The Exterminating Angel

I must confess I’ve learned more about films from intensely spiritual writers – Bazin, Agel and Paul Schrader – than from Marxist writing (…) Is it because Christian theories strive to be sensitive, whereas Marxists like to be reductionist? Or because film form is visual-physical, which means material, which makes materialists lazy but inspires Christians to patient explorations for their ineffable? (1)

This is Raymond Durgnat chewing on a thought, trying to work through the ramifications of what he expects from cinema and what he expects from criticism. But what the passage illustrates especially well is Durgnat’s ability to play with several ideas at once whilst retaining the notion that thought need not be pinned down but should instead reverberate, with thought only as good as the instinct that created it, always ripe for contradiction – even by Durgnat himself a sentence later. The deterministic gives way to the indeterminate, as if thought is always in danger of petrifying into the ideological; the kind of doublethink that buries contradictions, as opposed to Durgnatian doublethink: the affirmation of contraries. If Durgnat’s inclination is for the spiritual over the material, we might say it just as readily lies in the cerebral over the actual, in a realm where thought can maximise its lubricity. Take, for example, Durgnat’s observations in a recent Cineaste article on Buñuel that the director “dealt with fetishisms in a non-fetishistic way”‚ (2) or in his piece (also in Cineaste) on Powell and Pressburger, where he says he is not sure whether A. L. Kennedy’s take on The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) is “film criticism or True Confessions”. He then adds: “At least it illustrates how spectators’ associations to films are freer than ideology theories understand. (The relation between ‘codes’ and ‘free associations’ is highly problematic, since free associations carry the different life-histories which diversify individuals and their minds.)” (3)

Of course, some might say this is the work of an unmade-up mind, but it is fairer to see Durgnat’s mind in the process of making its thoughts clear to itself. In his book Sexual Alienation in the Cinema, he quotes Jacques Brunius on the idea that Reason has become devoid of flight: “You have thought it decorous not to allow Reason to gad about (…) you have preferred to set up house for her with profiteers and parvenus so that she will the more inevitably become bourgeois (…) you have left the usufruct to the lowest riff-raff”. What is needed, Brunius believed, is “a myth of moral and material liberation, where order and disorder become one and the same activity”. (4)

Certain English language critics – like Durgnat, like Manny Farber, like David Thomson – turn the affirmation of opposites into a style, how they find a way of giving flight to a critical tradition that seems so often to have insisted on grounded, structured thought. For Farber, this style often lies in a descriptive assertiveness, in the subjective mind perceiving a series of images – “the fancy people holed up in the music room of The Exterminating Angel [1962] (…) literally give off a steam of sweat, ill temper, physical disgust, a remarkable intensity of discomfort that hasn’t been seen before in movies”. (5) In Thomson, it frequently comes from the idle, semi-anecdotal, psycho-social observation, as in this passage in his Biographical Dictionary of Film: “Michael Douglas has sold movies, and he has possessed a rare ability to be strong and weak at the same time. There is in his eyes, his jaw, his hairline, and his voice the memory of his father. But there is also something like his horror at being so like Kirk. What fuel for an actor!” (6)

But in some ways Durgnat’s project has been the most difficult and demanding; he has always wanted to theorise with a hammer, to work inside the notion of the theoretical (hence his many and varied observations and asides on theories, his flirtations with Marx and Freud), whilst at the same time refusing to acknowledge any set notions. Thus his style has a clotted intellectual impetus, where within one paragraph – as in the Buñuel piece – we can have Marxism, Freudianism, non-Freudianism, social materialism, functionalism, techno-functionalism, New Leftism, scientific realism and references to H. G. Wells, Lenin, the Bolsheviks, Lysenko and Edison. This is the theorist in the eye of the storm.

Yet Durgnat’s interest in theory does not seem to lend itself well to the creation of one’s own theory (the way, say, Deleuze absorbed cinema theory to offer up a yet more complete theory of his own making), but instead allows him to fuse the dichotomous thinking of others. In the piece on Martin Scorsese quoted above, he suggests: “Some of us (call us ‘Art Realists’?) prize works of art primarily as windows on ‘other realities’ (other experiences, other minds…). Others (call them ‘Aesthetes’?) delight in art for its own unique experience. ‘The Show’s the thing’. Yet these opposites may cover the same ground.” (7) It is this refusal to acknowledge convenient but false dichotomies that leads to Durgnat’s fusion, in the twin sense of the term: he joins two or more things together to create a single entity, and at the same time insistently generates heat. If Farber creates image-fusion in the way he compounds images from various films to sum up a director’s work, Durgnat looks to compound thought. This is the difference between the critic as perceptual-collagist, and the critic as intellectual termite, as Durgnat eats away at theoretical thinking to leave thought in a purer state without simply negating thought and cinema altogether. If we can say that Farber is the great English language critic of perceptual-collagism, then Durgnat has shown himself to be a marvellous critic of impulse-thought, of thought fighting for freedom out of theoretical constraint.

This gift contains within it another significant, though possibly accidental, project. More than any other British critic, Durgnat has eschewed both empirical analysis and theory building – as if realising that empiricism and theory are often only moves towards a false objectivity, like a conversation between two or more people that allows for social discourse but no room for personal revelation. When Durgnat talks about free associational responses being freer than ideology theories understand, he is suggesting a Barthesian punctum by other means. The personal response, in escaping the dictates of theoretical assumption, then becomes the intuitive idea, developed not for the purposes of containment within a wider social acceptance, but revealed as an act of personal revelation. If Durgnat is interested in eating away at academic theory, he wants to do so by revealing, and revelling in, the possibilities of one’s own consciousness.

In a wonderful essay on Eric Rohmer, “The Enlightenment’s Last Gleaming”, Durgnat talks about how neo-classical balance comprises a controlled but delicate instability. Its codes and conventions are not rigid, inert forms but diplomatic buffers. (8) Durgnat’s writing itself offers a controlled but delicate instability. The theoretical carapace he often works within is like a formal structure he accepts as a conceit, but never one he allows himself to be intimidated by – just as Rohmer’s characters accept the superficial necessity of their lives but want to revolutionise the intimate. If Durgnat has a problem with theory, it is not just that it solidifies thought, but also that it objectifies the individual. When Durgnat quotes Brunius – “the task of… today is nothing less than to change a myth of oppression for one of liberation – for a myth that allows man to escape from God without selling his soul to the Devil”, (9) we might see it as a metaphor for Durgnat’s own belief that we should deny the solidification of theory without falling into the arbitrariness of opinion that bedevils much British criticism. What Durgnat does so well is a kind of perspectival suggestiveness – evident when he says, of Rohmer’s work, that “every possible decision entails some sacrifice, paradox or irony. But irony doesn’t subvert morality; morality is about choosing the lesser of two ironies”. (10)

Le Vent de la nuit

This approach leads to the offering of a critical self without imposing it upon others. His approach brings to mind F. R. Leavis’ comment that the critic suggests ‘this is so, isn’t it?’ and receives the reply ‘Yes, but…’ A laudable aim, but one achieved by how many critics? And this failure is not just a case of the forcefulness of opinion, but also an unwillingness to reveal the tentativeness of thought, to offer up the vulnerability of thought. One need only think here of, say, a Time Out review by Tom Charity of Philippe Garrel’s Le Vent de la nuit (1999), and the critic’s belief that, due to the film’s “unconscionable pretentious tosh…before long, most of the audience will have considered ending it all”. (11) Here it is not enough to have a would-be personal, woefully ignorant response; the critic also assumes the general audience’s response as well. There is no suggestion in this review that the writer knows anything about Garrel – certainly not that he is regarded by some as one of the greatest contemporary directors. Instead, the critic’s uncertainty of knowledge becomes the certitude of opinion. Thought becomes an irrelevance.

What Durgnat represents better than any other British critic is the retreat of opinion for the amplification of thought, without turning thought into a theoretical bent – the reflex which demands that thought, if expressed at all, must attach itself to a purpose wider than the writer’s own impulse. For all the influence of Mulvey and Wollen, of Neale and Heath, it is a critic such as Durgnat who gets closer to the being of a viewer, to the viewer alone receiving images and allowing them to affect the nervous system. This is what Adrian Martin means when he invokes Durgnat in a discussion of the solicitation of viewer involvement – a process labelled by André Labarthe as a “science of effects”. (12) In Durgnat this amounts to an intellectual Pavlovianism, where one accepts the immediate effect of a film, its physical immediacy, but at the same time becomes interested in the way this physical effect generates intellectual thought. Such an approach allows Durgnat to see Hitchcock as both distanced moralist and visceral ethicist, as in a passage from a Sight and Sound booklet on the director. Here Durgnat focuses on Hitchcock’s use of fear, saying that fears “precede goodness. They’re why we want others to be good, and keep pretending to be so good ourselves. They’re fears of (among other things) shame, disgrace, social humiliation, being a fox on the run, hunted by humanity in general”. (13) He sums up the diverse moralistic interpretations of the director in the formula “Hitch’s aim in life is to force spectators to feel guilty” (14) – but extracts from this ‘hypochondrial’ view of cinema as guilt inducement its genuine ‘insights’. Thus Hitchcock certainly manipulates us (the Pavlovian aspect), but we are also, if we care to both absorb and observe, then in a position to judge, individually, the nature of the manipulation.

We can see now how Durgnat ties together his wariness of theory – with its incomprehension of individual nervous systems for pseudo-objective systematisation – with the need for thought in cinema. Durgnat is a good example of Paul Coates’ belief that we need critics “capable of thinking on their seats”, (15) working through an emotional problematic instead of an intellectual abstraction, recognising that cinema is capable of generating thought but equally capable of too readily assuming it. Film viewing, from such a perspective, is a vigilant activity, certainly – not confined to the three PC’s of race, gender and sexuality, but a constantly evolving relationship between one’s feelings and thoughts.

We might be reminded here, ultimately, of Coates’ idea that “film demands moral judgement more than any of the other arts”. (16) But, like Coates, Durgnat’s morality has always been beyond the good and evil of political correctness; he has always been concerned first and foremost of the micro-ethics of a given film. What Durgnat said of Rohmer’s characters, how they work through “their psycho-moral ethos [that] intriguingly mixes modern, perennial and archaic traits”, equally applies to the writer himself. (17) Durgnat is a critic we cannot readily do without.


  1. Raymond Durgnat, “Martin Scorsese: Between God and the Goodfellas”, Sight and Sound (June 1995), p. 25.
  2. Durgnat, “Defetishizing Buñuel”, Cineaste Vol XXIII No 4 (1998), p. 7.
  3. Durgnat, “The Powell and Pressburger Mystery”, Cineaste Vol XXIII No 2 (1998), p. 19. Also available at http://powell.ifrance.com/powell/nversion/criticenglish.htm
  4. Durgnat, Sexual Alienation in the Cinema: The Dynamics of Sexual Freedom (London: Studio Vista, 1972), p. 11. (Editor’s note: In Roman and civil law, an usufruct is the right of enjoying all the advantages to be derived from the use of something which belongs to another.)
  5. Manny Farber, Negative Space: Manny Farber on the Movies (New York: Da Capo, 1998), p. 281.
  6. David Thomson, A Biographical Dictionary of Film (New York: André Deutch, 1994), p. 207.
  7. Durgnat, “Martin Scorsese”, p. 24.
  8. Durgnat, “Eric Rohmer: The Enlightenment’s Last Gleaming”, Monthly Film Bulletin no. 678 (July 1990), pp. 187-8.
  9. Durgnat, Sexual Alienation in the Cinema, p. 11.
  10. Durgnat, “Eric Rohmer”, p. 188.
  11. John Pym (ed.), Time Out Film Guide (London: Penguin, 2002), p. 1244.
  12. Adrian Martin “Mise en scène is Dead, or The Expressive, The Excessive, The Technical and The Stylish”, Continuum Vol 5 No 2 (1992), p. 124.
  13. Durgnat, “The Business of Fear”, in Hitchcock, supplement to Sight and Sound (August 1999), p. 11.
  14. Ibid, p. 10.
  15. Paul Coates, The Story of the Lost Reflection: The Alienation of the Image in Western and Polish Cinema (London: Verso, 1985), p.8.
  16. Ibid, p. 7.
  17. Durgnat, “Eric Rohmer”, p. 187.

About The Author

Tony McKibbin teaches Short Courses at The University of Edinburgh and writes for various magazine and journals. His website can be found at tonymckibbin.com, and some of the material from the website is in book form: On and About Film and Other Essays; Craig Dunain and Other Stories.

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