Mysteries of Cinema
by Adrian Martin
Published March, 2020
(hardback edition published by Amsterdam University Press, 2018)
On and off for many years, the Australian film critic Adrian Martin has kept a dream diary; he mentions it occasionally in his writings, always with the implication that films and dreams aren’t so far apart. Near the start of his recent essay collection Mysteries of Cinema he recounts one particular dream, dating back to his precocious youth:
I have the magical power to reach up to a cinema screen – complete with some movie still playing loudly and brightly upon it – and take it, handle it, fold it and reduce it. The dream ends as I am happily striding down a busy city street, still holding by its handle a kind of cinema-suitcase: it is a screen, still containing and ‘projecting’ its movie image.
As conjured on the page, this dream is already a film, ‘less a narrative than a single scene or a sequence of jump-cut images’. When I try to visualise it in turn, what I see is a black-and-white cartoon from the early days of cinema: Martin appears as a sprightly, mischievous figure rather like Felix the Cat, so content with his magical device he hardly registers the astonishment of passers-by.
As Martin points out, a version of this private fantasy has become everyday reality: most of us no longer even feel the novelty of being able to stream moving images wherever we go. But the grandeur of the vision remains, as if Martin’s whole critical career sprang from a secret wish to pack up the art of cinema and carry it along with him – and to do so with outward modesty, travelling light.
Assembling essays written between the early 1980s and the late 2010s, Mysteries of Cinema too can be viewed as a ‘sequence of jump-cut images,’ representing some of the stages in Martin’s cinephilia, as he has expressed it in a variety of contexts. Some of these pieces originated as public lectures or conference papers; others first appeared online or in journals in Australia and elsewhere. Martin has been extraordinarily prolific over the years, and the book is far from a full summary of his achievement – but more than any single previous volume, it offers a broad overview of the range, energy and eloquence that make him one of the living film critics most worth reading. As a personal statement, it is characteristically both discreet and heart-on-sleeve: Martin does not write about his private life in more than an occasional, anecdotal manner, but the intimate intensity of his passion for cinema shines out, like a beacon, from almost everything he has ever written.
Personal history of an overt sort is present mainly in the book’s opening and closing sections. The new introductory essay ‘Retying the Threads’ includes a valuable account of his immersion in the post-punk, post-structuralist, post-everything Melbourne art scene of the early 1980s, especially his work with in magazines like Art & Text. Some of the stances he adopted then have remained part of his critical repertoire: a dandyish disdain for cultural hierarchies and a furious resistance both to stodgy literary humanism and to the puritanism of French-influenced 1970s Anglophone film theory (to his mind, often the same old sermonising from a trendier pulpit).
Already a seasoned writer in his mid-twenties, Martin found himself rethinking his goals, defining himself as a ‘film person’ rather than an ‘art person’ and setting out to ‘deliver the goods’ on a better, more inclusive approach to critical film study. This led to journalism, and eventually to more than a decade (from 1995 to 2006) as a film reviewer for The Age, undoubtedly the period when he reached his widest local readership. This was the context where I first encountered Martin’s writing, which I can testify had an enormous, liberating effect on me and others in my generation of budding cinephiles, in the scope of its outlook and its refusal to settle for conventional, normative judgements. Here was a man willing to declare that Clueless (Amy Heckerling, 1995) was a five-star film, and explain why – and equally willing to go out on a limb in championing auteurs like Raul Ruiz or Philippe Garrel, then barely known in Australia even to festival crowds.
Subsequent points in Martin’s itinerary have included involvement in several online film magazines, starting with one of the earliest, Senses of Cinema; a stint as a full-time lecturer at Monash University; and, more recently, a move from Australia to Spain, where he now works once more as a freelance writer, and has found a new vocation as a creator of video essays (in collaboration with the Spanish critic Cristina Álvarez López). All this is sketched in ‘Retying the Threads,’ with the recent picture filled out in more detail in the book’s concluding ‘Envoi’, which includes two essays explicitly framed as farewells to the past. ‘No Direction Home,’ written in 2010, is an ode to ‘creative criticism’ that doubles as a kiss-off to mainstream journalism, pouring scorn on the claim that film criticism is in crisis – a talking point as familiar then as now – and welcoming the new forms taking shape in the margins online. (When he cheerfully describes such work as ‘Unpaid, and unloved by all but the Happy Few,’ I do wonder if his most recent years of freelancing have lessened his optimism.) Following this is ‘Farewells, Full Circles and Ellipses,’ a piece written in 2015 on the eve of Martin’s return to freelancing, reflecting somewhat ruefully on the notion of ‘coming full circle’.
While the essays in Mysteries of Cinema set out a kind of life story, they don’t follow any single trajectory, circular or otherwise. There are no film reviews as such, nor any surveys of the careers of specific filmmakers; indeed, there is almost none of Martin’s writing for The Age, much of which is now freely available on his personal website. Conversely, while Martin is undoubtedly a scholar of cinema, it is proudly declared at the outset that ‘none of the essays contained here derive from university-approved publications’. Rather, these are essays that freely follow the movement of thought, winding around disparate objects and binding them together: fragments of films and TV shows, extracts from philosophical and literary texts, personal anecdotes, lines from songs. Taking the hint from Martin himself, I would call this poetic criticism – ‘poetic’ being invariably a positive word in his vocabulary, where ‘literary’ is usually a negative one.
Sometimes the starting-point for these explorations is straightforward: a genre we all recognise or think we do, like the romantic comedy or the teen movie (an enduring Martin obsession, tracked across several decades and continents in his essay ‘Live to Tell,’ which was first published in 1998 and appears here in a much-revised version from 2012). Elsewhere, the designated theme is something far more abstract, even nebulous: the state of trance, for instance, or the still more elusive notion of ‘poetic mystery’. In ‘The Ever-Tested Limit: Cinematic Apparitions,’ the lack of a fixed definition of the topic is part of the point, echoing the way that eerie, ambiguous visions within a film can destabilise on two levels: plunging fictional characters into uncertainty, and threatening the cohesion of the fiction itself, so that the energies of ‘pure cinema’ are freed like the demons loosed from Pandora’s box. One of Martin’s favoured words, in this context, is ‘delirium’ – a state his prose at its most enraptured sometimes approaches in its own right.
But in the event, Martin never entirely loses the plot. Temperamentally he swings both ways, celebrating the stock moves and codes of fiction not just when they go awry, but as sources of a pleasure no less real for being ‘formulaic’. Likewise, his passion for Gothic excess is balanced by an equal affection for the teen movie’s capacity to re-energise mundane routines: getting dressed in the morning, for instance, or walking down the street. In a multitude of ways, Martin’s fluency as a writer stems from his command of a middle style – his ability to steer a course between journalese and academic jargon, without getting bogged down in detail or lost in clouds of abstraction. Here he is in ‘The Ever-Tested Limit,’ summoning up a crucial scene from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale (1944):
An orator, Culpepper (Eric Portman), is trying to evoke for his listeners the ghosts of the past on Chaucer’s road to Canterbury. His silhouette lit up with a halo of light, this chummy storyteller constantly alludes to a primal scene of vision and hearing. ‘You’re only seeing what their eyes saw,’ long ago, and he suggests that, if you lie back and listen, you will hear what they once heard. He is asking his audience to dream and prompting them to do so, seducing with them with words and an elementary light show.
As framed by Martin, Culpepper’s oration is itself a ‘primal scene of vision and hearing,’ recounted in detail (the description continues for two more paragraphs) but in language sufficiently generalised to separate the essence of what is unfolding from its narrative context in Powell and Pressburger’s film, and from the fictional 1940s Britain where that film is set. Thus abstracted, it can serve a broader purpose, as a paradigm of what Martin means by ‘apparition’ – and as an image of his own practice of film criticism, though he wisely avoids spelling this out.
Both subversive and level-headed, Martin is temperamentally a foe of all dogmatic, rigid systems, even if his polemical purposes can lead him to insist on certain dogmas of his own – for instance, in his running battle against the ‘literary’ demand for ‘three-dimensional characters’ in cinema, waged here across several essays including a broadside against screenwriting manuals memorably titled ‘Making a Bad Script Worse’. What are three-dimensional characters anyway, I’m tempted to rejoin, and where are they to be found? And doesn’t literature have its own array of allegorical figures and caricatures? Ultimately, what matters isn’t the absolute truth of Martin’s assertions but their usefulness in the campaign against his enemies – who are precisely those who insist on any single eternal truth, which if universally accepted would stop both thought and cinema dead in their tracks.
One of the undecidable questions that Martin has worried at most frequently concerns the relation between cinema and the so-called real world, and the resulting moral and political responsibilities of the critic or viewer. The postmodern aesthete in Martin wants to argue that no such responsibilities exist: that cinema is neither window nor mirror, that the non-representational can always be found within the representational, and that what looks like stereotypical or sadistic ‘content’ is just part of the game. More than once in the book, though, he advances a version of this position only to play the trick of bringing in another point of view – like that of the attendee at a 2009 academic conference on ‘bad cinema’ who dared to ask if the gory horror movies being celebrated as guiltless pleasures might, somehow, be connected with the Holocaust. There’s a sense that formalism, for Martin, is never quite enough: after all, how thrilling can a game be if there isn’t something at stake?
‘Cinema is psychodrama, or it is nothing,’ Martin boldly states, in one of his more delirious essays. Again ambiguous by design, this notion of psychodrama can take several forms. It can involve a relation between two fictional characters, who may switch places or prove to be one and the same. Martin suggests a similar process of transference can occur between a filmmaker and his or her subject-matter (his examples involve male auteurs, such as Rossellini and Bergman, projecting themselves onto their fictional heroines). Interestingly absent from this discussion is any consideration of the behind-the-scenes relation between filmmaker and star: when Martin refers to the ‘massively depressed leading lady’ of Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009), he presumably means the protagonist rather than the actress Charlotte Gainsbourg, which might be its own kind of Freudian slip.
Of course, there is yet another kind of cinematic psychodrama, involving the relation between the viewer and the image: this is the drama played out at an uncommon pitch all the way through Mysteries of Cinema, sometimes openly and sometimes just beneath the surface of the words. Lover of cinema that he is, Martin often seems caught up in a relationship as uncertain as it is passionate – as if he himself weren’t so far removed from the archetypal heroine he describes in his essay on the female Gothic, ‘poising at the edge of the abyss’.
Tucked away in the final essay of Mysteries of Cinema is a short reflection on The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963) written in collaboration with Álvarez López, one in a series of pieces conceived to accompany their video essays (most of which are currently available via their Vimeo channel). At the outset, the authors suggest that cinephilia has two ‘extreme poles,’ one aligned with love and the other with the death drive – though in practice, as they go on to demonstrate, this distinction is anything but straightforward. It occurred to me here that cinephilia has another pair of opposed poles, which might be called – borrowing from W.H. Auden’s 1962 essay ‘Dingley Dell and the Fleet’ – Arcadian and Utopian. The Arcadian cinephile is melancholic, clinging to cinema as a medium that preserves some trace of a lost past. By contrast, the Utopian cinephile looks forward, valuing cinema as a means of escape – not just escape from the workaday world, as the cliché has it, but from any set of fixed co-ordinates threatening to keep us locked down.
Outwardly, Martin is in the second camp; I am probably in the first. But again, is the distinction so easy to keep clear? I doubt it, and perhaps Martin would too, judging from a couple of crucial passages near the end of the book: a moving account of how Ernst Lubitsch’s comedy Heaven Can Wait (1943) both acknowledges and transcends death, and a gnomic but beautiful quote from the late scholar Sam Rohdie, positing that cinema by its nature is past and future at once. Martin keeps moving, holding onto his mysteries, always a few strides ahead.