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Martin Eden: a song of experience cut on the lathe of history

Pietro Marcello’s adaptation of Jack London’s Martin Eden fuses avant-garde methods with classical filmmaking form. The result is a piece of accessible high drama that is radical, exploratory, and analytical.

As young working-class socialists upon discovery, and self-made artists upon adaptation, it was only natural for director Pietro Marcello and writer Maurizio Braucci to be attracted to Jack London’s 1909 novel, Martin Eden. The book is a portrait of an artist or, specifically, a working-class artist, grappling with his conditions while in the snapping jaws of a nascent culture industry. It’s an autobiography, too. Or rather, an evocation of one; a story of life drawn from a combination of London’s own experience as an autodidact, who used his voracious mind, Will, and typewriter to transcend his lot. It’s London’s “there but for the grace of God go I” negative imagining of himself, totally crushed by the wear and alienation of those experiences. 

Most pivotally, the director-writer duo were also drawn to its qualities as a major political novel. The titular Martin’s study of figures like Herbert Spencer and Friedrich Nietzsche—and then his espousal of the former’s society of slaves and the latter’s blond beasts—as an individualist in opposition to the collectivism of socialist class consciousness, on the one hand, and the hierarchal liberalism of the upper-middle classes on the other, appeared to Marcello, Braucci, and others as a premonition. They found the germ, in this one man’s war against everyone, of the political forces, ideas, and conflicts that would mark the oncoming “short century” of upheaval, and beyond. 

All of this history is not just background, but the very fabric of this unique film adaptation. The action is not only transposed from Oakland, the San Francisco Bay, and the Pacific to Naples, Campania, and the Mediterranean, but from the first decade of the 20th century to a slippery amalgamation of different epochs. There is no mention of any specific events or forces, but going by fashion, architecture, and technology it seems like a selective rendering of the sixties, or seventies, that reels back across the 20th century with the aid of an intensive, and interwoven, use of archival footage. 

His development is variously stoked, halted, and warped by various factors. Such as copious reading and writing, the need for money, exploitative commercialism, and the limits of liberal, haute bourgeoisie tolerance.

Martin Eden (Pietro Marcello, 2019, Italy). Russ Brissenden and Martin Eden (Carlo Cecchi, Luca Marinelli).

Couched within this atemporality, the film draws a clear and straight narrative linewith rhyming beats, like Martin in convalescence or on the pulpitthat is largely faithful to its source. It follows a young sailor called Martin Eden (Luca Marinelli) who, after being spurred on by his intelligence and his love of the upper crust and respectability-minded Elena (Jessica Cressy), strives to break from his blue-collar destiny. He is determined to become educated and earn a living as a writer, by his own grit and no one else’s. His development is variously stoked, halted, and warped by various factors. Such as copious reading and writing, exploitative commercialism, the need for money, and the limits of liberal, haute bourgeoisie tolerance. He finds no solidarity and only a little understanding among family and friends, and bristles against, instead of joining in with, the unionists and socialists he encounters. However, he does find sympatico with fellow writer, Russ Brissenden (Carlo Cecchi), who warns him that he may be treading the wrong path.

The story may be the same, but the texts differ in their rate of acceleration. Unlike the film, the book moves mainly in the present tense. Not just in the sense that it is set in a more specific place and period, but in the cumulatively detail-oriented and repetitious shape of its narrative. Just about every change in Martin’s fortune and circumstance is tracked: the content of, and the number of hours, he puts into nearly every story, poem, and essay. And, subsequently, every rejection, swindle, and sacrifice, with detailed descriptions of his routine and what he can and cannot afford when he is at the lowest. 

This increasingly claustrophobic focus on Martin allows London to build, and build, to a crushing come down and critique. Martin becomes wealthy and acclaimed; a veritable success, and yet cannot reconcile the mountain of sweat and ignominy he has climbed with the quasi-randomness and hollowness of this victory. It’s very lonely at the top too. That he is suddenly being rewarded for “work performed”, and previously discredited or ignored when it did not come with the sheen of prestige, boggles him. It becomes an obsession, as he drifts towards oblivion. 

Instead, the film moves at a much quicker clip. It elides much of the above detail, and the characterisation of supporting characters like Elena or Maria (Carmen Pommella)—the poor linen maker with whom Martins boards and bonds—are broader. This is, in part, an expected effect of adaptation, as an art of concision and visualisation. But it’s also rooted in Marcello’s interest in Martin Eden as an archetypal figure more than an autobiographical reflection. How his journey and its underpinning forces reverberate around other figures and movements. 

This side of the film is most manifest in the archival component, a range of moving images—gleaned from archives across Italy and dating from different decades—which are used to an extent and variety that few other films in the history of narrative cinema can compare.

Martin Eden (Pietro Marcello, 2019, Italy). Martin Eden (Luca Marinelli).

This side of the film is most manifest in the archival component, a range of moving images—gleaned from archives across Italy and dating from different decades—which are used to an extent and variety that few other films in the history of narrative cinema can compare. Sometimes their presence is straightforward in purpose and effect, setting the scene or bestowing a budget grandness while being distinct from Marcello’s super 16mm footage. Yet often the past is employed in a more impressionistic and intimate fashion, as if it’s being seen from Martin’s point of view or, swirling inside his head, representing his own past, his dreams, fears, and what he hopes issues forth from the long hours spent hunched over, clacking keys. The archival images are often colourised to appear akin to Marcello’s images, or else the latter is battered up to appear antique. 

The past is an explicit critical tool as well. The opening scene shows Errico Malatesta, a major figure in the Italian anarcho-communist movement, surrounded by a large welcoming committee on his return to Italy in 1919. His presence posits the kind of writer and thinker Martin Eden could have been if only he could have combined his proclivity for individualism with a communal ethos. A little later, a close-up of Martin is followed, and so compared to, contextualising images of sailors and other labourers of different eras, while the motif of a barque at full sail is a talisman radiating his background too, but also his wanderer’s disposition, and the film as an anachronistic vessel. 

Later that ship sinks, at a point of deep ruefulness in Martin’s life. It is a moment reminiscent of many found in the strange corpus of one of Marcello’s guides, the Armenian filmmaker Artavazd Peleshyan. Marcello made a medium-length film about this singular figure for Italian television, called The Silence of Peleshian (Italian: Il silenzio di Pelešjan, 2011). In hindsight, this portrait of an artist is more of a precursor to Martin Eden than even Marcello’s two other, non-fiction and fiction threading films, The Mouth of the Wolf (Italian: La bocca del lupo, 2009) and Lost and Beautiful (Italian: Bella e perduta, 2015). In that, through working with Peleshyan’s refusal to speak, on-screen or recorded, and with the leverage of some sparse narration, this iconoclast’s complex artistic methods and historical context are expressed through a contrapuntal concert of excerpts from the subject’s films, Marcello’s own camerawork, and archival footage. 

In that film, and now in his new one, Marcello adopts a few of Peleshyan’s distinctive approaches, as elaborated in his theory of “distance montage.” There is the periodic repetition of certain motifs, like that of the ship, whose meaning will change and deepen as they recur in different contexts. Peleshyan mix-n-matched archival and filmed footage, and rejected the norms of explicitly distinguishing between the two, or making the former subservient to the latter. For him, all categories of image were on equal footing, as he openly sought to redefine and expand the poetics of cinema and find a way to express very grand ideas about humanity and historiography, in short spans of “unified” time. 

Marcello is after the same game, but ultimately by his own route. By adopting these avant-garde methods and fusing them with a more classical filmmaking form and narrative, he has crafted a piece of cinema that is formally and politically radical, exploratory, and analytical, while still working within the accessible realm of high drama. 

His hair greasy, teeth stained, skin oozing booze and ether, and his sturdy build degraded to a vampiric emaciation. No longer a handsome cherub, he is now completely callow and conceited, and no longer among the people, in companionship or in toil, but cooped up in his own regalia. 

Martin Eden (Pietro Marcello, 2019, Italy). Martin Eden (Luca Marinelli).

Accessible but, on its own terms, outside and around the archival footage, not simple or inexpressive. There is a constant tension at work between Martin’s perspective and outside of it, which is expressed in how Marcello blocks and frames two-shots and groups and through frequent, often mid-scene shifts, back and forth, between Martin’s point of view and an objective one. Choices in the casting and performance also go towards painting Martin as an island. Marcello uses a lot of inexperienced or first-time actors, who generally act with a more unvarnished or caricatured style. While Cecchi, a very experienced stage actor, gives a formal and poised rendition of Brissenden. This is all in contrast to Marinelli’s excellent performance, which has a combination of all these qualities. He is more spontaneous than Cecchi, but modulates that spontaneity within the framework of a classical arc: a gradual transformation from an open-hearted and hopeful ragazzo to a bitter “Oblomov”, played more faux-ecstatically and broad as he tragically rises then falls, or rather straight declines as he is fooled by the gussied-up fetters of status. 

He began the film as a brusquely smart and charming young man, seen stud and speed walking with a grin on his face, put there by a rush of new possibilities in loving and knowing. By the final act, this has all but curdled. Some time passes and he is re-introduced being dragged out of a theatrical sword fight. His opponent a figure dressed as Pulcinella, the Commedia Dell’Arte character endowed with the spirit of the common people, of which, by this point, Martin has not a drop left. For he is now well-off, esteemed, and in the grips of a full Viscontian decay. His hair greasy, teeth stained, skin oozing booze and ether, and his sturdy build degraded to a vampiric emaciation. No longer a handsome cherub, he is now completely callow and conceited, and no longer among the people, in companionship or in toil, but cooped up in his own regalia. 

Here Marcello goes a step beyond the book. Instead of only briefing putting up with his anhedonia and tasting his newfound riches before reneging on them and himself completely, this Martin sticks with his newfound celebrity a little longer. And so, in the process, becomes the personification of a very 21st century fear: that the pursuits of art and intellectualism have become toothless, bourgeois endeavours. 

His younger self, like London, was a man with actual, intimate experience of people and the world and, given his proletarian background, a genuine outsider in a form that for previous centuries had been the almost sole domain of bourgeois and up audiences and practitioners. He had a chance, then, at torpedoing prevailing views of how people live and could live, and what it took to be an artist. Now Martin is more of a jester and a celebrity than a literary dissident. He is mired in an entourage of yay-sayers and stuck on a public speaking circuit where he reiterates, rather than develops, his work and performs his provocative persona for a limited, expectant audience. For the left, he is not cutting enough. For those in power, he has become like-minded but easy to dismiss as ridiculous and removed. 

It all comes to a weird and moving denouement, with Martin, drained and disillusioned, suddenly energised, chasing the past; a mobile Krapp with his own memory of the fire. Instead of the end of a jetty, however, he comes to rest on a strand, where he is hemmed in by time, facing a sea as vast and intermingled as the tides of history that Marcello has, ambitiously, tried to make communicable. — Ruairí McCann

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Ruairí McCann

Ruairí is a writer and editor born in County Sligo, Ireland, who currently resides in Belfast. He is a graduate of English Literature with Film Studies from University College Dublin and Film Studies from Queen’s University Belfast. His writing has appeared in Sight & Sound, Little White Lies, MUBI Notebook, Film Hub NI, Screen Slate, photogénie, Ultra Dogme, and more.