The Essential Raymond Durgnat book reviewA long, long time ago English film magazines arrived in Melbourne after a journey by boat that often took several months. They could arrive in a rush, several issues at a time. The place where they were sold was McGills Newsagency in Elizabeth Street, near Bourke Street. It was a dim and overstocked shop. The ground floor walls had books on shelves that reached to the ceiling. But the space was dominated by two large flat display cases that started near the entrance and went the length of the room. You could pick up the magazines on display and look at the contents. The Brit film journals, and the locally produced Film Journal would have the current issues on display. A couple of American publications went on sale there as well, though somewhat more sporadically.

In the early- to mid-1960s generally there were five Brit publications – Sight & Sound (quarterly), Monthly Film Bulletin, Movie, Continental Film Review and Films and Filming. Very occasionally there were copies to be found of publications put out under the rubric of Motion but they were hard to track down.  Films and Filming was part of a set of seven publications (Books and Bookmen, Music and Musicians, etc) and generally had the raciest prose, written by a set of writers, though not one that operated as a group as far as could be seen. The raciest pictures were in Continental Film Review. The management of this part of McGills’ shop was in the hands of a young man named Mervyn Binns. He was a conservative dresser who wore a grey knee length dustcoat fastened by a belt. He had an oval face, slicked his hair straight back, held it there with brilliantine and wore thick lensed glasses. When he left the shop at 5.30 pm at night he wore a hat. He seemed a very dour figure, though later with another far more extroverted man named Paul Stephens he had this act where the pair of them would dress up as vampires and hire themselves out at horror film premieres. One night when Stephens hid himself in the male toilet at interval and leapt out upon the arrival of the first patron, the punter complained to the management that he “nearly had a heart attack”.

Melbourne University Film Society fed off the Brit magazines like the little fish that live in the big fish’s mouth. Many programmes were selected according to the taste-making of that far away London film scene. New magazine issues were flashed around mostly amongst a small inner circle and a consensus formed in favour of the agenda set by Movie. This had been helpfully developed by the publication in the first edition of a “talent histogram” which set out which directors to admire. Columns were devoted to relative assessments of British and American directors. Movie did not allow deviations to occur. It was thus that the “early” discovery of Joseph Losey as a major figure occurred around the time when a burst of his films appeared. The Damned (1963), Concrete Jungle (aka The Criminal) (1960) and Time Without Pity (1957) were screened by the film society over a matter of a couple of weeks. Then there were rumours that the censor had banned the director’s Eve (1962). Horror upon horror. Nobody ever knew for sure though there were later suggestions that the wily distributor, Sid Blake, tried to have the film banned in order to get out of his contract to show it.

The Essential Raymond Durgnat book review

Cover of Films and Filming, March 1965 issue

Then there was the case of Raymond Durgnat, who seemed to be by far the smartest and most engaging of the team of writers who were assembled for each issue of Films and Filming. Durgnat privileged movies simply by reviewing them – no matter how enthusiastic or otherwise he was about the picture under review. Tracking Durgnat’s taste and selections/allocations was a game played with enthusiasm. It went on for some time and then, maybe sometime in 1965,Films and Filming started printing longer essays by Durgnat, a couple of which feature in this excellent new publication devoted to the writer and his work, edited by Henri K. Miller. The first section of the book skips past the short reviews of individual films that Durgnat wrote prolifically in favour of including four longer, more enduring, pieces where the writer’s concerns, obsessively returned to over the course of decades, are set out: the state of film criticism itself, things associated with how movies are made, including the auteur theory, Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Powell.

Durgnat’s contemplation of Powell’s work was carried out with enormous insight and enthusiasm, notwithstanding the games that were played – which included the pseudonymous publication in Movie of a piece that upset the talent histogram. That piece, published way back in 1965, can now be seen as the starting point for the reconsideration of Powell’s career, which has since led to him being regarded as perhaps the greatest of British directors. Henry K. Miller gives an excellent introduction to all the machinations of the day. Movie seemed contemptuous to a fault about the British cinema. Its enthusiasm extended to Joseph Losey, an expatriate American, but not to many more. Its interest was in Preminger, Hawks, Minnelli and others, master craftsmen all but elevated by Movie into filmakers of great stature. Durgnat too was not wildly impressed by much of the new British talent which emerged through the 1950s and got into feature film-making in the 1960s. Surprisingly, perhaps, the one film from this period which does draw continued enthusiasm is Tony Richardson’s Look Back in Anger (1959), an adaptation of John Osborne’s smash hit play.

The first section of the book, gathered together under the title “Auteur Wars” is nostalgia-filled to an almost unbearable degree. It’s this section which causes recall of the role Raymond Durgnat played in developing modern film criticism. But it was as they say dark and lonely work. In those days, tracking down films was much more random – even in London with its National Film Theatre. Memory could play tricks as well, a fact that a US scholar told me had something to do with the view that Durgnat’s prose was good but his recall of the films, being less so, diminished his reputation with academics.

But that was of no consequence way back then. Students (not students of film, I hasten to add, for there were no such at the time) in Melbourne who had seen perhaps no more than a couple of Powell and Pressburger’s films, and most likely not hidden masterpieces like I Know Where I’m Going (1945) and A Canterbury Tale (1945), were suddenly hurled into the at least slightly unbalanced activity of cinephilia. It didn’t have that name then and it was only later that the discovery was made that others had gone before. In Sydney, especially, there seemed to be an even harder core of enthusiasts who had seen more, pursued harder and eventually wrote much more and much better.

The Essential Raymond Durgnat book review

Tales of Hoffmann (Powell and Pressburger, 1952)

Still, no academic ever resorted to describing anything, let alone Powell and Pressburger’s Tales of Hoffmann (1952), as:

This gallimaufry of Gothicisms, this pantechnicon of palettical paroxysms, this meddle-muddle of media, this olla podrida of oddsbodikins, this massive accumulation of mighty midcult Wurlitzerisms follows Offenbach’s operetta faithfully and fills in filmically by ballet, decor and by-play seeking, moreover, an operatic visual style with a total disdain of plausibility.” (p. 37) 

Or, even more famously, and more frequently quoted: “Godard wears dark glasses to hide from the world the fact that he’s in a permanent state of ocular masturbation, rubbing himself off against anything and everything on which his eye alights…”. (p. 57) And there’s much more…

Part two of Miller’s selection covers writing from the mid- to late-1960s, but much of it is devoted to Durgnat’s burgeoning interest in the avant-garde, his championing of figures like Jeff Keen and Steve Dwoskin, and two long pieces in which he grapples with the meaning of Jean-Luc Godard. Durgnat almost becomes a diarist chronicler of the times, for the pieces are selected from a variety of sources – International Times, Films and Filming, a book of essays on Godard published by the remnants of Movie, Cinim, The London Film-makers Co-operative Catalogue and Time Out. It may be that the life of a freelance is fraught with the need to respond to any opportunity but you would have to imagine that some at least of this was written as labours of love. Durgnat’s engagement with the avant-garde was up close and personal. However, when you can’t see the films under discussion because distribution in ex-colonial outposts just can’t keep up, it does cause interest to wane.

Still, there were Durgnat’s books, written at breathtaking speed, often re-assemblages of pieces previously published in Films and Filming especially. Miller’s introduction to Part Three of his project (“Images of the Mind”) gives some interesting background to their writing, touching on Durgnat’s own education, his psychotherapy and his relationship with and the influence of his mentor at the Slade School, Thorold Dickinson. Dickinson was a filmmaker who occupies a unique position in the British film industry – a major figure as writer/director, founding member of the key British union covering the industry, renowned educationalist and international bureaucrat. This selection has the toughest reading of the book. It starts with what Durgnat calls “reactionary” or at least “retrospective” film criticism and quickly engages with silent film, montage, the nature of the photographic image and so on. The major theoreticians, André Bazin in particular, are discussed, but that debate is conducted by analysing key films. Durgnat, unlike some others who have followed him, always had a ferocious appetite to see films – new, old, short, long, good, bad. He found things to discuss in the most unusual places, and when he writes about them he makes you want to see them again, or indeed to hunt them down if he has grappled with something that remains a mystery. I am tempted, for starters, for the first time in a long while to assemble the complete works of Eisenstein and run through them all. Durgnat’s reminder of their progression hits a memory streak. I will also have another look at Robert Altman’s Popeye (1980), the subject of a long essay about a film I found unbearable at the time of its release.

The Essential Raymond Durgnat book review

Sergei Eisenstein

At this point it might be worth saying that for all of the excellent assemblage of material, the book lets Durgnat down in one key respect. The selection and reproduction of the stills chosen very randomly to illustrate the writing is very poor. The images are barely visible in many instances. Coming thirty years after the graphical revolution of Ian Cameron’s Movie, the more recent fine magazine graphics in Sight & Sound especially, and after ten years of the brilliant use of sequential screen captures on such websites as David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s Observations on Film Art, the design is triply disappointing. It’s also a little puzzling as to why there should be a photograph of Thorold Dickinson included but there is no photo of Durgnat himself. I’m told he dressed permanently in all black. It would have been nice to have it verified.

From the late 1960s into the 1970s Durgnat published eleven books in eleven years. He also contributed essays to a number of others. Many of the full-length studies used material he had already published mostly in Films and Filming. The key titles were Eros in the Cinema (1966), Films and Feelings (1967), Franju (1968), The Crazy Mirror (1970), A Mirror for England (1970), Sexual Alienation in the Cinema (1972), The Strange Case of Alfred Hitchcock (1974), Jean Renoir (1974) and Durgnat on Film (1976). Miller’s selection leaves out material from all of these, preferring instead to go back to the primary sources in the magazine articles. I guess it’s an editorial decision based at least partly on availability. Tracking down those short pieces that later became parts of the books is a hard task. Fewer and fewer libraries would hold the material for starters if they ever collected it in the first place. There is, however, one rather droll inclusion, a pseudonymous review published in Film Comment, written by Durgnat himself, of his own book Sexual Alienation in the Cinema. The reviewer does get in some pot shots at the publisher: “No doubt the publishers expected that Durgnat’s text would satisfy, or at least browbeat, the serious reader. Meanwhile the pictures would attract swarms of nostalgia buffs and soft-core aficionados. In practice everything has gone wrong.” (p. 139)

This is the period when Durgnat spends considerable time as an academic at various American universities. He even spends time sharing houses with Jonathan Rosenbaum and Tom Luddy. The book pays considerable attention to Durgnat’s time with Luddy at the Pacific Film Archive, a period when those who might routinely have read his reviews were left bereft. The books seemed to stop completely as well. Durgnat however was continuing his role as provocateur, programming seasons at the PFA and preparing introductory notes in a conversational voice. Thus a series on editing starts with Citizen Kane  (Orson Welles, 1941) and is followed by Lettre de Sibérie (Letter from Siberia, Chris Marker, 1957), Toute la memoire du monde (Alain Resnais, 1956), Geography of the Body (Willard Maas, 1943), Cosmic Ray (Bruce Conner, 1961), A Movie (Bruce Conner, 1958), Renesans (Renaissance, Walerian Borowczyk, 1963), Scorpio Rising (Kenneth Anger, 1963) and Je t’aime, je t’aime (Alain Resnais, 1968).

On Durgnat’s return to London in the early 1980s, he wrote one major piece, the aforementioned text on Popeye. He uses the film to take the opportunity to yet again engage withAndre Bazin on photographic realism. You have to wonder, particularly given the length of the piece, how much of it had been bottled up for years: its tour eventually covers not just Bazin but the views of Manny Farber and Siegfried Kracauer. The article gathers the film into a group with Lil ‘Abner (Melvin Frank, 1959) (a film discussed with the same frequency that Durgnat returns to Look Back in Anger), Red Garters (George Marshall, 1954), The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939) and The 5000 Fingers of Dr T (Roy Rowland, 1953), among others.

On his return to England to a senior academic post at the Royal College of Art, Durgnat came as close as he ever would to absorption in the establishment. The young editor of Monthly Film Bulletin Richard Combs brought him well and truly into the fold by commissioning feature articles. This was not welcomed by all, and Miller gives the details of who disapproved. Durgnat appreciated the freedom to write about subjects of his choosing. Several fine pieces on Dwoskin, Godard and the Resnais-led French avant-garde are included as well as yet another piece on Powell and Pressburger written for Positif, at a time when the twosome were finally appreciated by all critical establishments, a process that had begun long ago with Durgnat’s pioneering provocation in Movie.

For a sense of the thrill of one man’s dogged cinephilia, his extraordinary ability to express a thought in the sharpest and most pungent prose and for the re-invigoration of the reputation of one of the greatest figures of film criticism, this is a book to cherish and to re-read as you hunt down those movies that it makes very special.

Henry K. Miller (ed.), The Essential Raymond Durgnat (London: Palgrave Macmillan/BFI Books, 2014).