Friday, December 16, 2011

“Martha Marcy May Marlene”: What’s in a Name?

I saw one of the most disturbing movies I’ve ever seen last night. It is “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” the wrenching story of a young woman’s attempted escape from a cult set on a farm in the Catskills. The four names are all hers.

Martha is the Christian name of Elizabeth Olson’s title character. Marcy May is the name given her by the manipulative cult leader (John Hawkes), whose New Age hogwash allows him to control the minds of his minions and especially the bodies of the lost girls who find their way to his farm and into his clutches. Marlene is the name Martha / Marcy May is instructed to assume anytime she answers the phone in the farmhouse so as to maintain a cover for the cult.

The New Yorker’s rave review will tell you all you need to know about the quality of writer-director’s Sean Durkin’s 2011 Sundance Film Festival award-winner. It is amazingly well made: eerie, terrifying, as complex psychologically as it is precise in its details.

The official trailer of the film will get your guts churning.



As The New Yorker notes, this is a cult movie, not because it has an underground following like “Rocky Horror Picture Show” or “Harold and Maude,” but because it’s about a cult. 

But it is about something broader, it seems to me. Our names are our identity, our I, the ground of our being. Since the meteoric rise of cults, spiritual communities, and New Age philosophies in the 1960s, we have abandoned our Christian names, many of us literally. We have given up our ground.

I am now “free” to name myself, to define myself however it pleases me, and this sets me adrift, a prey equally to “benign” cultural currents and demonic cult leaders. If my name is up for grabs, if I am unsure who I am, then any magnetic man or movement can name me, make me, eviscerate me and use my flesh for his purposes. We can all be Nazis if we want.

There is only one song on the soundtrack of “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” It is played on a guitar by the cult leader to the heroine on the morning after he has raped her for the first time. The central line of the lyric is, “She’s just a picture, that’s all.” As he sings, his latest victim looks up at him with adoring eyes.

When we give up our Christian names, we reduce ourselves to a picture, plastered on someone else’s wall, with as many aliases as we or other people wish to make up.

1 comment:

  1. great points but I think you're missing a nuance of the argument: in the movie, MMM's name is changed by someone else -- almost outside of her control or volition. I'd argue that this is a completely different phenomenon and has completely different repercussions that what may happen if I decided I wanted to be called something other than my "Christian" name. In the first instance, MMM is stripped of her power, her identity, by someone in order that they may control her or have power over her. In the second, I take ownership of my own identity. I empower myself. God has created us, but we are able to define ourselves however we wish. He has given us that privilege; our responisbility is to use it for good and with love.

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