In Raymond Durgnat's Crazy Mirror
Because the cinema is scarcely a century old, film lovers have learnt to endure a constant stream of bad news: announcements of the deaths of one great star or director after another.
Now this pathos also extends to the great film critics – such as Pauline Kael who died late 2001, and Britain’s Raymond Durgnat, who died in his sleep after a brief illness at the age of 69 on 19 May 2002.
Durgnat is one of the few critics, alongside France’s André Bazin and America’s Manny Farber, who fashioned a body of writing so creative and far-reaching that it deserves to be regarded as art (and entertainment) of the highest order.
Across a dozen books, from a self-published monograph on the French New Wave in 1963 to A Long Hard Look at Psycho for the British Film Institute, and literally thousands of occasional reviews and essays, Durgnat followed the hunch that “art is simply thinking, put out for other people to share, enjoy and mull over”.
His commentaries on films, genres and national movements were mercurial, inventive and always surprising. He refused to limit himself to a lowbrow celebration of pop culture (as Kael tended to) or to a highbrow championing of difficult art.
He truly mixed it up. In his writings, Jerry Lewis, Greta Garbo, Jean-Luc Godard, Dusan Makavajev, Tex Avery, Michael Powell, Brigitte Bardot and Theo Angelopoulos are brought together in a mind-boggling network of comparisons and associations.
Durgnat was born of Swiss parents in London in 1932. Even his closest friends, such as Richard Combs (his editor at the Monthly Film Bulletin during the ‘80s) could glean little information about his upbringing beyond the reminiscence of “how his father could read a newspaper by the light of fires in the East End during the Blitz”. The few allusions in his work to childhood and young adult years are curt, such as how, at 20, “I was bayoneting straw men and enjoying the refined moral influence of the barrack-room (which was hardly coarser than that of at least three of the schools I had been to)”.
His extraordinarily rich imaginative life, however, was clearly woven from his engagement with movies. He reflected in 1967 that “one’s favourite films are one’s unlived lives, one’s hopes, fears, libido. They constitute a magic mirror, their shadowy forms are woven from one’s shadow selves, one’s limbo loves”.
His first major essay, a piece on screen melodrama, was published by Sight and Sound in 1951, when he was 19. He once recalled, a year earlier, going to see the now-forgotten film Les Amants de Verone “11 times in seven days. I came away baffled, frustrated, with nothing to show but some visually illiterate sketches and a few sentences which I dared show nobody. But these images had hit me with their rhythm”.
The filmmaker and pioneering media educator Thorold Dickinson (Gaslight, 1940) became a mentor to Durgnat in the early ‘60s at the Slade School of Fine Art, and encouraged him to research as widely as possible. At least three important books eventually emerged from that groundwork – his study of American comedy, The Crazy Mirror (1969); his pioneering history of popular British cinema, A Mirror for England (1970); and an account of film aesthetics that influenced an entire generation of critics, Films and Feelings (1967).
Feeling, mood, suggestion, rhythm were key critical terms for Durgnat, and he theorised them through a rich and diverse filter of disciplines, including gestalt psychology, art history and sociology. Equally, he was a proud connoisseur of way-out, often despised genres – sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and the many forms of erotic cinema (to which he devoted two books).
Motion, a short-lived magazine he co-edited in the early ‘60s, relentlessly mocked the middlebrow stances of Sight and Sound and devoted special issues to taboo topics including “Violence and Sadism in the Cinema” and “The Gentle Art of Titillation”.
The angry tone of some of Durgnat’s writing does not appear to have tallied with his everyday personality. His friends remember him as a naturally reserved, even shy person who was easily embarrassed by praise, and often seemed a loner. Yvette Bíró, teacher of screenwriting at New York University Tisch School of the Arts, recalls his “wry, understated sense of humour, and his deep disposition for irony”.
Like Bazin, Durgnat was an intellectual magpie, a keen synthesiser. But the prevailing trend in the Anglo-American academy of the ‘70s – a narrow, doctrinal, mixture of Louis Althusser’s Marxism, structuralist semiotics and Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalysis – failed to build on or even recognise Durgnat’s enormous contribution. After his mid-’70s director studies of Alfred Hitchcock and Jean Renoir – dismissed for their unscientific “impressionism” – Durgnat published only one other book between 1975 and 1999.
His steady stream of magazine and journal articles throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, however, became more heated, and, eventually, a polemical war broke out. On the stage of a 1979 Venice Biennale conference, Durgnat blasted the “elitism, esotericism, the intellectual snobberies”, the “theoretical catatonia” of a movement that had “failed to produce one coherent, useful, and new theory of even one aspect of the cinema medium”.
For his pains, Durgnat found himself excluded from academic anthologies, conferences and reading lists for many years to come. He couldn’t even get a job in an Australian university, although he tried several times. He only supervised two doctoral theses in all his years of teaching, one of them by Peter Biskind, a fixture on the best-seller charts with his tell-all account of Hollywood, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.
Nonetheless, Durgnat managed to travel and teach at places including Columbia University and the University of California, San Diego, where he made friends (such as the filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin) who have championed his work ever since. His final teaching appointment was at the University of East London. And he was certainly popular with students.
Judy Bloch, an editor at the Pacific Film Archive in California, who attended his lectures in the late ‘70s, says “he taught us to bring everything we knew into observing a film. In a time when film theory was a strict master, this was a radically old-fashioned and forward-looking notion”.
Durgnat is one of the rare critics who garnered as many devoted fans among practitioners as among intellectuals. Walker Pearce, former film school director, has observed his “solid following in the film studios as well as in colleges, universities, museums and press rooms”.
Some of his students went on to become major independent and experimental film makers. For Patrick Keiller (director of London, 1994), Durgnat’s “combination of knowledge and open-mindedness led me to the moment in which it seemed possible to attempt a first film”. The message of his classes was that “in film making, the rules were usually derived in retrospect, and could always be renegotiated” – a liberating lesson for aspiring artists.
The surrealist animator-twins known as the Brothers Quay (Institute Benjamenta, 1995) were also profoundly touched by Durgnat’s classes at London’s Royal College of Art in the early ‘80s: “There was a wonderfully disarming and shambling haphazardness to his lectures, which immediately won us over. Along with his mismatching socks, Ray probably never knew just how much he had formed us by his writings on the cinema.”
The Brothers Quay worried when they no longer saw new books by Durgnat through the ‘80s and ‘90s (beyond the study King Vidor, American co-written with Scott Simmon): “We always felt that this great maverick writer on cinema must have been eliminated by the film semiotics craze”.
But happily, that wasn’t the case. His two most recent books, on Makavejev’s WR – Mysteries of the Organism and Hitchcock’s Psycho, reveal his thought at its most dazzling and his writing at its jazziest.
The critic Benjamin Halligan describes the eternal shock of reading Durgnat: “He says things, uses certain words, that aren’t to be found in any other comparable writing. It’s almost like browsing through a copy of Smash Hits in a waiting room, noting which hip words and phrases are currently circulating in the ‘in’, teenage crowd – but in the context of cutting-edge film criticism.”
Raymond Durgnat was a critic who encouraged the fully active, thinking, feeling participation of viewers with films. Movies are completed in our minds, not on the screen. Bloch sums up the wisdom he imparted: “There was no right response to a film, but there was a proper response, and that was to write about it.”
MORE Durgnat: The Essential Raymond Durgnat
© Adrian Martin May 2002