Mysteries of Cinema: Reflections on Film Theory, History and Culture 1982 – 2016

Adrian Martin
Mysteries of Cinema: Reflections on Film Theory,
History and Culture 1982 – 2016
University of Western Australia Publishing, 2020
ISBN: 9781760801298
AU$29.99 (pb)
(Hardback edition published and supplied
for review by Amsterdam University Press, 2018)

A life of analysing films, if it is to be truly liveable, needs to occur in this curious but finally rather delightful rhythm of compression, decompression and recompression; you will have to keep unfolding and refolding that film as it travels with you, through your days. (Martin, p. 390)

For many years I co-taught a Film Criticism subject, with Rick Thompson, at La Trobe University. Every year we invited Adrian Martin to come and speak to our students and to conduct a workshop on some of the ways that he approached the analysis of films. There were many reasons to invite Martin to come to our class – he was a creative writer and thinker, an inspiring educator and one of the most interesting film critics globally. Every year he provoked, challenged and delighted our students, taking us inside and through his many different approaches to engaging with, thinking about and analysing a diverse selection of films, “unfolding and refolding” them in ways that were always individual and surprising. Every year Martin’s mercurial presentations ignited many cinephile flames, and there would be countless impassioned essays written by our students about his work as a film critic. We held Martin in such high regard that he was invited to deliver the first annual Cinema Studies Public lecture, a lecture he titled “The Offended Critic: Film Reviewing and Social Commentary” in which he explored questions of film reviewing and film criticism, further “unfolding and refolding” a selection of films and engaging with their provocations. It was a memorable lecture and the revised text of this lecture is one of many essays to be republished in this book.

Mysteries of Cinema is the most recent book by Martin. The title Mysteries of Cinema is a homage to Raúl Ruiz’s Misterios de Lisboa (2010) and Ruiz’s poetic sensibility informs the book’s own magical, material exploration of cinema’s many mysteries. This book follows on from several original books that Martin has written including Mise en scène and Film Style (2014), Last Day Every Day (2012), What is Modern Cinema? (2008), The Mad Max Movies (2003) and Phantasms (1994). Mysteries of Cinema is an important addition to this significant and influential oeuvre, assembling select major essays that cover over 34 years of Martin’s writing from the early 1980s through to the late 2010s. It is by no means comprehensive, as his own output is much more extensive. It is not a book that includes his film criticism, much of which is published on the steadily growing archive which is his website, and it is also not a book that provides an overview of all of the key scholarly studies that he has written, of which there are far too many for just one book. It is also not a collection of his life’s work, as he continues to write prolifically and specifically states: “I plan for a Volume 2 in 2050”. (p. 3) However, the book does include substantial essays that have previously been difficult to access and read because they have started out as lectures or conference presentations or they have been published in small cultural magazines such as Art & Text, Mesh, Tension and Stuffing: Film: Genre which are no longer around. Martin says that his “writing-persona has been dispersed across multiple sites – print, radio, TV, public speaking, teaching, DVD audio commentary” (p. 5), so to find some of these works collected in one publication is a gift.

Mysteries of Cinema is worth reading for many reasons. In the first instance, it is ‘something like an autobiography’ [1] of a life lived at the cinema. It is a book that takes you inside the writing life of an important writer and thinker, a cultural commentator who has written influential film essays and now makes audiovisual essays, collaborating with Cristina Álvarez López, further expanding the possibilities of film criticism in the digital age. The book assembles a selection of essays together in seven sections which already feature poetically suggestive titles: ‘Letters of Introduction’, ‘Scenographies’, ‘A Cinephile in Australia’, ‘The Lyrical Impulse’, ‘Genre Games’, ‘Interventions’ and ‘Envoi’. The first and the last essays frame a journey from Melbourne to Spain, from writing for niche publications to collaboratively making audiovisual essays which are uploaded to the internet and seen by a large audience. In the first essay, “Retying the Threads”, Martin provides an autobiographical context for the essays, describing them as part of a ‘book of threads‘ (p. 3):

This book is a record of how I have tried to constantly tie or weave two particular threads together: to put this in the simplest way, the thread of films (and other creative works) I have experienced, with the thread of written texts I have read, heard, noted, and upon which I have reflected. When bound together, collectively, these threads form what we (sometimes airily) refer to as a film culture. (pp. 3-4)

The metaphor of threads is a useful way to consider the different ways you might read, re-read and immerse yourself in this book. One of the threads woven through the book is Martin’s own history as a cinephile and film critic. His passion for cinema, embedded in every page, can be found in his early screen experiences. He began writing in the early 1980s when ‘appropriation’, ‘interdisciplinarity’ and ‘multi-media’ were key concepts in the art world, a community that he says sustained and supported him in the early period of his writing life. His published work spans the journalistic, the academic and the audiovisual. Martin has always moved fluidly and insightfully from weekly film reviews for The Age newspaper to rigorous academic studies on subjects as diverse as cinephilia, the genre of the teen film, the figural, film and philosophy, and the films of auteurs such as Terrence Malick, Jean-Luc Godard, Wong Kar-wai, Sergio Leone and Fritz Lang, to name just a few. He is that rare film critic who can appreciate Showgirls (1995) and The Entity (1982) with the same degree of enthusiasm and openness that he brings to the films of Raœl Ruiz, Alain Resnais, Chantal Akerman and Brian De Palma. There are many personal anecdotes that appear in these essays but one that provides particular insight to the film critic that Martin would become is in this recollection that he shares.

I was 17 when I started reading Deleuze and Guattari in English translation, in a now very hard-to-find Australian publication with the great title of Language, Sexuality and Subversion – and I was 21 when I wrote and sang a song dedicated to Deleuze called ‘Pop Philosophy’ in a music band that was part of Melbourne’s New Wave movement (yes, that’s what it was called, a Nouvelle Vague!) in the early 1980s. (p. 396)

This snapshot of the young film critic moving brashly and subversively between high and low culture, theory and popular art, music and cinema, performance and creative practice, will continue to inform Martin’s written and audiovisual work for many decades to come.

Another thread that is woven through the book is one that explores the theory and practice of writing about film, with film, and for film. There is a provocative essay titled “Making a Bad Script Worse: The Curse of the Scriptwriting Manual” in which Martin questions and challenges protocols in scriptwriting manuals and the impact these have on what kinds of films can be imagined or made. There is another fascinating essay titled “The Trouble with Fiction” that explores the challenges that Post Nouvelle Vague French filmmakers grappled with in relation to storytelling and an impulse to experiment with “suspended, open fiction” (p. 161). This essay has one of the best close readings of Philippe Garrel’s J’entends plus la guitare (1991) that I have read – a master class in writing.

A personal history of film criticism threads through various essays with Martin referencing, and engaging with, many critics who have been important to film history, film theory and to his own writing – writers such as Meaghan Morris, Thomas Elsaesser, Serge Daney, Manny Farber, Raymond Bellour and Raymond Durgnat, to list a few. There is an essay in the book titled “That Summer Feeling” in which Martin talks about “a youthful summer of cinephilia” when he read two seminal film books, Film as Film by V. F. Perkins and Theory of Film Practice by Noël Burch, and this essay further explains how personal the continuing influence of specific critics on his approach to film analysis have been.

I believe it was in the calm argumentation of Film as Film as in the proselytising eccentricity of Theory of Film Practice alike that I first encountered the persuasive force of that intellectual obsession which is true cinephilia. And, almost 30 years later, I am still hooked. So I would like to thank my Mum and Dad … (pp. 25-26)

At every stage of Martin’s writing life, he has experimented with different forms and approaches to writing. He talks about his early desire to explore ficto-criticism, inspired by the work of Roland Barthes and Meaghan Morris, defining ficto-criticism as “not fiction or criticism, but some untamed, anti-formulaic hybrid in-between, making use of fragmentation and vivid evocation, scattering quotations (cited and uncited), adopting different ‘voices'”. (p. 16) There is, in this collection of essays, a chapter titled “Scenes” which is an example of this kind of experiment of adopting different voices. As these essays cover several decades, many mutations of film writing and analysis such as the “crisis of film criticism” are also raised. In an essay titled “No Direction Home”, Martin addresses these discussions and goes on to argue that “The forms of writing on cinema may not be exactly the same as they once were, they may not be using the same tools and materials, but they are alive and well.” (p. 384) With regard to his own work, Martin has embraced the emerging form of the audiovisual essay which, in some ways, has enabled him to pursue his earlier ficto-criticism dreams.

There aren’t any images in this book, and yet it is strikingly visual, with so many affecting images conjured by the writing. In the last section of the book, there are several short essays that Martin has written with Álvarez López that are intended to accompany their audiovisual essays. They argue that the “interplay of such writing and digital image/sound montage is part of what we see … as the polyphonic, multi-medial possibility of this new form of criticism.” (p. 400)

Here is an excerpt from one of these essay fragments that accompanied the audiovisual essay on Twin Peaks: “Short-Circuit: A Twin Peaks System”:

Flickering lights, sparks and short-circuits, on/off emissions, lightning, torches, complex strobing patterns, and less ‘motivated’ effects that suggest the sudden overexposures created by photographic lighting or printing: light, for Lynch, is a privileged medium for, or manifestation of, that electrical energy which, as the critic Stéphane du Mesnildot has noted, he seems to ‘exalt’ in an ‘almost mystical veneration’. […]

… Light and communication, image and sound: is it any wonder that Daney noticed in Twin Peaks the spark of cinema which is ‘constantly articulating something’? (pp. 415-416)

Those sparks of cinema are everywhere in this book.

[1] A reference to Akira Kurosawa, Something Like an Autobiography (Vintage, 1990).

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 →