Noises Off: Seeking Solace in the Ambient Sounds of the City

Few cinematic careers are as starkly bifurcated as that of Amir Naderi, the 57-year-old director who introduced Iranian cinema to the world with The Runner (1985), and who then moved to New York, where he has since specialized in ultra-low-budget and daringly experimental films that recall the heyday of the Filmmaker's Co-op and other East Village filmstitutions. Naderi's newest feature, Marathon, clocks in at 74 minutes and represents his tersest elegy yet to his adopted hometown. Set almost entirely in the subway system, the film turns an overly familiar (and over-filmed) institution into an abstract collision chamber of noises, bodies, and metal. In its ability to transform the drably mundane into something otherworldly, Marathon offers one of the most inventive reimaginings of the MTA since D.A. Pennebaker's 1953 cine-poem Daybreak Express.

Naderi's poetry is of a much harsher nature, however. A Stygian voyage shot in caustic b&w, Marathon inhabits its grimy environs so convincingly that the director may well have used an unwashed subway car window as his lens. As with The Runner, Marathon's titular competition is a one-person race. Twentysomething Gretchen (Sara Paul) is a crossword addict who has challenged herself to complete 77 puzzles in 24 hours. Almost pathologically dependent on noise, she opts to work in the subway, channeling its assaultive inhospitability into pure cognitive adrenaline. For Naderi, she's clearly an alter ego: a maniacally driven perpetual-motion machine stranded in an alien land.

As Gretchen nears her finish line, Marathonlikewise crescendos into an expertly orchestrated cacophony of ambient sound. Gretchen surfaces to street level, where she is bombarded by sidewalk clamor and BQE roars, and eventually makes her way to her apartment, where she finds that silence can be even more deafening. For someone obsessed with words, she exists in an almost pre-verbal state, her only meaningful contact with other people being the messages her mother leaves on her answering machine. Her tunnel-vision existence mercifully explodes in the movie's final scene: an entire city muted by snowfall—a startling cinematic negative of our lightless, noise-polluted civilization.

 
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