Essays (book reviews)
The Essential Raymond Durgnat
Henry K. Miller hits the right tone from the first paragraph of his Preface to The Essential Raymond Durgnat.
Durgnat wrote for Film, Films, Film Comment, Film Quarterly, Film Dope, American Film and, especially, Films and Filming. Sometimes he was found in Art and Artists and Books and Bookmen too. He contributed to Cinim, Cinema, Cineaste. For a time he co-edited Motion and was given space in Movie.
well as efficiently and vividly making a point about the astonishing diversity
of publications – high and low, academic and populist – that his subject
appeared in, Miller also pulls off a skilful piece of mimicry here. The
hyper-rationalist and yet quietly lunatic, Borgesian way in which those magazine titles are ordered and clustered – alphabetically
(except that F precedes A), and by semantic
association (film, art & book, cinema, movement) – echoes Durgnat’s own literary style, which was simultaneously
rigorous and wayward, a serious intellectual game and a dry parody of
intellectual habits. (Miller’s list also informs us, as a by-product, how
drearily unimaginative and derivative so many publication titles are.)
write this review as a lifelong reader of and researcher into Durgnat’s output. Probably like many precocious, teenage cinephiles around the world between the 1960s and the
1990s, I found Durgnat close to hand on the sparsely
populated cinema shelves of my local, suburban library in Australia – his
articles in Film Comment in the ‘70s
or Monthly Film Bulletin in the ’80s,
his books on Hitchcock, Renoir, or sex in the movies. His Films and Feelings (1967) – which, in the ‘70s, could be found in
most large second hand bookshops – was the principal text that introduced me to
concepts in film theory; not Bazin or Kracauer, whom I only discovered in the university context.
forty years later, I have many bulging files of clippings and photocopies of Durgnat’s articles, covering an enormous range from short,
pithy film reviews to sprawling treatises on issues of aesthetic philosophy. Like
Miller, I have gone on a fervent hunt for some truly forgotten and bizarre
little magazines, as well as obscure or short-lived literary and academic journals.
Like Miller, I have endeavoured – especially since the time of Durgnat’s death in 2002 – to republish him, unearth
previously unknown texts, and encourage wider dissemination and discussion of
his work. I can truthfully declare that every single piece by Durgnat that I have collected has in it, somewhere, a
nugget of something – a sentence, a phrase, a description, a joke, the evocation
of a complex idea – that I have learnt from, and that has stayed with me.
Durgnat is not exactly
unknown today; and his fans, although dispersed around the globe, tend to be
very vocal in their enthusiasms and appreciations. If there is a cult bubbling
up around his legacy today, that has much to do with the Internet – a factor in
his reputation that Miller doesn’t much mention, although it does tie in well
with the point (also made in the Preface) that ‘what he wrote anticipated our
digital age’. Yet it
cannot be doubted that, because of the diversity of the venues he wrote for and
the unusual tone of his highly inventive critical prose, Durgnat has joined the legion of intellectual critics whose contribution defies easy categorisation
or summary. In this, he is like Parker Tyler but unlike Manny Farber, and this
for an evident reason: Farber is someone whose style and taste can be copied
(well or badly) down to the finest detail, whereas Durgnat constantly swapped around his style according to ever-shifting occasions and
locations, and his opinions or evaluations could rarely be predicted in
advance. In this sense, he is genuinely inimitable.
Durgnat has proven
especially difficult for the academy to assimilate – which is a mixed blessing,
and posed some difficulties for him during his university teaching career. A
vast majority of scholarly books that make a meal of Bazin or Žižek, Deleuze or Agamben, Mulvey or Doane, rarely cite him – and when they do, it is often as a
negative example, a cursory throwback to a time when impressionistic
subjectivity supposedly ruled in critical writing. Durgnat’s politics were hard to peg, and thus often flagrantly misread: he was a
passionate contrarian, taking aim at left or right ideologies as he saw fit, in
any given instance. And he had a flair for provocation and outrageousness, such
as when he insisted on titling the book that turned out to be his last A Long Hard Look at Psycho – with the phallic
and scopophilic connotations foregrounded in all their ‘incorrectness’.
of the many virtues of Miller’s generous selection of texts in this anthology,
spanning the early 1960s to the early ‘90s, is to insist on Durgnat as a film theorist. I was dismayed, upon his death, to read obituaries that,
while friendly and sympathetic, insisted that he was anti-theory, primarily an
‘empirical’ critic. This widespread account – which reflects more the
world-view of the obituarists than of their subject –
is entirely false, as texts from 1965’s ‘Fake, Fiddle and the Photographic
Arts’ (originally published in The
British Journal of Aesthetics) to the 1980s series on ‘picture theory’ in Quarterly Review of Film and Video, via
the various multi-part serials appearing (somewhat incongruously) in Films and Filming, conclusively show.
Miller is unafraid to resurrect the most extreme moment of Durgnat’s fighting, polemical bent, when he took on (in a 1982 volume of Film Reader) the legacy of Peter Wollen’s Signs and
Meaning in the Cinema – a gesture that doubtlessly alienated and irritated
still further the ‘theory brigade’ of film studies that had, in many countries,
come to institutional power during the 1970s, and had little time for Durgnat.
would take more than one book – probably more than three books – to representatively
encapsulate the scope of Durgnat’s researches and
speculations over fifty years. Miller has had to be selective, and his
principles of selection are coherent and intelligent. He traces diverse lines
of continuity or evolution through Durgnat’s career,
sometimes within a specific part of the book, and sometimes across the various
parts. He focuses on Durgnat the aesthetic theorist
and tracker of changing forms in mainstream film and television; the ‘embedded’
reporter (at least during the 1960s) on underground and experimental cinema;
the connoisseur of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (including the invaluable English translation
by Yvonne Salmon of a lengthy 1981 article for Positif); the sceptical observer
of Godard; and the historian of British film in all its overlooked glory. Other
clusters would have been possible, and it will be up to other adventurous
editors and publishers to bring them to light in future: Durgnat’s work on film genre theory, for instance; or on eroticism; or his interest in
Eastern European cinema; or his extensive writing on screen comedy.
is an approximate (but not rigid) chronological structure to the book, which
allows Miller to sketch, in his helpful and well-researched introduction to
each part, a biography that contains its own surprises (such as the fact that Durgnat was, in his troubled youth, a patient of R.D.
Laing). We follow Durgnat in his path from UK to USA
and back; by the beginning of the 1990s, we see him (through Miller’s eyes)
engaged in insistent acts of retrospection and even involution, returning to Lindsay
Anderson, the French ‘Left Bank’ school, or the ‘prewar Bs’ of Powell. The collection ends a little abruptly, with little sense of what Durgnat achieved in the final decade of his life
(such as his major articles on Jancsó and Bresson, or his 1999 book on Makavejev’s WR – Mysteries of the Organism) – or
the growing wave of Internet interest in him that began with Senses of Cinema in the late 1990s and
continues today in the official tribute website.
But, along the way, Miller’s notes help clarify many of the allusions (some
extremely culture-specific to the UK) that Durgnat includes on the fly – and even gently corrects some of the errors of memory
that those dismissive of Durgnat have so often seized
on with disproportionate glee.
would have been easy for Miller to take a safe editorial path and simply cull
chapters from Durgnat’s various books – which, I
would have to say, do not always constitute his best work on a given topic. In
the event, Miller’s selection provides both an instructive primer for those new
to Durgnat, and a satisfying harvest of largely
inaccessible or long out-of-print pieces for the already initiated. From the
remarkable and ferocious ‘Standing Up for Jesus’ of 1963 to the programme notes
for a season of ‘montage films’ at the Pacific Film Archive, from Films and Filming articles and Monthly Film Bulletin reviews to a contribution
for the UK version of Art Monthly, Miller
gives us a colourful tour of the many styles of address and cultural contexts
that Durgnat enthusiastically immersed himself in and
explored to the hilt.
particular entry had snuck past even my investigative radar, back in 1975: Film Comment’s astringent review of Durgnat’s book Sexual
Alienation in the Cinema (1972), penned by one Greg Palokane … which is a secret auto-critique by Durgnat himself.
MORE Durgnat: In Raymond Durgnat's Crazy Mirror
© Adrian Martin March 2015