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A Distinctive Vision – Second Sight: The Selected Film Writing of Adam Mars-Jones

By Jeremy Carr.

There’s no denying Adam Mars-Jones has amassed a considerable resume of writing experience. The research professor at Goldsmiths, University of London has penned novels, essays, a memoir, and a number of articles on a range of topics, including film. But it’s this last area of concentration that is considered and collected in Second Sight: The Selected Film Writing of Adam Mars-Jones (Reaktion Books, 2019). As the first movie reviewer for the Independent, working in that role from 1986 to 1997, and a writer on cinema for the Times Literary Supplement, Mars-Jones has surveyed an array of films and filmmakers during this period, and this text is a broad, in many ways united compilation of his recurring interests, insights, objections, and points of praise.

Most notable, to start, is the extended autobiography Mars-Jones chooses to initiate this gathering of reviews and think-pieces, a rather staggering 40 pages worth of reflection regarding his career to this point. Including a summation of his time spent at diverse places of employment and other personal details (elements interspersed throughout the collection, usually bearing some relevancy regarding the article at hand), this introduction also touches on aspects of his early filmgoing familiarity and his opinion of other film critics. It is a protracted primer, conspicuously self-indulgent at times, but the method does serve the purpose of establishing the formation of Mars-Jones’ own filmic education, born from a practice that all but guarantees his resulting criticism won’t read like those who have devoted the majority of their working life to the field. This, for better and worse, is surely the case for Second Sight.

The critical stance adopted by Mars-Jones varies widely, from what could be considered rather audacious verdicts concerning widely renowned films, to the fervent derision of supposedly hallowed classics. He makes a case for the often-disparaged Alien³ (1992), for example – the first review of the book – while contending the more revered Aliens (1986) to be the “weakest film in the cycle” (52). Such against-the-grain evaluation occasionally veers toward the superficially pretentious (he “answers the questions that no other critic has even bothered to ask,” according to the book’s back cover blurb), as do his boastful declarations of knowing contrarianism, calling his pessimistic review of Schindler’s List (1993) “heroic reviewing against the odds” (58), even though that film has hardly been exempt from similarly adverse appraisal. There is a corresponding glee when it comes to Mars-Jones’ dismantling of other popular figures and features, as in his “Thirteen Spielbergs” (66), in which he takes a largely derisive view of the director’s body of work, breaking down Spielberg’s canon, usually with some justification, into such blanket categories as “Thrill Merchant,” “Sledgehammer of Subtlety,” and “Master of Genre Who Keeps Forgetting What He’s Doing.” It’s an observant piece on troubles pertaining to a number of the venerated director’s more acclaimed virtues, from his work with children to his use of music by John Williams. Just as frequently, though, and generally presented with the same sardonic quality, are Mars-Jones’ honest estimations of films that do deserve the scrutiny otherwise avoided in popular criticism. See the way he cuts through the posturing of independent American cinema, which he describes as filmmaking “that reverses the despised formulas of Hollywood, without having any superior contact with reality” (83). A case in point is his take on Todd Solondz’s Happiness (1998), a decent film but one that does wallow in its extended angst: “The structure of Happiness seems to be a numb variant on Hannah and Her Sisters [1986] – except Woody Allen knew better than to make a film 140 minutes long” (85).

Certainly, some of Mars-Jones’ more pointed and creatively phrased commentary comes in his unenthusiastic responses, as in his takedown of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017), a divisive film he is, again, not alone in taking issue with. But as often as not, his opposition to certain movies (mocking Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth [2006] and The Shape of Water [2017]) read like exercises almost solely characterized by quips, minor quibbles, and plot summary. Instances of analysis also tend to stretch the implications of particular motifs, reading perhaps too much into facets of any given film; his review of Twister (1996), which he states somewhat unconvincingly “isn’t strictly speaking a disaster movie, since the characters actively seek out the danger” (187), includes strained symbolic associations relating to marriage, gender, and childbirth (sometimes a tornado is just a tornado). More constructive are his discerning evaluations of certain actors (on Adam Driver: “a mysteriously wide range despite his apparently impassive face” [192]), his applied knack for historical context (an excellent, exhaustive piece on Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno [2009]), and his wide, cleverly implemented frame of reference (his piece on Strange Days [1995] compares Kathryn Bigelow’s film with such disparate titles as Weekend [1967], Peeping Tom [1960], and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer [1986]).

Where Mars-Jones’ writing feels least forced and more uniquely contemplative are his thoughtful essays on specific thematic topics. His 1996 article, “Cinematically Challenged,” discussing the representation of disability in film, is an extensive piece – “a mighty essay” (93), in his words – and is a careful consideration of the topic (odd, though, is his choice to incorporate homosexuality into the mix, via 1968’s No Way to Treat a Lady). This is followed by a lengthy elucidation on the use of digitized prosthesis and special effects generally, especially in the realm of science fiction. A similar pattern is seen in his exploration of aging in film. While “Fighting the Seven Signs of Ageing,” from 2015, is a somewhat muddled essay with ostensible examples that seem all over the place in terms of their applicability, Mars-Jones takes the topic in a more precise direction when honing in on one particular film, as in his sensitive review of Amour (2012), a film he argues is the first by Michael Haneke to move “beyond cold manipulation” (299), though that is a debatable suggestion in itself.

There are a number of other highlights in Second Sight. Mars-Jones’ “Ode to Richard Farnsworth,” from 2011, is a touching, laudatory regard for the actor, included alongside his review of David Lynch’s The Straight Story (1999), which stars Farnsworth and which Mars-Jones wisely views as “a strong endorsement of the idea that a film wholly belongs to its director, however many other people made a contribution” (278). On Lynch’s Blue Velvet (written on the occasion of the 1986 film’s 2016 re-release), he writes, “If Blue Velvet has aged well, it’s partly that it was only masquerading as a 1980s film in the first place” (273), an observation as astute as his contention that Lynch “seems temperamentally unsuited to any device postdating the gramophone or perhaps the slide rule” (274) seems improper, considering the amount of work Lynch has produced in the digital video format. Mars-Jones’ personal connection to and related disappointment with Peter Greenaway, and his complex reactions to the output of Robert Altman, are keen instances of changing tastes based on the evolution of the filmmaker and the critic. And his admitted errors in recollection are refreshing comments that take into account, as few critics do, the role of memory and biographical circumstance. Still, like much of Second Sight, it’s often two steps forward and one step back, as Mars-Jones concludes the collection with an entirely unnecessary coda about why he chose “Second Sight” as the title, bringing up other texts with similar names for an indeterminate purpose. Nevertheless, as an exemplary survey of someone who is surely a unique voice in film criticism, this is a worthwhile selection of accomplished, if uneven, articles and reviews.

Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, The Retro Set, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine and Fandor. His monograph on Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) is forthcoming with Auteur Publishing, and he is a contributor to the forthcoming collections David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, and ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press.

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