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.