I’m sorry I stabbed Vann Marsden in the eye. It’s terrible that his wife had to die in the aftermath. The fact that she was already ill and couldn’t take the strain doesn’t alter my sadness over her passing, but when a director takes all the movies you love and remakes them as stark, near silent catalogs of gestures, the critic has to respond.
One of the key roles of the cinema, I’d like you to understand, is to turn the atomized individual into part of a crowd, even while the viewer remains alone in the dark. The couple who comes to the theater seeking an evening entertainment—say they’ve eaten at the Mexican restaurant down the street, talking idly over the chips and guacamole, bundling up their leftovers and shoving the leaking containers into the back seat of the car—now give up sitting across from each other and sit next to each other, separated by an armrest, gazing forward. The monadic he and she, or he and he, or she and she, or whatever vessel the individual has poured their gender into, have dissolved into “audience” the moment the inane trivia questions fill the screen.
It’s foolish to equate the content of a film with any capacity to act on our consciousness. Its work is already done when it has caused human beings to sit in front of it. I felt this long-held view challenged when I saw Vann Marsden’s remake of “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” I can’t begin to describe the rage and anguish it ignited in me. I was maddened, too, by Marsden’s insistence that his precision remakes are not exercises in bleakness, but rather “gifts of compassion.” He told me, “If you can love someone in a dump, or in an abandoned shopping mall, or a disused airplane runway, with no one cheering you on, that’s a gift. I want people to understand themselves, in this crummy time we’re living in.”
I first spoke to Marsden, considered the father of the Depreciators, ten months ago. He eloquently defended the Depreciators’ practice of stripping all peripheral characters from classic 90s rom-coms, to leave putative couples struggling to come together against a backdrop of barren parking lots. In the original Richard Curtis “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” a man who is a frequent guest at weddings of an English smart set falls for an American woman. She continually eludes him, with a plane to catch, a rich man to marry. Curtis’s iconic scenes put Andie McDowell’s character Carrie in a throng of other well-dressed wedding guests. Across the reception hall and in the midst of a garden party, she stands out. The man who loves her must beat his way across the bodies of the other massed celebrants. The constant intervention of drunken lads and bridesmaids creates the comedy and tension of a film that is single-minded in its linear pursuit of a climactic joining of Carrie and Charles.
In Marsden’s version, Carrie is first seen at a distance as a pale blot walking down a road. Shot from the treetops, we see a car glide past and round a bend. The car briefly blocks our view of the whitish shape. When it passes beyond the frame, the wisp that was Carrie reappears. Though she should be closer now, the camera draws back, and her face remains out of focus. Only in retrospect is it clear that this scene represents the first wedding of the original. In the world Marsden creates, this passage of car against walker stands in for the hubbub of a big church occasion.
Marsden sat at a wobbly table in his kitchen with me, seeming grateful for a chance to expound. His wife Martha retreated to the bedroom as soon as I came in, though he followed her out into the hallway and had a whispered conversation with her. I picked up the wooden squirrels and toy cows that cluttered the table. I had expected a harsh cleanliness based on his cinematic aesthetics, but the apartment overflowed with tchotchkes, burnt down candles, ancient film magazines, and bottles of perfume and medicine. Marsden cleared off a swathe of pill canisters when he sat back down. He became transfixed with one of those compartmented pill holders, divided into morning, noon and night for each day of the week. I’d never seen such an elaborate one, with sliding shelves that could be moved to signify an exact hour at which a pill should be taken, and color coding for “with food” or “without food.” “Look at this,” he said, showing me Sunday through Tuesday vacant, and Wednesday with a clutch of tablets left in its latter half. He seemed to mean that I wouldn’t understand the fullness without the emptiness, but he struggled to articulate this thought. “I mean, it’s right here,” he said several times, running a finger along the grooves in the container.
I asked him about his version of Richard Curtis’s masterpiece “Love, Actually” which seems to bear little resemblance to the original except for the manic cutting between story lines. “I thinned out a few threads, sure,” he told me. “But I was meticulous in redoing the way Hugh Grant walks across the room greeting his new staff. The linger on the pretty maid, his turn and pause and regret. It’s all there.” The fact that Marsden’s Hugh Grant stand-in traverses a shabby condominium lobby alone, and makes his regretful pause in front of an empty row of mailboxes, didn’t make the scene, in Marsden’s eyes, any less of a faithful reproduction.
Marsden told me how proud he was of the work of some of his followers. He boasted about the remake of the high school romp “She’s All That,” by Peter Hunter. “He not only stripped out all the peripheral people, he replaced them with trees,” he said, “something he and I talked about for ages. Before anyone knew what we were up to, we messed around with these nature, forest shots. People don’t realize how exacting this work is. I mean, individual tree trunks for each person in the prom scene. It’s more like embroidery than cinematography. It’s incredibly painstaking.”
He went into a technical explanation of the markers and templates, both analog and in the editing software. His description of weeks spent in the scraping of haloes, the excision of breaths, spread a pall of mechanistic virtue over what had been a more probing conversation. He would have loved to go on this way, if there were anyone to listen to him. I picked up a plastic hula girl and made her dance by pressing the spring in her pedestal. Her long-lashed eyes looked past both of us.
Finally, I cut him off. “People loved these films as they were,” I said. But Marsden insisted that the search for a soulmate is even more primary in the Depreciators’ remakes. “My movies make life bearable,” he said. “For you even. Bearable.” It was as if he had crafted that word just for me.
“I deserve more than that,” I said.
“Yes. You do. You really do,” he told me.
Marsden last film, his recreation of Curtis’s “Notting Hill,” is unsettling, if not tragic. It’s already been noted that in the original, there’s only one scene without someone else in it, whenever William and Anna are together. Whenever a door is open, you see a kid and his mom in the background, or a woman cycles by in the street. Extras lumber along hallways, heads down, and the hero is constantly surrounded by shoppers at the street market, patrons at the restaurant, and finally, after his first night with his love, by a mob of paparazzi.
In Marsden’s film, when William opens his front door the morning after, instead of frantic photographers, we see a burnt-out building across the street. The sound of the clicking cameras has been replaced with the distant whine of a drone. The significance of William and Anna’s night together is now that no one has witnessed it. The couple is faced with their own desire, or lust, or delusion, and nothing else.
“What is that if not bleak?” I asked him. He fiddled with the pill container some more.
“It’s pure,” he said. “It’s simple. It’s very peaceful.”
I tracked down more of the Depreciators, but only Julia Tomacik agreed to meet with me. I had to catch up with her at the warehouse where she works. We sat on an empty shelf, surrounded by robotic arms moving purposefully along other aisles. Though she still does camera work when she can get a gig, she claims to have shed all her creative ambition. She made her version of “You’ve Got Mail” with her grandmother’s money. “And she cut me off because of it,” she told me. “Then she died, and I still didn’t get anything. She was pretty clear in her intentions.”
The original films the Depreciators turned their sights on showed a world of benevolence, and above all, order. Taxis are caught, luggage carried, food procured, meals brought to the table. The rom-com shows the fullness of this society, where a man as charming as Tom Hanks has everything—except the woman he loves. Yet Tomacik seemed surprised at the depth of the anger her film stirred up. It wasn’t only her grandmother who turned her back on her, obviously. Marsden told me he considered that he was adding to the original oeuvre, and that their group should be called Appreciators, not Depreciators. I asked Tomacik if she agreed.
She made a kind of noise at me, like “huh” or “kuh.” Then she surprised me by taking my hand.
“I know,” she said. “It’s okay. I understand. People like you take their pop movies deadly seriously. I do too. I ruined my life to make ‘You’ve Got Mail.’ And it wasn’t even any fun doing it. Look at me. I’m reduced to this, all because I followed Vann’s ugly footsteps.”
I removed my hand from her grasp. Tomacik’s hair was tied back in a scarf like a Socialist Realist heroine. She wiped sweat off her forehead repeatedly, and showed me the callouses on her fingers. “I take stuff down,” she said, gesturing to the toasters and coffee makers on the shelves around us. “I used to put away. But this place is emptying out.”
“Isn’t that what you like?” I asked. It’s been said that the recession and population decline absolutely suits the Depreciators. Their art flourishes in a time of fear and contraction.
“I’m not a Depreciator,” she answered. “It’s an inaccurate name, and it was only that one film. Look, we have to find a way to cope. Losing ourselves in cute stories doesn’t cut it. They shouldn’t call them movies. They should call them Blindnesses. I was trying to make people really see.”
Marsden had told me there were other Depreciators that no one knew about. They were inserting little pockets of absence in their movies, just flickers of unexpected loss. “It might be one scene on a street corner, and the extra walking across in the background looks like he’s cutting through a crowd, but there’s only a couple pedestrians, one parked car,” he said. I thought he’d said it just to get rid of me, but after months of searching, I came across a possible example. It was in “Cleo,” a comedy about a clan of fashion designers. Paul Faro’s film could easily fall into the category of a Blindness, whipped up to distract with pretty clothes and women clawing each other. I was compelled by one scene, where the family gathers to discuss the retirement of the paterfamilias. A maid comes in with coffee. After setting the tray down in front of the elder sister, she turns and nods to an empty chair. The way the maid leaves the room, she seems to be walking around awkwardly stretched-out legs before she picks up speed and takes the most direct route to the doorway. We never see the maid’s face. The maid has no line in the credits, though all the other minor characters are named and attributed.
I wrote to Faro repeatedly, but he refused to see me. “All I can tell you,” he allowed me to print, “is that there’s nothing there. You’re on the wrong track.”
Faro’s use of the word “nothing” spoke volumes. With the Depreciators’ respect for absence, “nothing” meant its opposite. I watched the film several times through, and the one scene at least fifty times. I thought the actress playing the maid may have simply stumbled, but the tray never dipped in her hands. I slowed it down. I froze each frame so I could study the way her feet fell. She began to encapsulate grace, like a figure skater, deliberate in her placement and balance, crafting an arc around the invisible person in the armchair.
After a late-night session with the scene in “Cleo,” I got off the couch and made my way to the bathroom. The motion of my legs through the thick indoor air felt nimble compared to the slow-mo I’d been staring at. Yet my muscles ached, and impending sleep half numbed me. The indentations in the worn carpet tripped me up. One of my hips was jammed in its socket, the flexors tight, my pelvis not aligned with my forward motion.
I’d been alone in my apartment for days. My only communication had been the emails with Faro, and the phrases in quotation marks of my earlier interviews with Tomacik and Marsden. Only now that I was pressed against the cool sink brushing my teeth did all their voices fall away. A strand of thought burned its way across my brain, like a pair of headlights on a tree-lined road. When it subsided, I was left with my reflection, a disheveled woman, foaming at the mouth, puffy eyes staring at a thing that stared back at her.
I was a little surprised that Marsden agreed to see me a second time. The editor I’d been working with at Faces had been replaced, and the new one showed no interest in my article on the Depreciators. “No one cares about them anymore,” he said, and assigned me some quick episode summaries of an animated series about vampires. When I insisted that I had some new information on what the Depreciators were doing, this new editor, a round-faced bozo thirty years younger than me, took me over to a conference room to tell me at eye level that I was wrong. “That whole thing is worn out,” he said, with the exaggerated kindness of those who will live on in the tightening spiral for those who fucked them over but will be out of it soon. During the time I’d spent researching the Depreciators, he said, their moment had passed.
I quoted the bozo to Marsden when I was seated again at his table strewn with toy farm animals, burlesque salt and pepper shakers, ancient Vanity Fairs, and what looked like stacks of bills. “My editor told me someone’s remaking ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ in a loving homage,” I went on. “Shot for shot. Just up-to-date fashions, and new actors. What’s your reaction?”
Marsden’s eyes were gigantic behind thick rimless glasses, their shape exaggerated by the pools of purple flesh beneath them. “What do you think?” he asked me. “What’s your reaction? Are you eager to see this remake? Will that bring everything back?”
I looked down at his doughy wrists. He picked up that pill container again and opened and shut its row of lids. When he got to “Friday” he flicked it up and pressed it back over and over, click click click.
“I need to see about Martha,” he said, and excused himself into the other room. It was while I listened to their murmurs that I picked up the knife. It had been lying out on top of a bread board, beneath some envelopes and a ball of used tape. While I sat there in Vann Marsden’s kitchen, it came over me again, that release that I’ve long savored about movies—body still and undemanding, eyes forward, time passing in a compressed way as other people’s woes drag my attention here and there. The utter abandonment of my own trajectory to someone else’s, and the knowledge that the story is finite, that it will close when the lights come back on, is like a prescription for analgesia. Any movie pulls the same trick, just by creating the slice of time where it comes forward and the audience leans back. I don’t know why I thought Vann Marsden had done anything worse than anyone else with his disembowelings of 90s rom-coms. It wasn’t fair of me to think that way. I had gotten over it entirely by the time Marsden returned from his wife’s room, looking sad, then kindly.
“The other Depreciators,” I said. “You told me they’re working in subtle ways, creating little vacancies.” I described the maid’s missteps from “Cleo.”
“Yep,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if your new ‘Four Weddings’ gets a dose of that. Thinner crowds. Little gaps you don’t quite comprehend. And that’s going to hit you a lot harder than my version did. My movies are honest. That’s what you’re so upset about.”
“I’m not upset,” I said.
I never would have stabbed Marsden if he hadn’t taken off his glasses. He set them down in a bare spot on the table, though the surface was filthy with crumbs. He messed with the pill box, then confronted me with his pale irises, a blue that had gone through the wash, and the crackled, sickly whites. I felt tired, for both of us. Both of us looking for nothing. “Let’s just shut it down,” I said. I meant the interview. Only when he flinched and threw his hands up did I realize what he thought was coming.
Looking back on it, and knowing how peaceful I felt listening to him cooing to his ill wife in the next room, it was a sense of closure I was looking for. I wanted to put it all behind me. Marsden too. I think he was asking for it, actually. He may have designed our interaction, mapped it out. He probably didn’t want to be left alone once Martha died. I’m sure he meant for things to go exactly this way. It’s closure that we crave, a sense of knowing things are finished. Shutting the curtains. Turning out the lights. Or turning them back on. Looking into the face of someone you’ll never see again. It doesn’t matter what happens—a wedding, an assault, a walk through a used tire lot. We just want that feeling of being locked down in a dream and then released. I had to do what he wanted. I had to respond. I didn’t look at the blood on the table. I don’t think there was very much. I stumbled down the stairs, my footsteps echoing in the empty corridor. My hand groped for the latch to the double doors of the building entrance. It came out of its sleeve and grasped. The sun slanted through the leaves of the little tree caged in the space between the curb and the sidewalk. The sudden brightness of the streetscape made me blink. I paused while the reaction subsided. No one passed me or followed me or cried out. I buttoned my coat.