Last Year at Marienbad in the Washington Tavern
“Time Won’t Let Me” -- The Outsiders
“Time Is on My Side” -- Rolling Stones
“Time Has Come Today” -- Chambers Brothers
The songs, listed above, could be the beginning of a play list for a night in jukebox hell working a bar. Most likely the songs that played would be beyond my control: Guns N Roses, Steve Miller Band or some other headache inducing quasi-music, played at warp nine sound levels, as in: ear bleeding loud, rock me to an early grave levels total Black Noise. All the tunes random selections. At work, all the Time, I heard little else. These are not memories I cherish.
The original play list above might be more relevant to watching French avant garde movies than for background to working a bar. True, the particular movie I had in mind, has an organ accompaniment, more appropriate to a funeral or a viewing of the loved one, than the movie it accompanied. The movie I had in mind was “Last Year in Marienbad”. It is a puzzle wrapped in a mystery, disguised as a conundrum, surrounded by red herrings.
After many years of seeing this movie, multiple times of seeing it, over a period of nearly forty years, a clear theme finally became evident to me: this was a story about life in death. Are the characters dead, re-enacting their demise or are they alive and about to die? Is the hotel they are staying at, the half of the dead? A kind of hell, filled with Sartre’s “hell is other people” characters? Or is it meant to mean that we are alive as long as there is someone to remember us? Or is this a convoluted retelling of the Orpheus myth? It could easily be any or all of these? It’s all very confusing and meant to be that way.
The complexity is what makes the narrative core (if there can be said to be one) inscrutable to the casual viewer. That is, if there is such a thing as a casual viewer of this elaborate game, within a game, within a movie, made up of many movies and many games (a case could be made that there is only one game, with endless variations. But this sidebar only serves to distract the viewer, is a questions whose existence is fodder for a doctoral dissertation I know I’ll never write). Essentially, the major theme of the movie is: the Now, where we are in relationship to the world, as we know it, where life and death overlap, both in our memories and everyday life. We exist in a world contained by four walls (or a geometrically correct garden maze) a place that is really a semi-visible mental crack in time where stuff happens. More or less. Confused? You should be.
One of my theories, besides the highly relative concepts of time and place, and how they shift in our minds and become indistinguishable, (the complex version), is that the movie is essentially a very elaborate series of tricks, false leads, and blind alleys. I hesitate to say a joke, as I find it difficult to imagine Robbe- Grillet, author of the text the movie is based on, capable of elaborate humor. I can easily imagine him constructing a maze full of false turns and placing clues along the way to confuse and mislead the viewer until everything becomes eminently unclear at the end. The literal truth of the movie, and its script, remains something like the famed Hotel California, “You can check in but you can never leave”.
There are some who say my brain was permanently warped by watching this movie three times, in four days, while in graduate school taking a course in Film as Literature. There may be some truth to this but it lies within the realm of the impossible to prove. I had, however, read all of Robbe-Grillet’s novels published at that time, 1972. Some several times (The Voyeur and Erasers), so I had some idea about his mechanics as a writer and a thinker. The director, Alain Resnais, did not seem content to follow Robbe-Grillet’s plan precisely, that is to the letter. He had his own ideas and anyone who has seen his movies that could mean double authorial trouble. I heartily recommend his, “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” but don’t expect a coherent, linear narrative from that movie either. Time, is, indeed, relative.
Resnais may have followed the written text in a literal, follow the written dialogue way, but added signature touches of his own which created yet a whole other visual dimension to the movie. All in all the result is a fascinating, mind boggling journey into the mind. What happens? Well a lot or maybe nothing at all, depending upon how you look at it.
One thing for sure is Time is important. And how we exist in it. I can safely say that aspects of Time is the essential motivating, philosophical question explored in the movie. There is time as a function of memory that is past time, filtered through an imperfect lens. There is fluid time: we exist now but also as we existed in the past, how we perceive the past, determines who we are Now. Perhaps, totally falsely. The Now is becoming the Past as we live it so, essentially, there is no Now but only a fluid state that is in the process of becoming the Past even as we are in the Now. Yeah, that really is part of the visual narrative determining the active plot we are participating in. I won’t get into the participation of the viewer in the process of perceiving that aspects of time and space, being and not being. That is really complicated. And we must not forget: mental time, the time of our imagination, the Time we think in. Which is relative to how our perceptions are altered by physical time, what we are doing now, that may slow or speed up the perception of the Now time and the time Past. Lost yet? You are supposed to be.
It had been quite a few years since my last viewing of the movie. I had seen it prior to the three times in grad school and seen it one or two times afterwards. While contemplating my thoughts on relative times and the all important, “you can never leave” aspect of memory and working a bar job, I decided to watch it again. I was struck by the fact that you could not actually follow any literal perception: the clues of clothes worn, places conversations took place in and other physical clues to get a “timeline”. It just wasn’t happening. I decided it was best to let it flow and check for other clues, red herrings and visual perceptions and let it be.
I noticed this time, the quality of the photography seemed designed deliberately to mirror silent movies; everything was vaguely out of focus or highlighted in unusual ways. I saw again the often stylized gestures, the manner of walking and the interesting counterpoint of what is said by the narrator and the music which often has nothing whatsoever to do with is happening in the movies as you watch. I also noticed a set shot that later appears prominently in “The Shining,” and instantly made discernible connections between those two ritualized movies I had never made before. This connection enabled me to finally come up with what should have been the obvious solution to exactly what this damned movie was about anyway? It’s a horror story.
I always suspected the characters were in a house of the dead, that the interloper in the marriage of two of the three characters, was here to take the woman from the cadaverous gamesman, and lead her not to freedom and the earth, like Persephone leaving Hades, but as a reverse Orpheus going down further into the depths. I bet, if there was a picture of the folks at the hotel, like the one at the end of “The Shining,” where Jack is at the celebration with the staff of The Overlook decades previous to the present, these guys would be in it. “Last Year in Marienbad” becomes very much like “No Exit” by Sartre: Hell might not be other people as it is in that play, but also like “The Shining” and maybe even Bunuel’s “Exterminating Angel”. Without the laughs, of course.
That said, on those slow times in the bar that seemed to last forever, say on a Monday night between the hours of midnight and four in the morning, in the Summer, or during a snowstorm, when the only people out are criminals, mental cases, or other bar workers, the mind goes to places that feel like tending bar in a Lounge of the God of the Dead. This inner movie becomes a horror/ghost story filled with real demons and hungry ghosts. Sometimes they want shots for Dutch Courage so they can saunter up the block and blow their girlfriends away or because they are on the run and this is the only place open they can lay low in, catch their breath and fortify themselves before the next stage of their, hopefully, daring escape. Sometimes these demons are just garden variety lowlifes, with enough cash to buy a couple of brews, before going back to whatever heating grate they call their own.
These are unhappy hours and recalling them, feels very much like the present, even though they are from a long time ago. Writing them down, as I am a practicing poet, and am wont to do, brings it all back with a fierce immediacy. The seemingly endless hours, of misfits and miscreants, murders and molesters, escapees and wannabee bad guys, all of them over the edge and grabbing a hold of whatever is nearby to take down with them, come back to me with a strange, immediate intensity.
The feeling is both empty and oppressive. The emptiness is clouded by cigarette smoke, alcohol and the ever present, unmistakable smell of old beer, rancid sweat, and decay. The furious ranting of overloaded brains, spinning out of control, and being hemmed in by crowds of people on three sides, a wall with mirrors on the other is a kind of ultimate, shifting claustrophobia that can never be escaped from. The waking dreams and the nightmares of what it was like, are both the same. I am always there, I can never leave my place in my own, personal Marienbad, behind a bar, in the dim light, before dawn with all dead souls I can sense nearby clamoring for one last drink. It is futile to try and move on. I move on.
I can feel myself watching the clock in the bar, the one that is set fast, with the second hand that sticks at twenty after and twenty of the hour, but keeps time anyway, (you get used to it). The clock that is set fast, for that extra edge at last call, that you might need to explain to someone you would rather see gone than serve, “It may not be right time in your world, but in my world, it is the time we go by .”
It can be said that there are various kinds of time in the bar world. Bar time, all self- respecting bar clocks are set fast. Real time, that highly relative Now of existence, trumped by bar time. And “Time gentleman please, you don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here, last call for alcohol.” End Time.
After hours I often wondered, where does all the time go?
Eventually I figured out a plausible explanation: it goes to Murphy’s Brain. Murph was the Village Idiot and talking to him was an experience in time management and futility, though not without amusing possibilities. Once you got inside the warped thought process of someone who used his limited mental capabilities to totally confuse everything, playing with it can produce some amazing juxtapositions. I once managed to direct his talking about the merging of the AFL and the NFL, the two football leagues, into a cosmic misalliance of the Kennedy Assassination and the Second Coming, an incredible confusion of football and God; a parable of Jesus with Joe Namath playing a pivotal role as the son of God, in an overtime championship game on a hill, outside Cavalry, with the Super Bowl on the line. It was a kind of work of Art wasted on him but no matter. It helped pass the time.