Double Feature

The Long Run December 1, 2020  


On Martin Eden and Time

it when he was 33 — after he’d published and seen major success withThe Call of the Wild (1903), The Sea-Wolf 

(1904), and White Fang (1906) — and used it as a page-bound sounding board for many of the frustrations he had had as a writer and, now, as a public figure. The movie takes the liberty of moving the action in the novel from Oakland, Calif., to Naples. And rather than also be set at the beginning of the 20th century, the movie unfolds a little later, though it’s unclear (in what is I think a thrillingly ambiguous choice) exactly when. Clothes and cars look to be from various years from the 1940s through the ‘70s. 

When music pops up, it enthusiastically decade-hops. The (what seems to be) atemporality seems a decision by Marcello to remind the viewer that this story, centrally about how one navigates disillusionment, is a fairly timeless one. I don’t think it does much to the narrative — it neither improves nor takes away from it. But I admired the 


At the beginning of the movie, Eden is working as a sailor. Played by the classically handsome Marinelli, he's so compelling to watch that you are almost instinctively on his side at first. Since his childhood, we learn, Eden has embodied the classic “drifter” type, a role that has also hindered him from getting any sort of formal education. Eden yearns to someday become a writer — which is to say a serious, celebrated one. He can envision himself sitting among the literary glitterati, even though he isn’t all that familiar with the figures making it up. But how will he get to that point? Almost as if someone in the universe had been listening to his internal monologue (it’s all about whom you know, they say), he by chance gets acquainted with the Orsinis, an aristocratic family. Although he first builds a connection with the family’s son (Giustiniano Alpi), after a while all he can see is his sister, Elena (Jessica Cressy). It's a love at first sight sort of thing. She looks like the subject of a Vermeer painting and is so much a personification of prim-and-properness that you wonder if she feels cloistered. 


The movie doesn’t wonder quite as much, though. It figures what Elena is good for is twofold, not three. We need not know her mind that well because she is both a love interest and the person to inspire our hero to pursue the education he has long wanted but never seized. Elena’s working as more of a catalyst in the hero’s journey than her being believable as a person is a recurring problem in the movie: None of the characters, aside from Eden (even then), feel like anything others than characters. They’re like totems; none of the supporting actors get to do anything that interesting. In an early scene in the movie, Eden takes a piece of bread and drenches it in sauce while eating a spaghetti dinner. He makes an analogy: the bread is poverty and the sauce is education. If public education is sufficient, Eden says, it will smother the poverty. In Martin Eden, Eden is the sauce and everyone else the bread. 


Martin Eden could have easily been a blandly touching bildungsroman — be about a young man who has a dream, chases it, and sees it through. He’ll also win the woman of his dreams, a feat made more inspiring because at one point in time she was so unreachable that being with the woman of his dreams was something that could only exist in his dreams. But London crafted the book (here’s where the “autobiographical” part withers) to host a sort of warped version of himself. London was staunchly socialist and vehemently pro-union. What if he devised a hero who had a similar background to him, also wanted to be a writer in his youth, also eventually saw success as a writer, but had opposite political views? 


The more Eden reads, the more conservative he becomes. 

The more rejections he gets from publishers, the angrier he gets. (His early works highlight the plight of the lower classes so gloomily that one apparently only needs to read a few sentences of a draft of something to know it’s not very commercial.) He eventually becomes a passionate advocate for individualism (he calls socialism a “slave mentality”) and turns into a stalwart anti-unionist. What Eden transforms into was London’s way of making a case against individualism. London had sort of inadvertently made ideas of both that and meritocracy look appealing in his works. Martin Eden is a more purposeful rebuttal.


The material, when not viewed wholly as condemnatory, could also be seen as a tragic tale of someone who destructively internalizes the indifference of the world. How do you contend with the reality that no matter what ideology you subscribe yourself to, chances are high that not much of a difference can be made if it remains not the one the society in which you live practices?


For the first part of the story, Eden is so bright-eyed and bushy-tailed — clearly in possession of as much passion as intelligence — that we want him to get a leg up. Viewers are meant to identify with him. When his optimism curdles, it’s supposed to jar us, especially once the movie skips into his future, where Marcello emphasizes the physical toll Eden’s progressively near-fascistic beliefs and disdain for basically everyone has taken on him. (His romance with Elena, spoiler alert, proves unsatisfying; he develops a deep-seated hatred for the bourgeoisie in large part as a result, contemptuous of what he perceives to be ubiquitous status-obsession.)


When he was younger and more hopeful, Eden looked like a muscly heartthrob who might say he finds people who like to read sexy as a pick-up line. Once he becomes a middle-aged success story who has built that success on dispelling nasty ideology, the quasi-angelicness of the old Eden has corroded. He’s a de-handsomed devil. His face is yellowy and perennially unwashed; his hair is badly dyed and always unctuous; his teeth look like candy corn, his front canines so rotted they might fall out if he were to eat something particularly crunchy. It’s sometimes said that when someone’s soul dies before their body, you can almost sense it; their eyes might be beadier than normal, their skin an unhealthy hue. This is what seems to be happening here, hokily bringing to mind The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890).

The pronounced, jerky shift in personality and physicality is the apex of Martin Eden's way of not especially earning any of its new emotional developments. You think so often during the movie’s last act that Marcello has created enough spectacle surrounding one’s “fall” that he has enough to share with a few other tragic movies. Marinelli can only be outermostly effective in these scenes as someone who is violently unhappy. The movie doesn’t develop his inner life in a way that makes his swerve seem on track. It’s off the rails — an unnatural renavigation. “Life disgusts me,” Eden tells Elena toward the end of the movie, after she has decided that now that he is wealthy, she wants him. Marcello has shown us plenty by then to signify that disgust, but it's hard to feel what Eden is feeling. Much like its hero, we have above all else a strong understanding of what the movie wants to be and are disappointed with what it finally is.

Luca Marinelli in Martin Eden.

prettiness to it — and features an impressively impassioned lead performance from a revelatory Luca Marinelli. But while it’s nice to look at, and while it’s always a pleasurable experience as a moviegoer to be introduced to a performer you can sense is poised for bigness, Martin Eden is otherwise a superficial and emotionally narrow dramatization. It’s so concentrated on making its Big Themes and the more tragic elements of its eponymous character’s arc clear that little in it doesn’t feel contrived. It’s hitting all the right marks, but the marks jut out. All we can think about is what the movie is trying to achieve.


The novel on which the movie is based was semi-autobiographical for London. He wrote

ietro Marcello’s adaptation of Jack London’s 1909 novel Martin Eden looks beautiful — the saturated 16mm photography often has a baroque


Lloyd Bridges, Katy Jurado, Gary Cooper, and Grace Kelly in a promotional photo for "High Noon."


he waiting is the hardest part. In Time, a new documentary from Garrett Bradley, the sentiment becomes an understatement. The movie follows the efforts of Fox Rich, a car-sales entrepreneur based in

Shreveport, La., to get her husband, Robert, an early release from prison. In 1997, the couple was involved in a bank robbery — something Rich plainly states was born out of financial desperation. The latter was sentenced to 12 years but only served three. Robert, however, is on track to be incarcerated for a total of 60.


The feature shows the impact it has taken on the Rich family (it oscillates, in subplot style, between Fox and Robert’s sons, who have either mostly known or never known anything but this wait) and Fox’s tireless commitment to ensuring her husband does not have to complete his full sentence. She’s shown constantly petitioning over the phone for his freedom; she has in the years since her release become a lauded public speaker, making the rounds educating the public on the perils of incarceration and how cruel and unusual it is, particularly toward Black men.


Unless someone in your immediate circle has been incarcerated, what exactly the ramifications can feel like to those secondarily affected can remain foreign. Time, shot in unvarnished black and white and clocking at just 81 minutes, gives its central plight three-dimensionality and immediacy. Bradley incorporates home videos shot over the years from the family to drill in just how long this endless-feeling nightmare has been part of its life. “Time is what you make of it. Time is unbiased. Time is lost. Time flies,” one of Robert and Fox’s sons, Justus, says in an almost self-soothing chant style before offering, almost tired of optimism, “This situation has just been a long time, a really long time.” 


Fox tells us that every year since her release, she thinks to herself on New Year’s that this year will be the one where Robert is finally going to come home. She notes that even if you know deep down that this is going to prove to be a lie told to oneself to keep pushing, it still gets you somewhere. Time speaks to a larger issue often discussed in clinical rather than intimate terms; it renders it immediately personal. The movie features a cheer-inducing finale. But 

the breakthrough seen through comes in the wake of so much damage that you think, concurrent to your elation, how many people in a situation like the Riches do not get or simply never got this "happy ending." And how it's not even really a happy ending — one can be optimistic about what's on the horizon, but there is no way, really, to remedy the pain of losing so much precious time. 


Martin Eden: C

Time: A-