Martin Eden and the Perils of Viewing from Home
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Carlo Cecchi and Luca Marinelli in Martin Eden (courtesy of Kino Lorber)

In a normal year – one that is not defined by a global pandemic or its protracted, deeply politicized response – I would have seen Pietro Marcello's Martin Eden in a theater. Here in New York there were many options: BAM, Angelika, Lincoln Center. Instead, I took the advice of critics like Bilge Ebiri to "see it the way you can," which in my case meant an HDMI setup for my TV.

If we hobble towards the end of 2020, it seems like another harbinger of doom for the theater experience every week. HBO Max announced that key 2021 titles will be rolled out in parallel with their theatrical releases, while Disney + has unveiled a project synonymous with "50 Reasons to Never Leave Your Home Again". It seems like an adjustment that we all have to learn when we see new big ticket jobs at home.

So, I write to admit that I have a difficult start. What follows is a list of interruptions most self-caused during my contemplation of Martin Eden:

  • Pause to help a roommate carry a large package up four flights of stairs.
  • Texting friends about how the film feels "very superficial".
  • Urged said friends to see How To With John Wilson.
  • Taking a break out of boredom to make a Negroni, a "thematic connection" for an Italian film.
  • I checked my email.
  • Liked some tweets.
  • Answered a DM.

Why am I telling myself? I do this as an object lesson on the dangers of home viewing. With Martin Eden, with my half-hearted watch, I was able to overlook the most interesting thing about the film: its amorphous relationship with time. The film never states when it takes place, nor does it make any reference to real events to which we can tie the story. Its unspoken elements – costume and stage design, diegetic music – suggest a period between the 1920s and 1980s. The film moves between historical signifiers, which destabilizes the viewer and should force us to look at the entirety of 20th century European history when following the story of this one man.

In my distracted state, however, I found this Brechtian device nothing more than a slight irritant. I was wondering (absurdly, of course) if a role in my streaming link was somehow switched. The movie I saw had little more on my mind than its fast paced pace, pop soundtrack, and postcard-ready images. I've seen it superficially, and so only its most superficial elements resonated. His boldest trick naturally plays in the background and is all too easy to turn away with half your attention. The movie's rave reviews from writers like J. Hoberman and Manohla Dargis all emphasize this temporal dissonance as the key to unlocking it. Pietro Marcello has made a film that argues – wordlessly and purely cinematically – that men like Martin Eden are responsible for the political vortex of the past century.

This imagination isn't even very subtle. I admit to overlooking it with a mixture of alarm and embarrassment.

Visual storytelling of this kind sings in the tank for sensory deprivation of cinema. Christian Petzold used a similar device in the 2018 film Transit, which I saw in a theater, in which its ambiguous timeline was much easier to spot and fill with meaning. Although the two films played a nearly identical game, I never remembered Transit during Martin Eden. At home, my focus is on the literal: dialogue, action, attitude, visual beauty. The many references to temporal tricks in Martin Eden were simply registered as bum notes. I noticed her the way I might notice a bad cut; something felt "off". Its subtextual level distracted from the narrative, which I assumed was the only concern of the film. I approached Martin Eden as an uncomplicated Bildungsroman – as a well-crafted "content" meant to flood you – and assumed he had nothing more to say. Maybe I'm more willing to question such assumptions in a theater than in my own living room.

This makes Martin Eden a fascinating case study in the home and theater business: In multitask mode, the film really has little to offer. His superficial joys fade after act one (unless you enjoy watching men scream about libertarianism). What wealth there is lies in the unspoken, precisely in the zone where a buzzing cell phone or parcel delivery could affect your concentration. I cannot say with certainty whether Martin Eden would have dug himself deeper into my psyche – would have "hit differently" in a theater, as they say -. However, it seems clear that movies like this benefit from active, undivided attention, which many of us don't seem to be giving at home. My brain, used to seeing comfortably in the quarantine period, has not yet adapted to this new normal when serious new work is debuting in my living room. As we approach 2021, we must all learn to bring this rigorous, theater-driven mindset home, where there is no one to silence us for our bad behavior.

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