Wednesday, 26 September 2007

From the Life of the Marionettes

Full of astonishment I look back on our lives, on our former reality and think it was all a dream. It was a game. Lord knows what the hell we were doing. This is true reality and it’s unbearable. I talk, answer, think, put on my clothes, sleep and eat. It’s a daily compulsion. A strange, hard surface. But under the surface, I’m crying. I’m crying for myself… because I can no longer be the way I was. What was, can never be again. It’s been destroyed. It’s gone… like a dream.’ (Katarina, From the Life of the Marionettes).

Philemon and Baucis, an old married couple, poor but devoted and therefore content, are the only ones in their town in Phrygia who show hospitality to two bedraggled strangers – who it transpires are Hermes and Zeus. The gods spare the couple as they destroy the town that repudiated them and offer them a wish; they choose to be together forever and that when one of them dies the other should die at the same time. Their wish is granted and when they die they are changed into intertwining trees.

A myth about the sacredness of hospitality, honouring the gods, global hubris, how poverty of circumstance need not lead to poverty of heart, fidelity, love and so on.

The idea of two people who have become inseparable, who have got to know and depend on each other so much that they have almost become one person, is an aspect of the Philemon and Baucis myth that appealed to Ingmar Bergman when he made From the Life of the Marionettes (1980) – except that in Bergman, Peter and Katarina’s inseparability and intertwining have bred hate, humiliation, torture, loneliness, perversion and a fervent desire to kill each other – repressed rage which the smallest detail – ‘a word, a gesture, a tone of voice’ – could release, and is eventually released, leading to shocking violence, to a murder or, as Bergman repeatedly refers to it in the film, to a ‘catastrophe’.

From the Life of the Marionettes – which I saw yesterday – is a dark and brutal film about being trapped – by our childhoods, families, lovers, desires, dreams, society, time and so on – about how, as Peter repeatedly states, ‘there is no way out’ – from the past, present and future; but it is not a depressing film, and this is because the film presents the truth – of our own vulnerabilities, suffering and chaotic existence – and the truth is always uplifting.

* (The above clip is the only one I could find of From the Life of the Marionettes. It is a montage put together by a Youtube user, with music added not belonging to the film. The clip has some female nudity in it, so Americans should be careful before they click play).


Margaret said...

Why do Americans have to be careful? What happens when they view nudity on their computers?

You make the film sound compelling, but the Amazon review makes it sound scary. I don't buy the "there is no escape" line, though. We may not be able to control what happens to us, but we do have a choice about how we respond to it, otherwise we are automatons. That is not to underplay the enormous effort that might be involved in not responding instinctively, but it is possible.

john akritas said...

Regarding Americans and their computers: I was just worried – knowing how (some) Americans feel about the public exposure of nipples and so on – that they’d get offended by the nudity in the clip and I wouldn’t want that on my conscience.

I think if someone feels or imagines that there is ‘no way out’, then they are pretty much beyond being receptive to advice about rational alternatives or choices, or perhaps in the contest in our minds between the rational and the irrational, the irrational ‘no way out’ has simply come to predominate over the more rational ‘there is always a way out’. Anyway, there are many things from which there is clearly ‘no way out’ and over which we have no control – as Bergman makes clear in the film.

Margaret said...

I think Victor Frankl (I'm sure you've read Man's Search for Meaning) is better qualified to know whether or not there is a way out, so here is what he has to say: "Man is not fully conditioned and determined but rather determines himself whether he gives into conditions or stands up to them. In other words, man is ultimately self-determining. Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment". Must it not be the case that even if Frankl is the only person in the world that believes this, then is must be at least possible to overcome any situation? And you don't get much grimmer test for your belief than a concentration camp.

I guess I'll have to watch the film, though, before I can reply for myself.

john akritas said...

No, I’ve not read Frankl, nor do I intend to. The book you refer to doesn’t sound at all interesting to me – particularly if the quote you mention is anything to go by. I’m not into cheery holocaust survival self-help literature or fatuous Steven Spielberg/Hollywood-style affirmation-of-life morality. Thucydides deals well enough with what happens when human society breaks down in his discussion of the effects of plague on Athens during the Peloponnesian war, and if I were after some comforting, redemptive tale about rising from the ‘prison coffin’ then I’d re-read Dostoyevsky’s House of the Dead.

Besides, regarding Bergman’s ‘no way out’, we’re talking about different things. First, like I said, Bergman isn’t interested in whether there is objectively or rationally a way out, but what happens to someone who arrives at the conclusion that there is no way out. (Actually, in the film the murderer Peter does seek help from a psychiatrist – but the psychiatrist is as sick in mind and heart as his patient and has less self-knowledge and knowledge of human motivation than the murderer Peter).

Second, ‘no way out’ doesn’t refer – as I think you think it refers – to being fat or being unhappy in your job, or failing your driving test, or your cat dying, or spilling wine on your carpet and other such trivial setbacks in life, where a good pep talk and the adoption of a sunnier disposition is the antidote – but to much deeper and darker human emotions and experiences – which we all have to endure – whether we’re a concentration camp survivor or not – human morality and the travails of human existence did not end at the gates of Auschwitz nor were they revealed in the gas chambers. But you’re right: I don’t think you can grasp what Bergman’s getting at without having seen his film. No point in talking about something of which we have no knowledge, is there?