On May 19th, 2001, Raymond Durgnat died. If that name means nothing to you than film knowledge truly has deteriorated to a state of mundane, dense, madly gesticulating inarticulacy. Yet, if the reader has not heard about him, that does give me the chance to celebrate Durgnat and perhaps introduce him to new readers.
Durgnat, the author of almost 20 books and uncounted articles on film, died quietly in his sleep – like Kubrick – after a short illness. At least one small segment of the film community still mourns. He was one of my favorite film writers, and his books and essays tumble in ideas and impressions, like a Marx Brothers stateroom.
That Durgnat should have passed away in relative obscurity is another symptom of degradation our ignorant society is suffering. We seem to have no shared culture, and our field of friends conversant with ideas and art that demand wide knowledge and breadth of experience decreases each year. As Robin Wood points out in a recent issue of Cine-ACTION!, Schubert's Winterreise song cycle is very important to Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher, but not one single reviewer in America had the knowledge, observational powers, or inclination to point it out. To Wood, the film is incomprehensible with knowledge of this music. How can a filmmaker, much less a critic, reader, or viewer, function in a society in which vast swaths of once common knowledge are no longer shared?
Quoting Robin Wood, who has written important books on Hitchcock, Bergman and others, is appropriate in an ode to Raymond Durgnat. The two were often spoken of in tandem and pitted against each other by editors and fellow critics. As of this writing the aged Wood is still alive, but his passing too will symbolize the end of an era. Though there was some intellectual sympathy between the two men, they couldn't be more opposite. Wood was often called a big game hunter searching for high art. Durgnat haunted the stalls, and was in a sense more interested in people than movies, finding out about them sociologically through the films they watched.
Durgnat was born on September 1, 1932, in London to parents of Swiss extraction. He went to Pembroke College, Cambridge, and after a brief stint in the movie business as a story editor, Durgnat studied under Thorold Dickinson at the Slade School of Fine Art beginning 1960, one of the first attempts to integrate film studies into academia. He began publishing books almost before he was out of short pants, and was a regular contributor to the slightly disreputable British monthly Films and Filming, a magazine that nevertheless gave Durgnat wide latitude to publish almost anything he wanted. Within its pages much of the material for his most famous book, Films and Feelings was first realized, a book with a sincere title that was also a play on the material's godfather. Other books, many articles, and a succession of teaching posts followed: books on British cinema, American comedy, Garbo, Bunuel, Franju, sex in the cinema, Jean Renoir, Hitchcock, King Vidor, the film WR: Mysteries of the Organism; his essays include many articles for Film Comment, Movie, and even a highly influential article called "On Semantic Complexity," for Poetics Today in 1982.
Durgnat wrote widely, and with great variation. But I think the best way to both celebrate his memory to those who revered him as well as to introduce him to new writers is to quote the full text of his short review of a German sex film called Helga, which appeared in Films and Filming, but never reprinted.
" This is a sex education film, and speaking of sex education prompts, or rather goads, me to reminisce over the ravages wrought on my social life as a result of a series on movie eroticism written at the instigation of Films and Filming several years back. Since it coincided with joint editorship of a symposium on movie violence (before Lorenz, Storr and various assassinations and riots had made it clear that violence was here to stay), this hard-working critic was lumbered with a reputation for evil. One reader double-took when he met me, swallowed down his disappointment and said offendedly, "Oh, I thought you'd be tall, dark, and suave, like Christopher Lee." At BFI parties, minor officials still tend to corner me and snicker descriptions of violent or erotic scenes, muttering, "You'll love this," or "This is just you your street," as if I'm about to produce instant Drool in response their boring descriptions of tatty movies. One BFI executive, spying me in a crowded bookshop, called out at the top of his voice, "Look! There's Dirty Durgnat!," whereupon his companion was so embarrassed, either by this charming mode of address or by the thought of being on the same premises as a disreputable character like myself, that she walked straight into the end of a plate-glass door and nearly knocked herself out. All of which proves how much childishness still surrounds the topic of sex, even in so-called 'cultured circles.'
To once and for all clear up any misconceptions, let me explain here and now that I am seventy-seven years of age and live entirely alone, except for an elderly housekeeper who comes in two mornings a week. The only living thing necessary to my happiness is my faithful cat Melinda, who, poor soul, has lately lost her sight through watching too much television. I am a confirmed bachelor, and have never smiled since I lost the beautiful Caribbean girl whom I love, oh, so many years ago. Of late I found it proper to make a rule never to address any person of the other species, except in the presence of a third party of incontestable propriety, and then from a prophylactic distance of at least three feet, lest my intellectual rectitude oscillate under the perturbations inflicted by her pulchritudinous vibrations. For Eros, I feel, is best diluted and purified through that series of aesthetic filters comprised by, first, the camera's eye, then the celluloid emulsion, then the answer and release prints, then the projection lens, and finally the clean white screen. I sincerely hope that all young people everywhere, who might have been misled by a superficial perusal of my criticism, will realize that I have always discussed eroticism in terms of the cinema, where it belongs, and that I should frown as sternly as Mrs. Mary Whitehouse on any attempt to perpetrate it in real life. The place for sex is not behind a screen but on it. As Helga puts it, if you give people the facts, boringly and sanctimoniously presented, this will satisfy their curiosity and they'll lose most of their interest in fun and frolics."
The bitter paradox of Durgnat's death is that after several years of relative, writerly quietude he was exploding with new books, ideas. He had formed an alliance with the previously hated British Film Institute, which published his WR book. A volume on Michael Powell and a collection of essays were announced. And a book that may prove to be his most influential (A Long Hard Look at Psycho, published by the BFI, via the University of California Press) was poised to come out. Then just as the Australian based website Senses of Cinema posted a massive festschrift to the writer, Durgnat died.
It's hard to think of anyone who brings to cinema studies with Durgnat's mix of breadth of knowledge and common sense, a Durgnat is a realist with a taste for surrealism. San Francisco based critic, novelist and essayist David Thomson comes close. He's been writing as long as Durgnat, but more "commercially" for the New Republic, the New York Times, and in big popular books about David Selznick and Orson Welles. The author of the newly revised New Biographical Dictionary of Film, Thomson also reviewed Durgnat's Psycho book in a recent Sight and Sound, the two minds finally meeting on a common playing field.
The New Biographical Dictionary of Film (Knopf, 963 pages, $35, ISBN 0 375 41128 3) is Thomson's magnum opus, now revised for the fourth time. It contains the pleasures and the perplexities of its earlier incarnations. The first version appeared in 1975, with revisions and additions in 1980 and 1994. The 2002 edition features some 1,300 brief essays and considerations of directors, stars, producers, and even a few critics.
Sadly, there is no one definitive one-volume film reference for readers, and perhaps never will be. Indeed, there may be no need for them at all, given the abundance of reference materials on the Internet, if all you want to do is figure out if Bogart's The Harder They Fall came our before or after Sirocco. Instead, Thomson's book is meant to be read in bed or bath, or under the reading lamp in the still of night, where you can engage in a dialogue with his cranky opinions and dismissals.
Though about as old as Durgnat, Thomson sounds much older – disgruntle, disappointed – and you get the impression that Thomson doesn't really like movies much anymore. He certainly doesn't like what John Ford, for example, "did" to the movies, and in the introduction he even comes right out and says that books are better than movies. Whatever compelled Thomson to update this book?
He has a tendency to over-praise friends (James Toback, Edward R. Pressman) and to spoil endings (he never fails to mention that so-and-so played "the murderer" in this or that thriller). Some time his images don’t make any sense (Michelle Pfeiffer's face "seemed to know the effect of humidity"), while in other passages he is incisive (Al Pacino, in one of the book's longer essays, has "learned to be seductive [but] cannot rid himself of that faint edge of the sinister").
The most famous item in this book is his one sentence dismissal of Wes Anderson ("Watch this space…), but there is an equally short citation for Richard Donner. Surely they aren't equivalent?
What Thomson is good at the thumbnail sketch, the one sentence caster's appraisal, on everyone from Jean Harlow (“She had a young woman’s body — for a moment — yet she offered it to the camera maternally, or like a seasoned whore. Her neglect of underwear seemed aggressive just because her breasts and the oceanic roll of her hips were so mature”) to Madonna (“She has her defenders, and I suspect she loathes them even more than she scorns her enemies. She is disappointed about something, and hugely driven by resentment"). He can surprise you with his dislikes, such as Billy Wilder (“He could be ordinary to dull far too often”) or Akira Kurosawa (“As to the contemporary Japanese experience, Kurosawa now trails behind a new generation”).
Thomson's New Biographical Dictionary of Film is maddening, enthralling, and addictive. He is no Raymond Durgnat. But then, no one else can be.
This essay originally appeared in Black Lamb in 2003.