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
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
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
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
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
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
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