In the excitement of being able to attend movies again at the Michigan and State over the past month, we hope that you haven’t forgotten about our Virtual Movie Palace (aka the “8th screen” we’ve always wanted!). This new virtual realm allows us to play those films that we’ve wanted to share with you but never had enough space to do so—films like MARTIN EDEN, from director Pietro Marcello.
Adapted from the Jack London novel of the same name, MARTIN EDEN tells the story of a young, uneducated sailor who seeks to endlessly study and educate himself so that he can find success as a writer, which will propel him to the upper class and win the affections of a woman. In many ways, it’s a story you’ve seen before: the hero strives for a life of luxury, but when he ultimately succeeds, we see how drastically he’s changed in the process.
But Martin’s journey is not just one of wealth and disillusionment—it’s a story about the war that wages between political, social, and economic philosophies. And rather than simply offering themes you’ve seen time and again, Marcello has conversations with the viewer. The dialogue, particularly later in the film, is fueled by discussions of socialism vs. individualism, as a part of Martin Eden’s journey is a growing belief that we must reject the former and celebrate the latter. These are conversations taken directly from London’s source material, but until the end, it is not wholly apparent which belief London, or in this instance Marcello, shares. The discussions simply end without a determined victor, so as a viewer we’re left to fill in the pieces ourselves.
Thematically and stylistically, Marcello has retold the Martin Eden story as a definition of the complete 20th century. In moving London’s California setting to Italy, it certainly feels like a history lesson in how European autocratic powers came to rise. Marcello could be likening Martin’s metamorphosis to any of the Axis leaders who took their working class, shambled economies and built a culture around themselves.
But much like a film we viewed virtually just a few months ago, Waiting for the Barbarians, MARTIN EDEN actually seems to exist in its own unique time and place, separated from history entirely. At first glance, it’s easy to mistake the time period from somewhere around 1909 when the novel was originally published, but time begins to muddle as mid-century vehicles show up, and hair styles and clothing even become reminiscent of the 80s and 90s. And then there are looming conversations of oncoming war and, well, there’s certainly a few to pick from there.
Shot on Super 16mm, the film even at times looks like it’s been sitting in canisters for decades, complimented by Marcello’s use of archival and silent film footage weaved into the narrative to set the atmosphere, such as workers on docks or ordinary people on the street. But he also uses this footage to convey Martin’s inner turmoil and expanding loneliness, as we are given ships standing on the open sea, and in one case, sinking within a matter of seconds.
MARTIN EDEN is a cautionary tale on top of an intellectual study of socioeconomic trends. Like last week’s Tenet, it is certainly a film that will leave you thinking past the credits. However, where Tenet was pure entertainment, MARTIN EDEN is a grace of the cinematic artform, and one that I am grateful to see had the support and confidence from Kino Lorber to be released in such desperate times.
Of course, as I’ve already said, the MARTIN EDEN story of drive, success, and fall has been told many times, but you can’t help but think back to one of Hollywood’s most beloved classics Citizen Kane, which you can see at the Michigan on Tuesday, Nov. 24 at 7:00 PM, as a precursor to our opening of David Fincher’s Mank. And I can also recommend Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd, available from the Ann Arbor District Library, starring Andy Griffith, which takes on the rise & fall story in a similar, politically observant fashion. In any case, we hope you keep watching movies, whether it’s in our theaters or at home. As long as you remember that we, your friends at the Michigan and State Theatre, are here with something to offer.
Have a great week!
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