Martin Eden, Faust, and Hamlet: An Interview with Pietro Marcello
As is often the way of these things, I didn’t quite fall in love with Martin Eden until a year had passed and almost nothing as good had been released. Not to say I didn’t see excellent political cinema, but rather nothing took this movie’s particular risks, textually and texturally. Here was a director who decided to adapt an unwaveringly bleak and anti-capitalist novel about the pitfalls of becoming a public intellectual, which sees a Promethean figure lose his way by virtue of becoming too smart, used by a political machine, and rejected by his lovers and friends for not becoming their version of his best self. The ending finds a once humble sailor shivering with disease, real and metaphorical, alive only with contempt at a pulpit that last saw him a humiliated fool. There is no success in the world of Pietro Marcello’s time-warped Italy, the setting of his interpretation of Jack London’s riskiest text, Martin Eden. You must never grow aware of yourself as a person in a society if you wish to remain happy. With enlightenment comes only misery and rejection. Suddenly even idle glances from strangers seem judgmental, angry. Only the camera remains impartial, fitting in the newly filmed story with stock footage of a phantom European past. All it says is that this was our past and it will soon be history once more.
I wanted to talk to Marcello about socialism because, first of all, how often does any writer get the chance to talk to an artist about it and have it be pertinent; or another way, how many movies that take Socialism as their backdrop get released every year? Once we started, I realized I could have talked to him all day, but as usual, there just wasn’t enough time. With a little distance, I see Martin Eden as a film so robust and beautiful, so fearlessly oblong yet somehow symmetrical, that it’s a small wonder it exists in 2020. Marcello’s designed a rich fable of social tragedy that nevertheless houses a potent lesson in how one’s political life is co-opted and corrupted before it’s been written.
Firstly, I wanted to ask a kind of practical question: How did you decide on the balance between new and stock footage?
Well, I’m also the producer (of this and all of my other movies), and as soon as I saw the budget, I realized stock footage would save us a little money on film. I’d done it before. I needed to talk about the 20th century through stock images, which is something I’ve always done, pressing the meaning of those images into service in my film. It was impossible for me to build a historical movie, a period piece, with the budget I had, so I needed to use it, but I also wanted to experiment with archival footage in order to make it fit in with the trappings of the times.
It feels expressionistic as well as at times metaphorical, how did you make the decisions about the way the old and new footage would talk to each other? I’m thinking specifically of the image of a ship sinking at a crucial moment in the drama.
I wanted to start out with the first images that depict Errico Malatesta, the late leader of the anarchic movement in Italy, a leader of ethical volunteerism. It was important for me to have Malatesta at the outset because he’s a symbol of individualism and socialism, because individualism without socialism becomes barbaric. It was important to make my stance on this point very clear. The image of the sinking ship represents the end of Martin Eden, who achieves success, but success was the end for him. It’s the metaphor, the moment in the movie I have the most affection for. The stock footage becomes a metaphor in the service of my character. I used archival footage to talk about the 20th century, the short century; the sinking of the ship represents the peak of his success that’s tantamount to his end. This is a political movie in every aspect, and is connected to Jack London, the first victim of the culture industry and modern literature.
Expand on that last point, if you would.
I’m talking about modern literature as forced literature, over-published literature. Jack London wrote a lot; he didn’t have time to stop to think about it. This happened to a lot of people in the world of literature, cinema, and music; it’s the moment when literature became an industry, and the artist became someone who worked as if he were being pumped as a machine. He became a small cog in a system. He was overexerted until he had no more energy to share. Why is it the lesser known London works are things like The Iron Heel or Martin Eden? Maybe you should tell me why they’re lesser known here. If you think about it, Martin Eden is the story of a young man who overcomes his destiny of poverty and winds up committing suicide despite his finding success. This, as a story, is almost anti-constitutional. He’s a negative hero, he manages to overcome his starting point, and Jack London was in a situation just like that, while we had Herbert Spencer and Georges Sorel on our side. After Spencer, we had Nietzsche and then Mussolini and Hitler, fascism and Nazism. So why is it that the culture industry became a situation in which the author was exploited to the utmost? London was probably the first author of this kind in modern literature.
In American literature, publishers and school boards are afraid of socialism and communism. We get the image of London as a writer of survivalist narratives, which helps bolster a masculine, conservative individualist strain in our national identity. Jack London’s politics were buried by our cultural machine because we liked only the parts of his works that say, “I am the only person who could have done this.” It’s going to come as a surprise to a lot of Americans seeing this that the author of The Call of the Wild was a committed socialist. We did the same thing to Helen Keller and, to us, John Ford and John Wayne are the same man. It’s bracing to hear Spencer talked about in a movie, because American cinema has been so thoroughly declawed politically speaking. We have almost no sense of political history in our cinema.
We talked about Spencer and Sorel, though Sorel’s a little more connected to the right wing of the Italian trade unions. Spencer was also a monster from many points of view; he wrote some horrible things. He was a racist and supremacist. Jack London was strange in that he liked Herbert Spencer, but then he was a good biologist in many ways. London had a socialist streak that was not communist. The fact that he wrote Martin Eden and The Iron Heel… those were works that were well known in the U.K., Russia, Italy, and France — all over Europe. The kind of socialism that London adhered to was different than communism. It was socialism of the early days, it was unorthodox. It’s the kind of socialism we have in this room, it was ahead of its time. Jack London created Martin Eden as an anti-hero; this was his way of depicting his idea of what he imagined the 20th century would be, the negative outcome of it. In Europe, in Italy, we are familiar with the American interpretation of London’s work as a man who wrote about struggling for life in the wilderness, but it’s not ours. Here, you’re less familiar with the kind of socialism he adhered to. We kept the Spencer references because we wanted to keep a lot of the book intact, and Spencer is still studied today in Europe by supremacist wings.
Presumably there were many such communist parables from which to choose, why Jack London’s? Why now?
I want to say Martin Eden is an archetype the way that Faust or Hamlet is. It’s the story of a boy who becomes a man and, through culture, manages to overcome his humble beginnings, but then conversely ends up becoming a victim of that same industrial system. Martin Eden is extremely contemporary as far as I’m concerned, especially in terms of what the film industry has become. No one would have dreamt 40 years ago that Europe would be divided, that there would be a resurgence of fascism in the United States. Who would have dreamt that Trump would become president? It’s those courses and recourses of history, and the short century hasn’t taught us anything, and we’re back to square one. All of this, the situation we find ourselves in today, would have seemed absurd 50 years ago. Jack London depicts, in the darkest terms, his assumption of what would happen to the brightest minds of the 20th century.
The American narrative of history means that we don’t think of London, Keller, and George Orwell as political. We’ve done a great job burying all of that. I wonder if making something like Martin Eden is a way to combat a grim body politic conquering so much of the world media, a way to make something that challenges the oversimplification of how we talk about our political lives now, the way we’re encouraged to believe that people should get along no matter what their politics are.
I put Malatesta right at the outset because I was trying to convey a very specific message. I, myself, I’m an individualist, an anarchist, a socialist and a libertarian (not the way Americans are Libertarian — in Italy, that means respecting the personal liberty of the other in a socialist structure that respects other people’s needs. American Libertarianism sounds to me like individualism produced by capitalism, which becomes barbaric), but that’s how I look at the world and the other. People don’t read The Road to Wigan Pier by Orwell, where he talks about miners in wells and his point is very clear: where are we heading? The poor are poorer, the rich are richer. Social injustice exists. It’s in the U.S., it’s everywhere. In the book and the movie, Martin’s mentor, Russ Brissenden, tells him you have to become a socialist. It may be old, warmed up soup, but there’s no alternative. This is the situation Jack London describes. I don’t know the U.S. all that well, but this is primarily a European movie, a very free transposition of Jack London’s writing. If an American filmmaker had made it, it would have been very different. What’s happening in Europe right now is that we’ve had important fights for processes, ownership in terms of work, and workers’ rights. We had a welfare state, free healthcare — all of that is being taken away.
What’s the most important thing people can do right now, in your view, to preserve these things?
Most of all, we need to take a firm stance and publicly state that, “No, I don’t support this.”
Pietro Marcello’s Martin Eden streams virtually and screens at select theaters starting October 16.