"Movie" vs. British Cinema
The story of Cahiers du cinéma has been generously recounted and mythologized, but there is an important stream of film criticism from the 1960’s that is regrettably much less remembered and discussed today. I’m thinking of Movie magazine, a strong and early example of committed auteur criticism in Great Britain.
For the last couple of weeks I’ve been poring over moth-eaten back issues in the library, attempting to piece together a picture of that turbulent film-cultural moment in Britain contemporaneous with the early days of the French New Wave.
Movie was founded in 1962; it grew out of the film section of an undergraduate magazine called Oxford Opinion. Influenced by Cahiers (or, more precisely, the example of Cahiers), it was nevertheless different in several important ways. Probably because it came out of a British literary-cultural tradition, Movie was less flamboyant, less given to allusion-making, more practical. The writers constructed detailed description of films; they believed in coming to grips with a film through close analysis, by examining its inner workings. Patient mise-en-scène analysis was the cornerstone of their method.
The best-known writers at the magazine in the ‘60s—like Robin Wood, V. F. Perkins, Ian Cameron, and Paul Mayersberg—were all distinct individuals, but it can be said that they broadly shared a certain classicist sensibility: they valued organic unity and harmony of parts in an artwork, and they viewed style as something that is used not gratuitously but instead at the service of content, as a vehicle to create meaning.
Film criticism in Britain in the ‘50s was dominated by Sight and Sound. As Pam Cook points out in The Cinema Book, S&S was not against personal cinema; but it championed only a certain kind of art cinema, primarily European, and it was unsympathetic to Hollywood cinema, which it viewed mostly as industrially manufactured mass-cultural product. As the decade wore on, S&S began supporting the newly-born Free Cinema and its filmmakers (Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson). Some of them even wrote for the magazine. The Free Cinema then gave rise to and became part of the larger British New Wave.
Movie attacked two kinds of British cinema: first, the British equivalent of “Tradition of Quality” pictures. In an essay on British cinema “by V. F. Perkins on behalf of the editorial board” in the first issue, he tries to account for the “badness of the British films” of the traditional kind:
So how can we explain it? Primarily we would point to the general climate of opinion in Britain, and in particular to the British concept of The Good Film. The traditional British “quality” picture follows a recipe for which the ingredients are: an important and if possible controversial subject (race prejudice, the idiocy/inhumanity of war, the dignity of the individual, etc.); a popular story; a fair representation of all points of view; a resolution which makes the audience “think”; a “cinematic” treatment; lastly, but importantly, a few “personal” idiosyncrasies (in the hope that mouthpieces will thus resemble people).
Movie also took up arms against the British New Wave, whose earnest commitment to social realism (according to Perkins) outstripped its talent for cinema:
… British opinion on the cinema … is concerned mainly with what a director ought to want to do. It is at this point that the beliefs behind the old and the new British films meet. Each is based on a preconception of the sort of film that ought to be made, whether it’s a “good story well told” or a “long, hard look at the well-springs of the human condition as it displays itself in the grind of living.”
Movie Reader (1972, ed. Ian Cameron) collects the enthusiasms and passions of the magazine in those early years. Drawing from its first 14 issues (1962-1965), the book includes devoted and detailed articles on Hitchcock, Hawks, Preminger, Nick Ray, Losey, Tashlin, and von Sternberg.
Movie’s enthusiasm and taste for Hollywood cinema can be seen in this interesting chart that I’ve taken the liberty of scanning and uploading; it appeared in the first issue of the magazine. (The page is divided into two halves: British cinema is on top and American cinema below.)
Perkins continues in his British cinema essay:
Given enough money to fill only a smallish piggy bank, a derelict airstrip and a few clips from a silent film, Edgar Ulmer can produce a little miracle, Beyond the Time Barrier. It doesn’t happen in Britain because no-one believes that a film with a title like “Beyond the Time Barrier” or “Fury at Showdown” can possibly be worth making.
But he doesn’t dismiss all British cinema:
Seth Holt’s Taste of Fear trickled by, apparently without being very widely noticed. It was a horror-cum-mystery picture with unaesthetic contents, like a decomposing corpse. And it was indeed, by serious standards, not very good. However we are convinced that, if any hope for the future of British cinema exists in visible form, it comes from Holt’s film rather than from—its only competitor—Reisz’s. To put it simply Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is a good film, and we can’t imagine, on its evidence, that Karel Reisz will make a much better one. Taste of Fear is rather a bad film, and we can imagine Seth Holt making a masterpiece. […] What sets it apart from other British pictures? Simply that it reveals time and again a director who can create cinematically, where other directors are content with illustrating their scripts.
According to IMDb, Holt died in 1971 at the age of 48.
Seduced early by the Nouvelle Vague, I ended up neglecting the British New Wave. Of the few films I’ve seen, I admire Lindsay Anderson’s If, and remember liking (from a long time ago) Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Tony Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. I’m looking forward to the Free Cinema 3-DVD collection that’s being released this month.
Your favorite films to come out of the British New Wave? And your thoughts on the ‘movement’?
pic: Cover of the Oshima issue, #17 (1970). For details, please see Robin Wood's bibliography.