There's plenty of competition: a Beethoven string quartet, Poulenc, Mozart, "I Shall Be Released," some choice bits of dialogue from Casablanca, a plot summary of My Best Friend's Wedding that spares you from having to watch the damn thing, and a fine cast headed by Jon Hamm, Geena Davis, and Lois Smith. But the highlight of Marjorie Prime, Michael Almereyda's new movie occurs when the character played by Stuyvesant High School alum Tim Robbins (class of '76) reads aloud a love letter addressed to his mother-in-law, now deceased, written by a tennis-playing French-Canadian suitor who expresses the usual sentiments then abruptly switches to the first six lines of John Ashbery's "At North Farm" (from A Wave, 1984).:
Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you,
At incredible speed, traveling day and night,
Through blizzards and desert heat, across torrents, through narrow passes.
But will he know where to find you,
Recognize you when he sees you,
Give you the thing he has for you?
The lines are quoted without attribution, and it is conceivable that not all viewers will realize that they have heard a stanza of verse unless they attend to the credits where they will see a formal acknowledgment and the director's "special thanks" to John Ashbery (left; photo by Stephanie Paterik, 2011).
And what of Marjorie Prime? Michael Almereyda's compelling movie is uncompromisingly melancholy, a somber tech-fantasy set in the not too distant future in which avatars animated by artificial intelligence take the place of deceased loved ones. The pace is slow, and if your neighbor has had a busy day, her or his mind may wander, but you who are in the know will stay absorbed. The film's intelligence is undeniable, and the structure of the movie, the jumps in chronology, the handling of time, all work well. There is beauty in the idea of robotic replacements for ourselves, though the speculation is no match in the end for the fear of death. The movie can also stand as an allegory for the way memory works, the way fantasy can displace fact, which is illustrated perfectly by the partnering of an octogenarian widow with the dashing identical twin of the erstwhile Don Draper. All in all, the viewer comes away with an appreciation of how this talented filmmaker has put the spirit of experimentation to strategic narrative and thematic use.
As for Mr. Ashbery, it's good to hear his words in this context of love, marriage, death, and widowhood. The film's heroine is eighty-six years old. John turned 90 on July 28. The movie was released on August 18, Stacey Lehman's birthday. It's playing at the refurbished Quad on 13th Street just east of Sixth Avenue in New York City. The Quad was a sad-looking place not long ago, but oh, look at it now. -- DL