Tuesday 22 December 2020

Defending Cinephilia (7) - From near Barcelona freelance critic Adrian Martin chronicles his lockdown year

The title of this annual Film Alert feature – a true highlight on every cinephile’s calendar! – seems to have subtly morphed since its inception. It used to be “Things that Defended Cinephilia”, and that was often mangled (by others, not Geoff) into “Things that Cinephilia Defended”, among other inventive variations. Now we have arrived at a less mangle-able “Defending Cinephilia”. On your marks: I am ever-ready to defend it!*

It has become my personal end-of-year routine (and I am not alone in this) that I provide no less than six versions of this list: to the websites Screenhub and Film Alert in Australia and La Internacional cinéfila (Roger Koza) in Argentina, and to the magazines Desistfilm (Perú), FILO(Korea) and La vida útil (Argentina). I vary the style, the contents and “attack” of my response for each publication or site – sometimes more an essay or a reflection than a list, sometimes something like a letter. And, like everybody – but especially this year – I keep recovering things in my memory that seemed to slip into the cavernous, black hole that collectively enveloped us at the start of March.


I begged off all other, more “mainstream” comers – Sight and SoundIndieWireRotten Tomatoes – because it seemed to me that they were asking for the wrong thing vis à vis2020 in their continued fixation on ‘films officially released during the year’. When I mentioned this on Facebook, many people helpfully provided lists of all the films they considered super and mighty in 2020. As if to prove my polemical point, most of them were ‘officially’ from 2019! Those lists would have been rejected by the manic, narrow-minded pollsters of the mainstream.


So, here’s what Film Alert gets from me. It might be from 2020, it might be from 2019, it may even be hurling backwards from the distant future if that zany inversion-technology showcased in Christopher Nolan’s Tenet(a film I actually enjoyed) has been successfully switched on yet, for good or for evil. 


Zombi Child

First, a couple of feature films that keep returning to assail my mind: Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Childand Christian Petzold’s Undine. Both films about spirits and haunting, about slipstreams of time and history – but in very different ways, over different cultural and political terrains. Both utterly cinematic, with a real touch of mastery.


Michaela Coel, I May Destroy You

There were some terrific TV series. With regards to Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You, I swim in the critical consensus. Two other recommendations from me are less consensual: the wonderful Catalán series The Hockey Girls (two seasons so far, and I found the first with English subtitles); and the frustrating but undeniably disquieting Servant, especially the opening episode directed by M. Night Shyamalan. That one is about to begin its second season in January 2021, with a third season apparently already confirmed. Given the fickle world of neo-TV, we shall see!


Marthe Keller, Henry Fonda, Fedora

This would not be Film Alert without the due, loving attention paid to film history and all the discoveries each of us still have to make back there. In 2020, my random probing seemed to concentrate on a time-span set between the late 1950s and early 1980s. Sometimes you re-see something and it just knocks you out like never before: that was Billy Wilder’s Fedora (1978) for me. From the late ‘50s, I finally watched Robert Wise’s stupendous Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), partly scripted by Abraham Polonsky. An audio commentary assignment for the BFI led me to Tony Richardson’s extraordinary Jean Genet-derived Mademoiselle (1966) with Jeanne Moreau, virtually a lost film for decades. Other things led me to Jerry Schatzberg’s amazing Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970) starring Faye Dunaway. Finally in this batch, a special film from the low-budget production hub of France’s Diagonale, the dedicated company that Paul Vecchiali (still alive and prolifically directing at 90) ran during the ‘70s and ‘80s: 
Marie-Claude Treilhou’s Simone Barbès, or Virtue(1980) – hilarious, touching, surprising. You gotta see it.


Film Alert 
prizes film criticism in all its forms: essays, books, lectures, introductions to screenings, masterclasses, you name it. The two great film books of the year, for me, were also missives from the grave: the indispensable V.F. Perkins on Movies: Collected Shorter Film Criticism (Wayne State University Press) edited by Douglas Pye; and Claude Ollier’s Ce soir à Marienbad, et autres chroniques cinématographiques (Éditions Yellow Now, Belgium) – collecting all the stuff from the late ‘50s and through the ‘60s that Ollier chose to exclude from his classic Souvenirs écran(1981). I also found two other books fascinating for the ‘insider’ light they shed on the changes in American filmmaking from the 1970s to now: Paul Hirsch’s A Long Time Ago in a Cutting Room Far, Far Away (Chicago Review Press) and Ken Kwapis’ But What I Really Want to Do is Direct (St. Martin’s Griffin).


Speaking of the grave, let’s pay tribute to some of the critics, essayists and scholars who left us this year: my Australian friend for almost 40 years, Tom O’Regan; Czech-born Petr Král; James Harvey in USA; Jean Collet (who wrote the first book on Godard) and Pascal Kané in France – the latter whose 2015 collection of essays, Savoir dire pour vouloir faire(Éditions Yellow Now again) has informed much of what I’ve written lately. Film directors tend to receive better and more respectful coverage when they pass on, but let’s especially note here Mexico’s Paul Leduc, maker of (among many others) the remarkable Frida, naturaleza vida(1983).


I end this letter of sorts with a personal plea. 2020 was hard on just about everyone, including freelance film critics (I do not, as some mistakenly assume, draw some astronomical university salary from a mythical kingdom of academic cinema studies). I have a Patreon campaign (www.patreon.com/adrianmartin) that helps me maintain and stoke up (every fortnight!) my website of collected and ongoing critical writings (www.filmcritic.com.au); it also helps me and my partner (Cristina Álvarez López’s brilliant blog is at https://laughmotel.wordpress.com/) to eat three meals a day.  I used to have around 80 regular, kindly supporters there, but that has dropped to 65 or less during this troubled year. If you can possibly help out, please do! Especially if you are a living filmmaker I’ve praised anytime in the past 40 years. The dead ones, and those I have not praised, are forgiven in advance for not pitching in.

© Adrian Martin, 20 December 2020 


Editor’s Note: I give credit to my friend Robert Koehler for inventing the phrase “Defend Cinephilia!” Previous contributions to this annual Christmas series have been posted. Click on the names below to read the thoughts of. 


Rod Bishop


John Baxter


Geoff Gardner


Peter Hourigan


Adrian Danks


Janice Tong

+ some extras


Tom Ryan   


...and more John Baxter


More to come. Contributions still welcome. Send them to filmalert101@gmail.com

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