January 28, 2005
There is an early moment of recognition in Marathon when the heroine of the film, Gretchen (Sara Paul), scans one of the crossword puzzle clues (from a handful of puzzles that she has taken with her on the train) and traces the words "Lamb's pen name", a perennial New York Times crossword entry (Elia) that I somehow managed to keep forgetting during my own obsession with completing these maddening puzzles: Mondays were easy, Fridays were invariably a challenge, and by Sunday, the glyphs would always leave me completely stumped. Perhaps it was this personal identification with the (albeit trivial) past that I found most incisive and truthful about this unassuming but acutely observed film by Iranian expatriate filmmaker, Amir Naderi. At the heart of the film is a chronicle of Gretchen's traditional one-day "marathon" to push the bounds of her endurance and challenge her personal best (a record of 77) - to complete as many compiled crossword puzzles as she can within the span of 24 hours - drawing on the ambient noise of the city to sharpen her focus and acuity. Marathon invites favorable comparison with Chantal Akerman's News from Home in the framing of structural symmetry (particularly subway stations and track infrastructure), anonymous population, and constant bustle of machinery, transportation, and people. Moreover, the voicemail messages from Gretchen's mother (Rebecca Nelson) offering equal measures of support and cautionary advice similarly recall the measured, sentimental estrangement of the mother's recited letters in News from Home: a child's self-imposed isolation that seems reluctant, but necessary, in the process of independence and personal identity (a message conveys her mother's own history of past marathon accomplishments). It is interesting to note that News from Home was also filmed by a then-New York City transplant Akerman, and the detailed observation of the minutiae of the adoptive city by both diasporic filmmakers seem integrally correlated to the process of cultural assimilation. It is this intrinsic particularity that ultimately reveals the underlying truth of the film, not as a trite allegory on deriving creativity from chaos, but as a thoughtful and sincere expression of wonder, distraction, trepidation, and curiosity at an inscrutable and ephemeral soul of a brave new world.