First Man
Transit (Christian Petzold over)
Living the Light — Robby Müller (Claire Pijman over)
Sextette World Wide Angle | January 2012
Belles lettres

1 A loving homage to a (very) aged Mae West, strange and senile, in Sextette (1978).
2 The description of a shot in a Raúl Ruiz film: during the seconds it took for the camera to roll, Melvil Popaud changed from a child into an adolescent.
3 A lost text signed by Roland Barthes and published, with a scholarly introduction, in Sight and Sound: a sober analysis of the British Carry On series.
4 Paeans to a film the critic never saw (The Woman from Nowhere, 1922) or that I have yet to track down (Pierre Zucca's Roberte, 1978).
5 Praise for fellow critics (Jonathan Rosenbaum, David Ehrenstein, Raymond Durgnat) who pay attention to the changing colour of Cary Grant's socks during the cropduster sequence in Hitchcock's North by Northwest (1959).

These were the things that immediately flashed into my mind when I learnt the sad news of the death of Gilbert Adair on 8 December 2011 at age 66 — not so long after the passing of Ruiz, with whom he worked on films both realised (The Territory, A Closed Book) and unrealised (The Picture of Dorian Gray). A writer in many forms (novel, essay, poetry, investigative journalism, pithy review, elaborate pastiche), Adair was a boundlessly inventive stylist, a committed practitioner of what we today call 'creative criticism'.
In fact, Adair proudly occupied a place in a rather outlawed sector of criticism: what has often been labelled, with a sneer, as belles lettres, 'fine writing' that falls outside the strict genre boundaries of either fiction or non-fiction. At a cursory glance, his work can seem like an assortment of refined taste-impressions delivered with an aesthete's snobbery. But dig into his essay collections such as Myths and Memories (1986) or The Postmodernist Always Rings Twice (1992) — formative experiences for me both as reader and writer — and you will find a sensibility finely tuned to high and low culture alike, to intellectual work as well as everyday, hedonistic delight.
Adair liked to portray himself as an old-fashioned, nostalgic, mannered chap, ill at ease in the contemporary world — even when it came to the rituals of homosexual cruising as once elegantly, furtively pursued in the 'good old days' before the political movements of sexual liberation. And yet, in a recent comment on Godard's prophetic aesthetic vision, Adair could piercingly intuit that "the Internet, for example, is totally Godardian".
Like Ruiz, Adair preferred — if only as an ironic posture — everything that came with veils, codes, discretion, theatrical ritual. It is one reason that he held, all his life, to the type of semiotic analysis of ubiquitous cultural signs popularised by Barthes: semiology, in its Barthesian formality, seemed to have to made a pact with gay elegance. As Thomas Elsasser once described Hitchcock, Adair was another "peculiarly British dandy".
In one of the most gnomic and captivating formulations in the history of film criticism, André Labarthe once said of the Cahiers du cinéma critics of the 1950s and '60s that they embodied a dandyism, but "dandyism without a mirror". Meaning that they were interested less in self-inspection (even while adopting a careful, public pose) than on making close contact with their love-objects (i.e., films), and on creating something in the world and its culture. Gilbert Adair was among the special dandies who could turn his sparkling mirror on all he beheld.

Adrian Martin

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