and almost as many people hated it as loved it.  One factor was some of the more shocking and visceral scenes which (curiously enough) depicted sex or violence. Another was the patriarchal, totalitarian state of affairs within the household. And the lack of comedy to many people's sensibilities. So it's definitely not for everyone, and not a whimsical film to enjoy on a rainy afternoon. At least not for everyone.