As good new films grow fewer, books on the cinema multiply. Is critical attention the sign of a dying art? Or is it that more films now merit scrutiny? It’s tempting to think that they do – until we remember how many critics anatomise trivia, how much trash still accumulates, and how often this month’s masterpieces turn into the schlock of yesteryear. No: the fact is that movie critics have changed.
There was once a time when Roger Manvell’s 1944 Pelican Book, Film, was a central work in most British film-buffs’ libraries. There were the Russian early fathers, of course, all tractors and montage; there was Paul Rotha; there were histories and how-to handbooks; there was Alistair Cooke’s 1937 anthology of film reviews, Garbo and the Night Watchmen. The rest was fanfare.
Then came a challenge. In 1947, four years ahead of Cahiers du Cinéma, Lindsay Anderson and his friends from the Oxford Film Society founded the magazine Sequence, and in effect launched Britain’s own new wave. Reread today, Sequence seems impressionistic, zesty, untouched by glum foreign dogmas. Bliss was it in that dark to be alive. Now, the new wave has become the Establishment – making films, writing for them, flying between Tangier and Hollywood, or editing less ephemeral magazines. Over the pebbly beach, fresh new waves curl constantly – Marxist, structuralist, semiologist, psychoanalytic. All are closer to academe than to Soho Square or Fleet Street. Most seem more concerned with theory than with evaluating films as works of art. This latterday scholasticism has odd results. At its crudest, it promotes film-makers with the right (i.e. Left) ideology. More subtly, it acclaims those whose work is most open to scholastic analysis. And because it often dissociates ends and means, it treats with immense solemnity high-grade entertainment films like those of Hawks or Hitchcock, to say nothing of low-grade melodramas by Samuel Fuller. So powerful is fashion, however, that sensible critics feel rather like the nervous citizens in High Noon when the new film schoolmen come riding into town.
Richard Roud is a sensible critic, formerly the Guardian’s film reviewer and now Director of the New York Film Festival. ‘I tend to be wary,’ he says, ‘of systematic criticism and of any form of critical terrorism. And therefore wary of the new kinds of film criticism which have arisen over the past decade.’ ‘Wary’ might mean just ‘suspicious’, but other remarks in Roud’s Introduction to his Cinema: A Critical Dictionary hint at a subtext: ‘slightly afraid’.
The two volumes look like an encyclopedia: 234 articles of various lengths, mainly about directors, arranged alphabetically, and chiefly by writers from Britain, France and the United States. Roud himself supplies 17 of them, including perceptive essays on Bresson and Renoir; he has chosen the fine illustrations, and he makes supplementary comments, often with book-lists, alongside the entries themselves. ‘Most of the critical schools are represented; there has been no attempt to impose a monolithic point of view.’ So, as well as essays by familiar mainstream critics, the dictionary includes pieces from the Marxist Noel Burch, the ‘auteur’ theorist Andrew Sarris, the nouveau romancier Claude Ollier and the avant-gardist P. Adams Sitney. And yet, as Roud confesses, ‘this work is less an objective survey than a covert statement, a normative view of the art of the film.’
Roud lists his own ‘pantheon’ of favourite directors. Some are acknowledged masters like Dreyer, Renoir, Bresson, Olmi or Satyajit Ray. Others include less major talents – Vigo, Cocteau, Antonioni, Straub. But how does Lubitsch qualify? Or Sternberg, Hitchcock, Hawks and Orson Welles? Their inclusion seems to me like bracketing Conrad with Edna Ferber or Dashiell Hammett – worthy enough artificers, but not engaged in mature art of the kind which deepens our lives. Uneasiness grows when Roud admits to his ‘blind spots’: Eisenstein, Murnau, Mizoguchi, Rossellini and Bergman. To be fair, he prints long articles on all of them. But, as he says, ‘many names will not be found in the Dictionary’; and here his ‘covert statement’ seems to be tainted by critical fashion. Absences from even the detailed index include Yves Allégret, Juan Antonio Bardem, Berthold Bartosch, Laszlo Benedek, Jean Benoit-Lévy, Luis Garcia Berlanga, Michael Cacoyannis, Renato Castellani, André Cayatte, Costi Costa-Gavras, Vittorio De Seta (director of Banditi a Orgosolo), Thorold Dickinson, Julien Duvivier, Pietro Germi, Anatole Litvak, Jean Painlevé, Gillo Pontecorvo, Nicholas Roeg, George Rouquier, John Schlesinger, Henri Storck, John Sturges and Arne Sucksdorff.
And what are we to make of those who are mentioned in the text, but not favoured with individual entries? Pioneers like the Lumière brothers; veterans like Edward Dmytryk, Joris Ivens, Wolfgaang Staudte or Fred Zinnemann; younger directors like Peter Bogdanovich, Sergei Bondarchuk, Volker Schlöndorff or Andrzej Wajda? Why should Samuel Fuller rate more than twice as much space as Vittorio De Sica? Ah, says Roud, ‘the crash of De Sica’s reputation over the past decade has been the loudest of any director one can think of.’ Anyone for critical terrorism? And admirers of Jacques Tati will treasure another of Roud’s throwaway lines: ‘I wish I could fully share Fieschi’s views on Tati, but the disagreeable and to me totally unfunny Hulot seems to get in the way.’
Asides like these weaken confidence in the book as a work of reference. As a compendium, the admittedly imperfect Oxford Companion to Film is better value: as a personal conspectus, Eric Rhode’s 1976 History of the Film, or that neglected 1974 testament, The Long View, by Basil Wright. Still, Roud’s is a book worth having, if only to argue with. Its opinions, however wayward, may serve as a time-capsule from the cultural world of the late Seventies in parts of Paris, London and New York.
Even scholastic critics, in fact, have some insights to offer. As Richard Roud puts it, ‘the Marxist/materialist point of view, with its awareness of codes, is a useful corrective to any notion that film can exist outside society. It reminds us that the most seemingly innocuous films embody ideologies of which we should be aware’. Surprise, surprise.
Much Marxist writing, however, suffers from its own unexamined assumptions: a rancorous obsession with political ideology; the reductionist view that politics boils down to ‘the class struggle’; a sentimental supposition that ordinary people would somehow be sinless without ‘the capitalist system’; a reifying contempt for ‘the middle classes’ and ‘middle-class values’; adulation of the collective as against the individual; a cocksure belief in ‘scientific’ or ‘correct’ solutions to social problems; a touching faith that equality, once attained, could survive human greed and guile without coercion; and gullibility or lies about the withering-away of the state.
Some such presumptions underlie Michael Chanan’s dissertation, The Dream that Kicks. The title is from Dylan Thomas’s poem, ‘Our Eunuch Dreams’:
The dream that kicks the buried from their sack
And lets their trash be honoured as the quick.
The book claims to cover ‘The Prehistory and Early Years of Cinema in Britain’, but it’s not a work of film criticism. ‘The ideological function of film critics’, according to Chanan, is like that of ‘glorified advertising copywriters’, pointing up ‘the tiny differences between one brand and another’. He himself is music critic of Tribune, makes films, and lectures on them at the Central London Polytechnic. On music and optics and a few specific primitive films he is occasionally informative, but the bulk of his book is a rambling lecture on background matters that interest him – early trade unionism, copyright, the music hall, Whistler and Ruskin, the Victorian bourgeoisie. Like many Marxists, he seems to enjoy returning to the 19th century as to the simplified Wild West of folklore, with raffish, sexy cloth-cap-and-muffler goodies against straitlaced baddies in top hats.
‘The expression of dialectical thought,’ says Chanan, ‘often has to fight against the analytic tendencies in language itself, at any rate, those which operate in our present cultural atmosphere to try and impose literal meanings on our words.’ Does this mean that there are lies, damned lies, and dialectic? Peering painfully through Chanan’s distorting lenses, one might think so. Was the secret ballot introduced to break class solidarity and ‘privatise the vote’? Was charity intended for ‘social control’? Was ‘the function’ of ballads ‘the creation and transmission of the class sense of history’? Was the Renaissance invention of perspective an ‘original sin’?
Chanan’s manner throughout is one of didactic scolding: ‘once this is grasped’ – ‘we ought not to talk’ – ‘it is therefore correct to speak of the diorama as a bourgeois form’ – ‘as Audrey Field put it, a little too jokily’ – ‘is vital to correct understanding’ – ‘I’ve already explained’. There are countless quotations from fellow Marxists, many pages of rebarbative jargon, and at least one prize, priapic mixed metaphor: ‘the carrot of access to the North American market, which Eastman had dangled in front of Pathé so effectively, remained a powerful dupe that repeatedly reared its ugly head in later years ...’
I finished Chanan’s book unenlightened, unpersuaded and cross. How does such stuff get published? It must be ‘our present cultural atmosphere’. In Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, that great and generous Socialist R.H. Tawney – who didn’t believe that Socialism meant bullying – declared that ‘the last of the schoolmen was Karl Marx.’ Alas, how wrong he was.