Sunday, January 20, 2008

Richness, Intensity and Gesture: An Interview with Adrian Martin

A word of thanks to Adrian for this fun and meaty guest post on film criticism and film culture. The following interview appears here for the first time in English. It was published in the Slovenian magazine Ekran in Feb-Mar '07. The interviewer was Nil Baskar. -- Girish.

Q: A typical opening question: which critics, writers, films or books inspired you to become a film critic? Which are your the canonical names and texts?

Adrian Martin: I often think that any critic’s formative list of ‘canonical names’ is, to a very large, extent, accidental – arising from a series of fortuitous encounters with material that somehow just managed to be on-hand, accessible. In my case, as a young teenager, the main sources of critical inspiration came from what was in the local library (more the monthly magazines than the musty old ‘film as art’ books), what could be bought at newsagents (many more ‘serious’ film magazines than today), and also what was in certain bookshops (I was a sci-fi literature freak in my childhood, and so I spent a lot of time in the ‘Space Age Bookstore’!). What I remember reading, around 1975-6, that had a big impact on me, was Jonathan Rosenbaum on Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac in Sight and Sound, Jean-Pierre Coursodon on Jerry Lewis in Film Comment, and (via the sci-fi/horror connection) the Edinburgh Film Festival 1970 book on Roger Corman, which contained the first inklings of ‘British theory’ (Wollen, Willemen, etc) in relation to genre studies, mytho-poetic criticism, etc. Raymond Durgnat I was exposed to early – his 1975 Film Comment piece on ‘populism and genre’, as well as the ‘60s book Films and Feelings – but not Pauline Kael (who was already very popular among middlebrows), and Manny Farber only much later. Once I hit Teachers’ College at the age of 17, I was reading everything in the library: Noël Burch’s Theory of Film Practice and Victor Perkins’ Film as Film, as utterly different as they are, were the key texts for me (as I described in an article in Undercurrent, they were my ‘warring parents’ – probably still are); I also began devouring Stephen Heath, Robin Wood, Raymond Bellour … also at age 17, I was longingly staring at the covers of French magazines like Cahiers, poring helplessly through the pages, and so I taught myself, word by word via translations, how to read them! Radio is often left out of such ‘sentimental histories’, maybe because it so local and ephemeral: I learnt a lot of my early film culture from the radio, listening to local academics reviewing the latest films, to Peter Harcourt’s series from Canada on ‘appreciating art cinema’, and to a weekly 15-minute review program called The Week in Film which, twenty years later, I occupied for three years!

Q: You live in Australia, which does not enjoy – at least until now – a reputation as a particularly cinephile part of world. Does this relative dislocation from some of the important sources of contemporary film, Europe and the States, somehow affect your critical work?

AM: To answer this question, we must rehearse the entire geo-political history of film criticism! Seriously: in a sense, I will answer you as any serious film critic from Ireland, Taiwan, Canada, and so many other similar places – places that have been ‘in the shadow of the great world powers’ – would. Because we are talking about a long history (mention of this is made in Movie Mutations) in which – just like in the art world and other cultural/intellectual spheres – the ‘centres’ or capitols of film-thought and film-discourse were taken to be only France, USA, to an extent UK … And it didn’t matter how rich or alive the film-culture scene was in your ‘local’ scene – if you weren’t from, or in, one of those ‘centres’, you simply didn’t exist on the ‘world stage’ as a critic. (I know it well personally: for my first 15 years as a writer, I barely appeared in print outside of Australia. There would be many similar stories.) As a result, we (in general) know the identity of so few of the best critics (or the best teachers, or the best journalists) around the world who worked over the past century … And it is not just a matter of ‘small countries’: Spain, Germany, Russia, Austria, Italy and Japan (to take random examples) have remarkable histories of film culture, but they too have barely been recognized, for so long, on the cinematic ‘map of the world’.

So, to come back to your question: does this ‘relative dislocation’, as you put it (one could use less polite words, like imperialism, geo-political oppression, colonialism, etc!), affect the critical work of me or my Australian colleagues? Of course it does; invisibility is both difficult (you feel alienated from so much going on elsewhere in the world) and enabling (you have a dream, a Shangri-La, a Utopia to strive for!). But what it affects most is the possibility of community: you can’t always find your own particular group or clan or ‘cabal’ at home; Movie Mutations was about the joy and possibility liberated in trying to knit up your own community beyond your national border. However, around ten years ago, you in Slovenia had never heard of any interesting Australian film critic, and I in Australia had never heard of any interesting Slovenian critic (Slavoj Zizek notwithstanding). The Internet has truly changed that; it has – to some extent – redrawn the geo-political map of film culture, particularly in conjunction with the rise of certain progressive Film Festivals (such as Rotterdam). This doesn’t mean that people read stuff on the Net and now think – ‘ah, Australia (Melbourne particularly) is the new capitol of film thought and film culture, it’s the new place to be, the new Paris or Vienna!’ – well, maybe some people do think that! – but, rather, film criticism sometimes achieves a handy condition of statelessness, a kind of ‘news from nowhere’ that is accessible to anyone on-line. Statelessness is not always Utopian (it can, at another turn of the wheel, be highly alienating, after the initial rush of intoxication) but, once again, it can be enabling – and it has indeed ‘unfrozen the polar caps’ of the film globe.

Q: Much of your critical work is dedicated to rethinking criticism itself: the ideas that permeate Movie Mutations speak in favor of a kind of a post-criticism, which would try to establish more meaningful relations between currently alienated spaces of film reflection: the work of academics and students and the work of film critics, both the local and the international ones. Can you see any tangible signs of this happening?

AM: Well, in one important sense it has always happened, in the work of certain individuals who are bold passeurs: intellectually oriented, but writing in popular or semi-popular venues, and sometimes in a populist way: Durgnat, Wood, Farber, Rosenbaum, Richard Dyer, Serge Daney, Judith Williamson, Jairo Ferreira … But, beyond such individuals (and there are many), is there a more general meeting of interests between academia and popular writing? If anything, I think that film festivals have, in recent years, provided the most opportune middle ground between these sectors: several university curricula are exploring the history and culture of film festivals, which has hitherto been a neglected area of film history. And there is also more of an ‘interdisciplinary’ interest – of the sort that hasn’t existed since the ‘70s – in creative writing, in criticism as expression, as itself a kind of ‘art’ … Of course, one always has to fight ‘rearguard’ actions of anti-intellectualism, which are louder and more aggressive in the Internet age – but lately I see more of a ‘mass desire’ for real thought and cultural engagement with cinema, way beyond simple ‘fandom’.

Q: On a different note: it seems that your work keeps investigating one thing in particular: how a particular film works or, if not, what went wrong with it. If so, what are the principal criteria and critical tools that enable such decisions? Raymond Durgnat, who I know is important to you as a critic, spoke of integrity, complexity and cruciality. Is this relevant or should we embrace the desire to love films only because of their Beauty, disregarding their contents and context?

AM: Instead of Durgnat’s list (which is a fascinating one!), I personally would propose these three words, which are certainly at the driving heart of my own practice: richness, intensity and gesture. Each word responds to a very different ‘level’ of the cinematic experience. I value (as probably most critics do) richness in cinema: the richness of great works that repay endless viewings, works with a complex logic, works that demand a real effort of ‘reading’, interpretation, deciphering, films that are ‘deep and meaningful’. But not all good, important, worthwhile cinema is rich or complex. We also have to make a place – a large place – for everything that is strikingly and memorably excessive, mad, spectacular, breathtaking, in a word intense, in cinema (and our experiences of it): phenomena that happen more on the surface of a work, rather than in its depths. This investment in intensity has led me to the popular forms and genres I love: crazy comedies, teen movies, horror, action etc .., but also the avant-garde! Lastly, gesture relates to a more politico-historical, socio-cultural dimension of cinema: that powerful wave of significance when we sense that a film is making a move in relation to all those other works with which it forms a ‘family’: when an entrenched stereotype is being lifted or twisted, when a taboo is finally being broken, when two hitherto separate ideas or genres are suddenly being fused together … Only a few people, such as Jim Hoberman, have tried to write fragments of a history of cinema beginning from these kinds of moves or gestures, which sometimes have little to do with either ‘art’ (richness) or the ‘cinematic’ (intensity).

‘Should we love films only because of their Beauty, disregarding their contents and context?’ It is not possible! Yes, there is a level of abstract beauty in cinema – maybe that’s the ‘cinematic’, mise en scène, whatever you choose to call it – but I am ‘materialist’ enough to have convinced myself, by now, that there is no such thing as a pure beauty in cinema: the moment that there is sensation, intensity, ‘primary processes’ (of rhythm, colour, sight, sound, touch), there is immediately a ‘moulding’ of such aesthetic emotion onto complex (sometimes mysterious) social and cultural processes. That is the true drama of cinema, right there: something of the ‘imaginary’ that resists social fixity, subjectification, conformity, the ‘symbolic’, etc; and, as part of the same tension, something that contributes directly to all these social processes at their worst. We need both the Frankfurt School and Surrealism to get a handle on this eternal drama!

Q: In some film criticism, there has always been a certain belief that a film can only be valued on its own terms, and that importing any ‘foreign’ concepts (from psychology, sociology, philosophy ...) unavoidably reduce the film to experimental evidence for any theory that happens along. Is this belief fundamentally wrong?

AM: Yes, it is fundamentally wrong! OK, I take your point: too often we do see films ‘reduced to evidence for a theory’, especially in academic work, but also in the worst corridors of popular journalism (where films are taken to embody the decline of moral civilization, or the transcendent value of escapist entertainment, etc). But that, to me, is not film criticism. There is no film criticism without ‘foreign concepts’. You always need a tool to help you think, to aid you in constructing some scaffold of ideas. In any event, no one can stop such ‘contamination’: cinema is impure from first moment to last, it has no borders, you can never safely say what is ‘specific’ or internal to it and what is ‘foreign’ or external to it. Indeed, cinema (like language, like any art form, like philosophy) only expands when it comes into explosive contact with something ‘outside’ it – thank god! My position is explicit: the more ideas in film criticism, the better. Of course, you have to make them work, put them to work – not freeze them into absolute verities and certainties, models and systems. Change ideas with cinema, change cinemas with ideas! This is my Godardian/Deleuzian side talking.

Q: We are all aware that the riches of internet and the DVD circulation are not changing only the ways that films are being consumed, but also the ways they are being thought about and valued. Is this the golden age for the everyday cinephile, despite the fact that the real sites of popular cinema are rapidly disappearing, and being replaced by either monolithic multiplexes or the elite and mobile festival cultures?

AM: If I kick my foot right now, I discover the truth of your proposition: there goes scattering across my floor a Luc Moullet box set, several Stephen Chiau comedies, some top-notch Criterion releases, three Naruse’s, a 1967 De Palma film that has been unseeable for almost four decades, the Rivette double of Duelle and Noroît, a new avant-garde high-school musical by conceptual artist Mike Kelly … I counted myself lucky, about ten years ago, when I entered a ‘magic circle’ of cinephile-friends around the world who sent each other rare items on VHS; but that was an aristocratic, secretive, ‘elite’ experience as compared to the popular explosion of DVD releasing. But I think it’s too early to say whether this consumer-availability is making a big difference, or indeed any difference, to film criticism; forms of taste, habits of viewing, modes of thinking and responding do not change overnight with a switch of technology. (Did VHS really change film criticism? Did cable or ‘channel surfing’ give rise to a revolution in television criticism? I don’t think so.) Indeed, I often feel that the ‘democratisation’ of film culture via the Internet and related social mechanisms has brought on a regression in thinking about cinema: look at the proliferation of these endless, meaningless lists (best, favourite, ‘what I have seen this month’, etc), compared to how slowly, for example, people are really integrating frame-grabs, video clips and audio segments into their rigidly old-fashioned, logocentric, written analyses: Godard was already calling for this kind of ‘post-criticism’ 42 years ago, and it has yet to truly emerge! Film criticism has yet to develop a truly ‘performative’ dimension, beyond the ephemeral presentations of brilliant lecturers and teachers (another under-appreciated aspect of film culture). So, I try to stay a little detached from the ‘technological revolutions’, and apocalyptic talk of either the death or rebirth of the cinema-going experience: films will always be available in various forms (theatre, TV, computer, etc), and film lovers will always be mixing them up and moving between them: the real work begins after that, in what you’re actually going to say about these films and how you are going to say it. Content and form!

Q: Lastly, instead of asking for an another list of last year's top ten or such, I have a rather more specific wish: could you - for the benefit of the distant reader even in the age of internet - quote some of the more recent Australian films or authors, worth watching (for)?

AM: The ‘distant reader even in the age of the Internet’ – your intriguing phrase points to gaps and inequalities that still structure the geo-political film globe! When it comes to Australian critics, for example: maybe you can find a few of them (such as Meaghan Morris, John Flaus, Sylvia Lawson, Edward Colless, just to name a few), if you are pointed in the right direction (and so much on the Internet is just an inert lump until someone mobilises it for you) – but how often do you see these names cited, rehearsed, canonised in those endless lists that say ‘Bazin, Farber, Daney, etc’? Once again, it’s imagination – and generosity – that’s lacking, not ‘information’ in its brute, digitised state. Once again, it’s the dreary old ‘canons’, the familiar habits, that insist, and shape what it is possible for us to experience and think. That’s one of the main reasons that myself, Helen Bandis and Grant McDonald created Rouge magazine – to provide a kind of suggestive map to what there is, and what there could be, in the ceaseless writing/thinking/performing of film.

In terms of Australian cinema, I am always more inclined to promote the margins than the mainstream. There have been a few good films, distinctive and original, over the past few years, like The Proposition (John Hillcoat) and Ten Canoes (Rolf De Heer), that have traveled both to festivals and some arthouse or mainstream cinemas around the world. But you are less likely to have encountered word of Margot Nash’s Call Me Mum (a monologue-film funded by TV), or James Clayden’s experimental The Marey Project. Australian cinema is – as always, and like all ‘small cinemas’ – in a difficult moment of its fraught, stop-start history: digital technology has expanded opportunities for production and even created a few popular hits (such as the ingenious comedy Kenny); but it has also led to a new contagion of mindless stereotype and cliché, in a depressingly overdetermined and uninventive plethora of films devoted earnestly to ‘dramatising social issues’ (of race, class, youth, violence, drugs, gender, etc). More than ever, I believe that the salvation of any national cinema comes and goes in terms of one key thing: its ability to create new gestures, divert old stories, confound common sense, creating real surprise and delight – and giving rise to thought. When some more Australian films start doing this, I’ll let you know.

© Adrian Martin January 2007

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Two pieces of Adrian info/news:

(1) In case you haven't noticed it yet, he has a previously unpublished piece, "Chantal Akerman: Walking Woman," in the Contemplative Cinema blogathon.

(2) Along with Jonathan Rosenbaum and Nicole Brenez, he will be conducting a seminar at NYU on March 13-14 that will feature screenings, discussions and lectures.