Monday, December 31, 2012

Raymond Durgnat and A Mirror for England

One of the exciting things that happened this year in the world of film-book publishing is the re-printing of Raymond Durgnat’s book, A Mirror for England: British Movies from Austerity to Affluence. The book is a new contribution in the BFI Silver collection that is re-publishing classic titles, which already includes another Durgnat book A Long Hard Look at ‘Psycho’, as well as Richard Roud’s Godard and Tom Milne’s Mamoulian. Next year they will be re-printing Peter Wollen’s Signs and Meaning in the Cinema.

As I’ve argued in my review of Durgnat’s book on Dušan Makavejev’s WR - Mysteries of the Organism (BFI Modern Classics), Durgnat is one of the greatest practitioners of film-criticism and his published writing is a testimony to the lasting worth of the craft. In the book The Language and Style of Film Criticism, which analyses the work of four major English-language critics Durgnat, Manny Farber, Pauline Kael and David Thomson; the editors Andrew Klevan and Alex Clayton highlight Durgnat's description of Godard's Pierrot le fou as a "cine-salad" to then use a similar term to describe Durgnat's signature brand of writing which is that of a "crit-salad."

Currently, and besides from the previously mentioned BFI books, there are two of his other books still in print Films and Feelings and The Strange Case Of Alfred Hitchcock: or The Plain Man's Hitchcock (both MIT Press) and he has a few small contributions in anthology collections. It is because of this short supply of Durgnat's writing that any new book of his again in circulation is cause to celebrate. It is also note-worthy that there is a new website ( dedicated to his career and legacy.

What makes a book like Films and Feelings (1971) so good is how Durgnat synthesizes his encyclopedic knowledge of film and the other arts within the debates about cinema (Knight, Lindsay, Sarris, Kael, Cahiers, Positif, Movie) building upon what has been said, responding to arguments, and putting forth his own well-thought out and unpretentious position. Durgnat is able to re-iterate the basics of cinema in a unique and compelling new way while also revealing new insights and enlarging the new discourse in interesting ways. For example in the chapter The Cinema's Art Gallery by discussing the medium's potential do to justice towards paintings, Durgnat is slyly suggesting that if directors are to be considered auteurs their films must stand on their own against the works of master painters.

The publishing of A Mirror for England is a good start but there remains many of Durgnat's book still unavailable that need to resurface and he deserves a collection of his published writing. There are so many gems out there of his writing that are just waiting to be re-discovered like Durgnat's contributions in old film magazines whether they be Film Comment or The Monthly Film Bulletin. For example here is an excerpt from Amazing Grace: Keeping up with the Jones mystique from American Film ('86), "Watching Grace Jones's video performances reminds me of the great Luchino Visconti's remark that he'd happily make a whole movie with just one actor before one stretch of wall, so rich and varied the human body in performance be." Aside from the great French-film magazine Positif - whose origins are that of French Surrealism, and where Durgnat also once contributed a piece on Powell & Pressburger ('81) - Durgnat's prose needs to be better known to rejuvenate an eclecticism and jouissance in film criticism where it has been lacking.
I would like to highlight a few of my favorite comments by Durgnat about his background and method from an interview, ‘Culture Always is a Fog’, that took place with him at the University of California in 1977, which can be found in its entirety over at the website Rouge.
Do you recall a specific age when you became interested in movies? 
Yes, about fourteen, and that was when it started getting systematic. Before that, the Saturday morning tuppenny rush. The first movie I ever saw had two cowboys arguing at a bar and that’s all I remember. The first serial episode I saw had somebody falling off a mast into the sea, and then this pain and agony of ‘to be continued’.

When did you start going to movies?
 Oh, quite early, but films never acquired any great priority of enthusiasm over literature and jazz. It wouldn’t break my heart if all the movies in the world were destroyed tomorrow. 
I liked French movies very early — the melancholy and half-tones. The pre-war Jacques Préverts and Jean Renoirs, that’s my home key in movies.

When did you first start thinking about writing film criticism?
It arose naturally out of Eng. Lit., didn’t it? At school, a teacher sent one of my essays to the film critic of The News-Chronicle, the old News Kronk – Richard Winnington, whose selected criticism had just been reissued. He’d been a ‘30s Communist and had become the paper’s social conscience, by some personal moral sincerity. He made Paul Rotha sound like Oscar Wilde, he had this knock-down social consciousness, but pretty sharp. Anti-Hollywood, but with exceptions for The Grapes of Wrath [1940] and Sunday Dinner for a Soldier [1944] and so on. He wrote me a nice little three-line note about this essay; probably that influenced me. 
I occasionally wrote for student publications but I was too far out for the fifties. I didn’t keep to Winnington’s hard line, of course. But the fifties were very conformist. Worse than the ‘70s, there wasn’t even the memory of challenge. When I praised Bride of Frankenstein [1935] and Invasion of the Body Snatchers [1956], people were very worried and resentful. Oh, ignore it and it’ll go away. And it very often does go away. In fact I did go away, into the film industry.

Do you think that criticism is a form of self-expression? 
Yes, very easily, very treacherously. One treats the artist as a ventriloquist treats his dummy. So much ‘appreciation’ is really an attempt to defuse an artist, to reclaim him. In fact, that’s the challenge. A novelist’s characters can’t resist him as well as an artist can resist his critics. Which is one reason why criticism isn’t an inferior activity. It’s a novel with much tougher characters.

Are there particular critics that you do make it a point to read or follow? 
There are various people whom I read with interest because, whether I agree with them or not, there’s a genuine person speaking from a calibre of experience, not an automatic scanning mechanism. I’m thinking of Pauline Kael, who I rarely agree with; of Robin Wood, who I sometimes agree with; of Manny Farber. And Parker Tyler. At the other extreme, I’m very interested in certain theorists, particularly Jean Mitry and Edgar Morin. 
Moreover, one reads against one’s own opinions, doesn’t one? Sometimes one only realises a movie is not being understood or needs defining or attacking by what one’s colleagues say. And then again some disagreements are very affectionate, you know. Grateful, like a friend whom one meets to have arguments with. Or Flagg and Quirt ...

What was the motivation behind your early articles? 
Why did I do it? I think there were some things that had to be said. There was a kind of rendezvous of film and social studies, or social sense, that hadn’t happened. It looked like it was never going to happen. And The Crazy Mirror [1969] and A Mirror for England are about that, and the appendix in Films and Feelings [1967] is about that. The Crazy Mirror and A Mirror for England were written very quickly. They’re full of inaccuracies, which I think doesn’t matter, because the main point was arranging a kind of rendezvous between thinking about movies and thinking not so much about sociology as about the experience that people are having all the time. Those two books really cut across what is probably a more basic interest in the aesthetic language of movies, and how it compares to the other arts. And instead of developing that part of Films and Feelings, I interrupted myself by doing two or three sociology books. I think that confused a lot of issues.

On your list of ten favourite directors and ten favourite movies that appeared in Cinema, no. 4, Hitchcock isn’t included. Moreover, in your book about him you claim he is artistically inferior to Michelangelo Antonioni. Why did you choose to write a book about a director who is not among your favourites? 
The fact that he was becoming so many people’s favourite director was an interesting cultural phenomenon. In some ways a disturbing one. I did admire Hitchcock, but for different reasons. And he’s very symptomatic, as well as extraordinarily clear and lucid in his technique. He’s a supreme bourgeois manipulator. And genuinely expressive. And a virtuoso. One of the things going on in the Hitchcock book is really a continuous kind of tunnelling in which I’m saying, yes, he does make statements; yes, he is an auteur; yes, he does have a coherent philosophy; yes, it’s full of subtleties; there is no finer aesthetic director than Hitchcock in so many ways ... And yet the apparent ruthlessness of Hitchcock skirts very prudently and fearfully around real crunches.

Roughly speaking, what kinds of films would you rate most highly? 
Well, today’s ten best would be as unrepresentative of the long haul as yesterday’s. But currently the directors whose films I’ve most eagerly looked forward to, whether likely to be completely successful or masterpieces or partly boring or not, have been Pasolini, Altman, Jancsó, Borowczyk, Rosi, Alain Tanner, Roeg, Losey. You also have to remember that, not being a critical journalist, there are many movies I don’t see or don’t see until late. If I were writing a regular column and were in synch, things might be different. Perhaps those names are enough to indicate a certain wavelength.

Why did the English pick up Cahiers instead of Positif? 
Because English left-wing thinking is ravaged by bourgeois, puritan elitism. And by the alienation which is the Mr Hyde of dissent. And by an inverted chauvinism which becomes Parisotropic.
I think it’s a major cultural disaster for the English speaking left-wing that Cahiers du cinéma caught the fashion when it did – first with the Nouvelle Vague and then again in May 1968 – and that Positif didn’t. Cahiers 1960-style forced it into a kind of stylistic-auteurist-idealist cul-de-sac, then came a rigid counter-reaction, saturated with an idealism masked by an old-fashioned rationalism. Now I come to think of it, Positif throughout the ‘60s was fed by a double stream, of anarcho-Surrealism and of Marxism, that combined aspects of two alternative extremes — the hippie years as a kind of neo-anarcho-Surrealism, and the rebirth of Marxism. But English-speaking film criticism has been spinning between a right-bank aestheticism and a sort of bourgeois radicalism. Have you read that novel of Alberto Moravia’s, Io e lui or The Two of Us [1971] – I think it’s Two: A Phallic Novel in the US? That’s very interesting ... 

What about the popularity of the Nouvelle Vague?
Well, read Premier Plan on the Nouvelle Vague. And Positif. They saw it as the expression of a new free-wheeling bourgeois culture, which had learned to be very mobile, which had learned to be radical in the sense that it was constantly ready to revise its own opinions and its own character, which was just anarcho-bourgeois. After all, Truffaut, Chabrol, Rivette, Rohmer are all thoroughly conservative directors now.

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