Audrey Kupferberg: Films That Play With Time

Nov 17, 2017

For centuries poets and philosophers have warned about the cruelty of time.  We may not consider the influence of time on our lives very often, but once in a while a movie can remind us of the sheer power that time wields over our lives.  Two films bring this concept to mind, one from 1948 and the other from this year.  They are PORTRAIT OF JENNIE, a classic love story from producer David O. Selznick and director William Dieterle, based on a book by Robert Nathan— and MARJORIE PRIME, a recent release written and directed by Michael Almereyda from the play by Jordan Harrison.

Both films are fantasies that deal with the theme of lost love.  PORTRAIT OF JENNIE tells the story of an artist, Eben Adams, who attains brilliance in his work only after meeting a mysterious adolescent girl, Jennie Appleton, in New York’s Central Park one winter day.  Upon each subsequent meeting, the girl visibly ages.  The bond between Eben and Jennie grows from fascination to a pure, deep love, but the mystery of Jennie’s out-of-time existence is daunting.  The cast is impressive; it stars Joseph Cotten, Jennifer Jones, and Ethel Barrymore.

A new Blu-ray of PORTRAIT OF JENNIE from Kino Lorber is well worth viewing.  The variety of visuals in this film is extraordinary, capturing in black-and-white the winter light of Central Park and the shadows of Eben’s shabby studio, and then moving into a green tint before a climactic Technicolor finale.  Even more outstanding is PORTRAIT OF JENNIE’s use of the style of Hollywood Romanticism of the mid-Twentieth Century.  This lavish style expresses emotions in flourishes and because it is so over the top in nature, Hollywood films hardly ever employed the technique.  It’s a style that suits the fantasy genre. The most effective examples of Hollywood Romanticism I know come from the “You Were Meant for Me” musical number in SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN in which Gene Kelly floats into a studio fantasy world of white veils and wind machines in order to express his love for Debbie Reynolds, and the haunting scene in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE where Jimmy Stewart runs down the darkened streets of Pottersville yelling desperately for his wife.

The unreal love portrayed in PORTRAIT OF JENNIE uses fantasy along with Hollywood Romanticism to become a poetic triumph.  And here I will interject that it is one of my favorite movies since childhood— one of the most powerful and wonderful films I have ever seen.

Play it on a double bill with MARJORIE PRIME with a group of friends and there will be plenty of post-screening discussion.  MARJORIE PRIME, a futuristic tale, deals with a wealthy family that has lost its patriarch.  They purchase a hologram version of the man and proceed to program it primarily to become the elderly Mom’s partner.  Why should death separate a husband and wife if money can buy back the dearly departed Dad? Time is no barrier.

Unlike PORTRAIT OF JENNIE, MARJORIE PRIME has no fantasy genre style to it; it portrays the future as though it were today.  It has no lavish stylization; instead, it is a straightforward telling of the family’s use of holograms.  There is one problem with MARJORIE PRIME.  The concept of the holographic image is laid out in the first few minute of the film.  After that, the film follows the family through daily life.  That might work if the family were interesting, but they are dull as dishwater.  Even the fine acting of Lois Smith in the title role, and Tim Robbins as the son-in-law, cannot save this screenplay.

Side by side, PORTRAIT OF JENNIE and MARJORIE PRIME symbolize the difference in audience tastes over a seventy year span.  Audiences of old accepted romanticism in its fantasy films.  Maybe today’s audiences prefer the presentation of fantasy as fact.  The sophistication of special effects in cinema has led audience members to an ability to see the incredible as reality. 

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former Director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and has co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

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