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That Summer Feeling
By Adrian Martin

I tend to believe that the cultural experiences we encounter in our impressionable youth — the films we see, the music we hear, the books we read — form us in ways that we seldom recognise, scarcely understand and often resist. I am not talking, for instance, about the movies that we set out to see in the first militant flush of cinephilia — viewings that are stuffed full of expectation, learning, acculturation — but the movies we, in a sense, never meant to see, that were part of no self-advancement 'program', but that grip us until the day we die, crystallising some obscure, unconscious part of our identities. Jonathan Richman once sang, so poignantly and memorably, about this moment: "That summer feeling is going to haunt you / For the rest of your life".

At the age of 15 or 16, I started reading my first film books. I was already nurturing my cinephilia, but I was not yet full of a certain film-literary taste — I wasn't (yet) taking an imaginary side in the wars between »Cahiers« and »Positif« or (in England) »Movie« and »Screen«, I had not yet settled on an allegiance to Manny Farber over Pauline Kael. I was reading seriously — hungry for knowledge — but also haphazardly. I wasn’t very far from the childlike phase of scouring handsome coffee table books for intriguing titles (and colour photos) of films — just as Scorsese describes that kind of kid-in-a-library experience in »A Personal History of American Cinema« — but I wanted something more substantial, some first thoughts about cinema, beyond the bewilderingly profuse lists of masterpieces and greats. (It must be more bewildering for 16 year old cinephiles today, the entire film world has gone list-crazy!)

In that youthful summer of my cinephilia, two books, selected at random in this trembling phase of initiation, wielded a life-long impact: »Film as Film« by V.F. (Victor) Perkins, and »Theory of Film Practice« (French title: Praxis du cinéma) by Noël Burch. They make an unlikely couple; it would be hard to think of two books more different in their tone and approach, not to mention the sorts of films valorised in each (Preminger—Hitchcock—Ray for Perkins, Bresson—Hanoun—Lang for Burch).

Actually, I have faced the brutally psychoanalytic fact of the matter: in the constellation of my particular film imaginary, »Film as Film« and »Theory of Film Practice« are my Mother and Father, although I find it hard to definitively establish their respective genders. Nobody chooses their mother and father, and I didn’t choose these two books either, each prodigious and wonderful in their way. And like every child, my personality (emotional and intellectual) was formed in the tension between the personalities of my parents, a slightly uneasy but also endlessly fertile amalgam of their differences and arguments.

I will spend the rest of my life trying to put these twin formative experiences together. Perkins represents classical aesthetics: style serves content, form is expressive, movies are about characters, destinies, symbolic worlds. Later, reading more of Perkins and his close colleagues on »Movie« (Robin Wood, Douglas Pye, Andrew Britton, Deborah Thomas, etc) from the early 1960s until now, I would be led back to the various formative influences on this school: F. R. Leavis, Paul Ricoeur, Stanley Cavell. This is a 'school' of criticism that always had (still has) trouble coming to terms with modernism in all its disruptive cinematic forms (Godard, forever the great divider, the deal-breaker). But, on the other hand, the legacy of classicism is inexhaustible, and I am still in thrall to Ophuls' »Letter From a Unknown Woman«, which Perkins has written about eloquently and frequently …

Burch, on the other hand, is an arch modernist. Even towards his own work: he appears to have regularly disowned his past achievements, wiped the slate clean, and started again. His intellectual inspirations in the period leading to »Theory of Film Practice« were people like the serialist composer Pierre Boulez, with his severe theory of a crest line of advanced artistic achievement. Starting roughly in the same period as Perkins (late '50s/early '60s), but in a completely different context (the French nouvelle vague, the American avant-garde), Burch trailblazed a film formalism: the classical/organic language of theme, style, character and so on meant little to him, while the sheerly material delight of framing, montage, image-sound counterpoint, camera movement, and all such parameters of filmic form were everything. It was through reading Burch that I came to know — and love — the thrill of off-screen space, of disjunctive sound, of long-takes and scene découpage …

Long after first reading and falling captive to these two remarkable books, I developed my own little theory to help heal the wounding rift between them in my psyche. Perhaps, within the medium of cinema, it is a matter of a differential economy of style or form to content: within the classical approach, form is subject to a 'restrained' economy, whereas within modernism, 'materialist' form takes the upper hand and creates the foreground experience …

That's OK as a theory (it has kept me going), but it's also a rationalisation. When I try to grasp now what I got from »Film as Film« and »Theory of Film Practice«, I see something that does unite them: in both there is a rigorous analytical sense, a demonstration of some form-to-content logic in every film they alight upon, often dazzlingly intuited and demonstrated. These days, film criticism — even the best-written — does little for me, finally, unless it can unearth, propose and in a way prove the existence of the logic that makes a film 'tick', as we say, that coheres it into some kind of whole work, whether classical-expressive or modernist-disjunctive. Godard, in fact, said it best in his challenge to Kael and, beyond her, all critics: "Bring in the evidence", he demanded. Film analysis or criticism without that logic, that evidence, is just assertion, and assertion is something I can take or leave (perhaps depending on whether or not I agree with it!). It is the work of logic that I still admire so much today in the best work of Jonathan Rosenbaum or Nicole Brenez.

I may still be rationalising, however. Before, beyond or below logic, there's … what? Obsession? Passion? Cinephilia is no stranger to this 'cinemania' — as long as we agree to elevate such cinemania to include the passion of thought and debate, not just endless viewing and listing. I believe it was in the calm argumentation of »Film as Film« as in the proselytising eccentricity of »Theory of Film Practice« alike that I first encountered the persuasive force of that intellectual obsession which is true cinephilia. And almost thirty years later, I'm still hooked. So I would like to thank my Mum and Dad …

Adrian Martin
© Adrian Martin, 2004



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   Books on Cinema
Ronald Bergan
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Adrian Martin
Gabe Klinger
Chris Fujiwara
Philip Cheah