Essays (book reviews)

The Essential Raymond Durgnat
Edited by Henry K. Miller
(London: British Film Institute, 2014, 248 pages)


Editor 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.


As 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.)


I 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.


Today, 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’.


One 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.


It 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.


There 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.


It 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.


One 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

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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