Saturday, October 31, 2009

Providence, dir. Alain Resnais, 1977

As I sat watching Resnais 1977 psycho-drama, Providence, I thought of all my students who would not even know his name, and as a result, of what they were missing out on. For those of us raised on the diet and discipline of learning a discipline from the Pyramids to Picasso, from Old Norse to The Sound and the Fury, the equivalent in my cinema studies' education was the Lumières to Film School Generation. And Resnais and Last Year at Marienbad were turning points in 20th century cinema as they were in my growing appetite for modernist film. Yes, it might be confusing, and it might even be nonsense, but for me, seeing this bizarre film as an undergraduate was as all part of the thrill of having new worlds opened up.

And I was plunged back into that excitement last night when I chose Resnais’ 1977 Providence over This is It, the Michael Jackson bonanza. Now my shame: I can't believe I hadn’t seen Providence already. It’s a great film and would, in many ways, be more suitable in the classroom than Resnais’ modernist masterpiece. Students would get their teeth into what’s real and what’s fantasy – and of course, because the lines between the characters’ reality and the fantasies of the aging John Gielgud, and the narrative he is writing in his latest and presumably last novel are indeterminable and unfathomable, we could then turn the lesson to questions of the realities that are at stake in the cinematic world more generally. The absence of reality check in Providence makes it a perfect psychological puzzle of the kind that fulfils both the needs of the students to convince themselves of the importance of untangling the “real” from the imagined, and of the teacher to convince them of the pitfalls of debating the stability of cinematic realities. Students would also have fun with analyzing the character of the son (Dirk Bogarde in a characteristically brilliant performance) who not only harbors all the anger and hangups of his father, but who takes a mistress that is played by the same actor — Elaine Stritch — as his mother.

Aside from its suitability to the classroom, there is much to admire about the film as it demonstrates Renais’ absolute skill at putting stories together in a way that both embraces the full spectrum of the cinema’s want to transgress social norms and expectations and, simultaneously, to escape the rationalizing desires of the audience. Providence plunges us into a world of an aging — dying if we are to believe Gielgud — writer who both rewrites his life as he remembers it or as he would like it to have been, and/or (not sure which) convinces us his nightmares are true. There is reference to a war as the opening depicts soldiers chasing an unknown man through a forest who turns out to be transforming into a werewolf. However, the real war of the film is the narrative written, erased, rethought, and rewritten, as we are shown it to be playing either in the aging John Gielgud’s mind, or in the novel he is or is not writing. What we never know is whether or not he is really vilified by his family, or if it is in his imagination – do they change their minds about him, or does he change his mind about them? Is the daughter-in-law (Ellyn Burstyn) really in pursuit of the man who killed a werewolf? Who turns out to be Gielgud’s illegitimate son? Or are her lascivious desires the whim of a horny old man frustrated with and intolerant of a repressive social world that allows no place for his bald imaginings? It’s difficult to say. And in the end, knowing Renais, it probably doesn’t matter. What matters for him, as the great modernist filmmaker, is that the medium allows him to blur all distinction between real and imagined, fantasy and reality, memory and fiction and even, the nature of the relationships between husband and wife, stranger and step son.

Film doesn’t come much better than this, and, given the choice of seeing Resnais’ version of reality or Michael Jackson raised from the dead – which might not be Michael Jackson after all – there is really no discussion.

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