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Last Year in Marienbad: Film as Art; And Musings on the Tragic Beauty of Traveling

September 23, 2016

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It feels good to be back on American soil after a much needed, extended vacation– although the comfort of being back in the states is comparable to returning to a cult. For the first time in my life I traveled across the Atlantic Ocean on a trip that took me through two states and around four countries. I’ve had dreams of visiting Paris since childhood thanks to an early obsession with Madeline and an exposure to the French language. These dreams of visiting France got superseded by even larger ideas to check out Berlin after realizing the only tickets available to see Radiohead on their current tour was at Lollapalooza. “Why stop there?” my rampant imagination contemplated. “You’ll be close to Prague and even Austria…why not go to Vienna?” Instead of denying my big dreams, I said yes to them and I am eternally grateful that I did.

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Despite living in sheer beauty for three weeks of bliss exploring lands I never thought I’d actually see, I encountered decay and heavy-handed sorrow on my travels. Just like in America, Europe is ripe with social change and conflict. Their struggles aren’t in any images I’ve seen on television the way America’s struggle to admit its white supremacy has been. The challenges endured by the other side of the world is much quieter, albeit highly visual all over the streets of the inner cities.

Families of Syrian and African refugees lined the streets of Paris. The Champs-Élysées houses Syrian women with heads bowed begging for change. Families with toddler children run around barefoot on the streets camped out in metro stations and in front of restaurants begging for help. An entire park off the picturesque Seine river houses hundreds of tents where African refugees live washing their clothes in fountains of the park. All are waiting for the opportunity to make it to England where work and security is. Graffiti lines the walls of buildings in Berlin and Vienna vocalizing opinions on these social issues showing a strong mentality of socialist mindsets battling a nationalist rhetoric that shouts loudly across the media.

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This vacation turned out to be a realization of the cataclysmic state this world is undergoing, an issue that is not isolated in America as I so ignorantly attributed in the past. The waging conflicts taking place in America is happening on a macro level on nearly every major continent on the planet. Every stretch of my trip exposed me to more truths and realities I didn’t know existed. In some respects it felt comforting having critical conversations with liberal-minded Parisians as well as Malaysians and Turkish visitors in a hostel of Prague that reiterated the insanity of clashes happening all over the world. But each time after these conversations fueled by passion for humanity and a disregard for injustice ended we were left with the same question; “well what do we do now?” That reassurance that we aren’t alone only became more despondent at the realization that we are all suffering together, and perhaps the only remedy is to let the tides crash and work in our communities to soften the blow for those who can’t help themselves.

Courtesy of The Telegraph

Courtesy of The Telegraph

Nevertheless, these musings weren’t the whole of my trip, although I definitely welcomed them to take up much of my thought. I reveled in the wild nightlife of Berlin, the prismatic beauty of Prague, and the sheer opulence of Vienna. I loved every moment of my visit even when I was exhausted, drained, and ready to get back to the messed up home I know and love. It’s only natural that the highlights of each city were the cinematic glorification I received from each. I spent a night drinking beer and swapping movie recommendations with a German pal at Filmkunstbar Fitzcarraldo. The beers were cheap, the dance floor packed and moving, and the walls are lined with old posters and DVDs available to rent. I got to walk the streets of Paris imagining I was Jean Seberg in Breathless. A night out in Vienna introduced me to Top Kino, a comfy bar that houses an art-house theater in the back. But, it was in Prague that I marveled in delight at one of the most unique film exhibits I’ve ever had the pleasure to experience.

Tucked away in the back of the Galerie Rudolfinum is the fall exhibit, Last Year at Marienbad: Film as Art Exhibit curated by Dr. Christoph Grunenberg. In an exquisite, carefully constructed exhibition that mixes mediums and themes, Grunenberg allows Last Year in Marienbad to be the pulse of a larger body of work that explores techniques and influences based around the film itself. The exhibition cleverly plays on the form and structure within the film giving credence to the halls of various artworks related to Alain Resnais beautifully abstract film. A set of five televisions flatly line a dark wall; each screen frozen on moments of the film until it’s their time in the queue to come alive. Each screen suspires in cross cutting action coming to life for a minute or two before turning a new page where one screen begins and the others end for spectators to view. The images on the screens drip with sensual intrigue balancing sharp angles with pointed objects and rounded edges as the camera moves in placid formation. Thick books are attached to each seat for spectators to learn the history of Last Year in Marienbad’s inception.

The product of a collaboration between French director, Resnais, and Nouveau Roman author Alain Robbe-Grillet, Last Year in Marienbad is a film in which its charms exists in its extensive tracking shots, slow fluid panning, and surrealistic dreamlike nature. Robbe-Grillet adapted the stream of consciousness screenplay in painstaking detail for Resnais to bring to the screen, creating a story buried in confusion and brain fog. Their collaborative efforts allow lighting to play a major part in the existence of characters while simultaneously creating characters from the essence of shadows. The blocking of actors on screen is immaculate as the space between the leads exudes an angst and tension between them allowing the absence of objects to tell its own story. The score adds a layer of cryptic tension to the overall feel of the film, and there are moments of it where I almost lost all composure at how beautiful the shots were. Last Year in Marienbad is living art, a manipulation of time and space.

The exhibit wraps around the inner walls of Galerie Rudolfinum lining the museum with poster art, behind the scene photos, storyboards, and artists renditions of scenes inspired by the film done in pencil, mixed media, paints, and photography. More televisions fill other rooms showing creative uses of movement captured through camera that are direct, and indirect, influences of the film. Last Year in Marienbad is a film that prior to this exhibit I had never heard anything of. This is film that during its time received just as much criticism as it did praise due it to his ultra bourgeoisie theme and its dismissal of a clear storytelling structure. This lack of focus on reality was directly challenged by other filmmakers in the rise of the French New Wave. If this exhibit taught me anything, which I think the film itself intends in its own way, it is that despite the opulence and luxury one may see on the surface, reality is always a matter of perspective. All that glitters isn’t gold and though at times beautiful, life is a confusing, unscrupulous mess that we haven’t figured out just yet.

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