Monday 9 December 2019

Defending Cinephilia (3) - Adrian Martin gathers up Five Cinephilic Things of 2019

Plenty of great things to read in hard, solid print this year, starting with (as I gaze along my shelves) Tom Ryan’s long awaited, magisterial The Films of Douglas Sirk: Exquisite Ironies and Magnificent Obsessions (University Press of Mississippi), and Gilberto Perez’s posthumous The Eloquent Screen: A Rhetoric of Film (University of Minnesota Press). 

There was a bunch of devoted publications on, around and by the late Chantal Akerman, including two separate translations of her anguished memoir My Mother Laughs (The Song Cave in USA & Silver Press in UK); Chantal Akerman: Afterlives (Legenda), an anthology edited by Marion Schmid & Emma Wilson; the Chantal Akerman Retrospective Handbook edited by filmmaker Joanna Hogg (The Souvenir) & Adam Roberts; and a special issue of Camera Obscura titled simply “On Chantal Akerman”. Raúl Ruiz too, was honoured with several fascinating publications in Spanish: Yenny Cáceres’ superbly researched Los años chilenos de Raúl Ruiz(Catalonia UDP), and a collection of his poetry, titled Duelos y quebrantos(“Duels and Defeats”, Mundana) – his devotion to this form of expression is recorded on a sometimes daily basis in his monumental, two-volume Diarios 1993-2011. (Speaking of Ruiz, I also parenthetically recommend a 616-page book to which I contributed: America: Films From Elsewhere, edited by Shanay Jhaveri for The Shoestring Publisher in India.) But the book of 2019 that shook me (and my preconceptions) up more than any other was On Cinema(IB Tauris) by the great Brazilian director who died far too young, Glauber Rocha: a remarkable journey through his youthful critiques in the 1950s (which give anything in the French magazines of that decade a run for their money) to his participant-theorisation of Cinema Novo and his heady navigation through the (very political) globe of film festivals and conferences. What Rocha once made of Visconti, Godard, montage and mise en scene theory, not to mention the cinema of László Benedek, will blow your mind.

Victor Erice
During November of 2019 I had the honour of being a jury member for the ZINEBI film festival in Bilbao, Spain; among the drawcards of that impressively rain-drenched city was the presence of a new digital video installation by Víctor Erice, Piedra y cielo (“Stone and Sky”), at the Museo de Bellas Artes. And what a blast – of a properly meditative kind – it was! Erice, in a wonderful masterclass presentation, expressed his anger and dismay at those journalists who lazily portrayed him as now “swapping” cinema for digital art; instead, his installation was a perfect fusion of the “black box” experience of immersive, cinematic viewing with the pictorial possibilities offered by digital shooting and post-production. Two screens faced another in this black box: one devoted to “day space” (11 minutes) and the other to “night space” (6 and a half minutes); when one ended, you swivelled around in your spot to watch the other – and so the loop went. The subject, or material, was comprised of two sculptural/architectural constructions fixed in the mountain landscape of Navarra in 1959: a chapel designed by Luis Vallet de Montano (1894-1982); and the Memorial Aita Donostia by Jorge Oteiza (1908-2003), a legendary artist-poet whom Erice first encountered when he was a young, cine-club goer. Piedra y cielo studies – with the aid of some truly magical technological interventions – the movement of light and darkness, the stars in the firmament, the passing of time; nature is echoed in the human creations of the artists, but that art, in turn, redefines our experience of nature, in all its multi-media poetry. An essential gift!

Cristina Álvarez López
This choice might be considered “close to home” – it is, in fact, right inside my home – but of all the blogs, podcasts and websites (my own included!) online today, none gives me deeper sensual pleasure, poetic enchantment or intellectual satisfaction than my partner Cristina Álvarez López’s Laugh Motel, subtitled “on, with, around film”. Cristina launched this project (in September 2018) because she had grown tired of the deadlines, word limits, editorial suggestions and “house styles” of traditional publication venues; she needed to express herself more freely, to her own calendar of inspirations and encounters. Although there are some general reflections on criticism, and departures from cinema (into drawing, music, literature …), Laugh Motel, as a loose and ongoing “project”, always returns to what Cristina refers to as “working the particulars”: describing, evoking and analysing (in words and in screenshots) the smallest sparks of a gesture, cut, music cue or image-flicker in films that she loves (by Bellocchio, Piavoli, Kieslowski, Haynes, Skolimowski, Renoir, Garrel, Sotomayor, Godard, Miéville, Wenders, Makavejev, Resnais, Bergman, Lynch …). In a moment, after writing this, I shall stride into my loungeroom and begin singing Prince’s classic song to Cristina: Nothing Compares 2 U.

The principal cast of Years and Years
TV continues to bring us some splendid stuff; but it is also, even more than cinema, subject to instant amnesia on the part of its viewers and pundits, due to its fast turnover of deluging “events”, one atop the other. So, one of 2019’s best series that came at the very start of the year, Natasha Lyonne’s prodigiously inventive Russian Doll, already feels like it happened a few years ago. There was the grimly powerful Chernobyl; the beyond-Black Mirror-ish Years and Years from UK; the wind-up (a little anti-climactic for me at the very end) of the sublime post-musical Crazy Ex-Girlfriend; Australia’s own sub-Scorsesean Mr Inbetween(I found myself more eager than I expected to devour the second season of this inspired elaboration of the 2005 feature The Magician); the gripping investigative drama Unbelievable, with great performances from Toni Collette & Merritt Wever; the maddening but unshakeable Too Old to Die Young, where a relatively young auteur (Nicolas Winding Refn) gets total artistic control, and takes every conceivable license with it; Now Apocalypse, another nutty, outrageous, go-for-broke effort from Gregg Araki; The Crown, wearing a bit thinner in its 3rd season, but still effortlessly captivating; the bizarre New Age mind-game of The OA; and, above all for me,  Pamela Adlon’s Better Things, as moving as it is daring.

Timothee Chalamet, A Rainy Day in New York
I can get pretty fed up with the incessant demand for critics’ Best Films of the Year lists – requests that usually begin in October, but specify that you must begin from what was released in January, thus effectively eliminating six months (3 from the year before and 3 from the year you’re in) out of every 12! So, my film list(s), with accompanying commentary, can be found elsewhere: Film Comment (I hope), Roger Koza’s annual La International Cinéfila poll (Online if you click here), and (if you’re buying print magazines from South Korea) FILO. Uniquely for Film Alert, however, let me note a few fine things I caught up with near the end of 2019, or otherwise went missing from any of my other, official list-versions: Woody Allen’s delightful A Rainy Day in New York; the absorbing sport-analysis John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection; Rita Azevedo Gomes’ amiable essay-documentary Danses Macabres, Skeletons and Other Fantasies – it was a prime year for her, with the haunting narrative feature The Portuguese Woman (adapted from Robert Musil) also appearing; Lendita Zeqiraj’s lively debut Aga’s House, from Kosovo-Crotia-Albania; and Lucrecia Martel’s Viennale trailer AI, a short but dense response to the identificatory technologies of our digital age (Click here to read it). Plus a few discoveries from older days: Josef von Sternberg’s Crime and Punishment(1935), Edith Carlmar’s Death is a Caress (1949) and Michael Gordon’s Woman in Hiding (1949). Lesson: you can never be done with old film noir!

© Adrian Martin, 9 December 2019

Adrian Martin
Editor’s Note: Adrian Martin is Adjunct Associate Professor of Film and Screen Studies, Monash University, Film, Journalism and Media

He is Co-Editor of LOLA and SCREENING THE PAST and contributes to many other film periodicals including Sight and Sound and Film Comment. 

In 2019 Adrian also provided audio DVD commentaries on the THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR (Wilder, Arrow), HOLD BACK THE DAWN (Leisen, Arrow), THE FAR COUNTRY (Mann, Arrow), THE BIG CLOCK (Farrow, Arrow), PEOPLE ON SUNDAY (Siodmak/Ulmer/Wilder, BFI), BLONDE VENUS in STERNBERG/DIETRICH box set, (Indicator), re-released: FIXED BAYONETS! in FULLER AT FOX boxset (Masters of Cinema)

Adrian also wrote booklet essays for Sternberg's CRIME AND PUNISHMENT (Arrow), Joseph H. Lewis' MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS (Arrow) and the recent American independent film NOTES ON AN APPEARANCE (Grasshopper) by Ricky D'Ambrose.

Previous 2019 entries in this series by Rod Bishopand the editorcan be found if you click on the names. Contributions welcome. Send them to 

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