By Eric Kohn | Eric Kohn November 22, 2011 at 8:15AM
When I was an undergraduate at NYU, I attended a career lecture by Garrison Keillor in the journalism department, where the "Lake Wobegon" overseer made his ascent to "A Prairie Home Companion" look easy. "I'm here to encourage you to keep writing," he told the room. Keillor's secret? Freelancing! "I've never had a boss," he said.
Easier said than done, GK. The lovable old timer must have known as much but didn't want to admit it. To a roomful of aspiring writers and reporters facing an industry with fewer jobs than one-off gigs and unpaid internships, not to mention a media landscape with an overall questionable future, the paternal Keillor looked like a beacon of hope.
I was thinking about this conflicting experience over the weekend, when I had the chance to watch "Martha Marcy May Marlene" for the second time. I liked the movie just as much I did when I saw it at Sundance, but during this time through I felt more cognizant of the way the vaguely-defined cult that Martha escapes from serves as a microcosm of society. By breaking away in the first scene, Martha demonstrates her realization, on some fundamental level, that her allegiance to a bunch of lunatics did her no good. It's her Garrison Keillor moment. Which is to say: Easier said than done.
Since most discussions about "Martha" revolve around how it attempts to replicate the trauma of living through a brainwashing experience, its larger significance as a story about growing up and fighting assimilation in general has been largely ignored. This angle occurred to me during my latest viewing experience not only because I had seen it once before, but also because I recently watched King Vidor's classic 1928 silent "The Crowd," which also deals quite eloquently with the struggle between capitalist pursuits and freedom of thought. The balance between assimilation and individualism lies at the root of modern human experience, and both movies tap into it with provocative results.
For Martha and "The Crowd" everyman John Sims (symbolically born on the Fourth of July), a closeness with death liberates them from the groupthink mentality--in her case, that of a cult; in his, the American workforce. When John has lost everything, having quit his job in the wake his child's untimely death, he briefly contemplates suicide before realizing it's not worth the trouble. Likewise, Martha must witness the brutal murder of an innocent man before deciding for certain that her cult's full of shit.
Before that moment, Martha has committed to an oppressive existence at the demented socialist commune where she spends some uncertain period of time getting raped by the tyrannical Patrick (John Hawkes) and following his twisted rules. But when he makes the tenuous argument--after one of his underlings murders their neighbor for no good reason--that "death is pure love," she realizes it's time to hit the road. By witnessing the taking of a life, just as John Sims witnesses his son mowed down by a reckless driver, she recognizes its fragility. And decides, as John does, that she needs a new gameplan.
Writer-director Sean Durkin's intentionally cryptic shooting style often finds Martha framed between two partially visible bodies, foregrounding her dazed expression. It's a reaction shot set against nothing, a means of showing her isolation from the physical world around her. Her spaced-out gaze, highlighted by the film's one-sheet, has a noticeable similarity to the expression on young John Sim's face when he learns that his father has died, leaving him to his own devices in a dog-eat-dog world. They both display an internal recognition of the world as a much darker and complicated place than they initially thought.
In many obvious ways, "Martha" and "The Crowd" have nothing in common. Durkin doesn't yet have the eye for epic grandeur that Vidor displays so monumentally with his master shots--from the free-roaming camera that glides into a skyscraper and finds an adult John Sims obliviously consigned to nothingness at his desk job to the similarly philosophical bird's eye view that closes the film.
But his struggle for employment is just one step removed from Martha's plight, as we see in the dinner table conversation between Martha and her affluent brother-in-law, whom she reprimands on autopilot when he tells her to get a job. She knows better than the ideology she preaches, but struggles to admit as much. Her wake-up call, which causes her to leave the cult after she witnesses its corruption up close, epitomizes the revelations of young adulthood writ large. The cult is her "Crowd."
Durkin could have recycled this intertitle from Vidor's film: "We do not know how big the crowd is, and what opposition it is…until we get out of step with it." Martha and John both break free, but where that freedom takes them remains an open-ended question. Something tells me Keillor's idealism is not the answer they're looking for.