How film critic Adrian Martin makes it matter
Film critic Adrian Martin shares with Give It Mouth his hacks for winning at a film festival, plus his top tip for being amazingly prolific. Also, discover the five films every person should see.
How do you give it mouth?
The kind of writing I do is mainly non-fiction – critical writing, but in creative, expressive, poetic formats.
Over the last few years, with my splendid partner Cristina Álvarez López (I moved to Barcelona from Melbourne, and quit academia, to collaborate more closely with her!), I have taken this even further, into the making (on our humble laptop computer) of ‘audiovisual essays’, a form of poetic critique using images and sounds from films, and mixing that with other materials.
In an important way, I see non-fiction or critical/analytical work as storytelling of a particular and special sort: it’s all about constructing a story of ideas, leading the reader or viewer/listener through thoughts, connections, associations … and taking them somewhere by the end of the ride. That’s really what ‘the essay’, or ‘ficto-criticism’ as some call it, as a form or a style, is all about.
You have been so prolific in terms of producing articles, book and reviews of films. What’s the secret of your productivity?
Stay on the case! Practically, it’s a matter of multi-tasking, in the sense of distributing one’s energies. What I mean is this: if I write for an hour and then my energy flags, I then switch to something that requires a different energy: proof-reading, or editing, or translating something from another language. That recharges me, and later I switch back to writing … I always have many pieces, many projects going simultaneously. As a freelancer, it’s the only way to get things done.
My 15 years or so in journalism taught me – I should say forced me – to create and learn this method of working: if you miss one deadline on a newspaper, you are immediately out, that’s the end of the story!
Do you remember the first film you ever saw? Tell me about your memories of that experience.
I have a very intense memory from childhood – of a gigantic highway billboard, followed by a dream, capped off by a movie! It all concerns the original Planet of the Apes film, starring Charlton Heston, made in 1968. Probably in late 1967, being driven down the highway in the backseat of my Dad’s car, I spotted a huge advertisement that captivated my attention: the head of an ‘ape’ who has dressed in combat wear, plus the film’s title. That’s all. I had no way of even knowing what the film was about, at that moment.
Shortly afterwards, I had an incredibly vivid dream, which was basically two disconnected ‘scenes’ – one involving a human and an ape in a makeshift prison, the other located on a beach. When the film itself appeared, I begged my Dad to take me to see it. And then, to my utter amazement, I discovered that I had exactly dreamed, in an uncanny premonition, these two scenes from the movie! So, from one tiny fragment in a poster, I had (with absolutely no further foreknowledge) ‘projected’ the movie for myself. That’s creative criticism for you!
What have been some of the biggest changes to the film form and structure over the last 100 years?
I have always loved this remark by the philosopher Gilles Deleuze: “Cinema is always as perfect as it can be”. What that means to me is that, at any given point in its history, everything is possible, and maybe even actual, if you know where and how to look for it: narrative and non-narrative, abstraction and realism, dream and nightmare. As well as every kind of genre, and every kind of style: documentary, experimental, animation, super-long and super-short formats, it’s all there to find.
At this level, I don’t believe that technological developments really ‘change’ cinema, or that the medium really ‘advances’ further in its art and craft. Of course, different possibilities and tendencies surge forward at different times and places – that’s the material history of film. But, for me, the cinema and related audiovisual media, like TV and now digital media, form one, great, churning sea: you dive in and search for what you want, what you need.
Martin’s Once Upon A Time In America (BFI Modern Classics Series, 1998)
At an important level, all cinema is spectacle: it’s on a screen (of whatever kind), and you take it in through your senses. It is a picture, an image, a scene to see, plus a wall of sound to hear. That’s different from literature, where words and pages abstract themselves in your head to reformulate something at a different level; but it’s closer to (all at once) the performing arts, the pictorial arts, music and architecture. Spectacle is sometimes wielded as a dirty word, as if it’s something that dazzles and numbs you, that bypasses the mind and the more complex human emotions. I reject that age-old prejudice. We must embrace the fact that cinema is spectacle – and then elaborate its profound ideas and experiences from there.
Are there some topics that film should not explore?
As a principle, I have to say no. You see, I am somebody formed, in my very open taste, as much by popular (even trash) culture as by the most esoteric kinds of intellectual, high art. It’s just the way I’m wired, my temperament – it’s not a polemical position, or a perverse provocation (as some take it to be in me). I remember when everybody was debating Spielberg’s Schindler’s List in 1992, along the same lines that every Holocaust movie (like the recent Son of Saul) raises: is the Shoah beyond representation? Should we, can we truly, explore it in art? Is it vile, tasteless, unethical, disrespectful to turn it into a story, a spectacle? And, during this public debate (in which I duly participated), I happened to see a stunning episode on TV of The X-Files, with alien corpses piled up obscenely in a crypt … and I thought to myself: how incredible, this TV show has ‘gone under the radar’ of the current debate, and produced a brilliant, very intelligent allegory (within its own sci-fi/mystery format) of the Holocaust. So, for me, anything is possible, nothing is off-limits. There will always be zones of cultural taboo – and all kinds of efforts, at the margins of that taboo, to play with it, subvert it, disrespect it. Hey, I was a teenager when punk came around, I have a high tolerance for the illicit and the outrageous!
Over the history of cinema there has been so much protest against film … maybe more than for any other art form. What is it about film that is perceived as so ‘dangerous’?
I do believe that cinema can have the special thrill which some see as ‘danger’. I think this is because, when it is fully experienced in immersive way, when you’re really concentrating on it (whether in a dark theatre or on a screen at home), cinema can get inside you, get ‘under your skin’, in a way that other media cannot. It’s more insinuating, more confronting, more seductive in a rich and complex sense. It can take you to places you didn’t want to go, didn’t want to think about. Or it can simply surprise you, suddenly, with the joy and wonder of everyday life, of the smallest and seemingly least significant things. Cinema keeps dismantling our ‘common sense’ learning, our social brainwashing. It’s a profound experience in this way – and I don’t only mean that for obviously ‘serious’ films.
You have been a juror at over 15 international film festivals. What are your best three tips for entrants?
1. Try to get to know somebody involved in programming that festival and make direct contact with them; don’t just trust the often impersonal ‘open submission’ process. 2. Don’t be ashamed to come up with a snappy, one-sentence ‘tagline’ for your movie! You are competing for attention (of eventual audience members as well as programmers), so you need all the instant ‘grab’ you can muster. 3. Have very good visual (and audiovisual) promotional materials ready: photos, clips, electronic press kit, etc. If you can’t meet that media demand, you’re dead in the water!
What’s the main difference between a film by a famous and renowned director like (say) Jean-Luc Godard and a Hollywood blockbuster?
Hollywood blockbusters are, today, not in a great shape. I watch every few of them – only Mad Max: Fury Road reached out and hauled me in!
I don’t mind movies made to ‘formula’, but there has to be a high degree of inventiveness within that, too, otherwise I’m bored. Perhaps other nations (such as India or Korea) are, in general, making better blockbusters; I am a big fan of Bong Joon-ho’s work (such as The Host and Snowpiercer), for instance. With a Godard film – let’s individualise this case, because there is really no-one else exactly like him! – there is a strong anti-Hollywood (as per above, I don’t say anti-spectacle) attitude. An eternal punk renegade, he is off exploring every kind of artisanal new technology – mobile phones, home-made 3D – to, all at once, expand the language of the medium, to express what some assume is inexpressible, and (frankly) to assault the viewer. I salute him!
Sound is an aspect of film that usually goes unnoticed but is so vital. Can you tell me a little bit about why sound is so important (and which films do it best)?
I like the formula of my old friend, the artist/critic Philip Brophy: ‘A film is 100% image and 100% sound’. Not 50/50, but 100/100! Sound is such a total experience in itself: information, mood, sensation, lyricism. On all the levels, at once or in alternation: voice, noises, music.
Constructing soundscapes, or studying them, is a bottomless process.
Every critic should have the experience – even at the most rudimentary level – of cutting two images together in an edit, and trying to fuse an image with a sound. It teaches you a lot! That sound goes ‘unnoticed’ (as you rightly say) is a result of the absurd bias of our culture toward the visual; even in the official film schools, students are taught about ‘visual storytelling’, while art schools bleat on about ‘the moving image’, as if video or digital media were just ‘painting in motion’. Of course, people who work with sound, in radio or audiovisual media, know better – but it’s hard for them to usurp that massive visual bias. It’s all so blinkered. All that one can say is: open your ears, notice what the world of sound is doing to you at all times!
What should people look for when they go to see a film?
Everybody has their own ‘temperament of viewing’, by which I mean: we each have our own configuration of elements that we fix on, upon which we concentrate while we shut out other, neighbouring elements. For some people, story is paramount; for others, characters; for others again, the whole fictional world that is created. So, I wouldn’t tell others how to watch a film, but I can say what my own configuration is: it’s the style of the film, its whole atmosphere and mood as a created object, that speaks to me, that affects me. That’s where its energy is, for me. If I am ever in the position of advising people, that’s what I advise: try to feel the energy of the cuts, the camera, the bodies framed in space, the sound design.
What are five films every person should see?
I don’t believe in eternal canons of the greatest movies, because everyone has to discover for themselves the films they really like, that mean something to them in their lives – and that could be any film, high or low.
But, to play the game and answer your question completely off the top of my head, five titles: Visconti’s The Leopard (1963), Tsai Ming-liang’s The Wayward Cloud (2005), Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story (1942), Peter Tscherkassky’s Outer Space (2001) and Chantal Akerman’s Night and Day (1991).
Can film change the world?
I go along with the writer-artist John Berger on this: film can’t change anything, but it can save something. It saves eloquent, human gestures of witnessing, of expression, of insight, and it forms them as movies, this material medium which addresses our senses, our bodies and our minds, our emotions. The world as a whole may be going to hell, but while it sticks around, that’s what I want to save, and savour.