James Vaughan speaks to Australian arts critic and audiovisual artist Adrian Martin about the month of contemporary Portuguese cinema he has guest curated for the MCA in September and the burgeoning relationship between art institutions and cinema.
If you could travel in time to the set of any production in history, where would you go and why?
Two of my all-time favourite directors are Fritz Lang and Ernst Lubitsch, so I would love to occupy a corner in the studio set of any film by them, especially when they were in more-or-less complete control of the production: Lang’s Scarlet Street (1945), for example, or Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner (1940). Then I could really see if half the things I analyse in their work (which is inexhaustible) have some true basis in the actual, moment-to-moment decisions they made in practice!
We are very excited to present your four-week program of Portuguese cinema at the MCA. Could you tell us why you chose to focus on Portugal, specifically?
I have simply been struck by the quality and especially the particular sensibility of a large number of films emanating from independent or progressive feature filmmakers in Portugal over the past decade or so. There is a curious mix of passionate melodrama, wry detachment, hyper-stylisation, documentary impulses, political observation, and a completely odd or surreal sense of humour. It also happens to be a cinema marked by the presence of incredibly strong female directors – such as Rita Azevedo Gomes and Teresa Villaverde, both of whom have been working for 25 years now – who are, alas, little-known outside of relatively small cinephile sects around the world. I hope this situation will change.
In your most recent book, Mise en scène and Film Style: From Classical Hollywood to New Media Art (2014) you observe the trend of an increasing number of high-profile filmmakers—Agnès Varda, Pedro Costa and Apichatpong Weerasethakul to name a few—“migrating” into galleries for greater creative and financial opportunities. How do you see the dialogue between contemporary art and cinema playing out in the near future, and what do you see as the role of the established art museum in that relationship?
We have to face squarely a new economic fact in the arts scene: museums/galleries have become, in a sense, de facto film producers, film studios (in the old Hollywood sense) even! People including Akerman and Harun Farocki reached a point – somewhat unhappily for them, but they were realistic about it – where feature film financing was no longer coming their way in the 21st century, but curators and Biennale directors were lining up at their door. And Akerman was candid about it, as she told me: “In the gallery, I’m free, I can do whatever I like” – in total contrast to some film projects where necessary compromise is the order of the day, every day. It’s the ‘ten million versus ten thousand dollar’ situation: for ten thousand, you can do a good digital video installation that travels the world.
I have long argued that a blockage in the film/art interchange occurs whenever art curators use too restrictive definitions of art practice – caught in old-fashioned, regressive terms like ‘the moving image’, as if video art is just ‘painting come alive in time’, a cliché that’s hardly moved on since, say, 1973 – and don’t immerse themselves in the full possibilities of what cinema is (and always has been) as a manipulator of time, space, narrative, performance, sound, spectacle, and so on. I see not one future direction of the film/art crossover but many: on the one hand, more ‘immersive’ experiences that involve full-blooded fiction and the engagement that creates; and on the other hand, more ostensibly scattered but cohesive dispositifs that play between the close relations of their various, heterogeneous parts. And I don’t mean, by the latter, lazy group shows where the look and soundtrack of one piece competes with the soundtrack of its neighbouring piece, with an uncertain partition or a few sets of headphones stuck atop some chairs as a feeble gesture of peaceful reconciliation between them!
Your unique and inspiring career has spanned academia, public lectures, curatorial practice, DVD audio-commentary commissions, broadsheet film criticism and, more recently, audiovisual artworks and essays (I’m sure the list of what I’ve left out is just as long). Have you any career advice for young cinephiles in Australia?
It’s my firm belief that every artistically-minded young person, whenever and wherever they are located, wants to be part of a ‘scene’ or a ‘moment’ in cultural history – not in any cynical way, but in a real, authentic sense. I was lucky enough to be part of one in the 1980s in Melbourne. But just being a writer on your own, or a filmmaker on your own, will never get you there. And sticking in just one group – like a gang of directors fresh out of film school, or artists fresh out of art college (if Australia has any left, soon!) – won’t get you there, either. All important cultural movements across all the arts are a sudden combustion of cross-disciplinary activities and influences: design, theatre, music, film, theory, writing, acting. All these things support each other and project the image (and the sound!) of a particular sensibility, a new (if it manages to be new!) world-view. That’s how it happened with the French New Wave, the German New Wave, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, everything. You don’t only need the art, you need the talk as well: the texts, the theory, public spokespeople. So the important thing is: make alliances across the board, do collaborative projects, start a magazine (print or online), hijack a radio program.
Make the links between a certain kind of fiction, a certain kind of acting style, a certain ‘look’ and a certain ‘sound’, and keep networking it around the loose membership of your ‘group’. Such a group is not a fascistic cell where everyone thinks and acts exactly alike; on the contrary, it should be a rough-and-ready, composite assemblage, where individual differences and emphases still get to express themselves. It won’t last forever, and it shouldn’t last forever. You can’t artificially preserve it, or get too nostalgic about it after it falls apart, when individuals go their own way or join different groups (try to avoid the lawsuits, at that point, if you can). But for the time you can get that contraption to fly, you can get noticed and make a mark. And it will give you something to be proud of from your wild youth!
Adrian Martin, an arts critic and audiovisual artist based in Vilassar de Mar (Spain), is Adjunct Professor of Film and Screen Studies at Monash University (Australia). He is the author of seven books on cinema (the most recent being Mise en scène and Film Style: From Classical Hollywood to New Media Art from Palgrave), and co-editor of LOLA journal online. In a former life, he was a regular film critic for The Age newspaper in Melbourne and Radio National’s long-lost The Week in Film.
... make alliances across the board, do collaborative projects, start a magazine (print or online), hijack a radio program. Make the links between a certain kind of fiction, a certain kind of acting style, a certain ‘look’ and a certain ‘sound’, and keep networking it