This month’s “From the Short Stack” collection is Durgnat on Film by Raymond Durgnat (1939-2002), the Swiss-born English critic who also wrote Luis Buñuel (1967), Jean Renoir (1975), and Films and Feelings (1967). I first read Durgnat on Film as an undergraduate and still revisit that dog-eared copy. I liked him right off because he was as stimulating as any other theorist on the reading list but much more fun. He described the interplay of form and content with pizzazz. His eye was so sharp and his prose so lucid whatever the subject, he could be counted on to deliver the last word.
Analyzing Orson Welles’s The Trial he wrote, “Using in some sequences an incessantly roaming camera, in others a flurry of quick cuts, Welles makes all space fidget.” Fritz Lang’s American films “...have an American appearance, but are just as ’visual’ as his German. He is a master of so arranging his characters in space that a kind of nameless, fatalistic suspense palpitates between them.” In the work of Sergei Eisenstein and Carl Theodor Dreyer, “...we feel not that the actor dominates the image, but that the actor is a part of a visual composition—that he has practically been hammered and planed into shape.” Durgnat was also a master of the comic 180. He backloaded academic sentences with quotable one-liners, a neat trick that made the reader more likely to remember the fact preceding the joke. (“Neorealism died, briefly, around 1953, killed partly by audiences’ dislike of its drabness, partly by government dislike for its picture of an Italy where people were poor and it rained all the time.”)
His writing on science fiction captures the genre’s surface pleasures and lauds its potential for pop myth without excusing its juvenile tendencies. He grasped its kinship to satire and fable and described it with affection. In “The Wedding of Poetry and Pulp—Can They Live Happily Ever After and Have Many Beautiful Children?”, Durgnat wrote, “Whether a film whisks us to the twenty-first century, or to Atlantis in its prime, the spectators remain, alas, in the pedestrian here and now. As bizarre as the robes, the decor, the technological contraptions, may be, they refer back to the structures of our musee imaginaire, our lives, our unconscious, our society. It would be oddly hard for most of us to adjust to the sight of a space-hero dressed according to a time when narrow, drooping shoulders were considered smart (though they were, less than a hundred years ago). It’s hard to understand certain assumptions of the Samoans, the Balinese or the Americans, and all but impossible to empathize into the perceptions and drives of, say, a boa constrictor. How much more difficult then is it to identify with the notions of, say, the immortal twelve-sensed telepathic polymorphoids whose natural habitat is the ammonia clouds of Galaxy X7?”
In the films of W.C. Fields, wrote Durgnat, “The homely and the exotic weirdly coexist. Fields hears a police car radio describing a wanted man as having ’apple cheeks, cauliflower ears and mutton-chop whiskers (shades of Arcimboldo); or he buys shares in a beefsteak mine; or, as a bank dick, he dons a disguise which consists mainly of a length of string running from the bridge of his nose to behind his ear. These improbabilities are presented so as to be quietly mulled over, rather than developed, and have a strange halfheartedness which is itself a joke, and rather a sad one. Fields’ humor, instead of falling between the two stools of fantasy and satire, wobbles uneasily, and intriguingly, upon the edge of both. He seems to be taking a subdued revenge on the real world by substituting for it a fantasy one. Yet he’s also too weary to develop the fantasy. It’s as if he introduces, into the familiar atmosphere, little ’air-bubbles’ of fantasy, which swell, and slowly subside, leaving a sour nostalgia behind.”
In “Architecture in, and of, the Movies,” Durgnat wrote of how movies could double as both architectural and social criticism. He cited Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte as a film which demonstrated how “...architects’ Utopianism can shade over into what feels like totalitarianism…One can still talk to people in the [London City Council] Architects’ Department who want open-plan apartments imposed on people for whom one of the nicest things about quitting their overcrowded old slums would have been an orgy of privacy. There’s no easy answer to such clashes of taste, involving so many factors. In Antonioni’s ’La Notte,’ a man is dying in a cancer clinic, whose sleek, lavish lines are, somehow, an outrage—that is, an architectural metaphor for the way in which our optimistic, utilitarian rationalism smoothes over human pain, therefore emotion, therefore communication. In this context, its elegance, like the charm with which Plato invests his totalitarian visions, is as sinister as a title like, ’The Ministry of Peace.’”
“Earlier than most writers on the cinema,” wrote Kevin Gough-Yates in a May 24, 2002 Guardian obituary, “Durgnat recognised that audience participation and involvement was as much a part of the creative process as anything that emerged from the director’s own view or personality. He was equally contemptuous of semiology, structuralism and the post-structuralism of the 1970s, although, in reaction, he intensified his own approach, and added more complicated qualification to his work. Even his earliest writings from the 1960s remain fresh today, whereas the meretricious writings of others that spun off from theory are now almost unread.”
That last part is, well, critical. Durgnat’s core strength was his refusal to be seduced by intellectual fashion. In print he made a point of questioning received wisdom, whether it came from Cahiers du Cinéma, Sight and Sound, The New Yorker or anywhere else. His own writing is fashioned in opposition to the groupthink he railed against. He learned from everybody but worshiped nobody. His patchwork magnificence as a critic matches his description of cinema as aesthetic Frankenstein’s monster in “The Mongrel Muse.” “Ever since the cinema began, aestheticians have sought to define ’pure’ cinema, the ’essence’ of cinema. In vain. The cinema’s only ’purity’ is the way in which it combines diverse elements into its own ’impure’ whole. Its ’essence’ is that it makes them interact, that it integrates other art forms, that it exists ’between’ and ’across’ their boundaries. It is cruder and inferior to every other art form on that art form’s ’home ground.’ But it repairs its deficiencies, and acquires its own dignity, by being a mixture.”