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Note: You will notice the speed and quantity of posts will, and has, drastically decreased over the last 2-3 months. It’ll probably be like this for awhile, but none-the-less I’ll continue to post stuff when I have the time and something strikes me.

Around the time when I got back to Bloomington I noticed a friend of mine had a copy of Last Year at Marienbad (torrent) lying around and I happened to notice it. During the class I took, the section involving Alain Resnais (the director/auteur of Marienbad) was in the “ambiguity” section. Ambiguity is something that I’ve always been fascinated by, and that’s the subject of this avant-garde film post.

I tend to use the word ambiguity poorly, and too often, particularly in situations where I’m really trying to communicate that something vague. So to try and avoid that, I’ve looked up the definition (on Wikipedia, no less):

Ambiguity is different from vagueness, which arises when the boundaries of meaning are indistinct. Ambiguity is context-dependent: the same linguistic item (be it a word, phrase, or sentence) may be ambiguous in one context and unambiguous in another context. A sentence may be ambiguous due to different ways of parsing the same sequence of words.

[and later…]

Pictures or photographs may also be ambiguous at the semantic level: the visual image is unambiguous, but the meaning and narrative may be ambiguous: is a certain facial expression one of excitement or fear, for instance?

So, it’s not the lack of meaning in material presented, it’s at least two apparent but indeterminate and in-distinguished meanings. A lot of things can be made ambiguous, but some things are more truly ambiguous than others. Marienbad is one of those especially ambiguous films that gets special note for its achievements as such–that, and the film is also incredibly beautiful and meticulously shot. Check out a sample here:

As I mentioned in my first avant-garde post, my instructor Jinhee Choi authored an article analyzing the cognitive value of these films. I wondered what one might gain from watching a particularly ambiguous film like Marienbad, and what other ones might apply to the category of cognitive benefit. Well, I find it fascinating the way the film manages to keep you engaged, testing your ability to keep track of the meaning of any particular scene for reference later when attempting to understand the film as a whole. The difference with these films, maybe, is that they don’t offer a resolve–where as Hollywood films that have capitalized on maintaining elements of ambiguity (like maybe Memento, Identity, the Sixth Sense, or otherwise) have a big reveal. The experience I gain from these is sort of a debugging for the analytical part of my brain that re-organizes information to try and make sense of it as a whole.

In parallel, I’ve been trying to read a book by Douglas Hofstadter: Godel, Escher, Bach, which is really dense, and it’ll take me a long time to get through, no doubt. But, it looks at a pattern that tend to find it’s way into all kinds of things, and therefore is an easy book to reference on many occasions (probably why it got a Pulitzer prize in the 80’s when it was published). The book looks at how “self-reference and formal rules allow systems to create meaning from meaningless elements”. I mention this because it seems to me like the value of this movie comes from its ability to encourage audiences to do just that–create meaning from meaningless elements.

Interestingly (recursively) one film scholar’s take on the film isĀ  based on a science fiction story from the 40’s. In it a person ship-wreaked on an island finds anachronistically dressed people acting lively, but strangely. He finds out that they are copies of friends made by an inventor (hence the name of the story “The Invention of Morel”) designed to act in their likeness, and whom are on constant repeat. The film can be seen in this guise. The characters take on the simulacrum of whomever the original people were.

Perhaps you can see why I tied in the recursive ideas explored in G.E.B. Regardless, I hope this has been an insightful and useful start to looking at ambiguous avant-garde film. Unfortunately, this isn’t quite like the previous post, where I can post just a few ambiguous film makers–because it spans a great deal of cinema history, and many different types of films are ambiguous. In the class I took, we were able to choose this topic as a topic for our paper, and three films were associated with it. So I’ll note the other two films and filmmakers:

  • Week End (1967) by Jean-Luc-Godard (torrent)

    This film features lots of inter-titles, strange dialoges and mis-matched audio among other things that help to create an ambiguous reality within which the story of the film takes place. It’s a black comedy, so you might get a laugh or two in there if you’re not too washed away in the confusing plotline.
  • Fireworks (1947) by Kenneth Anger (torrent)

    Part of a uniquely weird early American underground, Kenneth Anger explores sexual identity in this film. He made the film when he was just 17, it’s a short watch, and the payoff if pretty good at the end with a poetic use of a firework.

Enjoy. Oh, one more thing. I saw on Kottke the other daym, a post about Marienbad regarding the game that the characters played in the film (Nim). Check out the post here if you’re interested.