(director/writer/producer/editor: Amir Naderi; cinematographer: Michael Simmonds; editors: Moira Demos/Donal O’Ceilleachair; cast: Sara Paul (Gretchen), Trevor Moore (Subway Rider), Rebecca Nelson (Gretchen’s Mother); Runtime: 74; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Reza Namazi; Alphaville Films; 2002)
“It’s certainly a gem; a probable “underground” masterpiece.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Amir Naderi is a transplanted Iranian, based in New York City since the late 1980s. In the early 1980s he directed films like “The Runner” and “Water, Wind, Dust,” works that helped Iran, of all countries, become recognized as a great contributor to world cinema despite their totalitarian government and having to put up with government censorship. I fell in love with this unique way of filming, using mostly a cast of nonprofessionals and having realistic stories that were not formulaic and done without the need for western style dramatic effects or requiring a payoff. It makes for a different way of watching film, one most of the American public is not quite prepared for as they have been conditioned to expect a Hollywood formula type of film. But it was through Iranian directors such as Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf that I grew to realize that there was a different cinema available and it made for a more subtle and deceptively simple mise-en-scéne that spoke to me in a more personal and meaningful way than could the typical Hollywood blockbuster. Though there’s no censorship in Hollywood, just some ridiculous MPAA rating system supervised in an arbitrary manner by the former President Johnson frontman himself Jack Valenti, nevertheless there is a self-imposed censorship dictated by money. The Hollywood film has become identified with a great technical product and is in the business of making films that must make money to pay back their investors. As a result, even though the films have sex, violence, profanity, and freedom to express their political and religious beliefs that would never pass muster in Iran, the big-budget Hollywood film comes off more predictable and less auteur-like than the small-budget Iranian film. Hollywood has been driven by the business side and not the art side, as it has produced a plethora of dishonest films that reflect an anti-intellectual mood. It’s all in the unfortunate though correct belief that mediocre non-thinking but good looking films that are star driven and entertaining, make plenty of box office.
Since he arrived in the States, Naderi continued to make unconventional films in the Iranian style and created a unique trilogy of New York films “A.B. C. Manhattan (1997), Manhattan by Numbers (1993) and his latest Marathon (2002). I have not seen the others, but Marathon is one that greatly pleased me. Though it’s not for everyone, as it lacks the things an American audience usually checks off as requirements for a good film such as plot and story development and dialogue.
It has virtually no dialogue, and its minimalist plot of a young obsessed white woman, Gretchen (Sara Paul), who continuously solves crossword puzzles everywhere she goes; in subway trains, on a NYC Apple Tour bus, on the streets of New York City, and in her almost bare apartment where she lives alone. The main feature of the apartment is a CD player, where she plays a cassette of subway noise while doing her puzzles. Gretchen set a new goal for herself: to complete 77 puzzles from various newspapers in a non-stop 24-hour period. This is an annual event, which she calls marathon day, a tradition passed down from her crossword puzzle aficionado mother, who is never seen but lets on she once did 86 puzzles on marathon day and leaves periodic messages on the answering machine offering words of encouragement and caution as coming from someone who knows what she’s going through. Gretchen is inspired to complete the crossword puzzles by the subway noise and its rocking motions, as she requires the bustling energy of city life to keep her on track with her mission. The golden silence that most crave is more like the sound of death in her way of seeing things. Most of the film shows her on the subway passing through places like Flushing, Queens, and Times Square in Manhattan, and Brooklyn’s Myrtle Avenue stop, as it becomes apparent she’s partial to the deafening sounds of the train screeching against the tracks and of being huddled together with others while still remaining anonymous and alone. Her only encounter with a passenger is in Queens, as a young man about her age thinks he recognizes her but can’t recall her name. She deftly handles him as he continues to pester her by trying to guess her name and date her, as she changes trains to lose her over friendly admirer as smoothly as the dope dealer lost Gene Hackman in The French Connection.
The camera catches the somber mood of the passengers in its long tracking shots and in its close-ups it looks over Gretchen’s shoulder as she works at a feverish pace on her puzzles. When she knocks off a puzzle, she puts a label with the number reflecting how many have been completed. One puzzle clue states “secret, as rituals.” She confidently in pen writes “arcane.” And so it goes, as the tension builds in her to set the record. For the viewer, one sensitive to those who are driven to succeed, this becomes a unique film experience, as I have never seen a film get at this obsessive drive with such urgency. The beauty of the film is that it’s a comedy in the most subtle of ways, but even more than that it’s a work of poetry about the urban landscape and of the individual struggling to find a reason to exist in harmony with the man-made environment. It ends with a morning snowfall, nature’s answer to a manmade environment, where the now relaxed Gretchen can smile for the first time having completed her self-imposed mission.
It’s certainly a gem; a probable “underground”masterpiece. It takes on the most unlikely subject matter for a film and builds this triviality up to something as important to the individual as being on the national stage and winning the Super Bowl (Which I guess many Americans take to be something important!). What Naderi has accomplished in a film shot in 2000 and in the early part of 2001, in black and white and on both film and video, is to make a lyrical film about the dissonance of urban life in a personal way. It explores the city in relation to an individual by removing all the distractions that block out the white noises of the city and it embraces these sounds and the dark subway tunnels as a life-force that has its own inner worth that few get to experience as a joy. As in poetry, the truths in this film are metaphorical and maybe not that apparent to the casual viewer who has learned from Hollywood not to expect much from a film except some action. It makes you think like a deaf person, what a hardship life would be like without noise. Evidently for Naderi, like his alter ego Sara Paul, life without noise would be unthinkable.
As for me, give me peace and quiet (birds chirping will be a more welcome sound than white noise) in the country. I’ll let Naderi enjoy his urban noise trip and Sara Paul her Dante-like inferno subway rides.
REVIEWED ON 1/16/2004 GRADE: A+