By Noel Vera
Available on YouTube,
Amazon Prime, Google Play,
MICHAEL Almereyda’s Marjorie Prime (2017) adapts Jordan Harrison’s Pulitzer-nominated play to the big screen in a small way, and it’s marvelous. Eighty-five year old Marjorie (Lois Smith, who played the role in two previous stage productions) suffers the initial symptoms of Alzheimer’s; to help her deal with the memory loss, her daughter Tess (Geena Davis) and son-in-law Jon (Tim Robbins) have installed a “Prime” — a hologram-projected Artificial Intelligence (AI) — representing Marjorie’s husband Walter (Jon Hamm) when he was a relatively young 40.
The effect is not a little creepy: Walter seems young and imma-culately groomed — you feel as if dust would never touch him nor oil mar his skin. He sits unnaturally erect moves in tiny precise gestures, has the carefully spoken diction of an interface programmed to comfort, to reassure, the ultimate customer service.
Marjorie though is not an easy client to serve; she’s sharp (on her good days) and manipulative, and in a clever little dig at her AI husband, she changes a detail in her memory of a movie date, from watching My Best Friend’s Wedding to watching Casablanca with its far more entertaining dialogue (“I came to Casablanca for the waters.” “The waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.” “I was misinformed.”). More, her memory is full of self-told deceptions and hidden truths that in the wrong hands or with the wrong approach can drop the unwary explorer into treacherous concealed pits. Watch out for sharpened bamboo stakes.
Most of the film is set in a beach house Walter owned (Tess and Jon moved in to keep Marjorie company), a lovely residence, all picture windows and billowy sunlit curtains that match the white of Smith’s streaming mane. Would probably make an interesting double feature with Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer, another film about echoes and secrets and memories haunting another stunning beachfront property.
You wonder why Almereyda chose to do this play — no I think that’s obvious — you wonder why he chose this approach in adapting the play. I suspect he took his cue from Harrison’s minimalist approach, adding details here, there, tweaking scenes, adding minor characters (the caretaker Julie [Stephanie Andujar], the younger versions of Jon, Tess, Marjorie, and so on). Mica Levi’s music helps considerably — the strings we heard in Jackie and Under the Skin here strum relentlessly, thrillingly, draw us into the scenes and yet are so sparely arranged they’re not distracting.
As the camera wanders down this or that hallway, lingers on this or that stone terrace or charcoal-wood porch, as it gazes in long takes from various angles throughout the spacious living room, the house takes on the confined feel of the inside of someone’s mind — Marjorie’s? Tess’? Jon’s? The whole family’s perhaps? The periods when the film leaves present location and time become all the more intriguing — the saffron-tinged moment when Marjorie mourns a lost child, the darkened bedroom where Walter proposes to Marjorie, the darkened museum where Jon kisses Tess. Mysterious episodes whose reality you can’t help but question: Are they memories? Willed fantasies? Depictions of an objective reality? Some combination of all three? None of the above?
As to why — many plays explore the mourning for a lost beloved, but this may be the first, or at least one of the few, to explore the poetic potential for technology to help us do so. The Primes are witnesses and confidants, perfect repositories for testimonies and impersonal enough that you feel you can tell them the most intimate detail and they’ll keep it secret (not really true as it turns out, but you feel you can). They’re like the hole in the rock wall Tony Cheung whispered into at the end of Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love, a film I don’t quite love and yet can’t deny the power of the moment. “Backboards” Tess disparagingly calls them, and she has a point: they’re not people, they only react as programmed, you have to buy into them at some level — to believe (or deceive yourself into believing if you like) that they can help. Perhaps Harrison’s most poignant scenes have Tess, Jon, and Marjorie confronting a forgotten memory and being dismayed or moved accordingly; the art (as in Spielberg’s AI, or Kubrick’s 2001, or Ghatak’s Ajantrik) is in finding that mechanical (Digital?) gesture, either mimicked or original, that provokes the audience.
Almereyda adds a bit more, the je ne sais quoi that defies logical and narrative necessity and is just preternaturally beautiful. Like the moment when young Walter and young Marjorie are viewing a video of saffron flags billowing in winter — you recognize the image as a memory Marjorie once talked about, of pausing in the depths of her sorrow before moving on with her life. Where did the video recording come from — a random travelogue footage they just chanced upon? Why would they continue to watch it? There is desolation in Jon’s eyes; Marjorie gives him a brief tight hug. The moment fits nowhere in the timeline yet feels so sad so unaccountably right you can’t help but respond.