9 Times Film Critic Raymond Durgnat Didn’t Agree With Everyone

Critic Raymond Durgnat died 20 years ago this month, more than half a century after his first appearance in Sight and Sound. In the meantime, he has written countless articles for everything from the British Journal of Aesthetics to Knave porn magazine, and produced over 14 books, the latest of which, A Long Hard Look at Psycho, the year of his death.

Eclectic, impressionist, eccentric, he wrote against the grain but often found himself justified later. He had first written seriously about Psycho (1960) when it was new and widely reviewed as a joke in bad taste. Instead, he typically got down with the audience, whom he found “shocked and happy, laughing and still gasping”. Here are nine times Ray Durgnat spoke his truth.

1. Michael Powell

Peeping Tom (1960)

Even before his controversial serial killer thriller Peeping Tom (1960), which Durgnat had praised in the same breath as Psycho, Powell was never a darling of critics – certainly not among intellectuals, who were steeped in ‘English. Alight. but visually semi-literate. Clinging to a “simplistic distinction between ‘style’ and ‘content'”, they dismissed Powell as a mere stylist. “For these displaced persons, the visual qualities of a film are only ‘the style'”, wrote Durgnat. For him, the style counted, and it was only by appreciating its “visual qualities” that one could deduce the content of a film. In 1965 he wrote the first major critical essay on Powell for the British author magazine Movie, beginning the process of canonization.

2. Authorism

Not that Durgnat is an author. For Cahiers du cinema critics, the authors were not top directors with screenplay approval and final editing, but rather anonymous workers on the Hollywood assembly line whose films, seen in quick succession , revealed obscure continuities to a cabbalistic elite among moviegoers. For Durgnat, these continuities did not in themselves justify browsing through many mediocre films, while the intense focus on a select group of directors ignored how Hollywood cinema was a collective enterprise and its production constituted a style of band. with relatively minor variations.

Raymond Durgnat and filmmaker Stephen Dwoskin, 1969
© Image from DWOSKINO: The Gaze of Stephen Dwoskin, courtesy of University of Reading Special Collections

3.Alfred Hitchcock

Unlike most auteur favorites, Hitchcock had a distinctive style visible to ordinary moviegoers, and there was little standing in the way of him being considered a major entertainer. Unless you were Durgnat, whose 1974 book The Strange Case of Alfred Hitchcock is in some ways the case against. Much of Durgnat’s childhood “was lived in Hitchcock’s London” – he was brought up in Chingford and Walthamstow – “on that social level”, and he saw Hitchcock’s preoccupation with suspense as drifting of his “fear of disrespectability” of the lower middle class. , fear of falling, morally or socially”.

4. Jean-Luc Godard

Pierrot le fou by Jean-Luc Godard (1965)

Although he wrote one of the first books on the French New Wave, Durgnat was one of Godard’s staunchest critics – or is it more complicated than that? “Godard is of Swiss Calvinist stock,” begins his 1967 list “Apartés sur Godard,” and so does Durgnat. The crux of his criticism was that Godard “is a systematic sceptic” whose “gray, ascetic images reduce the world to a concept of itself”, but Durgnat was hardly an assertive writer, drawn to ambiguities and contradictions. . His writings on Godard and his “grasshopper tendencies” frequently border on self-portraiture – probably consciously. “There is always an antithesis,” he wrote in one such essay, apparently of both.

5. Sight and hearing and IBF

“To be boycotted by the IBF is a handicap”, wrote Durgnat to his mentor Thorold Dickinson in 1977, “because by not being nominated for film festivals, contacts, etc., I never met people – which was probably largely my fault in the first place. He had erased his notebook in the early 1960s with a review from Sight and Sound – “What passes for vaguely leftist goodness is really middle-class fear of the brutal and licentious proletariat.” Instead, its main outlet was Films and Filming, now better known as the most important coded gay magazine in the years before decriminalization.

6. Structural film

Durgnat helped found the London Film-Maker’s Co-op, “an organization that helps distribute films that might be too avant-garde, eccentric or too plain to be accepted through mainstream channels,” he writes. 1967. But the filmmakers Durgnat loved, like Stephen Dwoskin and Jeff Keen, were “loners, not carpenters, having little to share with co-op or each other,” and soon he and his “motley crew” been ousted. By the 1970s, the Co-op had become synonymous with “structural film”, a variant of New York minimalism whose “pure cinematic formalism” was anathema to him.

7. Structuralism

Different thing. In the 1970s, the nascent discipline of academic film studies became identified with Parisian structuralism and post-structuralism, ways of thinking shaped by the influence of structural linguistics, associated with such fashionable names as Roland Barthes and Christian Metz. Durgnat has made himself “public enemy no. 1” (again) arguing that this supposed new dawn in film theory was actually another example of Eng. Alight. brigade coming ill-equipped to deal with a mainly visual support. There’s always an antithesis: as he wrote in 1975, a lot of his own stuff was proto-post-structuralist.

8. Popeye by Robert Altman

Popeye (1980)

Altman’s critically maligned 1980 bombshell, a kind of live-action cartoon, led Durgnat to write an extraordinary two-part defense that is also probably the most lucid exposition of his ideas on aesthetics, published in Films and Filming’s successor magazine, Films on Screen and Video, in 1982. The central issue was the nature of the photographic image, which even film-structuralists tended to treat as downright “realistic”. Drawing on his years of teaching art theory, Durgnat argued the opposite, surprisingly relevant in the digital age.

9. Raymond Durgnat

“Ray is perhaps the antithesis of the film critic,” said Stephen Dwoskin, “because he constantly assesses his own role as a critic, as a writer, in the same way, and at the same time , whether he is evaluating a film, or the works of a filmmaker. For Durgnat himself, “very often, it does not matter that a critic is wrong. The simple fact of having to adapt to him by adapting to someone else is a very good form of broadening and learning what people think about things, it’s not about awarding points or scoring them.


A long hard look at Psycho, A mirror for England and L’Essentiel Raymond Durgnat are published by the IBF.

Psycho is back in theaters in a 4K restoration from May 27, 2022

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