“Insiders” tell Page Six that the White House has requested a print of Martha Marcy May Marlene, the (perhaps overrated) indie-film sensation about Lizzie Olsen escaping from a cult. This is significant because the president is a very busy man, who probably does not have time to watch movies that are not centrally located in the popular imagination of his country.
(“Insiders” is probably someone affiliated with the distributor, Fox Searchlight, or with Borderline Films, the Williamsburg-based production company formed by NYU grads Sean Durkin, who wrote and directed MMMM, and Antonio Campos and Josh Mond, who produced.)
One of the real treats of J. Hoberman’s book The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties is his investigation of the White House screening logs, especially during the Nixon years, and what it might say about the intersection of our popular culture and our politics. (There’s a footnote speculating on exactly how many times R.N. watched Patton while he was bombing the shit out of Cambodia.) So… what does it mean that the president is watching Martha Marcy May Marlene?
In the film, Olsen’s character escapes what The L’s Nicolas Rapold aptly calls an “organic-farm Mansonia” and flees to the large, freshly furnished lake house of her semi-estranged sister and sis’s wealthy husband. Her experiences in the cult are presented in flashback: on a speedboat on the lake, or at cocktail parties with professional bartenders, or sipping a kale and ginseng smoothie, she’s haunted by memories of sexual initiations, power games, and violence. One way of looking at the film is that it’s about a residual atavism intruding on bourgeois materialism.
In these last few years, our economic slump has similarly revealed catalog visions of attainable luxury, like the one Martha/Marcy May/Marlene escapes to, as fatuous illusion; and now, in Zucotti Park and elsewhere, many are renouncing even their aspirations to such a life. In this sense, it’s encouraging to see the President screen a film that questions our assumptions about sustainable wealth; the way the film depicts, in the arguments between MMMM and her sister, a challenge to our comfortable consensus may also have positive implications for Obama’s engagement with congressional Republicans.
Another reading, of course, is that Obama identifies with the malleable identity of the protagonist: she’s born Martha, rechristened Marcy May by the cult leader, and identifies herself as Marlene when answering the phone at the farm; her consciousness is splintered by the contortions she has to undergo, in being different things for different people.
Or this could just mean that the president, like so many otherwise perfectly intelligent people, doesn’t really keep up with film criticism but is easily swayed by Anthony Lane.