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ĎCulture Always is a Fogí

Raymond Durgnat

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What is your background?

My father was descended from French Huguenots who fled into Switzerland. His grandfather came down from a Jura Mountain village with all his worldly goods in a handkerchief on a stick over his shoulder. His son got up at four to work in other peopleís gardens before opening the village shop; but it prospered and his sons became the village capitalists Ė a village in Vaud. But meanwhile there were twelve children and my father came to London in the early Ď20s. He lost his job in the Depression so my mother and he borrowed enough to start a suburban drapery shop. In the middle of the Depression! But London wasnít as badly hit as other parts were, and their shop was as successful as it could be without their having to move on up a little higher out of the middle middle-class, or shall I say the upper petit-bourgeoisie.

My motherís family originally came from fairly wealthy peasant bourgeoisie, in French Switzerland also, and my mother was from a sort of rural proletariat, but maybe though being what the English would call sunken middle-class, their style was much more cultured. They were Catholic and there was religious trouble before she could marry my father. However, she opted for Protestantism anyway, a certain kind of evolved Calvinism, to which she gave a pretty Armenian flavouring ó all without labels ó simply by taking religion seriously.


1. San fairy ann is a Cockney derivation from ca níest fait rien, meaning Ďit doesnít matterí. Itís an expression of easy going indifference, the psychological opposite of Calvinist severity and perfectionism.


  My formative years were spent in a Swiss peasant bourgeois family living in a London suburb in the 1930s and Ď40s. It was one of those districts that are part petty bourgeois, part upper-working class. In many ways all those cultures are pretty different. Including Swiss Calvinism versus san fairy ann. (1) In fact, Iíve often thought that creativity, and criticality if itís different from creativity, donít arise half as often from neurosis and the wound and the bow and the whole Freudian treasure-chest as from the habit of continually reconciling cultural styles and values, even in little things like tones of voice. You soon begin constantly reflecting on everything. Hence art always owes so much to foreign names, to minority groups, Jews, déclassés, or whatever. In every country. Unless the cultural gap is so wide it wipes thought out, splits it in the middle ... I understand Oscar Handlinís book on immigration, The Uprooted [1951], very well. You can almost think of Alfred Hitchcockís London, Sabotage [1936] especially.  



Then the war made confusion worse Ė compounded because, three days before Neville Chamberlain declared war on Adolf, all the kids in London were given a gas mask, a tin of iron rations, and scattered across the country for evacuation. Which meant fourteen schools in five years, including a girlsí boarding school, which took pre-puberty boys for the duration.

Of puberty or the war?

Whichever was earlier. I zigzagged up and down the social scale adapting like fury. One month we evacuees outnumbered and were fighting the farmersí labourersí lads, exactly like Straw Dogs [1971], next month I darenít say Ďwee weeí in case the young ladies burst into tears. We were notoriously the troubled wartime generation. Absent fathers was the least of it. It got me through a very good cross section of Britain.

Was there a family interest in art?

Yes, though there was more interest in religion. Still, as Matthew Arnold said, poetry is spilled religion. The family art interest was mainly the church choir, amateur dramatics. Not a fashionable world. Not smart but foursquare. Honest. Not slick. Serious.

Did you read a lot?

Yes, what all the kids read: Dr Doolittle, Professor Brainstorm, The Jungle Book, The Dandy, The Aeroplane Spotter, Full Speed Ahead to the Worlds of Fear ...

Did you follow popular art? Comic books or pop singers? Music Hall?

Comic strips, movies. Schools were puritanical about them.

Do you recall a specific age when you became interested in movies?

Yes, about fourteen, and that was when it started getting systematic. Before that, the Saturday morning tuppenny rush. The first movie I ever saw had two cowboys arguing at a bar and thatís all I remember. The first serial episode I saw had somebody falling off a mast into the sea, and then this pain and agony of Ďto be continuedí.

Did you go to an English public school?

Grammar schools were one social notch lower than public schools, though mine was semi-prestigious and academically matched the scholarly public schools. It specialised in the clever docile recruit who may well make it to the upper ranks of the Civil Service, though in certain ways heís unlikely to develop the easy elitism and push of public schoolboys.

Was it unusual for someone like youíve described to attend the university?

Not at all, no, even before the war, the Grammar Schools were set up partly for that.

Did you do well in school? Were you one of the bright kids?

Yes, I was groomed for an academic career really. Iím an analogic thinker, not a digital one. Or rather I donít think much in either-slash-or terms ó digital ones, binary oppositions. Especially as having MBD (Minimal Brain Dysfunction), I have things like perseveration and word-substitution and reverse most numbers. And right and left. Itís hereditary, probably. At least thereís a history of left-handed mirror-writers and stammerers in the family. My brother as a child couldnít even see the difference between his mirror-writing and regular writing. Maybe Iím dyslexic, but not for reading. Strange, eh? Maybe difficulties can make one over-compensate. Be doubly careful. It is a coordination affair, because Iíve got fast motor reflexes. In intellectual work I really think in two stages. Right brain dominance, which makes all sorts of approximate comparisons ó thatís the analogic half ó then a fairly separate phase of very light order with no affect. First Iím intuitive, muddled, fertile, and all my opinions are easily reversible. Then I reason. I learned math with difficulty because they never explained the principles, which I needed to analogise from.

When did you start going to movies?

Oh, quite early, but films never acquired any great priority of enthusiasm over literature and jazz. It wouldnít break my heart if all the movies in the world were destroyed tomorrow.

I liked French movies very early ó the melancholy and half-tones. The pre-war Jacques Préverts and Jean Renoirs, thatís my home key in movies.

I positively disliked the theatre for a while. Many of my generation did. Theatre meant West End or a sort of suburban repertory imitation of it. Our dislike of the theatre was really an estrangement from all those attitudes. The big breakthrough was in the mid-fifties. With [John Osbroneís] Look Back in Anger [play 1956/film 1959]. Suddenly theatre was closer to us than the cinema. [Shelagh Delaneyís] A Taste of Honey [play 1958/film 1961], which Joan Littlewood did first, was much funnier and livelier on the stage than the movie, which inclines to miserabilism. Since then, of course, thereís been that marvellous proliferation of fringe theatre ó back rooms in pubs, intimate theatres where you can put your elbows on the stage and see the whites of their eyes. The old theatres were too big, but when theatres are a human size you get close-ups and long shots simultaneously. I enjoy it more than movies. As a medium. Thereís more ó awe, and friendliness and flesh. More social body. Itís room contact.

Had you planned to go to college?

No, it was planned for me by social fate. At thirteen I had to choose between the visual arts or literature. ĎIím not really sure.í is what I said, so the headmaster said, ĎOh, yes you are.í Art wasnít a university subject.

Do you regret that kind of direct structuring you underwent at that age?

I got very good at thinking along lines I didnít believe in while keeping my disagreements as clear in my mind as a kid can. You pay for it in some ways of course, but I preferred internal clarity to external control. I knew more about the plurality of culture at nine than many psychologists do now.

Do you remember specific formative influences as a child ó growing up in the city, sophistication in peer groups?

Well, working-class English culture at that time was anti-bourgeois and anti-intellectual; I didnít dismiss non-respectable cultures when thinking about art, which is the great trap that closeted so many English critics, even left-wing ones. Although at least there was a little scandal when the editor of The New Statesman, which was allegedly the intellectual left-wing paper, deprecating the Beatles, sneered at their teenage fans for using cheap perfume. A left-wing paper! But it was a schizoid paper, it culture section was preoccupied by the memoirs of Bloomsbury and Edwardian aristocrats ... The basic gap is still there, itís why the young left embraces pop culture in such an erratic ways. Elitists like Jean-Luc Godard, stylists like Douglas Sirk. Itís pitiful, coming from Marxists. At least Iíd learned not to be fashionable ó that whatís fashionable, or what the smart boys or the establishment approve of, or choose to acknowledge ó all that is only one-tenth of whatís going on, itís only the top one-tenth and itís likely to be more volatile than all the boring, inarticulate things, where a cultureís real strength is. Thatís what A Mirror for England [1970] is about. The unfashionable, solid, petty bourgeois strain in films. The most British film director is William Wyler. Especially The Liberation of L.B. Jones [1970]. Because it honours a born loser. Thatís very British. Heís anti-glamorous, that hero.

What kind of strength is it you mean?

Well, where people donít know how to say what they think or even think what they think but think it somehow. They live through it and take risks and make choices for it and learn to cope with what they feel but canít think. Itís very powerful and very inarticulate.

You mean this strength is more genuine because itís not just intellectual?

I wouldnít say the intellect is non-genuine, except that rationality offers merely theoretical possibilities, so many slick outs and slick ways of manipulating people. And English working class culture is very non-manipulative. Rough, but not so manipulative.

In what sense?

In the sense that it was traditionally based on loyalty and bloody-mindedness. There wasnít a sense of intricacy. Even solidarity was erratic. But there was a kind of non-performance principle. Never work too hard because that would be dropping your fellow workers in shit. The Working Class Goes to Heaven [1971] has it. Itís what Ealing comedies should have been, if theyíd had more sense of the man in the cloth cap. The British cinema got it briefly ó Saturday Night and Sunday Morning [1960], a few others ó then lost it again. The Man in the White Suit [1951] discovered it, from a middle-class angle. One could summarise a proletarian Ten Commandments. Thou shalt not strive too hard, or jump through more hoops than you have to. Thou shalt not offer to take another personís place, or help out unless youíre not paid to do it ... blood transfusions arenít paid for. Thou shalt not expect good treatment. Thou shalt always look for the catch, for what the other person gets out of it. Thou shalt contemplate defeat, but not change yourself to avoid it. Thou must become accustomed to always being outtalked and made to look a fool and put in the wrong ... but Thou shall not be moved ... Oh, and donít be downhearted. Something like that.

Were you in the army in the middle of the Ď50s in England?

Iíd done two years national service, in the Education Corps, in Hong Kong. I was a sergeant teaching sergeant-majors before their demob [demobilisation]. Theyíd got used to army life and Ďcivvy streetí could be difficult. As one of them said, ĎIím too old to be a navvy and too tall to be a bus-conductorí. We also did remedial training with illiterates. About ten percent of the army couldnít read daily orders. Or their paybooks.

After the army, three years at Cambridge. Eng. Lit.

When did you first start thinking about writing film criticism?

It arose naturally out of Eng. Lit., didnít it? At school, a teacher sent one of my essays to the film critic of The News-Chronicle, the old News Kronk Ė Richard Winnington, whose selected criticism had just been reissued. Heíd been a Ď30s Communist and had become the paperís social conscience, by some personal moral sincerity. He made Paul Rotha sound like Oscar Wilde, he had this knock-down social consciousness, but pretty sharp. Anti-Hollywood, but with exceptions for The Grapes of Wrath [1940] and Sunday Dinner for a Soldier [1944] and so on. He wrote me a nice little three-line note about this essay; probably that influenced me.

I occasionally wrote for student publications but I was too far out for the fifties. I didnít keep to Winningtonís hard line, of course. But the fifties were very conformist. Worse than the Ď70s, there wasnít even the memory of challenge. When I praised Bride of Frankenstein [1935] and Invasion of the Body Snatchers [1956], people were very worried and resentful. Oh, ignore it and itíll go away. And it very often does go away. In fact I did go away, into the film industry.

You worked in the film industry?

I worked for Associated British Pictures ó which was one of the two big studios ó as a staff writer for two and a half years. But they were going through a bad period and they were too nervous to actually make any movies. And they were taken over by Warner Brothers, who until then had been minority shareholders.

It was like Last Year in Marienbad [1961] without the luxury. Two people writing the same script unknown to each other, with the script editor deciding which parts of both scripts should be pushed into a third version by yet another writer. So, knowing how the Hollywood system worked, Iíve no nostalgias for Hollywood.

I worked on various movies, Girls at Sea [1958], Tamahine [1963], others which Iíve forgotten or didnít get made.

Did never getting a screen credit sour you?

Am I sour? I left them and lived off freelance work, which was really living off options; and being a script advisor, that sort of hackwork, easy and interesting but in the end maddening.

What did you learn about prose or writing from the screenwriting episode?

I learned a lot about story structure.

Were you also writing criticism at this time?

Yes, when I began to think that what I wanted to do wouldnít ever reach the screen in any form I liked. The pieces in Films and Filming got good reactions and turned into a satisfying form of influence.

What was your first published article?

A piece on Swiss trains in The Meccano Magazine. With photos. What was I? Fourteen? Next, in 1951, in Sight and Sound, a thing called ĎWays of Melodramaí. A very beginning and boring attempt to discuss melodrama systematically. It was mainly about The Dividing Line [aka The Lawless, 1950], that Joseph Losey film. In those days, in serious English film criticism, Winnington, Rotha, Grierson, Roger Manvell were the entire world, we youngsters hardly knew any other attitude about films was possible. Itís all distilled in Roger Manvellís little Penguin book, Film [1944]. Iím still very fond of it. Even when itís wrong itís got guts, drive, presence and decency. It doesnít confuse the issue, as André Bazin always managed to. The aesthetes of Close Up had been routed by Grierson and the slump and the war and in fact Sequence marked the re-entry of the poetic. Winnington denounced them before he died, saying they were just aesthetes and playboys and precious young Oxford things.

Were you keeping up with French film criticism at the time?

The Cambridge Eng. Lit. course included a paper on the English moralists, who began with Plato and Aristotle. I was very impressed with Hobbes and Hume and then Ayer, Russell and Wisdom. We also had a French literature paper, so it was a very useful course. Oddly enough, the first French film book I read was the Bardèche and Brasillach Histoire du cinéma [1935/1943]. I did think much of it was odd, but appreciated that as stimulation. I didnít recognise the fascism then. I picked up quite a lot from La Revue du cinéma, which was the predecessor of Cahiers du cinéma.

All writing on film was very summary in the í40s, what with paper shortages and so on. But Revue was a sounder foundation than Cahiers; it really did the job of linking films with high culture more thoughtfully than the documentary boys ever did. Of course, it would have happened anyway, via Eng. Lit. I was doing my auteur homework on Raoul Walsh twenty-five years ago, 1952. Hellís bells, I didnít read very much film criticism until I started teaching film regularly around 1964! There wasnít much to read. I was very fond of the Ado Kyrou books.

Your work during this period seems to be a sort of adversary criticism, what led you to such a position?

I didnít, I found that I had the image of being the adversary. Basically, I said what I thought, and hoped people would appreciate a plurality of viewpoints. I didnít realise how many feared it, how they needed an orthodoxy to guarantee their own existence. Itís natural.

Would it be fair to say that your writing stems from resentment?

I often write out of disagreement. Does it read like resentment? Norman Mailer is good on resentment. And on establishments.

Emotional explosions happened to everybody in England in the í50s. Look Back in Anger, its very title, is about that, about the self-destructions it generates. Thatís what an establishment establishes a system for; to pile up the pressures till the adversary destroys himself. Itís all in Fanon. You donít have to be black to have it done to you. Osborne knows it. Colour is a form of class. And vice versa. Jimmy Porter plays trumpet in a New Orleans jazz band. In [John Osbroneís] The Entertainer [play 1957/film 1960], Laurence Olivier compares himself to a big fat black woman singing the blues. The jazz revival in the í40s was the Marxism of the unaware. You couldnít admire Louis Armstrong, Leadbelly, and Jelly Roll Morton without something rubbing off ó well, it was pretty difficult to. Half of the kitchen sink movies were about discouragement, or surplus spitefulness, misdirected. Richard Hoggart in The Uses of Literacy [1957] has a splendid chapter on the scholarship boy. To fulfil his parentsí ambition very often he has to learn to look down on and despise everything they know and love, and of course he winds up a Nowhere Man, or a nowhere Ph. D, in a white tile university without a Yellow Submarine. They hadnít been invented yet. It happened to a great many people in the í50s. I donít come from a cool-faced culture you know, California cool.





2. ĎStanding Up for Jesusí, Motion, no. 6 (Autumn 1963); reprinted at


You seem to feed off a lot of conflicts which always work into your writing.

Yes, culture always is a fog, in many ways itís meant to be a fog machine. Itís the continuation of war by other means, itís diplomacy. You canít bring a sort of face-front-and-fire-by-numbers logic to culture.

I regret going wrong sometimes. In the tone I criticised Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz at one time. (2) There were some true points in that attack; Iíd let it be reprinted, but given footnotes and frameworks around it.

How did you put together the prose voice that you ultimately used in your articles?


3. Motion, no. 4 (February 1963).

4. It is unclear which essay Durgnat is referring to, but his 1979 critique of semiology (first delivered at the Venice Biennale) was published as ĎThe Death of Cinesemiology (With Not Even a Whisper)í, Cineaste (Spring 1980), pp. 10-13.





Iím not sure if Iíve got one. Itís more like a series of dramatic voices.

Are you suggesting that you donít have a distinct style?

The Motion ĎCompanion to Sadism and Violence in the Cinemaí was written in a light-hearted style not exactly inappropriate to an entertainment medium. (3) Iíve an academic style, which the semiology piece (4) is written in, and various others, I hope. Iíve never said anything in one style that I wouldnít have defended in another. Iím not a Jekyll and Hyde. But style is a particular perspective.

How do you select which style you want to use?

It selects itself. I know that itís happening and I let it happen and once itís asserted itself I work on it, I polish it up. Everybody has different styles for different topics and situations. One style for the pub and another for the parson. To some extent, style simply reflects the social course of a particular topic. I think I probably slipped up with Sexual Alienation in the Cinema [1972]. There were big production muddles with that book too. But itís more difficult to read than it need have been. Thereís a kind of breaking of set in culture, from the old rather stiff Freudian orthodoxies to a radical reapproach. I work from the old to the new in an insufficiently brisk way. I think Juliet Mitchell may have had some of the same culture-problems in Psychoanalysis and Feminism [1974]. They bracket quite well, those two books. Iím quite happy with some of the thought in that book, but Iíd rewrite it now. Iíd attack more and worry less.



5. íGenre: Populism and Social Realismí, Film Comment (July-August 1975), pp. 20-29, 63.


Can you pinpoint any specific influence in the development of your writing style?

One strong influence on my style is logical positivism and English ordinary language philosophy, in which the philosopher prides himself on never using technical language unnecessarily or finding a refuge for his mystifications in it. I picked that up, and maybe it took people who didnít know that culture a while to realise when I was theorising, because it just looked like controversial remarks thrown off. But just recently some students at San Francisco State asked if the Ďfamily relationshipsí paradigm in ĎGenre: Populism and Social Realismí was from Wittgenstein. So it was pleasant to say, ĎYes, right.í (5)

Yours is really a very personal style compared to most criticism, particularly most English criticism. Were you aware of trying to attain that in your work?

I like the idea of the artist as a chameleon and a non-auteur who, as part of understanding anything, can pick up its characteristics and think like it. I say Ďas part ofí. A critic is an artist. Thereís no real difference between describing a film and describing a room or describing a room in a film and a film in a room and a room in a room. Which probably brings me very close to Pier Paolo Pasoliniís theories.




What about the artist as comedian? One of the marks of your work seems to be a humour that runs all through it, from very jokey wit to sly wit, and itís continuous rather than calling attention to certain sections that contain Ďjokesí.

I wouldíve liked to think that it doesnít get in the way of the serious parts, but I think in fact it does get in the way of the serious parts. Because jokes discredit things.

So you consider jokes as separate from the serious part of your work?

No, they produce themselves automatically out of the serious part. If you condense any formulation enough, you can arrive at an epigram or a joke. Where you push any thought to its extreme, youíre very likely to get to a joke. Often a very worrying one. A paradox. And thatís why philosophers love Lewis Carroll so much. Who was a mathematician; that is, a logician. In fact Monty Python and Spike Milligan check off against the latest theoretical preoccupations. The analysing about modes of discourse and so on. There was that Spike Milligan episode where he starts reading everything which is in the script, like Ďcommaí, Ďsemi-coloní, Ďspaceí, treating a performance form as if it were a narrative form, adding Ďhe chortledí after lines of dialogue. He even goes into a dissolve and then stops, ĎNo, I donít think Iíll do that.í You couldnít do better than start from Monty Python if you wanted to theorise about the media.

That leads into a discussion of psychoanalysis ó jokes and seriousness. In the Buñuel book [Luis Buñuel, 1967/76], you really go in for a psychoanalytic treatment of the films. Did this come out of reading Kyrou and the Surrealists? Or were you always interested in the psychoanalytic approach?

Probably orthodox psychoanalysis satisfied my systematic side and Surrealism satisfied my mad side. And thereís some ó I hope ó creative tension between the two, or thereís intended to be, between a slightly hypochondriac Freudian view and a Surrealist complicity with madness.

What you do mean by hypochondriac?

Well, within every analyst thereís a social worker struggling to get out and make the patient well-adjusted and mature. Itís a tendency.

What about the Surrealist interest in Freud?

I think the thing that made me interested in one also made me interested in the other, so that there was a kind of loose parallelism. But Iím a moralist too, like most critics. Much of the interest is in the pluralism of moralities, of other peopleís moralities.

Do you think that criticism is a form of self-expression?

Yes, very easily, very treacherously. One treats the artist as a ventriloquist treats his dummy. So much Ďappreciationí is really an attempt to defuse an artist, to reclaim him. In fact, thatís the challenge. A novelistís characters canít resist him as well as an artist can resist his critics. Which is one reason why criticism isnít an inferior activity. Itís a novel with much tougher characters.

The praise of ordinary language philosophy and ordinary language criticism seems to be very typical of your writing style. But donít you think that itís very difficult for people to associate meanings with certain kinds of ordinary language in order to break out of the theoretical binds that ordinary language doesnít allow? I donít think terms are merely created to obscure, but rather to overcome binds which other languages created. And while thatís a problem that ordinary language philosophy faced as well, your criticism doesnít deal with it.

I think what youíve said is true, and when Iíve needed to go beyond the bounds of ordinary language, I do. Maybe, in a sense, I could have put out clearer markers for people. On the other hand, in a way one writes for people like oneself or for people who are close to oneself. And I suppose I always thought that if people were interested in the topic theyíd probably recognise this was something interesting to bear in mind. I think basically every writer has a constituency and a study of culture by constituencies ought to be done and would be a very complex thing to do.

I think probably newspaper editors or editors in general have a very good sense of it ó that such and such a contributor is for ... ĎHeís for the old ladies, then we have an astrology column, then we have fashion.í And there is a sense of these overlapping and fluctuating constituency areas. You could do a market research job on it; it would be interesting to do one.

Do you have a sense of your constituency?

Not anymore. I did when I began.

What was it when you began?

People who were not interested only in film but in art, and not only in art but in culture, and not only in culture but in any or every area of experience, but who happened to be reading about movies at this particular moment.

Why is it that you no longer have an idea of your constituency?

When I began criticism, film culture looked as if it was going to open up, to connect with culture as a whole, to make a new mainstream, to resist the over-specialisation between various avant-gardes and high culture, middle culture, low culture. But film culture has become a specialisation, full of intense but narrow interest: film buffs who never see a play, or look at paintings. And it has grasped at another ó by definition ó exclusivist discipline: linguistics, which can only define itself by excluding the content and context of what was said in language. The film world is strange to me, in the sense that itís strange to itself. Itís split between an unselfconscious subjectivism ó the critic as Person of Taste; and an immature objectivism ó semiotic as she is spoke. The holding centre which an overall sociology of culture might have provided is there, but only just, although itíll probably start gaining lost ground now. Itís a long and complicated problem. For example, thereís a kind of materialist idealism which Bazin appealed to. Bazin is very slipshod. I doubt if he ever intended to be as schematic as American academics make him. He was meditating, not theorising. Film criticism has this history of reaching for theories that canít bear the weight put on them. Iím not criticising the search for theoretical rigour, but the lack of rigour in examining theory.

Are there particular critics that you do make it a point to read or follow?

There are various people whom I read with interest because, whether I agree with them or not, thereís a genuine person speaking from a calibre of experience, not an automatic scanning mechanism. Iím thinking of Pauline Kael, who I rarely agree with; of Robin Wood, who I sometimes agree with; of Manny Farber. And Parker Tyler. At the other extreme, Iím very interested in certain theorists, particularly Jean Mitry and Edgar Morin.

Moreover, one reads against oneís own opinions, doesnít one? Sometimes one only realises a movie is not being understood or needs defining or attacking by what oneís colleagues say. And then again some disagreements are very affectionate, you know. Grateful, like a friend whom one meets to have arguments with. Or Flagg and Quirt ...

Throughout your career youíve often aligned yourself with groups that were posed against other groups, say Sight and Sound or whatever complacent academy existed. Is the situation more diffuse now, or do such groups still exist since, say, the demise of Cinema?

The scene is very much more complicated now. The main trouble in England at one time was that Sight and Sound was the only magazine that had the financial base to operate consistently, and it was so inadequate that an entire younger generation was irritated with it. Now, I think there are probably six or seven establishments which overlap and compete.

What six or seven establishments are you referring to?

Thereís a certain base in the universities now. Thereís a certain base in the polytechnics. The BFI is more complex than it was. There is a lot of filmmaking at an art school base, for structural films. However, tempers seem to be fraying again as the economy stagnates.

At the moment, probably America has been diversified a lot longer. Thatís only just happened in England. The UK being relatively small, thereís only ever room for one establishment. Whereas in the States, thereís certainly the East Coast and the West Coast, and a lot of areas in between.

Do you intend to maintain the same steady output that made you so prolific in the past?

Donít know. The more you teach, the less you write. I never taught film at any level of sophistication until 1968.

What was the motivation behind your early articles?

Why did I do it? I think there were some things that had to be said. There was a kind of rendezvous of film and social studies, or social sense, that hadnít happened. It looked like it was never going to happen. And The Crazy Mirror [1969] and A Mirror for England are about that, and the appendix in Films and Feelings [1967] is about that. The Crazy Mirror and A Mirror for England were written very quickly. Theyíre full of inaccuracies, which I think doesnít matter, because the main point was arranging a kind of rendezvous between thinking about movies and thinking not so much about sociology as about the experience that people are having all the time. Those two books really cut across what is probably a more basic interest in the aesthetic language of movies, and how it compares to the other arts. And instead of developing that part of Films and Feelings, I interrupted myself by doing two or three sociology books. I think that confused a lot of issues.

What kind of response were you getting to your writing?

Well, it was encouraging, or I wouldnít have continued. Iíve always had a cloister and hearth relationship with the film business and the academic world, Iíve always known my books werenít just hypothesising in an academic kind of way or born from individual taste. The entire thrust of The Crazy Mirror, and the last summarising paragraph, really does predict the way Hollywood has gone ó towards a kind of post-neo-realism discovery of America. Away from a neat little world of auteurs, genres, studios, conventional codes.

How did you select the topics for the books that youíve written?

Fairly accidentally. Theyíre all commissions, except Films and Feelings. Often the principle matters more than the example. The chapters on slapstick in The Crazy Mirror were originally going to be a section in Films and Feelings, but they made the book too long. So I wrote a book to surround those six chapters, applying roughly the same principles. The sociological study of movies had gotten bogged down by Siegfried Kracauer; in fact, as much as one respects the Frankfurt School, they were heavy bourgeois moralists in many ways. And, unlike Kracauer, I was interested in the decent truths asserted in run-of-the-mill and B movies. I still am. I donít write about it so much because, at the moment, film culture needs rescuing from the film buffs who treat every identifiable director as an auteur and every auteur as a thinker and every thinker as a minor genius.

I never took that line, but itís becoming an academic orthodoxy by way of completely misleading analogies with literature. Literature faculties spend very little time considering the like of Zane Grey as auteurs Ė and how right they are. But movie auteurists accept films which are just about the level of Lorna Doone or The Coral Island or that schoolroom notion of a classic.

Are there any movies that youíd go to just to be entertained, but wouldnít write about?

Well, yes and no, which seems to be my answer to everything these days. I see a great many movies with no idea of writing about them, but Iím prepared to write about anything Iíve seen. Thereís no need to disown personal tastes, theyíre not necessarily irrelevant to culture, so long as youíve thought about the relationship between personal response, impersonal meaning and official culture. Itís perfectly sensible to see movies because they relate to oneís personal experience. I do it regularly, with British movies especially. The same films, but seen in a different light. French Cancan [1955], Taxi Driver [1976], Nazarin [1958], Prévert, Losey, Leo the Last [1970]; they become conversations about experiences. In fact, one criterion of a good movie is its potential applicability to some sort of real experience. Thatís what separates my position from extended auteurism, or even the new sort of genrism. For all its faults How Green Was My Valley [1941] has a sort of applicability, and for all their qualities Howard Hawks and Sam Peckinpah usually donít. I donít say never do. The Wild Bunch [1969] doesnít, itís mythomania.

Itís difficult to get a sense of where you position yourself in the world of film criticism, because you wield your personal eclecticism like a weapon, but isnít there a danger in being so eclectic that nothing becomes systematic?

If you mean I wield my personal eclecticism like a smokescreen, why do you want to see through it? My job is to talk about films. Iím not a machine, but criticism isnít only self-expression, any more than art is. It may use self-expression Ė but the artistís job isnít to express himself, itís to express others, to speak the truth. Iíd like to think Iím like certain directors who are chameleons ó Cavalcanti, Renoir. But itís not a matter of being evasive or clever or exceptionally eclectic. Itís completely natural to be interested in many things: sociology, aesthetics, Freud, Surrealism. Whatís strange? These things are there. So far as being systematic goes, the only system which is really a system is the system which includes everything. All structures depend on structures above them. Every fact is a multidisciplinary fact. One can only be systematic within local structures. This localisation of systems has produced the traditional disciplines. And theyíre breaking down as the systemisation becomes larger. We certainly donít know what we need to generate an overall system.

How do you compare the roles of teacher and critic?

Well, teaching and criticism can be a continuation of the same process by different means. In criticism the dialogue is tacit and implicit, in teaching itís overt and explicit. Maybe Ďcriticí is a bad word, too close to Ďreviewerí. Maybe weíre really culturologists, like sociologists. ĎCriticí is such a tense, ambivalence-laden word, unhappy.

As a word or as an activity?

Itís tended to be very constricted and supercilious. Supercilious because superficial. But as Coleridge said, you donít understand anything until you understand its ignorance. You must understand the rationale behind the artist or entertainer doing what he did, understand how he failed to do that (if he did), and understand why he should have done something different from what he did and could have done. A second problem inherited from traditional aesthetics is the concentration on masterpieces as if they were a communicating norm Ė ignoring everyday bread-and-butter stuff. Thatís an area where aesthetics has something to learn from linguistics.

What have you learned from teaching that you might not have learned from writing?

I learn from students all the time Ė new ideas, new approaches; not so much principles as applications. The essentially ambiguous nature of all communication. Mind you, Iíd already got used to looking on all reading as conversation Ė as Renoir says, a good work of art is a good conversation and a bad work of art is a bad conversation. Itís not so much that teaching has opened up new areas, but it does force one to be very much more tolerant, more promptly than one might be at the typewriter. Itís a problem one never masters, although itís surprising how far one can go in developing thoughts one disagrees with or is uninterested by.

I have known one or two brilliant Socratic teachers who would never explain anything, but merely ask the question which they knew would force the person to make a new connection. Itís pitiful how in the States oneís academic status depends on oneís publications. Students are so easily awed by print, by basically journalistic thinking. And then of course spoken journalism became all some teachers felt obliged to offer. Iím afraid I understand why film studies have a bad name in universities. Too often they deserve it.

How do you feel about film becoming academically respectable?

Iím ambivalent about respectability of any kind. Given the right kind of academic interest, film has every right to it.

Does your critical judgement coincide with your likes and dislikes in film?

It would be interesting to write several reviews of a film and print them side by side. One developing oneís reactions to it, and each of the others discussing it in relationship to a particular subculture: the New Yorker public, the Film Comment public, the Jump Cut public, and so on. Thereís always a difference between what a given culture or subculture needs and what an individual needs.

Would you say that criticism is basically intuitive?

What does Ďbasicallyí mean? What does Ďintuitiveí mean? What alternatives are being proposed? After all, mathematics and logic are intuitive as soon as the subordinate stages donít appear in consciousness. I would oppose Ďintuitiveí and Ďdisciplineí. Each forms the other. They leapfrog. I get uneasy if Iím confronted with any formulation which asks me to put subjectivity as the core and everything else as a periphery. And I get equally uneasy if asked to agree that Iíd be a better critic if I were a machine. Itís a false dichotomy. Itís as absurd to call a human being a machine as it is to call a machine a mammal.

Your methodology is often based on an undercutting of another critical position.

Yes, quite, and often I set out to legitimise more relative positions so that an eventual non-relative position will be more complete. Maybe in the Hitchcock book [The Strange Case of Alfred Hitchcock, 1974] I seemed more systematically aggressive than I would have liked. But Iím interested in comparing subjectivities, because one learns so much from seeing the same movie as interpreted by two different people, both of whom are very good interpreters. You know the theory that interpreting a work of art is rather like performing it; a critic is rather like a pianist, he gets the score and then he performs. But one of the maladies of culture is the effort to smooth away the contradictions in it. Itís caught up in what Marcuse criticises, a kind of colonisation of the imagination. A standardisation of it. Standardisation by good taste, impoverishment by good taste. Freud, Breton, Marxism all help demystify that. Or should. For obvious reasons Iím interested in the plurality of moralities in our culture. Black Ďbadí meaning Ďgoodí; artists who force you out of yourself. Or, in English terms, everything Richard Hoggart means by working-class culture as against the stiff-upper-lip-and-cucumber-sandwiches view of England. Country gentry morality is different again.

One running disagreement that Robin Wood and I have is that he tends to read Hitchcock and Hawks and Penn as if they subscribed to roughly the general kind of moral code that F.R. Leavis would have, whereas I think they all relate to a kind of Social Darwinism in regard to which they take up different options. And every morality is full of contradictions Ė between axiological and praxiological considerations, for example. But Leavisí notions of morality are very narrow. And itís very odd, when you come to think of it, that critics talk about film morality but show no interest in moral philosophy as such, in the whole question of the relativity of morals, of the rival moral codes that exist in our society. Itís so important sometimes to recall the moral dissenters, people like Hobbes, Machiavelli, Blake, Nietzsche, Sade; even Aristotleís Nicomachean Ethics Ė maybe that and Nietzsche most of all. Wood is so good on Penn, because Pennís position is a deliberate and puritanical one; but Hawks is very cynical, very Nixonian.

Iíd like to think that, after having read my Hitchcock book, people would go back to Woodís, and then keep the two side-by-side on the shelf, and see Hitchcockís movies both ways. So much of the value of art lies in making comparisons, but so often it doesnít matter if a critic is wrong. Just having to adapt to him adapting to somebody else is a very good form of enlargement and learning about how people feel about things.

So are you suggesting an equal interplay between yourself and the film, yourself and the critics, as well as yourself and your constituency?

Brigid Brophy said that fundamentally a novel is a take-over bid for oneís ego, and thatís probably true for any work of art. Having an artistís mind take over oneís own mind in a way that enriches it instead of obliterating it. So temporarily, for an hour and a half, I can become more like Dreyer or more like Minnelli or more like anybody than I could be any other way. The mere effort of adaptation seems to me to be a valuable spiritual exercise; even coming to understand a Fascist mind, for example, via Leni Riefenstahl. In a sense, artists are the priests of alternative minds, that is, of communication. Some artists are so rich one endlessly finds more in them. Or one finds them congenial, like old friends. Others one respects rather than likes. There are works of art which one knows are pretty simple-minded, but a sort of temporary regression is probably good for the soul, in small doses, and provided one doesnít lower oneís standards about the nature of reality and the value of its reflection in art. Iím not critical of extended auteurism as a research area, only of a kind of grade inflation that goes with it and Ė whatís even worse Ė the acceptance of Hollywoodís own criteria, the burial of the USA under the Hollywood snowjob. The Man in the Celluloid Mask. Iím anti-Hollywood because Iím not anti-American. Itís in the nature of art to involve criticism, whether moral or social or whatever, because itís in the nature of things to keep going wrong. Thatís not a pessimistic view. Society isnít one of those machines that can run itself. You seem to find my position confusing, but itís very simple. I just want to be put inside an interesting mind which is as different as I can bear from my own for two hours. And then come back to being myself by thinking about it. But this implies a variety of response, and why Iím difficult to place is because I appreciate anything that is different and honest; and only in the second place do I ask, ĎIs it of a long term validity? Will I want to keep coming back to it?í

What do you think of interviews with film directors?

Well, itís a very quick way of writing a book. And why not? Theyíre often very helpful. Of course, there is the danger of treating whatever a director says as coming straight from the horseís mouth, as the inside dope. But a work of art is also in the public domain; it expresses its audience, too. On the other hand, so much criticism has been so wide off the mark, or has assumed that artists were merely Ďintuitiveí people who worked entirely from Ďwithin themselvesí, itís probably been necessary to establish that theyíre often very highly sophisticated, far more so than their critics. Or fans.

Since youíve been in Hollywood, have you considered talking to Hitchcock?

Yes, and Iíd be very interested to, though I donít know how heíd feel! Obviously Iím interested in areas of Hitchcockís films that, in a sense, donít come from Hitchcock. That would infuriate him. Many Hitchcock buffs are furious with that book. Lèse-majesté. If oneís interested in explaining Hitchcock in terms of a kind of cultural catchment area that his films satisfy, then in a sense one is talking about the wresting of the films from their auteur by his audience. If one were studying Hitchcock from other angles it might be mandatory to interview him and hope he guilelessly, or with remarkable honesty, spills the beans.

In point of fact, itís very difficult for anybody to come up with the truth in an interview. Who can tell you the truth about creative processes happening maybe fifty years ago, in quick and complicated collaboration, right off the bat? No one. Interviews arenít littérature-vérité. Interviewees often rewrite the interview afterwards, on the pretext of making corrections, and theyíre absolutely right. It would be interesting ó If I had more time, Iíd give it a high degree of priority ó to do a discourse analysis of an interview, in which you show how the interviewer is determining the content or course of the interview, how heís putting the filmmaker in positions where he canít say some things and has to say certain things. I did touch on it in several places in the Renoir book [Jean Renoir, 1975] Ė for example, the interview where the Cahiers team virtually shut Renoir up. Heís trying to tell them that Elena et les hommes [1956] is a dreadful botch-up, and that he was putting in any idea he could in order to be able to finish the movie; and theyíre telling him how good it is, and that exactly what they like is the fact that it is so loosely woven. And I feel that I see in that interview Renoir just shutting up. He tried to tell them and they didnít want to know; they shut him up and went on.

What about Truffaut/Hitchcock [1967/1985]?

Yeah, thatís fairly notorious as a non-contact book, isnít it?

On your list of ten favourite directors and ten favourite movies that appeared in Cinema, no. 4, Hitchcock isnít included. Moreover, in your book about him you claim he is artistically inferior to Michelangelo Antonioni. Why did you choose to write a book about a director who is not among your favourites?

The fact that he was becoming so many peopleís favourite director was an interesting cultural phenomenon. In some ways a disturbing one. I did admire Hitchcock, but for different reasons. And heís very symptomatic, as well as extraordinarily clear and lucid in his technique. Heís a supreme bourgeois manipulator. And genuinely expressive. And a virtuoso. One of the things going on in the Hitchcock book is really a continuous kind of tunnelling in which Iím saying, yes, he does make statements; yes, he is an auteur; yes, he does have a coherent philosophy; yes, itís full of subtleties; there is no finer aesthetic director than Hitchcock in so many ways ... And yet the apparent ruthlessness of Hitchcock skirts very prudently and fearfully around real crunches.

Are you crusading to deconstruct cultism in general?

Iím not crusading. But a certain kind of cultism is a vulgar aesthetics. It derives from assumptions about art learned in high school and carried over through college. It tries to treat mass culture as if it were elite culture. But in many ways it isnít. In fact, elite culture isnít either, though thatís another story. Speaking schematically, the Hollywood first-line corresponds to literatureís third-line. Mind you, adjustments need making. Iíd rate Billy Wilder above F. Scott Fitzgerald and Raymond Chandler Ė thereís two wildly overpraised authors for you. When I say ĎWilderí, I mean Wilderís best, Ace in the Hole [aka The Big Carnival, 1951], Double Indemnity [1944], those films ...

Yes, but when Wood discusses Psycho [1960], he makes a comparison between Hitchcock and Shakespeare.

Heís quite wrong. Mind you, thereís a Shakespeare cult as well ...

Itís like the corny old adage: one manís meat is another manís poison. Wood chooses to make those analogies that you say shouldnít be made with these directors. Where you can compare Hitchcock to Daphne du Maurier, Wood can compare him to Shakespeare.

Yes, I think this is why my position is mysterious, because Iím not saying that these people are insignificant. Iím saying theyíre significant at a certain level. To me thereís a divide between Renoir and Hitchcock.

Would you call sex and actors primary elements of cinema?

Of sex cinema, yes. Of films with actors, yes. Thereís no doubt at all that a great deal of narrative and even ideological information is carried in faces and personalities and sometimes a kind of cometís tail of past-roles-as-persona. The younger critics, especially the women, Marjorie Rosen and Molly Haskell, talk about it far more sharply and unselfconsciously than my generation did. They used to assume that a filmís moral was deep and that the faces in the film were only superficial. But faces account for more of the story content; certain morals are only overtones, symbolic read-offs from it. Moreover, much of the morality is prefigured in a personís face, and not repeated in any other form. Face, style, gesture carry all sorts of implications about a characterís generosity, for example. ĎSuperficialí only means Ďon the surfaceí, and whatís on the surface isnít necessarily thin or trivial.

In a sense, Films and Feelings is an exploration of surface as structure and structure as an intersection of surfaces, a sort of knotting, strands in 3-D. The opening section argues that style is content, which is directed against one old-fashioned view whereby style is merely the outer garb of content, and content is in the story. Then I go on to actors as figures of style, identification-projection as content. Part III is about story-structures, complete with reversibilities and transformations. Part IV considers some paradoxes for poetry. In a sense, lyricism seems to be pure, Ďsuperficialí feeling. In another sense, it works off a Ďdeepí symbolism, a Ďdeepí content. I try to suggest that itís only certain rationalist assumptions that have persuaded us that myth and poetry are distinct from each other. Then, in the last section, a sort of (letís say) mythic-poetic analysis is brought into relationship with sociology and politics. To say that apparently the most precious, irrational areas of a movie work in close coordination with public, social areas.

Is there any tension between critic and viewer when you watch a film?

A good critic wants rewarding experiences in movies, just like everybody else. But weíre even more greedy, we want to intensify it and prolong it, so we continue the process of involvement. But any process of involvement in anything is ambivalent, as art is also a process of detachment. Or, in other words, if you want to go on thinking about film, the only way you can do it is by, in a sense, detaching yourself from it and bringing another area of reference to bear on it. So Iím also resituating the original experience of the movie. And resituating means altering. Preservation becomes alteration. Very dialectical.

Shot by shot, scene by scene?

Yes, and whatís more, feature by feature. Analysis and synthesis go together. Systole and diastole. New combinations. In a way, being in a relation to a movie is being in relation with a kind of human experience. When a film is congenial, it doesnít matter that itís ceasing to excite one or to be an intense experience as it was at the beginning. You establish a more low-key, level-headed, affectionate relationship with it. In fact, in connection with that, the whole Brechtian question of detachment and participation I find treacherous. Itís often presented as an either-or situation. But a normal viewing experience is a symbiosis of both. Certainly, I never have to tell myself to stay detached so that I can think more clearly. I become detached because Iíve started rethinking. In fact, I donít really look on it as detachment. It feels more like walking around something to achieve a series of new perspectives. Involvement/detachment has certain metaphoric pitfalls ...

Why do you draw the line at Phil Karlson?

What I try to do is draw a line between a directorís best movies and his less interesting movies. Maybe Hawks is a better case, as Iíve never seen a Karlson movie that I thought was very good Ė entertaining pastimes at a Hollywood level, some symptomatic movies, thatís all. But there are four or five Hawks movies that stand re-seeing. Otherwise, if I werenít on duty as a culturologist, Iíd walk out of most Hawks movies fairly early on, feeling that Iíd missed nothing, that here was a safe little machine functioning without major surprises or many new insights. But The Big Sleep [1946] has a certain quality, Scarface [1932], Gentlemen Prefer Blondes [1953], The Big Sky [1952]. Not Rio Bravo [1959], thatís kitsch.

Are there any directors whose total output you find consistently interesting?

Yes. Dreyer, Buñuel, Renoir ... itís a reasonably long list. But auteurs are like authors. There are very few authors whose work is absolutely consistent. All the same, thereís a level of failure thatís far higher than, say, Hawksí success.

Each of us had various responses to your list of ten best films ó sometimes it was total perplexity.

A ten best list is so obviously an idiotic proposition that thereís no harm in playing the game.

How do you approach questions of film evaluation?

I suppose the holy trinity is integrity, complexity, cruciality. I tend to think of crucial issues rather than Great Themes. You can have each of those factors without the others, but each can also lead to the others, can entail them ó in a hypothetically perfect author ...

Roughly speaking, what kinds of films would you rate most highly?

Well, todayís ten best would be as unrepresentative of the long haul as yesterdayís. But currently the directors whose films Iíve most eagerly looked forward to, whether likely to be completely successful or masterpieces or partly boring or not, have been Pasolini, Altman, Jancsó, Borowczyk, Rosi, Alain Tanner, Roeg, Losey. You also have to remember that, not being a critical journalist, there are many movies I donít see or donít see until late. If I were writing a regular column and were in synch, things might be different. Perhaps those names are enough to indicate a certain wavelength.

Why did the English pick up Cahiers instead of Positif?

Because English left-wing thinking is ravaged by bourgeois, puritan elitism. And by the alienation which is the Mr Hyde of dissent. And by an inverted chauvinism which becomes Parisotropic.

I think itís a major cultural disaster for the English speaking left-wing that Cahiers du cinéma caught the fashion when it did Ė first with the Nouvelle Vague and then again in May 1968 Ė and that Positif didnít. Cahiers 1960-style forced it into a kind of stylistic-auteurist-idealist cul-de-sac, then came a rigid counter-reaction, saturated with an idealism masked by an old-fashioned rationalism. Now I come to think of it, Positif throughout the Ď60s was fed by a double stream, of anarcho-Surrealism and of Marxism, that combined aspects of two alternative extremes ó the hippie years as a kind of neo-anarcho-Surrealism, and the rebirth of Marxism. But English-speaking film criticism has been spinning between a right-bank aestheticism and a sort of bourgeois radicalism. Have you read that novel of Alberto Moraviaís, Io e lui or The Two of Us [1971] Ė I think itís Two: A Phallic Novel in the US? Thatís very interesting ...

What about the popularity of the Nouvelle Vague?

Well, read Premier Plan on the Nouvelle Vague. And Positif. They saw it as the expression of a new free-wheeling bourgeois culture, which had learned to be very mobile, which had learned to be radical in the sense that it was constantly ready to revise its own opinions and its own character, which was just anarcho-bourgeois. After all, Truffaut, Chabrol, Rivette, Rohmer are all thoroughly conservative directors now.

Youíve been writing screenplays ever since you left Elstree. What are you writing now?

Iím thinking out a science fiction novel. World War III and various other disasters have scattered units of mankind into small villages, all very isolated from one another. In one of the villages is a library and the librarian is, for various reasons, sent out on a kind of voyage toward a rumoured larger library on the other side of the world. And this voyage becomes a picaresque journey through a series of societies, all of which are small, village-sized, and completely different from each other. And finally he realises that the human race is actually being farmed by highly intelligent creatures who live off thoughts and feelings. And when people are sufficiently mature, they destroy them so as to get the kind of thought-nourishment from their feelings.

Someone mentioned that you might be involved with a narrative about a therapeutic vampire, one who takes his own therapy in hand. Is that something youíd done earlier?

Yes. Itís about a guy whoís been a vampire for three-hundred years and whoís been trying to cure himself, preferably by physical means because he doesnít believe in the supernatural or in evil.

Does this mean drug therapy?

No, he collects specimens of vampire bats and he tries to dissect them. Then he analyses his blood as well as he can with primitive microscopes and he experiments on patients in hospitals.

Is this script set in the past?

Yes, in England, around 1812. Then he meets an aristocratic lady who lacks his scruples about good and evil and reason and much about morality; and she, well, suggests he vampirise her so they can live happily ever after. So thatís what happens. They live happily ever after.




This interview took place in mid to late 1977, when Raymond Durgnat was a visiting professor in the Critical Studies program of the Film Department at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). The interview was conducted by a collective of Ph. D students: Ron Abramson, Janet Bergstrom, Geoff Gilmore, Jonathan Kuntz, Steve Ricci, Steve Seidman, and Rick Thompson (who also did the initial transcription and editing of the text). Thanks to Raffaele Caputo for providing this hitherto unpublished document.


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