' ' Cinema Romantico: Giving Thanks For...Brit Marling

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Giving Thanks For...Brit Marling

In 2005, the valedictorian of Georgetown University’s graduating class gave a speech. She had received straight A’s but, according to the Washington Post, she told all those in attendance that she doubted getting straight A’s was something to aspire to. I can’t lie, these were the most moving commencement words I’d ever heard (read).

After graduation, the valedictorian quickly moved along to interning for the investment titan Goldman Sachs. They offered her a job. She turned it down from on location in a Cuban cafe where she was shooting a documentary, declaring her intent in a brief email to become an artist. I can’t lie, this story made my whole face glow.

The valedictorian, you may have guessed, was Brit Marling, an enigmatic but incredibly talented new cinematic voice. Her third feature film (as actor and writer, that is), “The East”, was released earlier this year. It was, like her previous two films, never not interesting, thought-provoking and imperfect, a breath of fresh air despite its occasional reliance on standard filmmaking tropes. It centered around a young FBI agent’s (Marling) infiltration of an eco-terrorist cell, and while it was wholly un-shy in making known its pro-environmental stance, it refused to ever become outright propaganda. Perhaps this is because the real weight of the story is carried by the Marling’s character transformation, a steely young woman reformed as a skeptic reformed as an idealist.

Skepticism and Idealism are two traits pulsing through the Marling Trio. The second film, “Sound Of My Voice”, which she co-wrote with director Zal Batamanglij, focused on a skeptical couple of documentarians infiltrating a cult to expose its leader Maggie (Marling), claiming to be a time-traveler from 2054, as a fraud. Peter (Christopher Denham) feels his skepticism slowly stripped. Lorna (Nicole Vicius) remains suspicious. In a way, the film becomes Denham’s as much as Marling’s, his untraditional road to self-discovery, though ultimately the worth of that discovery is questionable. It concludes with a wallop of an open-end, allowing you to either indulge in skepticism or idealism. Or skirt the middle ground. The film’s final words are “I don’t know.” Partly the film is saying it’s our choice, but partly the film is admitting it doesn’t know either. If that sounds like a cop-out, I don’t think it is. I think it’s brave, and symbolic of a truth higher than any mere “reveal”.

“Another Earth”, the Marling trend-setter, was both about the freedom of choice and the great unknown. Taking its title from a so-called Second Earth that looms, fatefully, in the sky, Marling’s character – a promising student bound for M.I.T. – is gazing up at it when she accidentally rams her car into another, kills the mother and daughter inside and is sentenced to prison. What if she didn’t look up? Well, you can’t think that way. But you do. We all do. She does. And in the tradition of so many films before, she forges an unlikely friendship with the father (William Mapother) of the little girl she killed. Far less interested in scientific questions than philosophical queries, “Another Earth” posits that the second Earth is a mirror of ours, including mirrors of ourselves. The film, with Marling traipsing about in a stocking cap that seems to bottle in the sadness, winds up a subdued but evocative illustration of free will, while still ending with an unforgettable question mark.

Free will means we have the ability to choose, though that does not automatically guarantee success in our choice. Rather you need the bravery and faith to believe in your decision, even if its aftereffect may not be what you envisioned. It's a theme Marling seems as drawn to cinematically as she does in her own life, and it's an idea that more movies - so often desperate to play it safe to ensure "success" - would be wise to heed.

Brit Marling seems so singular, yet the movie world could use so many more Brit Marlings.


Dan said...

I'm really interested to see The East in the near future. Marling was the best part about Sound of My Voice, which was frustrating but pulled up by her intriguing performance. She's definitely an actress to watch in the near future.

Derek Armstrong said...

One could make a compelling case that idealism is present in her work in Arbitrage, and skepticism should have been more present. But she is "just" an actor in that one, and though I have yet to catch up with The East, I imagine Arbitrage is the least compelling of the four.

I agree, Marling's a treasure.

Nick Prigge said...

Dan: The East is definitely worth a watch. Like you say, her films can have those frustrating moments, but all the good always outweighs those frustrations for me. At least, so far.

Vance: Arbitrage! Still need to see that one.