A Book Review by Jeremy Carr.
At the very least, Adrian Martin’s Mysteries of Cinema: Reflections on Film Theory, History and Culture 1982-2016 (Amsterdam University Press, 2018) makes the reader want to watch more movies. Not a specific genre of movies, nor those of a particular nation or movement, nor even those from any one filmmaker or featuring any one star. Just movies – all sorts.
In this collection of essays, a thorough compendium published as part of the Film Culture in Transition series at Amsterdam University Press, Martin covers “34 years of a writing life, so far” (13). The assembly is, in his words, a “book of general, transversal reflections – clusters of associations, each time around a different centre or theme” (14). Noting the influences of his cinematic edification, recalling the benefits and hindrances of working in a distinct time and place, the Australian-born Martin charts numerous changes in film culture, including those relating to gender bias, social movements, and embryonic identity politics. Weaving together assorted threads of films, refrains, passions, and sweeping observations, Martin simultaneously embeds his work with elements of autobiography and personal confession, covering his multifaceted, prolific past as a critic and scholar, a teacher, an “independent researcher,” and, as what he simply chooses to call himself: “a writer” (original italics, 15).
And write he does. While reflecting on the intricate features of numerous titles, from a directory of diverse filmmakers, Martin considers in several essays – in their entirety or in passing – the core issue of cinephilia, which, he states, “always (whether it intends to or not) assumes the status of a gesture (social, political, cultural) in relation to the other forces and powers that make up any national film culture” (98). With “a complicated transnational – not simply international or cosmopolitan – aspect,” (98) the cinephile agenda, according to Martin, “again, whether cinephiles wish it or not – always opens onto other potential or already contested agendas in the sphere of cultural criticisms” (99). Writing on the fragmented nature of film criticism itself, with its own ever-evolving complexion, Martin surveys multiple characteristics of the profession, for good and ill. This includes the undervalued nuances of “niche markets” (30) and the prescribed, frequently-taken-for-granted edict of who and what is to be studied in accordance with “cultural populism” (121). Furthermore, testifying to a breadth of canny insight and foresight, Martin points to issues affecting the critic generally, and the modern critic, in particular. Writing in 1993, in an exemplary extract with contemporary reverberation, Martin comments on the proliferation of critics who “do not always arrive with the legitimacy of university degrees,” noting that “[t]hose who have managed to become professionals in the field often get dismayed over the prevailing attitude that anyone can be a movie reviewer” (29). It’s a contentious issue most writing on the subject fail to address – lest it take away value from where it doesn’t belong or ascribe it to those who seldom receive it – but as Martin adds, “many of the critics I most admire are passionate amateurs, proud autodidacts” (29).
In essay after essay, Martin’s Mysteries chronicles a distinguished history of film criticism, designating its progress with a roster of critical all-stars: V.F. Perkins, Noël Burch, Richard Dyer, Manny Farber, the always-apposite Cahiers crowd, and so on. A personified timeline applies to directors as well, as Martin incorporates the defining qualities of those on the more obscure end of the spectrum (Alain Robbe-Grillet), those established masters of cinematic form (Jean-Luc Godard), and those who have happily existed on the margins of filmic study (Abel Ferrara). It’s more than just a name-dropping showcase for his expansive knowledge, however, as Martin uses these sundry figures to draw genuinely methodical parallels and distinctions. A cross-section of reference points likewise illustrate variations in such structural staples as plot and character development, discerning how either aspect has been implemented in certain films throughout the medium’s history, or if they’re even necessary to begin with.
This path leads to an enumeration of cinema’s formal essentials, manifest in everything from conventional narrative blockbusters to ambiguous art house dramas, from genre favorites to experimental oddities. Oftentimes, as in chapter 6, “Entities and Energies,” where he discusses The Entity (1982) – common genre fare – and Outer Space (2001) – an avant-garde short – Martin will evoke a sampling of seemingly contrasting styles to link instances of amazingly appropriate comparative relevance. A section on the “semi-conscious nature of the trance experience” (81), for example, includes analysis of Inception (2010), Shutter Island (2010), and an episode from Louis C.K.’s comedy show, Louie (2010-17), while facets of storytelling methodology will allude to the brute artlessness of Sam Fuller in one essay and the vagaries of Philippe Garrel in another: “There is a plot,” Martin writes, “but Garrel does not always let us in on what it actually is” (165). Connections can bring together L’argent (1983) and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) in the same logical, lucid conversation while certain films, like The Age of Innocence (1993), will receive a detailed shot-by-shot breakdown, in an extended passage on just four minutes of screen time.
The 26 chapters that make up Mysteries begin with brief abstracts of what to expect in the ensuing pages (including a small pool of keywords). These introductions don’t always paint the clearest picture of what’s to come, as in Chapter 4, “Scenes,” which states vaguely that the following essay is “written in a fragmentary and experimental literary style” (41), and some, like chapter 13, “Delirious Enchantment,” are none too subtle with their immodest summation: “This essay from 2000 marks an early, pioneering contribution to the study of emotional affect in cinema…” (223). And while most essays are insightful and contain a range of unique scrutiny, Martin will occasionally default to more obvious declarations, preaching to the choir, as it were. See, for instance, a “polemical essay” (329) on screenwriting manuals and the argument that “the effect of these manuals has been largely deleterious upon filmmaking at all levels of the cinema industry” (330). It’s unlikely that many of Mysteries’ readers will argue with this contention. Nevertheless, whether writing on acting, aesthetics, or the cultural treatment of Showgirls (1995), Martin at no time dissociates himself from his writing. There is never any dryness in his prose and there is never any doubt that a considerate, versatile individual is behind the ideas presented. Whether he digresses into first-person disclosures (his suffering from migraines) or espouses grand statements on Mysteries’ art form of choice (“Cinema is the art of surprise and disorientation, the art that creates constant confusion” ; “cinema is an art of energies” ), his authorial voice never wavers.
Most impressive in Mysteries is how Martin takes to task preconceived notions of film history, theory, and critical evaluation. Referencing directors like Sirk, Waters, Fassbinder, Almodóvar, and an essay by Kristin Thompson, he writes, “I have a problem with the film theory of excess, and it is a simple one. Excessive in relation to what, exactly?” (227). It’s a good question, and it’s one of many instances where Martin will confront dubious restrictive assumptions applied to all areas of film criticism, academia, and commercial reception. See, too, his convincing argument against the elitist bias of one genre over another. While Unforgiven (1992) is “hailed by Film Comment as ‘the first great Western since Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973),’” Martin notes, “Single White Female is dismissed by virtually all newspaper and magazine reviewers as yet another cliched, exploitative thriller” (266). This selective snobbery, it is suggested, also extends to popular, albeit abundant cycles like the “intimacy thriller” (266) – “Cycles are simply genres sped up, small sub-genres that quickly permutate and exhaust themselves” (267) – and maligned or ignored genres like teen movies and romantic comedies, both of which Martin discusses with as much seriousness and passion as he would the minutiae of something from Bergman or Bresson. Then there are the almost psychic readings of cultural phenomena, much of which has only been intensified, for better or worse, since the time of a given essay’s writing. In chapter 21, “The Offended Critic,” Martin writes of the “politics of offense,” and the “moral outrage over or disapproval of films […] expressed in public discourse” (339) – this in 1999!
And yet, even when Martin considers “the fate of intelligent, in-depth film criticism in the digital age” (365), territory ripe for wary disenchantment, he maintains an infectious optimism. At the start of the chapter “Entities and Energies,” he cites Raúl Ruiz, who muses, “It’s hard to make people understand that cinema is always poetic” (63). As much as anyone, Martin does his level best to express this capacity, and as evinced throughout Mysteries of Cinema, it’s a considerable effort.
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, Cut Print Film, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine, and Fandor.