Notes from the NYU Film Conference, Pt. 3 - Adrian Martin

Martin opens by sharing his thoughts on teaching Rossellini's Germany Year Zero, a film which typically baffles his students. Cites Bazin's writings on the film - in most films involving children, adult viewers will project something emotional or sentimental onto the child. With this film you cannot make that projection, you cannot penetrate the child with your own associations. This constitutes a new cinema. Even within the radical movement of Italian Neo-realism, what is truly radical is the face of this boy. The film dis-articulates cause and effect.

Nicole Brenez has also written about the film and the child's performance. It doesn't register the conventional pathos of film acting. For Brenez the film poses the question, "How do we somatize, internalize and act out the evil of the world?"

Martin then moves on to Alain Bergala's take of Farough Farrokhzad's The House Is Black, in which Bergala asserts that the film is great from the first shot - in fact one only needs to see the first shot to know it's great, because the first shot disrupts the viewer from their space of comfort.

Martin recalls his teenage screening of Bergman's Summer with Monika. He rhapsodizes on the film's achievement of "an eternal present" in the scenes between lovers on the island. Bergala has also written about this film and how it struck him like an arrow. Bergala asserted that the film's island location revolutionized Bergman's understanding of space and cinema. Bergala also asserts that Bergman was so jealous of his actor's proximity to his leading lady Harriet Anderson (whom Bergman was having an affair) during the love scenes that Bergman placed the camera to be even closer than the actor to the actress. Martin cites Bergala's writing as an example of powerful criticism, writing that both describes the sensual experience of watching the film while eliciting a profound, startling thought. He distinguishes this writing from the mundane criticism that attaches synopsizing with general like/dislike responses to the acting and story.

Martin recalls an anecdote by South African musician Abdullah Ibrahim. Ibrahim listened to a scratchy but complex recording made on a single instrument by a humble musician and was moved to tears because he could hear the musician's aspiration to have a full orchestra. The musician's spirit was transmuted to Ibrahim and he decided to fulfill the musician's dream. In the resulting recording Ibrahim plays the musician's arrangement simply for his orchestra to build on, then lets them free to improvise and improve on the composition. Martin uses this story as an allegory for criticism. Martin recalls his experience writing the monograph for Leone's Once Upon a Time in America. He had become exhausted with the film and ran out of interest. But when he sat down on a keyboard and and played out a simple melody from the score, the film re-opened itself to him. Martin's recurring point is that one needs to maintain a freedom of mind when elucidating a work, and be unafraid to try new approaches to get into a film and understand it in different ways.

Martin discusses a certain strain of film criticism that assumes a condescending, pugilistic stance towards films, which he finds counterproductive.

Martin discusses the art of "giving an account" of a film, whether it means giving the synopsis of the film or discussing how the reviewer experienced and approached the film. Martin mentions David Bordwell's "Making Meaning," a smart but discouraging book that he thinks saps the joy and enthusiasm out of film criticism. He mentions Bordwell's dismissal of interpretation as a "rigged game" where a critic can find any meaning he or she sets their mind on in a film, but finds this to be an oversimplistic dismissal that disparages the genuine illuminations to be found in interpretation. Martin cites an article by Shigeko Hasumi on the act of throwing things in John Ford films, which, Martin claims, after reading this article, a new world for understanding John Ford is opened. Martin also mentions the late Raymond Durgnat and the issue of free-association. It was Durgnant who observed that free-association is not really free, as the materials being associated are all drawn from our existence and as such reflect our relationship to our existence.

Discussing logical structures of arguing. Serge Daney invented three distinctions a day ("there are two kinds of offscreen space: space generated by sound vs. space generated by image") and would incessantly play with different distinctions. Martin celebrates this illuminating play while warning against becoming too wedded to any given distinction or logical structure to understand a film.

Parting thought - Martin cites Rosenbaum's description of film criticism as the art of creating desire. He mentions how his film students typically want to write about films by Wes Anderson, P.T. Anderson or other directors who are readily accessible to them. He also sees this in academia, where he's encountered a couple dozen academic papers on Michael Haneke's Cache in the past year. He urges writers not to be pushed by the zeitgeist but to be pushing it, and the way to do that is by writing persuasively and passionately to generate desire.

Q&A: Rosenbaum expresses appreciation of Martin's argument for film criticism as an art. JR discusses Manny Farber as someone who would probably fail a film writing course because he doesn't thoroughly support his arguments.

Martin asserts that two items of description that can be most revealing of a critic's mind is sex and music. Example: in describing a sex scene in an 80s film "Love Letters", Robin Wood describes actress Jamie Leigh Curtis as being degraded and subjective to male-dominant patriarchal authority. Martin and his wife watched the scene and couldn't relate it to what he had just read of Wood.

Question raised about Serge Daney's famous essay "The Tracking Shot in Kapo" on affirming insights on cinema by discussing a film he hadn't even seen, based on a comment by Jacques Rivette that to some extent mis-remembers the shot being criticized. Martin defends the valuing of a critical ethos expressed by Daney, but acknowledges the problem of inaccuracy that risks diminishing the full power of Rivette and Daney's remarks.

Martin discusses David Walsh of the World Socialist Website, whose criticism he both admires and dislikes. Walsh's political framework for approaching any given film is so rigid that Martin claims to be able to guess correctly what Walsh's take is on any film.

Martin posits that two of the most limiting and mechanical means to discuss film are through genre or auteur. He finds these frameworks to be a blocking mechanism that prevents films from being fully explored in new exciting ways. In response to a question Martin also adds nationalist frameworks for generalizing films and cinemas: "films should be liberated from their nation" in order to invent new ways of appreciating them.