British Film Criticism
For many reasons, the French and the Americans hold a special, oversized, mythic place in the story of film criticism. Unfortunately, this has meant that histories of cinema writing in other parts of the world have remained less explored, more hidden. This is true not just in the less affluent (and thus, less culturally influential) “global South” but even within the heart of the First World.
John Gibbs’ ambitious and fascinating book, The life of mise-en-scène: Visual style and British film criticism, 1946-1978, narrates a history of post-WWII British film criticism, recounting the critical debates that powered it—specifically, debates that centered on visual style. Robin Wood once suggested that film criticism in Great Britain developed mainly through groups of critics, each group revolving around a journal or magazine. The focus of Gibbs’ book is these publications and the critics associated with them. The book examines not only the work that appeared in the most prominent magazines—such as Movie and Sight and Sound—but also lesser-known but significant ones like Sequence, Oxford Opinion, Monogram, and others.
Gibbs’ account begins with the journal Sequence, published by the Oxford University Film Society. Fourteen issues appeared between 1946 and 1951; its main editors were Peter Ericsson, Lindsay Anderson (later the director of If... ) and Gavin Lambert. Gibbs assembles a number of excerpts from reviews to show that its writers were already—in advance of Cahiers du Cinéma and Movie—developing a sophisticated appreciation of mise en scène, which they referred to as “poetry”. Gibbs explains that this “poetry” is “… not literary. Quite the contrary, indeed, poetry is identified with the ‘shape and meaning’ accomplished through the use of space and landscape, design, camerawork, music, acting, and so on.” (We need, in the study of film, an account that encompasses all the different uses and interpretations of the idea of “poetry”—one that would include Pasolini, Deren, and others.)
In the ‘50s, many Sequence critics started writing for Sight and Sound. In the early years of the decade, Gibbs notes, “the Sequence impulse was alive and well.” But by the end of the decade, Sight and Sound had transformed into a conservative and staid journal. The growing disappointment with Sight and Sound within the British critical community was due to at least two reasons: the journal’s attitude of cultural snobbery (evidenced by its disinterest and disdain in, especially, Hollywood cinema), and its unsophisticated critical/analytical methods.
Enter the journal Movie, which grew out of the undergraduate publication Oxford Opinion and forms the heart of Gibbs’ book. Founded in 1962, Movie was published and edited by Ian Cameron; the editorial board also included three important figures: Mark Shivas, V.F. Perkins and Paul Mayersberg. Among the other contributors to early Movie were Robin Wood, Andrew Sarris, Charles Barr and Lawrence Alloway. The shared purpose of the Movie writers was to produce a detailed criticism that was seriously attentive to film style. In today’s environment of digital media, home viewing, and random-access capability, criticism that relies on fine-grained stylistic analysis is both ubiquitous and relatively easy to perform. But back in a time when availability of films was confined mostly to commercial theatrical runs, something as simple as checking a detail required the critic to return to the cinema (if, by good fortune, the film still happened to be playing!). In fact, the detailed work of film analysis we see performed today is partly a result of the legacy of Movie’s example.
One of the many valuable contributions of Gibbs’ book is that it draws upon materials either rare (such as back issues of journals hidden away in dusty archives, unavailable on the Internet) or new (most excitingly, the extended interviews he conducted with key figures such as Perkins and Cameron). The interviews with Perkins, especially, are revelatory. Perkins is a famously perfectionistic writer with demanding standards that he applies equally to other critics’ writings and his own. He doesn’t publish his work casually—and will often spend a great deal of time, sometimes years, on a piece before he is satisfied enough with it to let it see the light of day. For this reason, it is a pleasant surprise to hear a somewhat different Perkins in the interviews: a conversational raconteur, but full of insights nevertheless.
For me personally, one of the most compelling sections of the book deals with the influence and interaction between Movie and French film criticism. André Bazin was an inspiration for both Perkins and Barr (although, curiously, not for Cameron). Perkins says in an interview with Gibbs:
Bazin is so important for offering the sense that cinema isn’t something we understand. Whereas the tone of Arnheim, Balazs, Lindgren and so on, is that we do understand cinema and this is how we understand it. With Bazin you get the sense ‘no, we don’t understand it, so let’s start trying’ which is more enabling.
Gibbs speculates that Movie’s emphasis on lucid description of on-screen action may have been influenced by the French ‘MacMahonists’, who congregated around the journal Présence du Cinéma. Cameron also felt that writers such as Michel Mourlet and Luc Moullet, “both of whose writing/critical personae were fairly wild,” were important enablers for the British:
The idea that you might take a committed interest in the violence of a violent movie, within the very staid conditions of English culture, was quite an incitement.
The differences in temperament and sensibility between the Movie writers and the French are also interesting and instructive. An amusing but revealing anecdote centers on the publication in Movie of the English translation of Jacques Rivette’s famous Cahiers du Cinéma essay on Howard Hawks. The Movie version is not a faithful translation and reproduction (it is humorous to read Cameron opine: “because we felt it contained quite a bit of garbage”).
This is the Movie version of an excerpt from the Rivette essay:
the final climax of Red River, where the spectator no longer understands his own feelings, wondering whose side to take and whether he ought to be amused or afraid, sets every nerve quivering with panic.
The unexpurgated translation of the original goes like this:
the climax of Red River, in which we are no longer sure of our own feelings, wondering whose side to take and whether we should be amused or afraid, sets our every nerve quivering with panic and gives a dizzy, giddy feeling like that of a tightrope walker whose foot falters without quite slipping, a feeling as unbearable as the ending of a nightmare.
Gibbs reproduces another passage from the Rivette essay that was entirely excised by Movie:
There seems to be a law behind Hawks’s action and editing, but it is a biological law like that governing any living being: each shot has a functional beauty, like a neck or an ankle. The smooth, orderly succession of shots has a rhythm like the pulsing of blood, and the whole film is like a beautiful body, kept alive by deep, resilient breathing.
These editorial changes are but a small, anecdotal detail, but they hint at the dramatic divide in sensibilities between the two styles of critical writing—despite their shared powerful attraction to a common “foreign object,” American popular cinema.
I’m curious to know: Are there other examples of histories of film criticism? The four volumes of collected writings from Cahiers du Cinéma, with useful framing narratives provided, especially by Jim Hillier, are one such example. I’d love to learn of more.
-- There are several short videos of V.F. Perkins collected in two posts by Catherine Grant (from a few years ago): here, and here. Also: Movie-related posts I've put up here in the past: "Movie vs. British Cinema"; and "The Rebirth of Movie".
-- Filmmaker/cinephile/critic Dan Sallitt recently tweeted: "Wondering if it's just a blip or whether low-budget US indies are the most exciting thing in world cinema now." This page collects his year-end lists of favorite films.
-- Christian Keathley and Jason Mittell recently led a 2-week NEH Workshop at Middlebury College on "videographic criticism". Melanie Kohnen rounds up the workshop, along with links to some of the audiovisual essays produced there.
-- Jonathan Rosenbaum on Pedro Costa's Horse Money. Via Jonathan: Manoel de Oliveira's last work, the 15-minute, wordless "One Century of Power" is on YouTube.
-- Adrian Martin on David Cronenberg at Filmkrant.
-- The new issue of the journal NECSUS is out (the main theme is "Animals") and includes a section on audiovisual essays edited by Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian.
-- Several articles by film scholar Joe McElhaney (on Hawks, Sturges, Fassbinder and Malick, among others) are now available to download on his Academia.edu page.
-- Lots of Dave Kehr's capsule reviews have been posted at Letterboxd. (Via Darren Hughes.)
-- Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell from this year's Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna: 1, 2, 3, 4. More: Tom Paulus reports from Bologna: on the Technicolor program; and on Malick and McCarey.
-- Adam Cook interviews Kent Jones on his new documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut.
-- William Caroline on the Marguerite Duras exhibit at Centre Pompidou in Paris, in Film Quarterly.
-- Lots of good filmmaker/performer interviews at Little White Lies.
-- Avant-garde filmmaker Laida Lertxundi's films Utskor: Either/Or (2013) and We had the Experience but Missed the Meaning (2014) are available on Vimeo. (Thanks, Matthew.) Also: Phil Coldiron on the filmmaker in Cinema Scope; and interviews with her in BOMB and Frieze.
-- "The Anthropoid Condition," an interview with scholar John Durham Peters, whose new book, The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media, is "an ambitious re-writing — a re-synthesis, even — of concepts of media and culture."
-- This is fabulous: "Daughter Crushes Father in Epic Beatbox Battle"!