Second Sight – Selected Film Writing of Adam Mars-Jones

The British writer and critic Adam Mars-Jones has had a longstanding interest in film, something which informs this collection of reviews, essays and personal insights spanning more than thirty years of cinema releases. As the first film reviewer for The Independent (from 1986 – 1997) and more recently as a critic for The Times Literary Supplement, Mars-Jones is well placed to offer views on this subject, having analysed a wide range of movies over the course of his career.

The book opens with an extended autobiographical piece covering the author’s grounding in film, largely informed by the process of watching and thinking about movies rather than more formal training on the subject. This organic or naturalistic immersion is important to convey upfront as it informs Mars-Jones’ approach as a critic – an ethos where personal insights, reflections and opinions sit alongside more objective assessments of the technical aspects of film.

With the groundwork in place via the opening meditation, the remainder of the book comprises a selection of the author’s film reviews and essays from the late 1980s to 2017, interspersed with more recent reflections on these pieces. In essence, the additional notes allow Mars-Jones to look back on his original columns with the benefit of hindsight – and, in some instances, to offer a modified view on the picture in question.

As with my posts on short stories, I’m not planning to cover all the individual pieces in the collection – there are more than thirty of them in total! Instead, my aim is to give you a flavour of the book by reflecting on some of the reviews that resonated with me personally. (Naturally, when it comes to reviewing any medium, we are all subjective to a certain extent.)

One of the book’s most entertaining pieces is an essay entitled ‘Thirteen Spielbergs’, commissioned by Prospect magazine in 2016 to coincide with a Stephen Spielberg retrospective at the NFT. Mars-Jones goes on the offensive here, effectively grouping the director’s films into thirteen fairly reductive categories from ‘Sledgehammer of Subtlety’ (Sugarland Express) to ‘Inner-Child Wrangler’ (E.T.) to‘Reluctant Minimalist’. This last grouping includes Jaws (one of Spielberg’s best movies), in which thedirector was forced to rely on inventiveness due to technical issues with specific special effects. In reality, this development turned out to be a blessing in disguise, pushing Spielberg down the route of subtlety in favour of clumsiness.

Also of note is the highly eloquent defence of David Fincher’s Alien 3, a film that Mars-Jones clearly admires for delivering ‘images of an often extraordinary beauty without letting the adrenaline level of its narrative drop much below the maximum’. As someone who has always found James Cameron’s Aliens – the critically-acclaimed sequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien – rather bombastic and overrated, I have a lot of sympathy for the author’s views on the trilogy. Many other critics consider Alien 3 a disappointment compared to its predecessor; but Mars-Jones has a different take on it, viewing Cameron’s Aliens as possibly ‘the weakest film in the cycle, flawed by a certain sentimentality and a relatively routine approach to action.’

Another piece that resonates with me is the review of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, the award-winning film by Martin McDonagh, which draws on a mother’s rage against the authorities for an unsolved sexual assault and murder. AM-J cites several issues with the film from the crass behaviours of certain characters to the derogatory representations of black individuals on screen – the latter appearing to be merely cyphers with no discernible depth or backstory. It’s a movie I also find deeply problematic, despite Frances McDormand’s blistering performance in the lead role. Whether you agree with it or not, the author’s critique is very thoughtful and well-argued – definitely worth seeking out if you’re familiar with the film.

By now, you might be thinking of Second Sight as a series of takedowns or arguments against highly successful films, however this is not the case at all. There are several very positive reviews here – and not just for arthouse and independent films but more mainstream movies too. The groundbreaking noir pastiche Who Framed Roger Rabbit is an excellent case in point. As Mars-Jones puts it, this is ‘the sort of film that gives blockbusters a good name’, where much of the pleasure stems from the collision of live-action and animation rather than a smooth integration of the two mediums. It’s a film I haven’t seen in years, but I’m looking forward to watching it again as a consequence of this piece.

Also on the list to revisit is Safe (by Todd Haynes), which features Julianne Moore as a woman who becomes ultra-sensitised to virtually everything in her immediate environment, to the point where this condition takes over her whole life. Some twenty-five years after its initial release, Safe presents an eerie, multilayered vision of the protagonist’s life, prompting anxieties that seem to resonate with our mask-wearing, socially-distanced approach to living today. Mars-Jones likens this mysterious and beautifulfilm to the work of the Italian director, Michelangelo Antonioni, drawing parallels in terms of camerawork, style and themes. More specifically: alienation, discontentment and the desire to free oneself from the sense of ennui surrounding an existing life. It’s an excellent piece, characteristically thoughtful, insightful and well presented. Again, well worth reading if you’re familiar with these films.

Some filmmakers make multiple appearances, allowing the author to track their development over time, pinpointing the highs and lows in their careers. Terence Davies falls into this category, as does Robert Altman – the latter giving rise to a particularly fascinating series of analyses. Altman is a maverick, a director who veers between brilliance and failure in a rather unpredictable way – and yet for some, this lack of predictability is part of the appeal. In certain respects, Altman can be viewed as an anti-authoritarian, someone ‘with a powerful need of other people’s structures to inhabit and contradict.’ For Mars-Jones, Altman’s highs include McCabe & Mrs Miller, Nashville and Kansas City; the lows M*A*S*H, A Wedding and Images; while Short Cuts, for all its sweep and ambition, falls somewhere in between. AM-J also successfully puts his finger on the reason why I have never been able to engage with Peter Greenaway’s films. Despite the undeniable aesthetic beauty of these works, they appear to lack any form of emotional soul – almost as if they are hermetically sealed in a vacuum devoid of feeling.

Other astute pieces consider subjects such as the representation of disability in film and the use (or misuse) of music to telegraph or accentuate emotion. Mars-Jones argues for a less-is-more approach to soundtracks, where the judicious use of silence can often be advantageous. Moreover, the careful introduction of music can signal a change of tone, one that fits with the director’s intentions. In short, ‘music best retains its power by being rationed.’ (The author’s observations on Kubrick’s use of music and silence in 2001: A Space Odyssey are particularly interesting.)

In summary, this is a fascinating collection of film writing, the sort of book that leaves the reader with a long list of movies to watch or revisit. Even though the views expressed here may not always be in line with our own, Mars-Jones is never anything less than thoughtful and eloquent in his assessments. A fascinating compendium for film lovers to dip into, time and time again.

Second Sight is published by Reaktion Books; personal copy.   

25 thoughts on “Second Sight – Selected Film Writing of Adam Mars-Jones

  1. tonymess12

    How coincidental, I’m currently reading Nick Pinkerton’s book length (over 210 pages) essay on ‘Goodbye, Dragon Inn’ (2003) a film by Tsai Ming-liang.
    The publisher is doing a full book every three months, each corresponding to a year in the 2000’s & Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) here in Melbourne, are showing the films & launching the books.
    It’s great to take some time out from fiction & immerse into some serious film writing. Having said that Spielberg, Alien et al probably not my cup of tea.
    Very nice review Jacqui, thanks for posting.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Tony. Ha – yes, I can see why Spielberg and the Alien trilogy might not appeal to you, although I have to admit to being a fan of the latter! Nevertheless, there are quite a few auteurs and arthouse movies represented here. Robert Altman is a big area of focus, more so than Spielberg I think.

      It sounds as if the film community in Melbourne has weathered the pandemic relatively well. I’ve been following your tweets on cinema screenings with interest, albeit tinged with a smidgen of jealousy as our cinemas are still closed over here!

      Reply
      1. tonymess12

        Our cinemas reopened on 24 February and closed for a three day lockdown on the 25th. They came back at 50% capacity, which moved to 70% and now back to full capacity, however not many in today’s silent film, myself and one other in a 150 seater!!
        I hope yours return soon, it’s a guilty pleasure.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          It certainly is a guilty pleasure, especially if you go on your own. I enjoy watching some types of films with friends, but there is something wonderfully self-indulgent about going to an afternoon matinee when it’s quiet, a bunking-off-from-school feeling that’s hard to beat. Hopefully our cinemas will reopen in mid-May, but with reduced capacity. We’ll just have to see how things go…

          Reply
  2. madamebibilophile

    This sounds fascinating. I enjoy A M-J’s film writing so it would be interesting to revisit it. I have a similar problem with Greenaway – as you say, his films are beautiful but I find them empty. I also love Roger Rabbit :-D

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! I have a Roger Rabbit on DVD, so it’s definitely time for a rewatch. Peter Greenaway’s work just leaves me cold, so it was interesting to read AM-J’s views on those films – they’re ravishing to look at but somewhat unfathomable and uninvolving, especially for this viewer. I think you’d enjoy the book; it’s a good one to dip into in between other things.

      Reply
  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Wonderfully nuanced review of what sounds like the perfect book for you, Jacqui! i’m much less au fait with modern films than you are, but I think I would agree with his views of some of the earlier ones he covers (for example, I never really rated the M*A*S*H movie at all). And you’re spot on about any kind of reviewing being informed by personal viewpoint – all of our blog posts are going to be, for example! It’s always worth finding reviewers whose views you trust, and it definitely sounds like AM-J is that!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, thank you, Karen. Yes, definitely a book for me. In fact, I bought it for myself a couple of Christmases ago, just as a little treat. M*A*S*H isn’t for me either, but I love some of Altman’s other films especially Nashville and Gosford Park. Plus, he did a great job adapting Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye for the silver screen with Elliott Gould in the lead role…and you know how fond I am of the Philip Marlowe novels.

      Reply
  4. Julé Cunningham

    Though not someone who does a whole lot of movie watching (maybe that Bambi one scarred me for life :) ), a critic who who is passionate about their subject, brings unexpected insights, and isn’t afraid to express their opinions is always a real pleasure to read.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, absolutely! There’s something for everyone here, even the occasional viewer. I mean, who doesn’t want to read an eloquent, well-argued piece on Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

      Reply
  5. heavenali

    I know what a discerning film buff you are Jacqui, so this was clearly a perfect book for you. I watch more box sets than films these days, though I do still enjoy a good film now and then. It is good to hear these film reviews aren’t all negative, though it is good to have some intelligent criticism too.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, an absolute delight for me, like a box of chocolates to dip into as a treat. Funnily enough, I’m watching more box sets than I used to these days, partly because the production values on long-form TV series have increased considerably in the last ten years. Also, several directors who started their careers in film are also exploring TV as a medium. David Fincher, Todd Haynes and Jane Campion have all made successful forays into this market in recent years, so there’s a lot to be said for it.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I do miss the big-screen experience of the cinemas, for sure, although streaming services have been something of a lifesaver for me over the past year. I’m not sure I could give up my some of my subscriptions, especially to Mubi and Netflix!

      Reply
  6. Jane

    This sounds like a must read! I completely agree with him on soundtracks, which is one reason why I thought Portrait of a Lady on Fire was so beautifully atmospheric. Thanks Jacqui!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      One of my pet peeves is the use of overly sentimental music to ‘signal’ to the audience what they should be feeling at certain points in a film. It can come across as so crass and clunky, essentially treating the audience with a lack of intelligence or respect. Spielberg is particularly guilty of this, I think, although that’s my own observation rather than AM-J’s.) Anyway whoever’s responsible, it drives me nuts! So yes, there’s a lot to be said for the less-is-more approach in this respect.

      Reply
  7. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  8. buriedinprint

    I enjoy reading about film, although doing so definitely extends the TBW list, usually in large chunks, as if it wasn’t enough to have an impossibly long list of books TBR. Several years ago, I read a book of interviews between Walter Murch and Michael Ondaatje and found the whole idea of editing in film to be tightly intertwined with revisioning story on the page too: so interesting!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that does sound interesting! I recall hearing Murch talk about his work on Apocalypse Now, how he had to think about the whole soundscape and its fit with the film, not just the music or more traditional elements we usually think of. It was on a film review podcast, I think – possibly a tie-in with an anniversary release or new director’s cut of the film. Anyway, it was fascinating stuff. I can see the connection with writing too – as you allude to in your comment above, both are effective ways of conveying a story, albeit through different media.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Very welcome! It’s a good one for dipping into. Just a word of warning though, you’ll likely end up with a long list of films to watch or revisit as a result!

      Reply
  9. Fred Slusher

    Thanks so much for sharing. I’ve added the book to my list of to be read titles. My interest was first piqued by seeing Mme. Falconetti as Joan of Arc on the cover. I love a good collection of insightful film commentary.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome. Yes, I must admit that the cover caught my eye, too. It’s such a striking image, even if the film itself isn’t covered in the book.

      Reply

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