Last Race at Marienbad

I watched Last Year at Marienbad a few days ago, and then watched Speed Racer the following day. It was an interesting experience.

Alan Resnais’ art house classic has been equally lauded and derided since its 1961 release. From what I’ve read, it’s the world’s worst movie: impenetrable, pretentious, and implacably French.

Speed Racer, on the other hand, was adapted by the Wachowskis (of Matrix fame) from an old anime series. It cost an obscene amount to make, and was a box-office bomb. It was derided as empty and all surface.

The interesting thing I found was that neither description struck me as correct. (Granted, I liked Speed Racer when it first came out, so there may be some bias there.)

It turns out that Last Year at Marienbad is not boring. What it is, however, is hard work. It’s also a technical and aesthetic marvel. Almost every single shot could hang in a gallery – it’s simply beautiful. There’s also a mounting sense of dread that makes you wonder if perhaps it’s a ghost story?

Marienbad also seems to exert quite a bit of influence: The hypnotic, long tracking shots and the odd, unreal performances are too close to what Kubrick would do in The Shining almost 20 years later to be a coincidence. (I also wonderered if Haneke’s Funny Games makes an obtuse reference to Marienbad in a pivotal scene.)

Don’t get me wrong: I won’t claim Marienbad isn’t arthouse fare. It is absolutely an intellectual exercise, and, yes, it’s a riddle with no answer. That said, it’s not dry and lifeless either. It’s just made by someone challenging conventions.

Speed Racer, it’s true, is a very glossy surface, often distractingly so. But it’s also about family values in an impossibly corrupt age, about a single individual becoming an unstoppable machine in the face of an immovable object. There are even echoes of Spartacus (hey, another Kubrick reference) to be heard.

The effects are ropey in places, the seams too obvious, and the comic relief is pretty dire. When I first saw it, I remember thinking it could be cut by at least 30 minutes. I still found it too long, but to be fair, there was both more plot and more heart than I gave it credit for.

Both movies are amazing formal exercises; Marienbad suffocatingly tight, while Speed Racer at first seems so slight it’s almost shapeless.

Wrapping up, there’s no revelatory conclusion to be drawn from this; I just found it fascinating that in comparing selections from the high and low ends of cinematic respectability, both belie their reputations.