Marginalized by many during his lifetime, Durgnat is finally getting some measure of the respect he so richly deserves. I remember giving a lecture a few years back on the dominance of structuralist and semioticist film criticism, and being surprised when a member of the audience in the back of the room raised his hand during the Q&A that followed to invoke Durgnat’s name, as one of the “forgotten” or deliberately neglected voices of contemporary film criticism, and wondering when and if he would ever be reclaimed by academe. Needless to say, I welcomed this question, and agreed that Durgnat’s contribution had been considerable, but also noted that he had been thrown out of favor by the French school of film “systematizing” criticism in the 1970s and 80s, and that as with all such shifts in public reception, Durgnat’s work was now obviously no longer in public view. I added that I hoped this matter would soon be rectified. Since Durgnat died in 2002, obviously, this work had to be done by others.
Thus, I was very pleased to read that Henry K. Miller has collected a vast trove of Durgnat’s writings and collected them in one volume from Palgrave Macmillan, appropriately entitled The Essential Raymond Durgnat. As the book’s publicity materials note, “Raymond Durgnat was a maverick voice during the golden age of film criticism. From the French new Wave and the rise of Auteurism, through the late 1960s counter-culture to the rejuvenated Hollywood of the 1970s, his work appeared in dozens of publications in Britain, France and the USA. At once evoking the film culture of his own times and anticipating our digital age, in which technology allows everyone to create their own ‘moving image-text combos’, Durgnat’s writings touch on crucial questions in film criticism that resonate more than ever today. Bringing together Durgnat’s essential writing for the very first time, this career-spanning collection includes previously unpublished and untranslated work and is thoroughly introduced and annotated . . .”
As Durgnat himself said of his approach to cinema in a 1977 interview, aptly entitled “Culture Always is A Fog,” “I’m an analogic thinker, not a digital one. Or rather I don’t think much in either-slash-or terms — 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. It’s hereditary, probably. At least there’s a history of left-handed mirror-writers and stammerers in the family. My brother as a child couldn’t even see the difference between his mirror-writing and regular writing. Maybe I’m dyslexic, but not for reading. Strange, eh? Maybe difficulties can make one over-compensate. Be doubly careful. It is a coordination affair, because I’ve got fast motor reflexes. In intellectual work I really think in two stages. Right brain dominance, which makes all sorts of approximate comparisons — that’s the analogic half — then a fairly separate phase of very light order with no affect. First I’m 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 analogize from.”
Wikipedia also offers this brief but accurate summary of Durgnat’s career and eventual eclipse, writing that “in the 1950s, he had written for Sight and Sound, but he later fell out with this British Film Institute publication after the exit of Gavin Lambert in 1957, often accusing it of elitism, puritanism and upper-middle-class snobbery . . . he did, however, return to write for another BFI publication, the Monthly Film Bulletin, in the years before its merger with Sight and Sound in 1991, and contributed to that publication again later in the 1990s.In the mid-’60s he was a major player in the nascent London Film-Makers’ Co-op, then based at Better Books off Charing Cross Road, a hub of the emerging British ‘underground.’ As the counter-culture turned left and, simultaneously, sought state funding for its activities, Durgnat looked to the past in major works on film style (Images of the Mind, 1968-9), Hitchcock and Renoir.
In the late 1970s he taught film at the University of California, San Diego alongside Manny Farber, Jean-Pierre Gorin and Jonathan Rosenbaum. Returning to the UK at the close of the decade, he launched a series of withering assaults on the linguistics-based film theory that had come to dominate the young film academia over the previous decade. Durgnat’s socio-political approach — strongly supportive of the working classes and, almost as a direct result of this, American popular culture, and dismissive of Left-wing intellectuals whom he accused of actually being petit-bourgeois conservatives in disguise, and dismissive of overt politicisation of film criticism, refusing to bring his own Left-wing views overtly into his writings on film — can best be described as ‘radical populist.’”
So this collection of Durgnat’s essential writing is a cause for celebration, and brings to the contemporary reader some sense of an alternative voice in film criticism that has been unjustly lost over time – the book received a rave review in the latest issue of Film Comment, with which I am happy to concur. You may not agree with him, but Durgnat’s urgent critical voice, always somehow instinctively at loggerheads with whatever the prevailing orthodoxy of the era was, is an essential element of modern film theory, one that I hope is coming back into vogue, based as it is on the humanist structures and concerns of the cinema, and not entirely dependent upon their formal characteristics.