American author Paul Auster writes and directs his second solo feature film, but the emphasis remains heavily on the challenge of being a writer. Noel Megahey reviews Axiom’s DVD release.
A man sits alone in a room staring at a blank screen. Leon Scrivener, for that is the man’s name and that much he can recall, cannot remember how he even came to be locked in this room with no doors, much less find a way out. He cannot hear anything outside the room he is trapped in, but beneath the low electric hum of the unblinking intimidating gaze of the screen that stares at him questioningly, challengingly, he senses the presence of hundreds of lynx eyes, hungry, waiting, demanding – a low murmur that buzzes in his brain, building towards a scream. After a while, he detects the faint outline of shapes forming on the screen…
Anyone familiar with Paul Auster’s work as one of the foremost contemporary American writers will not be surprised by the fact that his second feature film as writer and director – one moreover with a title like The Inner Life of Martin Frost – is about writing and features a meta-fictional device where essentially it’s the writing of the story that is the story. Martin Frost, evidently, is the writer in question here. I say ‘evidently’, and unfortunately it’s the case that everything is made just as evident as the title of the film (and my poor attempt at pastiche) suggests.
Martin (David Thewlis) has just spent three years writing his last novel and he has gone to take a break at the country home of his friends Jack and Diane Restau (note the anagram name) while they are out of the country (note the framed photos of Auster and family on the sideboard). He plans to use the time to unwind and not think about anything at all, but being a writer, an idea for a short story forms in his mind and won’t let go, consuming his thoughts. He has no option but to dedicate his time towards the story and finds an old typewriter of Jack’s to work with. When he wakes up the following morning however, he finds a woman (Irène Jacob) in bed beside him. She says her name is Claire Martin (and that it’s just by coincidence that her surname is the same as Martin’s first name), a niece of Diane, who has inadvertently been double-booked into the house. Martin initially finds her presence intrusive, but eventually reaches an accommodation with this strangely attractive woman with a seductive French accent who has a habit of wandering around in skimpy underwear, and eventually he even falls in love with her…
Being a Paul Auster story, you should be able to work out fairly quickly that Claire – who knows everything Martin has written and even a few things he hasn’t yet finished – is Martin’s muse, the personification of Martin’s story, and the representation of his relationship to his writing. Even if you are not familiar with Auster’s work, the concept is made completely plain and unambiguous when Claire expresses an interest in the philosophy of Bishop Berkeley, and even recites the relevant passages on whether matter actually exists or is only a projection of the mind and embarks on a silly game of words and their meanings with the writer – the Berkeley written on her T-shirt refers to something different from the philosopher she is reading so it’s not the same – only it is – and her name is Martin, but she is not Martin (the writer) – only she is. Clever, no?
Well, no, it’s not. It’s not a particularly original idea in the first place, and even if its one that Auster has explored exhaustively in his own novels (the origin of this particular story even existing in unfinished form in his novel ‘The Book of Illusions’), it’s usually only as a starting point, quickly (and frustratingly for some readers) dropped as the author follows a new path of thought. Auster is interested in why we write, in all the little coincidences and connections between reality and fiction, in the resonances they have in the mind of a writer, in how he turns them into words and narrative, and in how they reconnect again with the world once told. That makes sense in the context of the written word, but it’s much less compelling when expressed visually on the screen. Fifteen minutes of heavy-handed expositional dialogue and some not particularly great acting and the point of The Inner Life of Martin Frost has been made abundantly clear.
Although lacking in imagination and dramatic purpose – Auster’s ‘City of Glass’ mazes are reprised to show the direction of the writer’s path and there’s a spinning typewriter (Auster, alas, is no Godard or Mazzucchelli when it comes to deconstruction of the word through imagery) – the idea at least serves its purpose, and with the introduction of Jim Fortunato (Michael Imperioli), Auster finds a way of expanding the story from a mobius strip into a more complex Escher puzzle. A boiler repair man with ambitions as a writer, Jim should be the injection of reality into the proceedings, the common-man figure of Auster’s ‘Brooklyn Follies’ and ‘True Tales of American Life’ (or of his earlier cinematic anecdotal explorations with Wayne Wang in Smoke and Blue in the Face), with his own stories to tell to help him understand and cope with the increasingly threatening world around them, even if his means of expression is rather crude.
Fortunato should bring the welcome dose of reality that Frost needs to escape from the trap he has found himself in and find a way to reconnect with his muse – albeit on a different level – and predictably, that does indeed happen. Thematically, that’s fine, but as far as the film and its story goes, it’s just another writing device – one that with the introduction of the director’s daughter Sophie Auster as Fortunato’s ailing muse, it has to be said is somewhat indulgent, although the singer/songwriter does prove to be a natural for the screen. Reality sadly never really enters into the proceedings and consequently neither does any reason why the viewer could care less. For fans of Paul Auster as a writer, The Inner Life of Martin Frost can be an intriguing exploration of his themes in another medium, but it doesn’t really add much of a new dimension to his work, and it certainly doesn’t have anything new or original to add to the cinematic medium.
The Inner Life of Martin Frost is released in the UK by Axiom Films. The DVD is in PAL format, and is region-free.
The film is transferred at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, progressively encoded and anamorphically enhanced. The print looks fine, the transfer stable with no significant marks or flickering of any kind. The colouration however looks over-warm and over-saturated, with reds in particular blooming strongly. The image is however clear, if a little soft in wider shots, showing reasonable detail in close-ups.
The audio track is straightforward Dolby Digital 2.0 and it’s fine – low, soft and warm, not particularly bright in tone, but clear and with reasonable range.
The film is English language throughout and there are no subtitles, hard-of-hearing or otherwise.
The extra features are nothing if not comprehensive. A full and excellent Interview with Paul Auster (53:08) examines all the links and connections that the film has with Auster and his work – coincidences that the author has convenient explanations for, but which are characteristic nonetheless of the blurring of fiction and reality that forms the basis for much of his work. The first half of the interview examines his approach to the film, the second half takes in a wider look at his writing, considering his then latest novel ‘Travels in the Scriptorium’.
The Making Of The Inner Life of Martin Frost (43:07) takes the viewer through the whole process of the film’s making and it’s actually more interesting than it sounds. There are interviews with the cast – all of whom typically have tales of synchronicity to account for their involvement – and all the Portuguese production team and filming crew. On-set updates by Auster relate the progress of the film through shooting to editing and composition of the music score.
A Stills Gallery of 15 images is included, as is the film’s Trailer (1:44).
It’s not as if Paul Auster doesn’t know his cinema – his most recent novel ‘Man in the Dark’ describes and most effectively evokes scenes from The World of Apu, La Grande Illusion and Tokyo Story – or that he lacks experience as a filmmaker, but the idea for The Inner Life of Martin Frost is a literary one rather than a cinematic one, and it’s a very thin one at that. Its origins as a “film outline” in one of the authors novels and its subsequent development as a short film are evident, and although one often wishes that Auster would finish off closed little stories that he breaks off from in his books, the results here show that perhaps they are better left unfinished and undeveloped, as there really isn’t anywhere interesting for them to go. Clearly a fine writer and a competent filmmaker, the lack of budget may account for the small scale ambitions of The Inner Life of Martin Frost, but the experience gained will hopefully be put to a more productive use of Auster’s talents in the future.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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