“What is Modern Cinema?”

Adrian Martin,
“What is Modern Cinema?”.
Santiago: Uqbar, 2008
ISBN: 9 78999568 601256
$18900 Chile Pesos (pb)

This book Que es el cine moderno?, I see it as a kind of Ruizian maleta. Strange things come out of it – strange objects, strange films, strange bodies – for our strange new modern world.[1] (Adrian Martin)

A new book by Adrian Martin is an event to be publicised and celebrated. Martin is one of Australia’s most important and prolific film scholars, critical writers, and cultural commentators. His books include Phantasms(Melbourne: Penguin 1994) Once upon a time in America (London: British Film Institue 1998), The Mad Max Movies (Sydney: Currency/Screensound 2003) and he has also co-edited Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia (London: British Film Institute 2003) and the online journal Rouge. In addition to this, he has published thousands of essays and reviews in countless journals around the world. What is Modern Cinema? is his most recent book, but what may surprise many followers of his work is that this book originated in Chile and it is currently only published in the Spanish language.

The story about how this book came into being provides some insight into the changing nature of screen studies publications. This book was conceived of, and initiated by, several people at the Valdivia Film Festival, in conjunction with the publisher Uqbar. One of their earlier projects was the translation of Jonathan Rosenbaum’s book Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media limit what Films we can see (Chicago, Il: A. Capella, 2000). They decided to follow this with the publication of a book of writings by Adrian Martin. This, however, was a different project to the Rosenbaum translation because Martin’s book did not already exist in English.

In his launch speech at the Valdivia film festival, Martin explained it this way:

… this book is a pure Chilean invention. Everything about it: the idea, the title, and the nature of the contents, was proposed to me by the good people of the Valdivia Film Festival and the publisher Uqbar, to whom I am extremely grateful. It is interesting to me that people assume that the book first existed as an English-language publication, something first legitimized as a project in some other country, and then “imported” to Chile. But for me, this book is part of something new – a new movement of thought and international co-operation around, precisely, the modern cinema.[2]

The book’s title and beautiful front cover make reference to the time of the French New Wave and, in doing so, immediately tell us some of the key historical moments of the modern cinema that Martin is interested in. With reference to the title, Martin says that the book is a “little immodestly, but respectfully and affectionately named ‘What is Modern Cinema?’, as if a sequel to Bazin’s classic volumes” (pp. 26-27). As for the striking image on the front cover of Anna Karina in Godard’s Bande a part (France 1964), it is a film that Martin tells us was a seminal moment in his own cinematic education. In addition, the sequence in which Karina sings on the train is given detailed attention in an essay on Godard – one of the book’s many great essays. However, the time of the French New Wave is only one of the moments of modern cinema that Martin engages with.

This book contains essays that have been written over the last decade, and several that were written specifically for this publication. In order to provide a map through the complex landscape of modern cinema, they are structured into three sections. The first section is titled ‘Histories’ and contains three general essays that explore key ideas, issues and questions about modern cinema, with the first essay setting out the approach of the book. The second section is titled ‘Pioneers’ and contains six essays on pivotal pioneers of the modern cinema – Robert Bresson, Chris Marker, Jean-Luc Godard, Roman Polanski and John Cassavetes. The third section is titled ‘Innovators’ and there are 13 separate essays on filmmakers as diverse as Raúl Ruiz, Robert Kramer, Chantal Akerman, Terrence Malick, Abbas Kiarostami, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Aki Kaurismaki, Pedro Costa, Claire Denis, Tsai-Ming-liang, Naomi Kawase, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and Manoel de Oliveira.

One of the things to note about this selection of pioneers and innovators is that none of these directors work in the mainstream or dominant cinema. The other thing to note is that, while Martin uses the category of the director to focus his explorations, his interest in these filmmakers and their films goes far beyond auteurism. In his introductory essay, he sets out his approach:

This book – after a small group of general essays – essentially discusses cinema through its artists, its directors. I do not bother to rehash the ancient arguments devised to convince readers of the existence of the cinema auteur – indeed, I have included some pointed reservations about auteurism, when the sole devotion to ‘auteur films’ (in the art-cinema or Film Festival circuit) blocks our ability to see anything else going on at the present moment in cinema – but I do adopt the method that French critic-filmmaker Jean-Claude Biette called a poetique des auteurs (rather than the classic ‘50s politique des auteurs or ‘auteur policy’). (Martin, p. 27)

Martin goes on to elaborate what such an approach means, linking it to broader questions about the ‘poetics of cinema’, and, by implication, connecting it to his larger, continuing, ongoing study of film style:

What is this ‘poetics of auteurs’? It entails grasping, in an artist’s work, the overall complex or gestalt of style and content, sensibility and poetic gesture – in order, finally, to probe, apply and extend that ‘very sensitive Instrument’ formed by a filmmaker’s personal vision of the world, a regard (in the double sense of both a look and an attitude) that is both critical and loving. And it is my hope that writing about film can, in its own way, also carry on the ‘amorous vigilance’ of that double regard which is so unique to cinema.(Martin, p. 27)

Martin’s writing does many things in this book but, most importantly, it challenges us to see, and think, about modern cinema in ways that we hadn’t before. He is a rigorous scholar and his work is informed by ideas from disciplines such as philosophy, film theory, art history and literary theory; from philosophical thinkers like Giorgio Agamben, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Walter Benjamin and Jean-Luc Nancy and film writers and thinkers like Nicole Brenez, Serge Daney, Alain Masson, Jean Epstein, Shigehiko Hasumi and Manny Farber, to name just a few. However, Martin’s approach to writing is not just scholarly; it could also arguably be described as ‘surrealist’ because of the critical and poetic way he puts many different ideas into collision, inviting us to rethink the canonical, the conventional and the familiar.

For instance, in his various studies Martin places filmmakers in new and surprising traditions and lineages. In his essay on Akerman, he talks about the ways “Akerman continues the tradition of exploration inaugurated in cinema by Michelanagelo Antoinioni” (p. 160) Later in this same essay he describes Akerman’s films as an “amalgam of Warhol, Snow, Godard, the painter Edward Hopper and other influences…” (p. 160) further complicating the network of artistic influences and associations that we might see in Akerman’s work. In an essay on Chris Marker, Martin discusses Marker’s work of memory, history, time and his “art of anonymity”, making suggestive comparisons with the work of artists as diverse as photographer Walker Evans, the great French filmmaker Alain Resnais and the experimental animator and musicologist Harry Smith. With each of these studies of individual filmmakers, the network of connections is extended, genealogies are complicated, and our mental maps of modern cinema are suggestively redrawn.

But, as with so much of Martin’s other work, a number of the essays in this book are also investigations into the practice of criticism. In a very fluid way, Martin will move between a close study of a film, questions of analysis and interpretation and issues about the materiality of writing. For instance, in his essay “Ball of Fire”, which examines the formal principles of mystery, alternation and community in a selection of very different films, Martin starts the essay with the following observation:

I often think that we go about the analysis of films the wrong way around. We usually start from the end of the film, as it were, and project backwards to the start all the things that we have come to know about the themes, the characters, the form, its whole trajectory. Once we start thinking or speaking or writing about a film, the hardest thing to recapture, when we re-view it, is the experience of starting in blissful ignorance, knowing (for the most part) nothing of what is to unfold, understanding nothing of the strange figures, places, objects and incidents that are appearing before us. (Martin, p. 29-30)

This question about holding onto that first-time experience and what it means for film theory, criticism and analysis, comes up again later in the book in an essay on Hou Hsiao-hsien. In order to get to the heart of Hou’s storytelling theory and practice, Martin underlines how important it is not just to remember our first-time experience of Hou’s films “but (to) ensure that our analyses and discussions….preserve the ongoing doubts and mysteries of this initial encounter.” (p. 182) Martin clearly values the qualities of mystery and ambiguity in the films that he discusses, but it is how he preserves these qualities in his analysis and his writing that makes his work so compelling to read. These are important critical values to put forward and practice at a time when so much writing on film leaves the film itself far behind.

This is a timely and essential book whose complexity becomes more apparent every time you re-read it. Hopefully an inspired publisher will follow the Uqbar and Valdivia festival example, and publish this book in English. While some of its essays have previously appeared in English-language publications, this book brings them together, with several new essays, in a way that invites us to rethink how we understand, experience and write about modern cinema. It is a book that should be read more widely if only because, as the editor of The Santiago Times prefaced in his interview with Martin, “In some people’s opinions, he is the world’s most important cinema critic.”[3]

Anna Dzenis,
La Trobe University, Australia.


[1] Adrian Martin, Launch Speech, Valdivia Film Festival http://www.lalectoraprovisoria.com.ar/?p=2771
[2] Adrian Martin, Launch Speech, Valdivia Film Festival http://www.lalectoraprovisoria.com.ar/?p=2771
[3] Editor, The Santiago Times, November 13, 2008.http://www.santiagotimes.cl/santiagotimes/index.php/2008111215090/news/feature-news/interview-with-film-critic-adrian-martin.html

Created on: Saturday, 18 April 2009

About the Author

Anna Dzenis

About the Author

Anna Dzenis

Anna Dzenis is a Screen Studies lecturer and researcher who has taught at La Trobe University, Victorian College of the Arts and RMIT. She teaches screen literacy, screen criticism, world cinema, film history and theories of visuality. She is a scholar of photography and cinema and brings these two disciplines together in her teaching and research. She is co-editor of the online journal Screening the Past, and has published essays in Senses of Cinema, Screening the Past, Lola, Real Time, Metro, The Conversation, 24 Frames: Australia and New Zealand, The Oxford Companion to Australian Film, and The Routledge Encyclopaedia of Films.View all posts by Anna Dzenis →