Inside the world of a cinephile


ADRIAN Martin has a great yarn about a childhood portent of his adult obsession with film. “When I was seven, I dreamt, with hyper-real clarity, three scenes from an extremely fanciful science-fiction type story. A year later, I nearly jumped out of my parents’ car barrelling down the highway when I saw a billboard advertising a new film: it was The Planet of the Apes.“Demanding to see this film the next day, I saw there the three scenes I had dreamed in precise detail, showing a race of apes rounding up and imprisoning human men and women. A friend of mine reckons, from this evidence, that I was obviously destined to be a cinephile, since for her this is the very definition of cinephilia: a desire for cinema so strong that you dream films before you even see them.”

Martin swears the story is true. A downmarket twist on Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious, perhaps? He laughs. “I don’t know that Planet of the Apes counts as a Jungian archetype, but perhaps it should.”

Today, Martin is one of only a handful of full-time critics in Australia, and one of an even smaller subgroup: Australian film critics with an international profile. This year he has spoken at the University of Paris, the Tate Gallery in London and the Buenos Aires film festival. Next month, he goes to the Vancouver International Film Festival where he will be one of three judges for the prestigious Tigers and Dragons Award for Asian Cinema. He will also speak on “Does Film Criticism Exist?”

Martin has written two books: Phantasms, (McPhee Gribble) in 1994 and, as part of a series for the British Film Institute in 1998, Once Upon a Time in America.

He has been commissioned to write three more: The Films of Terrence Malick (also for the BFI), The Films of Brian De Palma (for Illinois University Press) and Mad Max (for Australia’s Currency press).

In his home town, though, he is best known for his radio and newspaper film reviews – not always fondly. Last year, he suffered a drive-by character assassination following his enthusiastic reception of a Yahoo Serious film, Mr Accident: “I saw it with an audience of five-year-old kids at the Jam Factory and I became a five-year-old watching that movie. I wrote a very enthusiastic review saying it was the best Australian movie of the year.”

Later, waiting at a tram stop in Flinders Street, he was accosted by four well-dressed men – “South Yarra types, they looked like advertising executives” – in a car stopped at traffic lights. “One guy puts his head out and says, `Are you Adrian Martin?’ And I go, `Yep’. And then they talk.

“And then another guy puts out his head and goes, `Did you give four stars to Mr Accident?’ And I go, `Yep’.

“And then a third guy goes, `You should f—ing resign!’

“And with that, the car burned off from the lights with all these guys yelling and swearing at me, totally exploding. And I thought, `Boy, that review got a response’.” He finishes the story with the smile of an ingenuous child; no offence taken.

Martin’s a bit of a cool dude. He presents for this interview in de rigueur black with a lime green shirt and has chosen as the venue a Richmond cafe called The Groove Train. (He lives with his elderly father, who is unwell, so he keeps visitors to the house to a minimum.)

He is just as protective of his own privacy. He talks animatedly for hours about films but is reduced to monosyllables when asked about his life outside of them. For the record, he is 41, no longer married and child-free. “I have an open mind on (marriage); who knows what tomorrow will bring. But at the moment I feel very happy with my life, I must say.”

It leaves him time to roam the world of the imagination, his preferred terrain since boyhood. Martin was a shy, introverted, intense sort of child. He had two older brothers, a father who was a carpenter and a mother who was impatient with all forms of fiction. She died in 1985.

“I was very close to my mother, and she was a very passionate, curious and driven sort of person,” Martin says. “I think some of my enthusiasm comes from her. But she didn’t like make-believe. She disliked the fantasy element; she regarded it as a distraction from facts, from things that you had to understand about the world.”

Martin, on the other hand, devoured fiction. “When I was younger than 10, I was into books like The Pilgrim’s Progress. The more alien the world the better; the more distant, different, foreign from me the better.”

By his early teens he was addicted to sci-fi novels and subscribed to a fan magazine in which reviewers listed their favorite sci-fi films. Orderly and perfectionistic, he made lists of the films and hassled his father into driving him to the University of Melbourne for after-hours screenings of obscure classics such as Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Godard’s Alphaville.

“I was so excited by these films that I gave up science fiction almost overnight and then I was into film,” he says. Which led to further lists, this time of the 100 greatest films, as culled from coffee-table books. “I would tick them off as I saw them one by one. I was obsessive and I still am.”

Now he gets all the storytelling he needs from cinema and can no longer finish novels. “In life one must make choices; there’s limited time. I’ve sometimes been accused of somehow perverting the course of western civilisation by not reading novels, but I don’t believe it.”

It is the newest of literary forms, cyberwriting, that most unexpectedly led to Martin becoming known overseas. He was initially reluctant to publish on the Internet. “Basically, why do I want to give my work away for free? And I didn’t think the Internet was a real form of communication.”

But it is work on Internet publications that drew the attention of overseas festival directors, who then used cyberspace to search for more of his work. “I hadn’t realised its international(ising) effect,” he says.

After leaving school, Martin flirted briefly with the idea of teaching – “I thought, `I need a good, secure job”‘ – but became so absorbed by his college’s unit in film and media studies that he dropped out of the course. “I still, to this point, don’t have a university degree.”

Two years later, he was publishing in movie magazines and had part-time work lecturing on film thanks to one of his teachers, Tom Ryan, who is now the movie critic for The Sunday Age.

RYAN still remembers Martin’s first essay at Melbourne State College, on a director called Frank Tashlin. “My first reaction was, `Oh bloody hell! I’ve got another student who’s just nicked an essay out of Screen (magazine)’. Then I realised it hadn’t been plagiarised at all. In fact, I realised there was a lot of stuff I would have to read in order to do justice to this essay. It just blew me out of the water.”

Ryan says he is still amazed by the breadth of Martin’s reading and by the number of films he sees. “And his memory for detail is remarkable – he taught himself to remember things. He actually trained himself to remember with little exercises.”

It’s no wonder Martin knows so much about film; he does little else. When pushed, he admits to listening to music and reading non-fiction, but his real idea of time out is hiring half a dozen videos and ploughing through them with omnivorously like-minded friends. He pursues cinema with the kind of zeal others reserve for religion.

Ryan says Martin has dislikes that have become “bees in his bonnet”. “European art films, the old-fashioned ones that used to be shown at film festivals, and anything that bears the brand name of Sundance (an American film festival for independent film makers). They’re full of good taste, and good taste is something he reacts against on instinct, although he often comes around to saying they’re worthy of interest.”

Martin acknowledges that he dislikes “people thinking that there’s a rigid system of values of good and bad. That’s a very defensive thing; it’s sort of the anxiety of taste. You know, `I’m a quality person, I will go for a quality movie … (and it says something) about what I exclude and what I include’. It seems to me that the moment you start breaking down or escaping from your own prison of taste, you open yourself up to new experiences.

“Hitchcock films were once considered trash; now we think of them as the highest art.”

Martin has a testy relationship with the Australian film industry. Rick Thompson, senior lecturer in cinema studies at LaTrobe University, says Martin helps keep film culture alive in Australia. “He appears at conferences and public forums and panel discussions and is very generous about going out to universities and talking to young people interested in film and film-writing.”

But it is rare for Martin to greet an Australian film with enthusiasm. “I think Australian movies don’t go far enough, or lack intensity,” he says. “They often lack energy.”

He puts it down to lack of groundwork. “They’re not real film buffs. I don’t think they’re watching enough films … because when they go to make an action film or a mystery or a comedy, it’s like some part of their brain shuts off and they’re starting from scratch. They’re trying to rediscover the rules for how to make a film like this.

“Whereas my advice would always be, `Watch 100 movies of that sort, and then do something different if you want to, but at least know the rules’.”

A cinema critic, like a journalist or a therapist, has a vicarious professional life; he feeds off the stories of others. Does Martin ever feel that he ends up living in a half-light, with the world of cinema more real – or at least more satisfying – than the world outside?

“I’ve had a few melancholic moments of that sort,” he admits, “but not many. No, I honestly feel that cinema is something that can illuminate life and not deaden it, not cloak it in darkness.

“I do find it a completely fulfilling thing. I’m often suspicious of people who – they may write about film or music or whatever it is – but when you get to know them, you realise that their real passion is skiing or cricket or something else. It seems to me a little dissociated or inauthentic.

“But that’s how a lot of people function; they have their work in one part of their life, and their pleasure or their relaxation in another. As it turns out, I don’t need to, and I don’t want to.”

Adrian Martin, film critic

Born: Melbourne, 1959.

Educated: St Joseph’s College, West Melbourne.

Career: Lectured in film studies before becoming a full-time writer. Won the Byron Kennedy Award (Australian Film Institute, 1993) and the Pascall Prize for Critical Writing (1997). Written two books on film with three more commissioned. Movie critic for The Age since 1995.

Lives: Richmond, with his father John.

First published in The Age.

Searching for the essence of Islam

There is the Islam of peace and compassion: Christians and Jews are recognised as fellow travellers, human life is precious and attacks on innocents are grave sins. And then there is the extremist Islam of jihad (holy war): unbelievers are to be slayed, violent martyrdom wins a special place in paradise, and the whole world should submit to Allah.

At the same time as Westerners have been confronted with images suspected of being linked to the extremist line, they have also been told that this is not the real face of Islam. Newspapers such as The Age have received deeply wounded letters from moderate Muslims appalled that their faith could be seen as having any role in justifying the mass slaughter of innocents.

For the non-Muslim seeking the truth about the essence of Islam, picking up the Koran is as confusing and contradictory as it would be for a non-Christian to open a Bible, which advocates both love for others and stoning to death for blasphemy. Professor Abdullah Saeed, head of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Melbourne University, says texts from any religion can be quoted selectively or misused as a political rallying point, with people emphasising some elements and ignoring others: “It can
be used like a football; you just play it in any direction you want.”
The first line of the Koran is “This book is not to be doubted.” Chapter nine, Repentance, has many references to the duty of good Muslims to fight for Allah: “Slay the idolaters wherever you find them. Arrest them, besiege them, and lie in ambush everywhere for them.” If idolaters revile the faith, “make war on the leaders of unbelief”.

Those who fight for God are promised his joy and mercy “and gardens of eternal bliss”. And God sent forth Mohammed “with guidance and true faith to make it triumphant over all religions, however much idolaters may dislike it”.

But like any religious text, the Koran suggests different things in different places. It also says: “Whosoever kills a human being for other than manslaughter or corruption in the earth, it shall be as if he has killed all mankind; and whosoever saves the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind.” It urges forgiveness of unbelievers and says that even in times of war, Muslims are not allowed to kill anyone except those who have confronted them face to face. There are particular rules against killing women, children, old people and religious figures.

A Melbourne Muslim who did not wish to be named says: “There are two interpretations of the Koran. The first one is literal … and it means kill those who don’t believe in God, who don’t accept your religion. Another possible way of interpreting it is in historical context. Those verses weren’t revealed in a vacuum; they were revealed on a certain occasion. What was their purpose? That was revealed for a particular type of situation faced by Muslims at that time, and we can’t generalise (from that).

“Fundamentalists go for a literal interpretation of the Koran, but this (historical view) is the way of liberal or moderate Muslims.”

According to Khaled Abou El Fadl, an acting professor at UCLA law school in America, Islamic law considers terrorism (hirabah) a grave and predatory sin punishable by death. It forbids the taking or slaying of hostages as well as stealthy or indiscriminate attacks against enemies. “Classical jurists considered such acts to be contrary to the ethics of Arab chivalry and therefore fundamentally cowardly,” he writes in the Los Angeles Times.

But he argues that an “ethically oblivious” strand of Islam has developed since the 1970s that dismisses the juristic tradition and the notion of universal and innate moral values. Instead, it relies on a literal interpretation of texts and the technicalities of Islamic law, and is rooted in the sense of defeat and alienation being experienced by many in the Muslim world.

Professor Saeed says there are many different schools of thought in Islam: “We are dealing with 1400 years of history, almost every single nation, ethnicity, cultural and linguistic group you can think of. It’s inconceivable that all these people would be thinking the same way on these issues.”

Professor Saeed said many Muslims now interpret “jihad” as the struggle against sin and oneself. The notion of jihad as physical warfare is more problematic and is meant to be confined to defending Islam and Muslims against serious, actual or imminent attack. The Russian invasion of Muslim Afghanistan, he says, legitimatised a jihad against the invaders.

Islam does consider itself to be the final word of God, says Dr Sharam Akberzadeh, lecturer in international relations at La Trobe University, but many Muslims acknowledge there are modern challenges not addressed by the Koran, as well as some Koranic concepts that are no longer appropriate. “Very few Muslim scholars have argued that popular will and democratic elections should be abandoned because sovereignty, as suggested in the Koran, resides with Allah.” But it is that principle that government-by-mullah has relied upon, he agrees.

Dr Akberzadeh says the rallying point for those advocating jihad is a growing sense in the Muslim world that Muslim identity is threatened by globalisation and the cultural penetration of western values, and that Islam is under siege.

Professor Saeed says extremists look at many disparate developments – such as the dispossession of Palestinians, the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims, or the way women are prevented from wearing the hijab in certain Muslim countries fearful of fundamentalism – and see a pattern of suppression.

But in Melbourne, Muslim students hear little of the concept of war as jihad, says the principal of Minaret College in Springvale, Mr Mohamed Hassan. “To be honest, we hardly touch on it,” he says. “What we are concerned about is teaching our children Islamic morality and to be good Australian citizens.”

Islam in Australia: from the outback to suburbia

Even before the arrival of Captain Cook, Muslims visited Australia’s north coast. Each summer Macassans and Buginese, from the Indonesian archipelago, would travel from west of Darwin to the Gulf of Carpentaria to catch and dry trepang, or sea slug, and trade with local Aborigines. Later, Afghan cameleers and hawkers helped open up the interior and build the overland telegraph.

The past 25 years has seen the rise of significant Muslim communities throughout Australia, with just over one in every 100 Australians now identifying as Muslim.

In the 1947 census, no respondents identified as Muslim. By 1971, there were 22,000 (0.2 per cent of the population) and in 1991, 147,500 (0.9 per cent). At the last census, in 1996, the number had grown by 36.2 per cent to almost 201,000 (1.13 per cent). Of those, 67,047 live in Victoria. Some believe the figures are understated due to a reluctance to identify as Islamic and that the actual number could be as high as 300,000.

While 35 per cent of Muslims living in Australia were born here, the other 64 per cent have immigrated from more than 60 countries.

Muslim migration rose after the lifting of the White Australia policy. Recent immigration patterns have been linked to tensions in the Middle East: the Lebanese fleeing civil war in the 1970s, Iranian refugees fleeing the mullahs’ revolution in 1979, and Iraqi refugees escaping after the Gulf War in 1990-91.

Muslims live in every local government area of Victoria but are centred in Broadmeadows, which has more than 10,000 Muslims, and Dandenong, Preston, Coburg, Brunswick, Sunshine, Keilor and South Whittlesea.

First published in The Age.

A literary feud born of family trauma


This is a tale of two sisters. The elder, poet and novelist Lily Brett, has built an international literary career on her memories of childhood as the worst of times.
Her parents were Holocaust survivors and she has told of growing up in “a house full of anguish”. Her traumatised mother would weep and weep in front of her; her mother screamed in the night; her mother was tyrannical and envious of her daughter.
The younger sister, psychotherapist and writer Doris Brett, remembers their childhood in Carlton and Elwood as the best of times. In a memoir published this week, Eating the Underworld, she challenges Lily’s accounts of their history and of their mother, Rose, who died 15 years ago.
She says she shared Lily’s bedroom until Lily was 13 but she never heard her mother scream in the night; that her mother never wept in front of her and barely mentioned the Holocaust; that their home was a haven to which children of more damaged survivors were drawn for comfort. Her mother was no tyrant but cosseted both daughters and was “as good as she was beautiful”.
The family problem was not her mother but Lily: “There were a lot of tantrums and she certainly had an explosive temper, and I think my mother was very hurt by that.”
Doris Brett says that at 18, after years of trying to ingratiate herself with Lily, she realised she could never win her big sister’s love. She later came to believe that Lily would never forgive her for having unseated her as the only child: “She hated me.”
A relatively private estrangement has now become a public literary feud. Lily Brett, who lives in New York, and her father Max, who is in Melbourne, were sent copies of Eating the Underworld. Lily Brett issued this statement through her publisher: “There are some things not worth replying to. This book is one of them.”
There was also a statement from 85-year-old Max Brett: “This book, Eating the Underworld, by my daughter Doris, is a book of madness. It makes me very sad. I recognise very little of our family life in this book. My daughter Doris has made up a picture of her sister Lily which I don’t recognise at all.”
Doris Brett was expecting this kind of response: “My father basically said that if I wrote anything that hurt Lily’s career he would denounce me; he would call me a liar … It just didn’t matter how many times I said, `This is not aimed at Lily.’ ”
Is this a case of terminal sibling rivalry? A Helen Garner-like row over a writer exposing one side of shared private moments to the public gaze? A reflection of the way some children of survivors end up with their parents’ experience as a big part of their identity, and others don’t? Or an object lesson in the way truth is never absolute, and memory is at best a fuzzy reconstruction?
Lily Brett’s publicity material tells her parents’ story as part of her own. Rose and Max Brett were married just before they were imprisoned in Poland’s Lodz ghetto. They were sent to Auschwitz, where they were separated. They found each other six months after the war and Lily was born in a German camp for displaced persons in 1946. They came to Melbourne in 1948 and Doris was born a year later.
Lily, 54, has won prizes for her Holocaust poetry, Poland and Other Poems and The Auschwitz Poems, as well as an international audience for her novel Too Many Men, in which the main character travels with her father to Auschwitz. Lily is married to artist David Rankin and has three children.
Doris, 51, is married with one daughter – she says having Lily as a sibling made her reluctant to have a second child – and is also an award-winning poet. Her work includes the novel Looking For Unicorns, a book on therapeutic storytelling for children called The Annie Stories, and The Constellation of the Crab, poems about her battle with ovarian cancer.
Eating the Underworld is largely a memoir of the cancer battle but it also reflects on questions she had been reluctant to face until the prospect of death forced her to reassess her life. These included the need to defend her mother’s memory.
She writes that she had held her silence for a long time, “Because I was told it was shameful to expose differences. Because I wished to protect people … Because of the difficult question of who `owns’ shared stories … Because of my concern that if I spoke out, then I would only be doing what I had criticised my sister for. And also, I am not proud to say, because of fear … All too often, the bearers of news which bursts bubbles … are themselves turned on …
“It has been painful seeing the accounts of my family recounted so publicly by my sister … I have had strangers stop me in the street and commiserate with me for having had such a terrible mother. I find myself saying again and again to them that no, that was not my experience. I have had patients who have come to see me as a psychotherapist because they had abusive mothers and, having read my sister’s books, they `knew’ that I had one too and would understand.”
Doris writes that she does not recognise Lily’s view of her mother: “It is clearly the way Lily has chosen to interpret her experience and yet in the minds of many, it has become who my mother actually was. It is how she will be remembered by readers, critics, academics; people who never knew her.”
Her parents did not discuss the Holocaust with their children because they wanted to protect them, Doris says. But they failed to protect her from her sister’s antagonism as they were growing up – perhaps because they were blind to it, perhaps because the death camp had engendered a kind of passivity in her mother, she writes.
Doris first challenged Lily in a letter to the Jewish News in the late 1980s. In her book she writes that Lily stopped speaking to her then and that her father, who had initially approved the letter, rang her close to tears after speaking to Lily. He accused Doris of trying to wreck her sister’s career.
The Brett sisters are in fine literary company. The chill between British writers A. S. Byatt and Margaret Drabble, who also have differing views of their mother, has been much written about. But Doris Brett says their situation is different: “They were each allowed to write, even though they didn’t like what the other wrote. I was silenced. It was made very clear that I shouldn’t be writing about these things and I shouldn’t be talking about these things.”
Now, “The reader can read Lily’s, they can read mine, and they can make up their mind. And that’s how it should be.”
But what is the reader to make of such contradictory accounts? Is this bitter tussle itself a symptom of the emotional damage caused by the camp experience?
Psychiatrist Dr Paul Valent has treated children of Holocaust survivors. He says he cannot comment on the Brett family but that in Holocaust families generally, “one child can take the brunt of the family’s (bad) experience and the other child might represent the hope of all the good things that should come in the new life …
“It often happens that the oldest child is colored by the Holocaust experience, whereas the youngest child escapes it, relatively speaking – especially if, for instance, the older child was born in a displaced persons’ camp and the younger child was
born in Australia,” he says.
Louise Adler is an arts and literary commentator whose Jewish father fought in the French resistance. “Lily’s central preoccupation has been with making sense of that moment in history and how it affected her life,” she says. “That’s a legitimate activity.
“The problem of fiction is the morality of using material that you share with other people. For Lily Brett, the added problem is that there are other ways of viewing the family history. Is this struggle between these two sisters a poignant symptom of the drama of the second generation struggling to make sense of the horror that actually belongs to another generation?”
Doris Brett, who has been a psychotherapist for nearly 30 years, shares Dr Valent’s view that siblings often emerge with entirely different experiences of the family. But she also points quietly to Lily Brett’s acknowledgement in interviews that she tends to embroider stories.
Doris says, “For me, the issue ultimately was that I had been living with the sense that if I kept silent, that it would somehow fix things in the family – on a personal level, with my father … But in the end, I realised my silence wasn’t fixing anything.”

First published in The Age.