Mysteries of Cinema, an anthology of the major essays by prolific and internationally-recognised Australian-born film critic Adrian Martin, takes its readers on a whirlwind journey through aesthetics, cinephilia, criticism, cultural politics, film genre, and philosophy. A collection of lively, original and highly personal essays, Martin’s book is a masterful act of synthesis which weaves together disparate writings from over a thirty-year period under the intriguing title Mysteries of Cinema, an homage to Raúl Ruiz’s Mistérios de Lisboa (2010). For Martin, cinema is “mysterious on many levels: in its craft … its art, in its general, cultural role … as well as in the disputed meaning or ‘reading’ of individual films” (p. 19). Mysteries is one of the latest additions to the Film Culture in Transition series, published by Amsterdam University Press. The series places importance on current work in film theory and media history. Martin’s book, which offers an insightful and personal exploration of film theory, history and culture and advocates the relatively new practice of the audiovisual essay as film criticism, is a welcome addition to the series.
Gaining access to some of Martin’s writings on cinema has for a long time proved a challenge, largely due to the breadth of his output, which has negotiated a range of publications from Melbourne’s daily newspaper The Age to Dutch independent film magazine de Filmkrant. Thus, this collection which assembles his foremost essays in the one volume will be much appreciated by followers of Martin’s work as well as those seeking an introduction to it. Mysteries represents over three decades of remarkably intense, profound, and impassioned work within the realm of film criticism. The book demarcates a distinct cultural period that, for Martin, commenced in the early 1980s with film criticism conceived as a poetic mode of writing which evolves in the present-day into the creation of audiovisual essays, an experimental and collaborative form of film criticism which dissolves the subjectivity of conventional critical writing. Throughout these essays Martin pursues the endless possibilities of film criticism while tracking a unique vision of the past, present and future of cinema. Early in the book, Martin, borrowing a concept from Serge Daney, introduces us to the figure of the passeur:
one who wanders between worlds, dipping into many kinds of movie experiences and cultural debates. Moreover, this passeur should take on the challenge of building bridges between these worlds, opening up lines of communication and exchange. (p. 31)
It is precisely the work of the passeur that Martin performs in this volume of essays and which he also encourages his readers to undertake.
For Martin, Mysteries of Cinema is “a book of general, transversal reflections – clusters of associations, each time around a different centre or theme.” (p. 14) And these clusters or rubrics are the logic behind the book’s seven-part structure; they are, for Martin, “an attempt to capture or corral some of my longstanding obsessions, waxing and waning over time.” (p. 15) In a succession of elegant moves – encompassing both fleeting shifts and languorous meanderings – traversing a range of aesthetically, historically and internationally diverse films, Martin provides astute insights into both the role of the critic as well as the films themselves.
In the introduction, aptly titled “Retying the Threads”, Martin clarifies that this volume is “not quite a book of film criticism […] nor is it a book of conventional academic scholarship.” (pp. 13-14). Anyone familiar with Martin – the writer and his work – will know he is not easily categorised. This is because his work on cinema has emerged under several guises: film critic, cinema scholar, lecturer, independent researcher, freelance intellectual, audiovisual essay artist. So, it makes sense that these essays are not easily classified. Martin himself prefers the term writer to the various appellations that have been variably invoked. He explains that Mysteries is rather “a book of threads […] a record of how I have constantly tried to tie or weave two particular threads together […] 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.” (p. 14) In this anthology Martin reflects on his “personal threading-together of films and ideas” and speculates on the state of film culture from the circumscribed period of 1982-2016.
Part I, “Letters of Introduction”, comprises three essays and serves as a preface to the volume. The first essay sketches Martin’s trajectory as a film critic and cinema scholar from his beginnings in the early-1980s cultural scene in Melbourne to his current position in a more global film culture. It charts the interstitial space he occupies between academic and journalistic modes of discourse and outlines his method of film writing. The next two essays provide an insight into Martin’s formative thinking on film, the second reflecting on the task of the film reviewer and celebrating the “openminded possibilities of being a passeur” (p. 29), and the third tracing, in a psychoanalytic fashion, the two major influences on Martin:
in the constellation of my personal, cinematic imaginary, Film as Film [V.F. Perkins 1972] and Theory of Film Practice [Noël Burch 1973] are my mother and father, although I find it hard to definitively establish their respective genders. […] As with every child, my personality (emotional and intellectual) was formed in the tension between the personalities of my parents, a somewhat uneasy but also endlessly fertile amalgam of their differences and arguments. (p. 34)
Part II, “Scenographies”, opens with the essay “Scenes”, a meditation on the “idea of a scene in both cinema and life.” (p. 41) The other essays in this section explore utopian and dystopian tendencies in narrative cinema, the drives and energies in cinema through a productive pairing of the experimental short Outer Space (Peter Tscherkassky 2001) and mainstream horror film The Entity (Sidney J. Furie 1982), and the depiction of trance states in contemporary film and television with reference to the work of Raymond Bellour, Milton Erickson and Alejandro Jodorowsky. In the sole essay of Part III, “No Flowers for the Cinephile”, Martin traces the history and development of cinephilia in Australia from the early 1960s to the late 1980s and proposes a “positive notion of cultural populism” (p. 95). Written in 1987, Martin claims this essay is the one that most invites an update to account for the transformation of cinephilia from its “intransigent, outsider status” to its legitimacy within academia and argues that “its rather cloistered, nerdy gender bias […] has been knocked sideways by successive, salutary social movements spotlighting the successive stations of an identity politics (sexual, racial, etc.).” (p. 20) Martin points out that the “dawning of some consciousness of all this can be traced across the book” – particularly in the closing two sections (p. 20).
Comprising almost half of the essays of the volume, Parts IV and V constitute perhaps the most varied and diverse discussion of films in terms of aesthetics and genres. Five evocative essays which contemplate the function of artifice and lyricism in a “cinema of poetry” – including cinematic lyricism, the elusive quality of poetic mystery in cinema, the notion of cinematic apparition, objective representation and subjectivity, and emotional affect – are organised under Part IV, “The Lyrical Impulse”. Part V, “Genre Games”, comprises six lively and compelling essays that examine networks of film within and across genres, including gangster films, intimacy thrillers, the Female Gothic, teen movies, contemporary romantic comedies, and the 21st century phenomenon of cinematic sadism. In these two sections one finds a rich discussion of an array of films from filmmakers as diverse as Chantal Akerman, Leos Carax, John Cassavetes, Maya Deren, Victor Erice, Abel Ferrara, Samuel Fuller, Philippe Garrel, Kiko Goifman, Sondra Locke, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Terrence Malick, Michael Mann, Anne-Marie Miéville, Brian de Palma, and Quentin Tarantino.
Part VI, “Interventions”, opens with the polemical “Making a Bad Script Worse”, in which Martin laments the proliferation of scriptwriting manuals and its subsequent toxic effect on filmmaking (including journalistic reviewing): to this resultant normative template, Martin proposes diverse film practices that in their affront to “the orthodoxy of rules” (p. 330) create new possibilities for filmmaking. In the following essay, Martin takes aim at “The Offended Critic”: surprisingly, although perhaps not for those familiar with Martin’s work, the first target of this attack is himself. Here he pits the short-sighted and reactionary response of offense against an approach to film (re)viewing that is “open to ambivalence, enigma and contradiction, as well as the complexities of our own sensibilities as viewers.” (p. 340) And in the final essay Martin proposes a “loose method of ‘wild psychoanalysis’ in order to gauge and decipher the underlying drives and designs” of an eclectic sample of works from Abbas Kiarostami’s Copie Conforme (Certified Copy, 2010) to the TV action series Blindspot (p. 355). Part VII, “Envoi”, comprising four essays, culminates in the final and only co-written essay in the collection: “The File We Accompany”. Co-authored by Cristina Álvarez López, who has collaborated with Martin on over 70 audiovisual essays, this essay represents Martin’s arrival at the experimental and collaborative film criticism that marks his latest work in cinema.
Mysteries of Cinema is an ambitious and erudite collection that compels re-readings to appreciate the abundance of ideas. At once complex and accessible, it is also a book about surprise and discovery: ideas and arguments gradually unfold and culminate in a revelatory denouement. The essays in this book encourage us to revisit films we may have initially overlooked and watch them with a new perspective, such as The Hand that Rocks the Cradle (Curtis Hanson, 1992), or to seek out rarely-seen gems, such as works by Marcel Hanoun or Benoît Jacquot. Martin seamlessly and at times elegantly interweaves autobiographical elements with insightful discussion of the films he has experienced, and the written texts he has reflected on. Indeed, experience and reflection are the two main mechanisms of Martin’s work on film: no film is simply “seen” and no text simply “read”, and this is irrespective of the film or text he is writing about. At once an audaciously sweeping reflection on the state of film criticism and culture, Mysteries is also an impassioned call for the future of film criticism – that is, for a cinephilic and academic writing about cinema that includes “the passion and thought of debate” (p. 36). Martin’s passeur is our guide through the mysteries that constitute the experience of cinema, reminding us that judgment is always a weaker foot than understanding.
Adrian Martin, Mysteries of Cinema: Reflections on Film Theory, History and Culture 1982-2016 (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2018).