Gross Autonomy

Dennis Zhou on Pietro Marcello’s Martin Eden (2019)

Pietro Marcello, Martin Eden 2019, 16 mm, color, sound, 129 minutes. Martin Eden (Luca Marinelli).

JACK LONDON has always been better understood abroad than at home. At different times in his life a gold prospector, an oyster pirate, a hobo, and a millionaire, London was also a committed internationalist whose political speeches in his twenties led the press to crown him the “Boy Socialist of Oakland.” (He later ran for mayor on Eugene V. Debs’s Social Democratic ticket.) London’s vivid depictions of working-class life and communal struggle garnered him a devoted following in Communist countries such as the People’s Republic of China and postrevolutionary Russia, where, in 1918, the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky penned and starred in a since lost screen adaptation of his novel Martin Eden (1909) titled Not for Money Born. In the United States, however, London is remembered primarily as the author of canine adventure tales, an American Aesop for his fables of ruthless striving and rugged individualism. No surprise, then, that while filmmakers stateside dedicated themselves to animating CGI dogs for yet another Call of the Wild remake, a more electric revival of London’s work was produced, filmed, and set in Italy.

The documentarian and film-essayist Pietro Marcello’s first narrative feature Martin Eden (2019)—cowritten with Maurizio Braucci, who collaborated with Abel Ferrara on Pasolini (2014)—transposes London’s autobiographical midcareer novel from fin de siècle Oakland to an amorphous twentieth-century Campania, but the narrative arc remains largely the same: that of a Künstlerroman based loosely on London’s own artistic toil and success. At the outset, Martin, a handsome sailor who boards with his sister’s family when not working offshore, rescues Arturo Orsini, the scion of a bourgeois family, from a dockyard brawl. Played with quiet intensity by the excellent Luca Marinelli, Martin embodies both a nascent hunger and a self-conscious physicality; brought to the family’s palazzo, he takes everything in and intently avoids knocking anything over. When he becomes enamored with Arturo’s sister, Elena (Jessica Cressy)—a prim university student who corrects his Neapolitan dialect—he vows to become a successful writer, having grown infatuated with the world of culture and wealth Elena represents.

Pietro Marcello, Martin Eden 2019, 16 mm, color, sound, 129 minutes. Martin Eden and Elena Orsini (Luca Marinelli and Jessica Cressy).

London’s decidedly old-fashioned plot—when was the last time a sane person chose literature as the path toward temporal success?—is given new life in Marcello’s treatment, with its Europop soundtrack, lush 16-mm format, sweeping camerawork, and historical scope. Combined with a fidelity to Martin’s Neapolitan milieu, these qualities evoke both the gritty verisimilitude of Neorealism and the sensuous, operatic features that followed it. Martin’s literary apprenticeship brings him into contact with the political fervor of a Platonic Italian past; he witnesses soapbox speeches from workers on strike, attends meetings at a union hall, and befriends a decadent aesthete, Russ Brissenden (Carlo Cecchi), who pleads with Martin to let “socialism . . . give a sense to your writing.” Despite Brissenden’s admonitions, Martin falls under the sway of the theories of Herbert Spencer, a nineteenth-century biologist whose views on evolution profoundly influenced social Darwinism, and arrives at a Nietzschean ideal of unfettered individualism.

Period details such as these are brilliantly juxtaposed with Martin Eden’s more modern costumes and sets, which often look (and likely were) plucked off the streets of contemporary Naples. Throughout, Marcello uses anachronism to Brechtian effect, but unlike Christian Petzold’s recent Transit (2018), where the trappings of modernity—screeching ambulances, Kevlar-clad SWAT teams—invade the midcentury source material, Martin Eden’s ahistoricity betrays the pervasiveness of retrograde ideologies. By the end of the film, Martin has achieved fame at the cost of his former self, and Marinelli’s lupine face, its gaunt but healthy hunger replaced by a pallid bloat sustained by delicacies, succumbs to the transformative urges of body horror. Martin’s writings are publicly hailed by a group of rightists agitating for war with clear parallels to the Northern League, the reactionary Italian party that in recent years has crept steadily into power. In the final scene, announcements of war ring out as Martin, seated on the shore, finds himself stuck between refugees and Blackshirts. Marcello’s uncanny depiction of an opportunistic populism emerging from a vacuum of viable ideologies could be located temporally either at the eve of World War II or in the present day.

If Martin’s politics are muddled by his artistic ambitions, Marcello’s certainly aren’t—they’re on full display in the archival and documentary footage he interlaces throughout the film. In Marcello’s earlier, primarily nonfictional work—Lost and Beautiful (2015), in which a gentle caretaker restores a dilapidated Bourbon mansion; The Mouth of the Wolf (2009), about an ex-convict and his trans lover, set against the backdrop of postindustrial Genoa; and Crossing the Line (2007), a meditative series of encounters with the migrant workers who inhabit the night trains of Italy—these interludes illustrate how individuals are caught up in larger forces. In Martin Eden, however, the same scenes operate as rebukes to a society that rewards individual strength over mutual care. At times, Marcello can seem more invested in Martin Eden’s appropriated material; like his docufiction predecessors Jia Zhangke and Abbas Kiarostami, he has a tendency to linger on the faces of onlookers, from a crew of sailors to women browsing a market. Once we get into the rhythm of Marcello’s polyphonic composition, however, we realize that these scenes are as equal in importance as the main plotline.

Marcello’s hybrid form also has antecedents in Russian and Soviet cinema, especially the works of Artavazd Peleshian, the Armenian filmmaker Marcello profiled in The Silence of Peleshian (2011). The pioneer of an evocative method he termed “distance montage,” Peleshian used editing for contrapuntal rather than narrative effect, recycling archival footage throughout a film to create overlapping or interrelated melodies. Some of the first images in Martin Eden belong to a sepia-tinged reel of the Italian anarcho-communist Errico Malatesta attending a 1920 rally in Savona; we move on to shots that embellish Martin’s personal history, such as scenes from his childhood, and ones that insistently integrate him into a wider, communal reality, including found footage of young boys diving for octopus or a paisano aboard a train bound for the urban center. Marcello, who studied painting before turning to film, portrays working lives with a lyrical dignity that harkens back to the works of Natalia Ginzburg, Cesare Pavese, and Pasolini.

Pietro Marcello, Martin Eden 2019, 16 mm, color, sound, 129 minutes.

Although Martin’s ambitions lead him astray, the machinations of a fledgling culture industry are what finally undo him. London’s novel is one of the great portraits of the artist as a young hack; in a section that should send chills down any freelancer’s back, London describes the “machinelike” process whereby Martin sends out manuscripts and receives rejections:

These slips were printed in stereotyped forms and he received hundreds of them—as many as a dozen or more on each of his earlier manuscripts. If he had received one line, one personal line, along with one rejection among all his rejections, he would have been cheered. But not one editor gave that proof of existence. And he could conclude only that there were no warm human men at the other end, only mere cogs, well oiled and running beautifully in the machine.

As one of the earliest literary celebrities, London himself quickly fell victim to a publicity circuit that progressively flattened his radical convictions into palatable eccentricities. (In Marcello’s film, Martin looks happier shoveling manure at a cow shed than giving a press conference.) In Martin Eden, he dramatizes the Faustian bargain mass culture requires of its artists, especially striving proletarian ones. Abandoning a collective identity in order to market his own prodigious talent and charisma, Martin ends by losing sight of his original mission—the same fate that befell London, who believed capitalism to be antithetical to nature while also espousing the “survival of the fittest,” a belief that underlay his support for eugenics and race theories. By fashioning himself into an emblem of autonomy, London only further subjugated himself to the logic of the ruling class. When he resigned from the Socialist Party just months before his death in 1916, London wrote that “if races and classes cannot rise up and by their own strength and brawn wrest from the world liberty, freedom, and independence, they never in time can come to these royal possessions.”

How do you reconcile individual aspiration—especially in the form of aesthetic expression—with social commitment? Martin’s original artistic impulse stems from a moment in the Orsinis’ drawing room, where he gazes at a painting of a stormy seascape. “From a distance it looks beautiful,” he offers. “But close up you only see stains.” Martin ultimately deems the artwork “an illusion”; later, when he first confesses his ambition to Elena, he voices it as the desire to become “one of the eyes through which the world sees.” Marcello is groping toward an alternative, expressing a deeply personal visual language only to rupture it with elements of an anonymized communal history. He’s determined to find where Martin and London went wrong. When his protagonist makes a final, suicidal gesture, it follows from a chance vision of his younger self, strolling down a pier with his nose buried in a book. Earlier in the film, if you look closely, you can see Marcello stalking the young Martin in a rare cameo, intent on not letting him out of his sight.

Martin Eden begins streaming on Kino Marquee on October 16.