Beginners & Martha Marcy May Marlene

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By complete happenstance I watched both of these films this weekend; while dealing with completely different subject matter, by using a similar narrative structure, it was easy to draw some parallels between the two stories. My overall takeaway: see these movies! Both offer a compelling look into what shapes us and how it affects us down the road, whether for better or worse.

Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor in Beginners

In Beginners, Oliver (Ewan) is dealing with the recent death of his father. The movie flows back and forth between moments Oliver shared with his mother as a child, moments he shared with his father after he comes out to Oliver, and Oliver’s present. Throughout the film we get to see how Oliver’s parents shaped him as a person (and perhaps, how it negatively affected him emotionally) and how later in life he could also use lessons from his parents to fix himself.

The film shows this in its overall theme, and also discreetly. I particularly liked seeing Oliver doing seemingly innocuous things like introducing the house to Arthur the dog or Anna, giving voice to inanimate objects, or saying “You point; I’ll drive,” but realizing later on that these are phrases he picked up from his parents.

Full disclosure: I am an avid Ewan McGregor fan; I am not exactly sure how to convey over a decade’s worth of love for him and his work but it’s there, through thick and thin. So I find it easy now to watch his movies, take in his characters, and discern the bits that are pure Ewan. This movie counts as the first time I felt a connection to Oliver rather than Ewan, and a feeling akin to catharsis while watching the movie.  I am not underscoring Ewan as an actor in his other films, I am trying to emphasize the emotional impact I felt while watching this particular film. All in all, a beautiful story, beautifully illustrated and acted; it is a film I definitely want to add to my permanent repertoire.

John Hawkes and Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene

With all the hype that this movie has been generating, plus my inability to ignore the enigmatic John Hawkes, I was pleased to check this movie out and at the same time scope out the local AMC indie theater.  I found one of the biggest criticisms of this movie to be true: if you need things to be spelled out and questions answered, you might want to skip this film and avoid the frustration. For the most part, I found it easy to reason out many of the questions myself or find suitable explanations, and everything that is left can lead to a lively debate with friends afterwards.

Just like Beginners, in MMMM we see Martha’s two years in a cult and the aftermath of her escape from it at her sister’s Connecticut lake house. Watching Beginners taught me a valuable lesson: pay attention to what seems like throwaway lines because you may discover why that is important later on. And utilizing that idea definitely paid off heaps in MMMM. Why can’t Martha sleep because she hears something falling on the roof? The cult throws things on the roof to distract homeowners before executing a home invasion. Why does she seem to still espouse the ideals of the cult if she took the risk to run away? She didn’t sign up for murder. Although I found it strange that two years in the cult did such severe damage to societal norms in the real world, I just chalk that up the brainwashing power of Patrick and having no external influence to combat those teachings for that period of time. MMMM also gets credit for its seamless transitions; situations in Martha’s current frame of mind led to her replaying the events of the past two years in her head, more so than we were actually cutting back and forth between settings.

It seems that this narrative structure is en vogue right now: although I have yet to see it, J. Edgar employs the same method of bouncing back and forth between Edgar’s earlier years and later years as FBI Director. Nor am I claiming that this is a new method of storytelling; seeing these two films in the same weekend just gave me a new appreciation for the structure and how it can deepen the audience’s understanding of character motivation.

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About Staciellyn Chapman

Grad student at the School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University. This blog is an attempt to condense the craziness that is my TV viewing habits (with the occasional aside into film, music, and general life).

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