Mine started as we entered the cinema. The film had won prizes, including one at the Sundance Festival. A sign, I thought, of a particular kind of movie; of a genre almost in its own right: the “independent” film. The genre is a fusion of the art movie (that is, a serious exploration of a subject) with entertainment; and is a return to the Hollywood of the 1950s with its literate and well-produced films, though these works often have oddball characters and weird scenarios, which are nevertheless similarly compromised by the need to be popular – they are usually professionally and expensively made, which requires a large audience to pay for it (this film in places was very beautifully shot, and its overall feel is much more finished than for example the Nouvelle Vague of the 1960s). This compromise can result in the complex and ambiguous being made too simple and clear-cut, while the action can be forced into a too obvious narrative, or a crudely upbeat ending, which resolves the piece much too comfortably; thus allowing the audience to leave the movie house with a relatively straightforward idea, and a general sense of contentment (they are not left feeling confused or ignorant, a guarantee of commercial failure).i
I know, this is a prejudice of mine, based on limited evidence. However, this is what I thought as I walked down the steps and negotiated my way between the cinema’s seats. Was I wrong?
The gothic elements tend increasingly to dominate this film, and squeeze out a very interesting character study. So that by the time it finishes the movie has become little more than a psychological thriller; with the characters clamped into a familiar routine, which damages the film’s integrity – we know we are being manipulated. The liveliness of original insight is thus lost to a conscious and mechanical idea - scare the customers – which is too conventional to surprise us.
….after those wavelets of unease the audience settles back down into their seats. They know they are going to enjoy the show.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is a story set inside the borderlands of the human mind. It is about a young girl leaving a closed community, in this case a new age Christian cult, and returning to her family; here an older sister. Oppressed by the violence of the community she leaves it surreptitiously. However, she cannot adapt to the different pressures of mainstream American life with its privatised space and impersonality, where emotions are largely controlled and moderated. Living with her sister in their holiday retreat she inhabits a psychological no man’s land, in which her present consciousness is overwhelmed with memories of her recent cultic experiences. The conditioning is so strong, and her escape so sudden, that she suffers all the effects of a mental catastrophe, the emotional earthquake of a child losing her parents, the complete destruction of a settled and habituated way of life. Her mind is in ruins, and there is no one around to help her renovate it – her sister doesn’t have the skill and empathic understanding to do so.
Martha hardly speaks during the film. In many ways she is a typical inarticulate teenager. Liz cannot understand her, and is unable to get her to talk; a source of repeated frustration. For numerous reasons: of confusion, of guilt, and of pain, together with fears about misunderstanding and prejudice (we assume these things for we are never given access to Martha’s thoughts), she refuses to mention the cult; pretending instead to have lived for two years with a boyfriend; although never explaining her lack of contact during this time.
When she rang Liz, Martha desperately wanted to escape, although she was reluctant to give details of her location. It is a scene that expresses the mental confusion that pervades the entire length of this film. Martha thought her sister still lived in the city, and is surprised to discover that she is living with her husband in the countryside. Would she have called if she knew they were this close? She asks how far away is the diner they have just left. Three hours. Is that enough? We can feel Martha’s unease; this large house suddenly seems very exposed.
She swims naked. Has strange ideas – we live simply to exist not to make money she says during a dinner. She wets herself. Lies on down on her sister’s bed when Liz is having sex – to be close to a passionately expressed emotion, we think.ii Martha is brimming over with paranoia… Memories of her recent experience are invading her consciousness; like ghosts, or evil spirits, always ready to jump out into her present life to scare and unsettle her. This is well done, reversing the old Hitchcock formula of Freudian hysteria caused by repressed memories; itself a doubtful theory. This scenario is more realistic, showing how the emotional proximity to the event sparks off vivid images, which take over both Martha’s dreaming and waking life. It is like a love affair where the object of fixation never leaves one’s mind, subsuming the whole personality under it, which produces a consciousness that is floaty and drifting, and that is highly susceptible to every kind sensuous stimulation, that in turn makes it jumpy and irritable. Always she is expecting the community to appear at the front door. In one conversation with Liz she asks if she ever mistakes dreams for memories. Are the phantoms she sees real, did the things they do really happen, or is she creating them? Are those raids on the houses, and that murder, only her fears for her own safety, arising from her conviction that the community is after her; for she may have given them a clue to her present residence when she rang them up, in a moment of desperation? How the mind, already broken and insecure, could become obsessed by that single mistake!
At a party she talks to the bar attendant, who jokes about offering her drink, which she doesn’t really want – she has a problem with alcohol. Believing him a member of the cult she suddenly becomes hysterical. She has to be sedated. It is a turning point in the film, and finally convinces Liz that her sister needs professional help.
Martha has already crossed over the border – into a mental no man’s land. Her breakdown occurs at the second border crossing: into mainstream America. Inevitably this creates new fears, her dreams become reality, and the film becomes a thriller - the cult returns. Or do they? A generous reading is that these gothic elements arise out of her paranoia. That they are all products of her imagination, forced out of her broken mind as she feels the intensity of the threat, for being so close to freedom the fear of being caught now escalates, and the world becomes full of mystical signs and invisible threats; which sometimes she visualises. These phantasms could also arise from her fear of this second crossing, over the border into a new mentality and another closed community – middle class America.
All this is psychologically true. However, the balance of the work has changed, and too often it feels that we are being manipulated, that the film has resolved into a plotline, to which the characters must submit; the phantoms all too real, and the community are actually around the house. They are meant to scare us.
What a disappointment! For at one point, as we waited for Martha to explain herself, and tell us which way she will go – forward into mainstream American life or back to the Christian church - I realised that this film was never going to resolve itself. Always we would be left with an enormous question mark; and we would have to guess things out for ourselves… This is a risk in any film. Certainly for one that wants a large audience.
The strength of this movie is Martha’s quietness, and the work this forces us to do if we want to understand her. Its weakness is the community. With its suggestions of Waco and the Jim Jones cult, it is depicted as overwhelmingly creepy and evil. For sure we see the good sides: the communal work, the camaraderie, and even the happy faces of the committed. But these do not compensate for the bad. The patriarchy: the women can only eat after the men. The authoritarian control: it is a community ruled by one man with strong and narrow ideas. The sexual and emotional exploitation - new recruits are sodomised to “purify” them, while the leader creates complex bonds of jealousy and attraction by sleeping with the different members (possibly of both sexes, but we are not sure). For the girls he is both a father and a lover, a powerful fusion that confuses and binds them to him and the community; with the result that only he can resolve the tensions these relationships create. There is also violence. In an interesting scene the leader creates a tension in the group, and suggests that Martha shoots a fellow member, who appears lax and uncommitted. It is one technique amongst many, like the naked group bathing and the communal sex, that breaks down the boundary walls of an individual’s personality, to produce a group identity; bonded by the members’ emotions which are channelled through the cult’s leader, who finds various mechanisms for heightening them. But the film goes too far. We see the leader’s ugly face over Martha’s shoulder as he penetrates her backside. The group raid a house and one of its members spits in a salad. And eventually there is a murder, which is completely unnecessary – little more than a plot device to sever Martha’s attachment to the church. The leader needed to be more charismatic, the cult more beneficent, and the process of Martha’s detachment slower and more subtle, if this were to be a proper character study. If a murder was required at the very least the provocation should have come from outside – we need to see the reasons for their turn to violence.iii
Liz and her husband, ideal representatives of (upper) middle class America, are subtly caught. They are sophisticated and clever, but also incurious and completely opaque to the nature of Martha’s experience. Of course she is not saying much, and of course they realise something is wrong; but what strikes us is their inability to confront it, to ask the right questions at the right times. They lack nuance and emotional understanding; and are unable to grasp a world utterly different from their own. So when Martha swims around naked Liz’s only thought is to get her into a bathing costume as quickly as possible. What a moment to ask the question, to probe and get some answers… It is a missed opportunity. Liz’s husband talks about Martha’s future, the career she intends to pursue… Just to exist, she says, is what I want; it is the only way to live. He treats her with contempt and there is an argument. Yet another chance to ask a question; to search out her worldview, and explore her previous experiences. Instead her views are perceived as a threat; although Martha does not help herself with her initial arrogance and aggression: she has yet to relearn the codes of middle class etiquette. They live in a huge house, with massive windows, but Liz and her husband can hardly see anything beyond their own reflections. Thus in their relations to Martha they tend to exaggerate the nature of their own lives, accentuating the individualism, and thus locking her once again into her own self. It is a state that the community had partially undone; though even there she was quiet and restrained - the conditioning was never complete, the reason she could escape.
The ending is very good. It makes us do the work. It is a metaphor for her plight, lost in the borderlands, we do not know which way she will turn – back to the community or forwards into the centre of the American City. Only you my friend can determine the answer.
My friend didn’t like it. Too malevolent he said. True, the cult is depicted as evil, too evil to be convincing, but this is justifiable: in her own mind Martha will exaggerate the threat, for her emotions are extraordinarily fragile, and she is experiencing the community as oppressive, close at hand, and a real menace. Always she is on the edge of a ravine, ready to be pushed off… She lives with permanent vertigo. So its malevolent character is not the reason that the film, though very good in parts, ultimately fails: Martha is right to be scared – of herself, at the very least. No, that is not the reason. Rather, the movie feels just a little too contrived. There are moments when it seems like the director is scaring us - for fun.
[ii] People always talk about brainwashing when they talk about cults. But is this really the explanation for their power? Surely, it is the emotional effects of their institutional practices on its members; creating enormously strong bonds between people through shared living arrangements, common rituals, communal work, and intra-group sex. The ideas of the guru are then fused with this behavioural and emotional conditioning.
It is not the ideas that keep people in the cult, but the strength of the relationships, often much more intense than available in the world outside; the intensity something they may have been wanting in their own personal or family lives.
[iii] The Jim Jones cult, for long a respectable, albeit odd, church, in San Francisco only later turned to violence, and then for a number of reasons; some of them external, like the local paper’s exposé of the church; which heightened Jones’ sensitivities, and increased the tensions around his alleged supernatural powers.
See Shiva Naipaul’s excellent Black & White, which locates the cult’s origins and appeal within the 1960s radicalisation of the black community and the new age ideas of the hippies; situating its final demise within the political economy of Guyana, which he knew well. One of the points he makes is that for many in the community it was a happy place, and remained so right up until the end.
The book has one extraordinary insight, which now seems so obvious, but then would have difficult to grasp: the church attracted many Africa-Americans who responded to its evangelical and anti-racist, its black power, message. However, as Naipaul notes, that message was conveyed in an extreme, apocalyptic, way, which in effect was a psychological attack on the black members of the congregation – he was literally terrifying them with threats of white violence. Was this a covert form of racism? Was Jones aware of what he was doing? We can only speculate. He was using the same language and imagery as the black power movements, but this was now coming from a white man, and this changed context can produce paradoxical results. At the very least he must have been aware of the power of fear, which can bind a group by separating it from the rest of society, perceived of as a constant threat – thus outside condemnation may have actually been welcome. But of the rest – that he was consciously racist? The jury is out.
For Naipaul the tragedy of Jonestown can be found in two sources: the egoism of Jim Jones and the fallout from the sixties idealism, that created both the ideas and the social conditions (which included the increasing redundancy of black workers during a period when they became an existential threat to mainstream society, which was also the start of their mass incarceration) for the spread of such outsider cults.
“And they came to him. ‘I was eighteen years old when I joined the People’s Temple,’ Deborah Blakey wrote in her affidavit. ‘I had grown up in affluent circumstances in the permissive atmosphere of Berkeley, California. By joining the People’s Temple, I hoped to help others and in the process to bring structure and self-discipline to my own life.’ They came to him – the seekers of structure, the I Ching decoders, the Tarot interpreters, the higher consciousness addicts, the catharsis freaks, the degenerated socialists, those who thirsted for universal justice and wanted Utopia ‘real bad’.
“People’s Temple rooted itself in disintegration and ruin. It has often been said that the Temple was reared on an idealism which, somehow, became perverted. It would, I think, be more correct to say that the Temple was reared on – or, better still, inherited – an idealism that had already gone wrong, that had already lost its way and been twisted out of shape in the promiscuous chaos of the sixties. Jim Jones was a beachcomber, picking up the flotsam and jetsam washed ashore from the sixties shipwrecks. The ‘idealism’ on which he fed was not virginal but considerably shop-soiled, eaten up with inner decay.”
This film captures something of this, even down to the books the leader reads – the most prominent by Ivan Ilich; one of the anti-society’s most illustrious gurus.