Steven J. Martin doesn’t mess around. Though his movies are cerebral, you also can almost imagine him tearing open his torso as he spills his guts on the screen.
The former Cape Codder, who now lives and makes movies in Japan, has returned to the Cape a few times for Hyannis Film Festival screenings of his previous films “Unplayed Lullaby” and “Anonymous Gods.” He will return when the Hyannis festival presents his most recent picture, “Killing the Muse,” on July 22. (See hyannisfilmfestival.com for more information.)
As always when writing about Martin, I feel compelled to start with a disclosure: Martin is a former film student of mine, and I consider him a friend. I will introduce his film at the July 22 screening and will lead a Q-and-A afterward.
While it’s important for me to be transparent about this, I sincerely believe that whatever connection I have with him is not why I have such high regard for him and his work. (You can read my review of “Anonymous Gods” here: https://capecodwave.com/anonymous-gods-the-work-of-a-true-artist-play-it-again-tim/).
Martin’s films are reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman’s in that they are heavy, dialogue-driven dramas about soul-searching characters wrestling head-on with life’s big issues. “Killing the Muse” is no exception, though you also can see the strong influence of cinematic titans Jean-Luc Godard (experimenting with form, the emphasis on the fact that this is a movie) and Federico Fellini (film as autobiography and therapy, the merging of fantasy and reality).
That’s not to say it’s derivative; Martin might borrow various approaches, but only as tools to create his own, distinct brand of film.
“Killing the Muse” is (at least of those I’ve seen) Martin’s most blatantly personal film. To emphasize the point, he plays a filmmaker named Steve, “Anonymous Gods” is mentioned by name and there are visual references to Martin’s other movies. His real-life collaborators, actresses Nana Akuzawa and Kozue Ito (also Martin’s producer), play variations of themselves, though Martin uses them as mouthpieces for his own doubts about himself. They say things like “Your work is boring, and so are you,” and refer to his movies as “the poetic musings of a whiny old man.”
In a fascinating twist, Akuzawa also takes over the role of Steve at various points.
Aging is a big theme (Steve, like his real-life counterpart, is in his early 50s). So is sex and love and marriage (it’s suggested that the three “can’t co-exist”). But towering over all is the compulsion to create art, and the heavy toll it can exact on the creator and anyone in the creator’s orbit. Scenes involving the struggles of Steve (whether played by Martin or Akuzawa) and his wife (Naoki Kondo) are especially powerful. (Like Bergman did with Bibi Andersson, Harriet Andersson, Ingrid Thulin and Liv Ullmann, Martin – who has said he prefers to work with actresses – makes the most of the exceptional talents of Akuzawa, Ito and Kondo.)
The film isn’t perfect. The soundtrack is overbearing at times, often when combined with montages that sometimes seem forced. “Killing the Muse” is best with no music, when the quality of the dialogue and the acting create the dramatic impact.
It’s at these moments that the movie soars. ***½ (out of four)
** Click here for Tim Miller’s previous movie columns for Cape Cod Wave **
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Tim Miller is co-president of the Boston Society of Film Critics. He teaches film and journalism at Cape Cod Community College in West Barnstable. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or follow him onTwitter @TimMillerCritic. Or you can ignore him completely.