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No Man Is an Island

Martin Eden rails against the cult of individualism

However hamstrung by gaps, delays, and forceful “pushes” accommodating the new climate of social distancing, the diminished 2020 filmgoing calendar has nonetheless managed to release two adaptations of major works by Jack London. The bigger ticket affair was The Call of The Wild, a computer-animated/live-action update of London’s classic canine-Klondike adventure and one of the last big-budget blockbusters to sneak into cinemas ahead of coronavirus shutdowns. (The worthiest aspect of this production was the behind-the-scenes photos, featuring a career-grumpy Harrison Ford opposite a nimble actor squeezed into one of those green screen-friendly unitard suits.) More ambitious than Hollywood’s latest digitized exercise in post-human affect is Pietro Marcello’s Martin Eden, a dizzying take on London’s 1909 nstlerroman that elegantly evokes twentieth century political tensions, labor theory, the history and aesthetic breadth of Italian cinema, and, in places, the text of London’s Martin Eden itself. (Though Marcello’s film no doubt deserves, like pretty much all movies, a theatrical rollout, many filmgoers in the United States will have to content themselves with a small screen, at-home exhibition.)

Martin Eden is, by design, an archetypal story. A young sailor falls in love with a bourgeois beauty, hardens himself into a man of letters in order to win her affections, strikes it rich, succumbs to his own resentment, and, unmoored between his working-class origins and the upper-crust environs into which he has installed himself through diligent bootstrap yanking, takes his life into his own hands, only to—spoiler alert—end it. It’s Goethe’s Young Werther for guys who can capably change a tire or install a new flush valve in their toilet. Martin Eden is less a believable sort of man you might run into in the world, and more a vector through which London’s narrative of ennoblement, disillusionment, and callousness can unfold. His is a story of a tragic hero, and of the tragedy of heroism itself, which feels germane in an era overstuffed with comic book good guys.

London introduces Eden as a swaggering brute, ungainly in his own imposing form. He’s described like the proverbial bull in a china shop, lumbering through a well-appointed Bay Area mansion: “The wide rooms seemed too narrow for his rolling gait, and to himself he was in terror lest his broad shoulders should collide with the doorways or sweep the bric-a-brac from a low mantel.” Though burly, he’s a romantic enamored with beauty, in particular that of the upper-class Ruth Morse, Martin’s erstwhile tutor, “a pale, ethereal creature, with wide, spiritual blue eyes and a wealth of golden hair” whose rare grace “might well be sung by that chap Swinburne.” In Ruth, Martin sees a muse, who inspires a desire for education, refinement, and the mastery of proper English grammar. In Martin, Ruth sees a roguishly handsome man beneath her class, a tempting bit of rough.

It’s Goethe’s Young Werther for guys who can capably change a tire or install a new flush valve in their toilet.

Ditching the Sam-and-Diane, will-they-or-won’t-they tension between Martin and Ruth (here renamed Elena) is one of the many artistic liberties Pietro Marcello takes with his source material. Because the consummation of their class-cross’d romance is something of a foregone conclusion, Marcello’s Martin Eden hurries through it. Indeed, many of the incidents that fill up London’s novel are reworked, diminished, or altogether excised from the film. Marcello’s Martin Eden transposes the story to an Italy that seems unstuck in time. There are intimations of war, massive strikes, food shortages, and clashes between socialism and fascism. There are also relatively modern sedans and color televisions playing English-language cartoons, which makes determining a precise time period both difficult and somewhat pointless. Like Christian Petzold’s recent Transit, which overlays a WWII-era story onto a contemporary-ish backdrop, Marcello’s Martin Eden presents a dense palimpsest of periods and epochs, which together conjure up a cohesive sense of the last century. (This feeling is intensified by Marcello’s mixing of varying period-era film stocks and his detours into collage-like assemblages of newsreel footage.)

With the more conventional affair between the proletarian Martin and his moneyed paramour relegated to the background, Marcello’s film concerns itself with a different kind of romance. This Martin Eden brings the struggle between the ideals of socialism and Martin’s rugged individualism, consigned to a subplot in London’s novel, to the fore. An avid reader of Victorian-era biologist and political theorist Herbert Spencer (to whom the phrase “survival of the fittest” is attributed), Martin styles himself, through his insatiable autodidacticism, as a kind of Nietzschean Übermensch. Speaking at a meeting of striking workers, Martin’s fiery rhetoric is mistaken, or deliberately misinterpreted, by a local newspaperman, who casts the staunch nonconformist as an icon of a nascent unionist uprising. (As played by Luca Marinelli, who carries himself with the angular bulk of a Soviet monument, Marcello’s Martin makes an especially convincing socialist avatar.) Martin responds, in turn, by upbraiding the reporter, quite literally bending him over and administering a public spanking.

In London’s novel, Martin’s rejection of socialism is typically read a little ironically in light of the author’s own political leanings. Despite all his self-educating, Martin holds to the naive and cynical belief that one’s acceptance in any given milieu—be it the working-class unionists or the well-heeled liberals with their condescending prattle and hammed-up compassion for those “lacking in general culture”—must necessarily come at the expense of their individualism. Yet he nurtures, unknowingly, distinctly socialist sentiments. When his stories and essays begin fetching serious attention in the world of letters, elevating him to the status of wealthy literary superstar practically overnight, Martin ends up more indignant than ever. He is viscerally annoyed that his remuneration as an author is not tied to the value of his labor, but to the various mitigating factors, such as literary celebrity, that inflate it. “It was work performed!” Martin rages, in his own mind. “And now you feed me, when then you let me starve, forbade me your home, and damned me because I wouldn’t get a job. And the work was already done, all done.” To be loved for being famous, which was then and now the primary ambition seeded through so much of American life, is for Martin akin to being despised.

His displacement among the classes, and his blanket, proto-Caulfieldian hatred of the phonies and fakes, leave him utterly benumbed, his options drastically narrowed despite the ostensible freedom wealth and fame have afforded him. Martin’s decision to end his own life—in the book, by jumping out of a porthole while on a steamer to Tahiti; in the film, by swimming into the ocean following news of war’s outbreak—is itself a perverse realization of his strength, inasmuch as his formidable musculature is put in service of his own death, beating down the biological will towards life. Martin, in his writing, romanticizes the “man whose sole property is his own heart.” To relinquish that property is, by his own logic, a valiant act of Will. To his author (whether London or Marcello), as well as to the sensitive reader, it scans as conceited, if not stupid.

Martin’s out-of-hand rejection of the socialist movement teeming around him is similarly tragic and callow. Where, after all, does our hero’s self-styled superman status lead him? Only to the closed chambers of alienation and acrimony. The whole tragic-downfall-third-act bit of Martin Eden is of tremendous interest to Marcello, who makes a real meal of it. His Martin slumps into decadence, teeth turning the yellow-brown of a veteran nicotine addict, thinning blonde tendrils flopping across a broad schnoz. He is like Thomas Mann’s bilious Aschenbach, or one of Houellebecq’s more abject horndog intellectuals: a sick man of Europe. “Life,” he spits late in the film, “disgusts me.”

Marcello’s Martin Eden is an admonishment to the entire concept of heroism and the vanity and idiocy it enables.

Martin is something of an ironic, or complicated, protagonist in the works of London, an author who, because of his many beloved adventure stories, has been mistaken for advancing an outdoorsy social Darwinism. By contrast, there’s no mistaking Marcello’s regard for his title character. The new film rightfully holds Martin in plain contempt. He is not a romantic figure, or even an anti-hero, but a villain and a bit of a cad. The film opens with footage of Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta, a revolutionary rabble-rouser whose writings attempted to forge a third way between capitalism’s rabid exultation of the individual and communism’s annihilation of the same. He viewed anarchism as the system “which reconciles the liberty of everyone with cooperation and love among men,” and which was, in his conception, predicated on a fundamental (if totally theoretical) “love of mankind.” It’s here that the film’s sympathies lie: with the idea that one can be self-learned—indeed, must be, in a society that abjures education and intelligence—and even self-made, without becoming a megalomaniacal narcissist who holds the rest of society as beneath their contempt.

Martin’s individualism is itself a bit of a sham, a patchwork of philosophy and theory gobbled down and half-digested by candlelight in a rented room. He conceives of himself as a cluster of negations: against the working class, against the liberals, against the socialists and philistines and boors. Indeed, his whole personality is reducible to his prized estimation of his own iconoclasm. “I am the only individualist in this room!” he bellows at one point in the novel, ludicrously. In Marcello’s film, Martin’s literary mentor Brissenden (Carlo Cecchi) warns that socialism “might be the only thing that will save you from the disappointment that’s approaching.” Martin rebukes the prophesy. Ever orthodox, he maintains that “individualism is the hereditary and eternal foe of socialism.”

Martin Eden’s tale of an aspiring artist’s education and disgruntlement is no doubt a classic, and London’s book remains a cracking read a century-plus later. But Marcello’s adaptation manages to feel both timeless and pressing. Our contemporary political structures are packed with dolts and dullards who fashion themselves conquerors, restorers of bygone greatness. Our cinema is similarly packed with heroes, stuffed into spandex or rendered as plucky CGI dogs, no less absurd or hungrily fascistic than their real-world counterparts. Marcello’s Martin Eden is an admonishment to the entire concept of heroism and the vanity and idiocy it enables. It suggests a place for the individual within a whole, where they are nurtured and ennobled by the society that enfolds them, not in spite of it. Absent any rigging to keep him afloat, the lone individualist at sea, no matter how smug and stalwart, will doom himself, all by himself, to a watery grave.