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In Which We Flee The Cult Of Our Dreams

She's Just A Picture


Martha Marcy May Marlene
dir. Sean Durkin
101 minutes

In a scene from Sean Durkin’s psychological drama Martha Marcy May Marlene, charismatic cult leader Patrick (played by John Hawkes) plays a song he has written for one of his followers, a young woman named Martha (Elizabeth Olsen). “Oh she’s just a picture/Who lives on my wall,” he sings, as the camera lingers on Martha’s lovely, nymphic face. As the song continues, the camera focuses also on Patrick’s face, his intense, smiling stare. We understand in that moment that we are seeing Martha — or Marcy May, as he has renamed her — as he sees her.

The question of whose eyes we are looking through, whose picture we are seeing, is the mystery weighting the center of this complex story. Martha Marcy May Marlene follows the traumatized Martha as she escapes from the cult’s commune to her older sister’s upscale Connecticut lake house. What we know of the cult is shown through flashbacks, so Martha’s past and present unfold simultaneously. As Martha grows more paranoid that members of the cult are pursuing her, the past looms more dangerously and invades the present more violently. Fear distorts her experience, so what is really happening (and what has happened) are ever more uncertain.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is obsessed with doubles and doppelgangers — places from the past and present mirror one another, and people represent and replace one another. The wooded area surrounding the cult’s farm resembles the wilderness near the lake house, and the lake house also recalls the large houses the cult members burglarize to support the commune. Martha and her yuppie older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) are an imperfect reflection. (I don’t mention that Olsen’s real-life older sisters are famous duplicates.) It’s no wonder Martha is often confused: “Is this from the past, or is this now?” she asks Lucy.

A more sinister multiplication exists among the women of the cult, who are essentially interchangeable. The women are active in assimilating new members — we see them leading Martha around the commune, explaining the workings of the farm to her. And their participation goes far deeper than that: after a drugged Martha is raped by Patrick, the other women comfort and reassure her. “I know you’re feeling like something bad happened in there, Marcy May,” one woman tells her. “You have to trust me, that wasn’t bad.” Another admonishes her not to be selfish. “You have to share yourself,” she says.

When a curly-haired and youthful girl named Sarah joins the commune, Martha is assigned as her mentor. We watch as Martha mimics her own initiators, showing Sarah the eating and sleeping quarters, even repeating verbatim what one of the other women told her: “It takes time to find your role in a new family.” When the time comes, Martha gives Sarah the drug-laced drink she has prepared; “This is your special night with him. Enjoy it,” she glows. When Sarah is led away to be raped by Patrick, Martha sits in the same chair where she herself sat, horror-stricken, after her own rape. Martha is “one of them,” fully complicit in the cult’s crimes.

In this way, the most important doubling in the film is of her past and present selves, Martha versus Marcy May. Marcy May is Patrick’s creation, and she has been fully indoctrinated by him. Although Martha escapes Patrick’s influence, she does not rid herself completely of Marcy May. At the lake house, she seems to have forgotten social norms, to the horror of her conventional sister — after saying she’s going for a swim, she strips on the pier and jumps naked into the water. Martha wanders into her sister’s room while Lucy is having sex with her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), and curls up on their bed. Martha is bewildered by Ted and Lucy’s anger. “It’s a big bed, and you guys were on the other side,” she explains.

Martha also finds herself speaking to Lucy and Ted in the cult’s rhetoric. “People don’t need careers. People should just exist,” she tells workaholic Ted. When she grows frustrated with Lucy, it seems Marcy May comes out: “I don't need your guidance now, and I didn’t then. I’m a teacher and a leader,” she says, exactly echoing something we hear Patrick tell her. Clearly, her role in the cult still influences the way she sees herself. Martha’s internal fissures cause the fissures that open up in the film’s present.

And so, on the one hand, Martha Marcy May Marlene is largely shot and structured in sympathy with Martha’s experience. We see her memories as she has them, and as her fear grows, we take part in that fear. Often we share in Martha’s confusion about where and when she is, whether this is from the past, or this is now. Martha’s swimming in the lake transforms seamlessly to her memory of swimming with the members of the cult. We see long, dreamy shots of naked bodies as the camera moves in and out of the water. Like Martha, the scene floats between two states of being, present and past, emerging and submerging.

The film’s audio particularly manifests Martha’s perception — when Patrick and the male members of the cult confer, they are often visible but inaudible, reflecting Martha’s lack of access. The white noise in the film is frequently stifling, as Martha’s mental discord seems to mount over the rest of the action. In one remarkable scene, Ted and Lucy attempt to subdue a hysterical Martha after she thinks she spots a cult member at a party they are hosting. The broad, static frame takes in Ted and Lucy’s bedroom, Martha thrashing and crying, and the others attempting to restrain her. The sound is overwhelmed by loud, harsh violins. As Martha’s terror subsides, the music quiets, and the picture slowly fades to black.

In the last scene of the film, one of the members of the cult clearly runs across the road in front of Ted and Lucy’s car as they are driving Martha to a psychiatric facility, and we are ready to disbelieve what we see, to imagine that it could all be in her head — because “her head” is the space where the film purports to take place. But there is evidence that the film does not solely record Martha’s perspective. When Martha is shot through a doorway or window, who do we imagine is looking through its frame? Why would the camera so often follow her like a specter down a dark hallway? Martha is being watched, and the gaze that is trained on her is dogged. The camera is fixated — the frame will stay focused on her face even when the dialogue is taking place between two other people. We often watch her sleep.

When Martha scrambles through the woods in her escape from the commune, the camera pursues her, jumpy and desperate — she resembles an animal fleeing a predator through a path in the trees. In one scene we follow Martha’s torso and legs down the hallway to her bedroom. Then she is lying on her floor, camera on her ass and legs as pee soaks through her dress. The frame stays still as she stands, wipes the pee from her legs and stuffs the dress under her mattress. This feels more than predatory. It’s lurid. It’s unforgivable.

One possibility is that Martha has so internalized Patrick’s objectification of her that she participates in it, that it is how she sees herself. Maybe. But I think it’s also possible that Martha Marcy May Marlene can’t help but agree with Patrick — if only a little — that Martha is primarily something to look at. She’s just a picture. We watch her in bed through a cracked door, a conversation between Ted and Lucy playing over top. As she listens to them discuss her, she moves her head and stares into the camera for several unsettling seconds, her eyes meeting the gaze that has been aimed at her. In this film, where everything contains its undoing, the picture looks back.

Alice Bolin is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Missoula, Montana. She tumbls here and twitters here. This is her first appearance in these pages.

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In Which Lost Starts A Race War In Its Season Premiere

White Paradise



Season Six

Kaltxì. Ngaru lu fpom srak. Fì-skxawng-ìri tsap’alute sengi oe. Tsun oe nga-hu nì-Na’vi pängkxo a fì-’u oe-ru prrte’ lu.

What's that? You haven't taken the Introduction to Na'vi course I've been offering at the Learning Annex since Jesus's birthday came and went? No matter, as soon children will be communicating entirely in Na'vi, a language that has no word for pedophile, champion, and, strangely, sandwich.

let me help you dig her grave - we can make a kissing game out of it With Lost back on the airwaves, I am back on This Recording with a contract that permits me to make fun of Lambert for being a ginger as often as I like. Since my thoughts about how revolting I find Evangeline Lilly haven't graced these pages in awhile, much has changed. My Obama jokes are no longer as amusing since our country Chinua Achebed all over my pantaloons. This is a time for all Americans to live together or die alone like Shepard Smith or Jennifer Garner in Valentine's Day.

In response to the revolutionary debut of Avatar, two serious changes have come about in my post-vice-presidential life. First, my dietician now knows exactly what I'm talking about when I tell him I want Sam Worthington's body. Second, the white majority that produces Lost is finally realizing that it's OK to be racist. Racism is the only thing that can save us from four more years of BO apologizing for the billions he gave to banks during his State of the Union.

Outward racism is all the rage these days. Vanity Fair highlighted the most promising eating disorders in Hollywood and they didn't even tab the girl from Precious. On a scale of one-to-ten how surprised would you be if you found out Graydon Carter owned slaves?

what's the na'vi word for three-way? Lost has taken up the James Cameron-related charge to make fools of people of color with the most naïve aplomb since Joss Whedon told Fox execs that everyone would enjoy Dollhouse. Last night's two hour long Lost premiere began with Jack on a plane, condescendingly observing the show's only interracial couple, regaling them with smiles and plaudits alike. He was about five seconds away from handing Rose and Bernard a nickel - Everything That Rises Must Converge-style.

From there we went back to the island. Somehow detonating a hydrogen bomb didn't fix everyone's problems, although it did work wonders as a time travel device, taking the cast from 1977 to 2010 with everyone alive and Kate somehow in a tree. In the ensuing fracas, Sawyer blood-kissed Juliet and it was astonishingly only the third most awkward kiss of 2010 after Margene and Benny Hendrickson's Big Love smooch and Jenna Elfman kissing anyone.

"let's watch keeping the faith on DVD and observe how hot I was before scientology!"Hugo Reyes, the show's only surviving Latino character, is continually depicted as a slow-witted consumer of chicken who despite great verbal faculty in some areas, reverts to "dudes" and "come on" faster than B.J. Novak tricks girls. Don't get me started on the show's Asian characters. I'm not exactly well-educated enough to completely explain why depicting a Korean man as a glorified thug and an Asian-American as a medium is more objectionable than giving the native population on Pandora dreads for hair, but it just feels wrong.

why didn't I think of sending messages like this? how the f do you subpoena an ankh?Now that we know the man in black is in fact the smoke monster, his battle with Jacob is starting to more closely resemble a race war than a feud between two gods. AWB (Acting While Black) on Lost is considered a faux pas at best. When I was in Cali for the Chargers game a few weeks ago I saw the character formerly known as Walt at a tumblr meet up. It was so depressing I wanted to fly him to Waikiki and play chess with him for hours.

This wasn't the only thing that felt a little awry last night. The dramatic opening pan through miles of underwater CGI looked awful, and the rest of the two hour episode was shot on about three sets. Lost is starting to resemble the output of a very serious improv troupe with the director calling from offstage, "OK, Evangeline, in this scene Kate wants to run. Do you copy? She is going to run from her problems instead of dealing with them. Do you need a second with that?"

"lefleuer, your dick is about .038 oden. you're welcome"In many ways, this interminable premiere was a just a tying up of loose ends. Now that Elizabeth Mitchell has a new acting job staring at CGI spaceships (ABC tried to Avatar-up V with little success), she doesn't need to make vague and unhelpful suggestions about LeFleur harboring long lost feelings for Kate. She was a broken record with that stuff. If television has taught us anything, it's that the timely death of a lover opens up a multitude of romantic possibilities. At the very least, John Edwards has this to look forward to.

the long con beginsJosh Holloway looks like he's been chasing ass in L.A. since last season ended, and his obsession with Jack was never the show's most successful storyline. Jack isn't all that sympathetic, and Sawyer is about as appealing as a widower with blood all over his face can be. Jack's arrogant dismissal of Locke's paralysis was typical for doctors. They always think they're the best at everything. It's so predictable. Now that Sawyer is about as compelling as a Cabbage patch kid, this show needs a protagonist, stat.

if there is any one thing this show needs, it is ian mcshane Of course the most annoying moment of the premiere was when every d-bag in the world whispered to his friends, "That guy was on Deadwood!" when John Hawkes showed up to interpret the vague directions of the Asian warlord Other who controls the fountain of the youth. Jesus guys, even Ponce de Leon thinks that's a bunch of racist crap. James Cameron is cringing, and he invented racism.

"at least I'll be able to find acting work after this show ends"Also put out to pasture for most of the episode was Sayid. Despite the weird moment where he told everyone to get out of the way as he kicked down the bathroom door of Oceanic Flight 815 to save Driveshaft and Jack and the crew looked at him like he had a box-cutter, Sayid is the only minority with a slightly positive portrayal. Actually they've been portraying him as a vicious murderer and torturer for the last five seasons, so I take that back.

Reinventing yourself is a subject near and dear to my heart. Y'all knew me as a boisterous, controlling, megalomaniacal vice president who loved e-mail, gchat, and Lost spoilers. In my new life, I spend most of the day pounding Buffalo Trace and snacking on chimichangas. Lost may be insane and contradictory, but above all it is familiar. You always know where you stand with respect to Lost, which is more than I can say for my wife Lynne.

OK see you next week. I will spend every day between now and next Tuesday trying to believably photoshop myself onto Greg Oden's body.

Dick Cheney is the former vice president of the United States and the senior contributor to This Recording.

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