Friday, January 1, 2021

2020 Top Ten List #1 Martin Eden



















Director Pietro Marcello

Actor Luca Marinelli (left) with the director










MARTIN EDEN                    A                                                                                                     Italy  France  Germany  (129 mi)  2019  d:  Pietro Marcello

My desire to write is the most vital thing in me.                                                                     —Martin Eden (Luca Marinelli)

A curiously intriguing yet shattering portrait of an artist as a young man, told with blistering honesty, a model for American writers to come, co-written by the director and Maurizio Braucci, adapting to Italy and Europe an American work by Jack London, an avid socialist, written at the age of 33 after he already achieved international acclaim for his earlier novels The Call of the Wild, The Sea-Wolf, and White Fang.  Despite the acclaim, London quickly became disillusioned with his popular fame and set sail through the South Pacific on a grueling two-year voyage, struggling with weariness and fatigue generated by gastrointestinal diseases, where he wrote Martin Eden, published in 1909, listed at #61 among Le Monde's 100 Books of the Century, filled with open frustrations, adolescent fisticuffs, and struggles for artistic recognition.  Teeming with the bombastic elements of Fellini and Bellocchio, this coming-of-age saga recounts the turn of the century historical period of Italy, shot on Super 16mm by Alessandro Abate and Francesco Di Giacomo, resembling earlier works like Bellocchio’s VINCERE (2010), a portrait of Mussolini as a young man who transitioned from a socialist agitator to a ruthless fascist dictator, or Bertolucci’s early works like Before the Revolution (Prima della rivoluzione) (1964) and The Conformist (Il Conformista) (1970), epic historical works, character studies that are also meditations on Italian political history that express the turbulence of the times and are among the best films ever made.  Starring Luca Marinelli as Martin Eden, a semi-autobiographical character who is in nearly every shot of the film, he was awarded Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival, but it’s the poignant artistic flourishes that capture the viewer’s imagination, among the few films seen all year that aspire to greatness.  Eden is a carefree sailor coming from an impoverished working class background with no attachments, no beliefs, and no values, leading a purposeless existence, finding himself alone, yet vested with a strong sense of adventure.  A random event changes his life, as he rescues a man at the docks from being harangued and bullied, saving him from some dire fate.  In appreciation, the grateful man introduces Martin to his family, a well-to-do and respectable bourgeois family where he meets his sister, the elegantly refined Jessica Cressy as Elena Orsini, a university student who captures his heart straightaway by playing a wondrous piano recital of Debussy, playing Passepied from his Suite Bergamasque, Debussy: Suite Bergamasque - IV. Passepied (Gieseking ... YouTube (3:42).  Martin immediately becomes receptive to everything associated with her, impassioned with the idea of learning, filled with a flood of visual associations, where she represents a new compelling sensation, like a divine goddess or a spirit of creation, literally breathing in her goodness, possessed by a beauty emanating from her soul, trying to capture her in words, offering a poem, signaling a desire to become a writer, asserting his own self-improvement through books, literally devouring whatever he can find, embarking on a career as a writer, hoping to sell stories to magazines, even turning to her for educational advice, having dropped out of primary school to hit the road and travel, losing what he now values the most, becoming obsessed with learning and broadening his educational background, bettering himself with the inflamed desire to capture her love, continually writing to her during their absence.  From her family’s position, he’s a bit crude and even a little barbaric, never learning bourgeois manner and etiquette, viewed a bit like a bull in a china shop, where his impoverished roots are too raw and coarse for her delicate disposition.  Nonetheless, she’s drawn to him and gives him a chance, but after reading Nietzsche, denying man’s free will, or the social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” he spars with the local socialist radicals in free speech forums, arguing against it, conveying individualism as the essential core ingredient, which they angrily associate with their fascist bosses and the ruling class.  Martin transforms his identity, growing as an artist, finding himself increasingly distanced from his working-class background and surroundings, yet is never welcomed into a world of wealth and refinement, which would be essential if he wished to marry Elena, as she’s simply out of his league, becoming a bit of a blowhard out of frustration, overstaying his welcome in her family, railing against her own wealthy parents and their liberal respectability, which only drives her further away.  Her loss is like a hole in his gut, simply irreplaceable, having to build a new life and start anew. 

Martin strives to elevate himself from his destitute circumstances, hoping to achieve a place in the literary establishment, but instead only accumulates a steady stream of rejection letters, renting a room from a widowed seamstress Maria (Carmen Pommella) and her children on the outskirts of town, who takes him in like her own son and encourages him, but grows increasingly angry and suspicious when he’s unable to pay, wondering if he’s taking life seriously.  Early on, before having met Elena, Martin had a one-night fling with Margherita (Denise Sardisco), who he meets again in Elena’s company working as a waitress, ignoring her, paying her no mind, but he runs after her again after being shunned by the Orsini family, becoming the new love of his life.  But Martin exhibits chauvinist manners, never treating women with equal respect, believing contemptuously they are somehow beneath him, as if women are a lower standing than men, which is how women were perceived a century ago, and Martin, more of a roughneck, was not ahead of his times when it comes to gallantry or appreciation.  Instead he develops an unlikely friendship with an older man, Russ Brissenden (Carlo Cecchi), a cynical loner who is a committed socialist, also a sickly writer suffering from tuberculosis who encourages him to give up writing and return to the sea before he gets swallowed up by the corrupt stench of city life, introducing him to some real socialist firebrands that he calls the “real dirt,” as they’re willing to get their hands dirty in pursuit of a more equitable political solution, yet Eden ardently rejects the socialists, or even joining a union, which to him means giving up one boss for another, calling them part of a slave class that has always existed in history, identifying instead with hard corps individualism, but only for himself, like some kind of frontier freedom, never speaking for a human collective or a surrounding impoverished class that needs to liberate itself from tyranny.  Brissenden becomes his holy mentor, an incomparable artist, a man alone in the Cosmos, a madman scoffing at the world, showing absolute contempt for his audience, cut off from all superficial connections and values, writing Ephemera, which Martin calls a poem of the century, just before he shoots himself (foreshadowing Martin’s own fate).  This kind of Socratic dialogue plays out like a Greek theater commenting on Italian history, which was undergoing massive transformations, mirroring his own metamorphosis as an unrecognized yet free-spirited writer.  When one of his stories finally gets published, the monetary reward is stunning, finally able to contribute something back to the hands that have been feeding him.  An indictment of pandering art and a brilliant essay calling for a more challenging and thoughtful expression of filmmaking, Marcello’s film is intensely creative and vividly experimental, using astounding visual imagery, where the cleverness is setting an additional underlying layer happening simultaneously as the story is being told, filled with dreamlike effects which may or may not be capturing his imagination at the time, but sets a tone for what may be a poem of the mind, much like the works of Terrence Malick.  Revealing a subterranean stream-of-conscious layer that’s given such a prominent place in the overall artistic design of the film, filled with realistic faces of working place figures, hardened by time and lifelong effort, or grainy, color-tinted archival footage, yet also juxtaposed by the innocence of dancing children, who may represent Martin and his sister at a young age, which is another expression of pure love that also changes over time, as well as the presence of ships at sea, which in a particularly dire moment slowly sinks.  This impressionistic revelation of his interior thoughts, given a swooning backdrop of history, may be the most astounding aspect of the film, visually the most stunning and surprising, with remarkable editing, where early on what sounds like French popular songs play out over some of these sequences, exuding the energy of the French New Wave, which can be jarring, feeling sentimentalized and distorted, but also represents daring choices, as youth is filled with a kaleidoscope of shifting influences, not all of which stick with you or hold the same meaning, but they were all part of your life, where the meaning that matters the most changes over time. 

The film jumps ahead in years, with Martin now a popular and commercial success, where people who were suspicious of him initially have now come to accept him, where his views are part of the mainstream, even beloved internationally, with his working-class depictions of communal struggle endearing him to Communist countries like Russia and China, yet Martin has also changed substantially, exuding traits of unending despair and fatalism that are a walking contradiction, no longer the rebel rouser of his youth, yet he commands attention in public forums, where he is treated like a celebrity.  But he doesn’t seem to be enjoying his success, or care to be a generational influence, remaining distrustful of anyone close to him, believing it’s not him but his fame they value, basically ordering Margherita around as if she’s his own personal slave, treating Elena with utter contempt when she comes around to pay a visit, where he seems angry at the world, as if there is no safe space.  While the world has moved on and embraced him, he remains ambivalent, offering a bleakly honest assessment of himself, still seeing himself as an outsider railing against the cowardice of bourgeois society, donating much of his money to the socialist causes simply because they remain irritants to the status quo, wanting wholesale changes to the world around them, as poverty continues growing unabated, with wealthy classes ignoring them with a sustained indifference, which is where Martin now finds himself, older, less ambitious, more resigned to his sad fate.  Wealthy and successful, but unhappy in love, he cherishes his memories when he was committed to searching for freedom, seeking a primary truth, when he was a young firebrand knocking on the door of success, persistent in following his dreams.  But where has it gotten him?  Embittered by his own view of individualism, which failed to provide the desired promise, as the person in the story is not a hero, still holding a grudge against all those who didn’t accept him early on, including the publishers, the same bourgeois interests that now embrace him, even Elena, holding them at the center of his unbridled contempt.  The hubris of his own ego, his own hypocrisy, looms large, as he’s become a hollow caricature of himself, no longer real, but a figment in people’s imagination who see in him what they want, not who he really is.  This elusive idea of individualism seems unattainable, yet it’s been the driving force of his life, transforming a remarkable success story into a chronicle of human failure, unable to stop the rising tide of fascism, which is all but inevitable in the annals of history.  Few even understand or care anymore, as they don’t really take him seriously.  As for himself, he seems to be following the disgruntled path of his old friend Russ Brissenden, forever wanting something better, giving more than lip service to it, including large sums of money, but he’s like a prisoner of his own beliefs, unable to bring about social change or live in an unjust world, resigned to a certain fate that he’s no longer a fighting force.  He has offers and designs of traveling to America, writing about the New World, which just might shake up his complacency, becoming his latest project, or is it just a vanity project?  These kinds of thoughts are swirling around in his head, never the success he dreamed of, as he hates being a public figure, loathing and hating himself for becoming part of what he in fact detests and resents.  A forlorn figure besieged by doubts, like CITIZEN KANE (1941), the sum total of his life stands before him, where it’s so easy to condemn what he’s become.  Defying God and nature in the same breath, he can only in the end rail against himself and his own failed practices, as he couldn’t attain the success he wanted, on his own terms, in his own mind, which was to be a free man.  Bought and sold to the highest bidder, his value determined by commerce, in his mind he’s a total disgrace, a complete fraud, and a moral hypocrite.  With one last individualist gesture, a desperate attempt to assert a mangled and perverted inclination of free will, the New World will have to wait, as instead he flings himself into the sea with a bitter sense of nihilist futility, followed by a somber and impassioned musical transcendence, Ottorino Respighi: Tre Corali di Johann Sebastian Bach (P. 167) YouTube (11:57).  In many ways London’s life mirrors Jack Kerouac, a poet who took his talents on the road seeking the elusive road to freedom, living his youth to the fullest, never stopping for a moment to breathe, always on the move, yet once he becomes a successful celebrity writer, his response is to drown himself in liquor and self-loathing.  Even the name Eden conjures up imagery of a Paradise Lost.  Exuding the raging existentialist ramblings of Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, London described his novel as a searing critique of the failures of individualism, and a parable of a man who had to die, “Not because of his lack of faith in God, but because of his lack of faith in men.”

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