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The Independent (25/May/2002) - Obituary: Raymond Durgnat



Obituary: Raymond Durgnat

RAYMOND DURGNAT was one of the most influential film critics in the history of the medium.

This claim may seem excessive, in that he was neither a public figure like Pauline Kael in the United States or Dilys Powell in Britain, nor a leader within the academic growth area of Film Studies; he never had a column in the press, or a full-time institutional post. Nor did he write the kind of books that sell widely, or that get installed at the centre of an academic syllabus.

And yet the immense esteem in which he was held has been demonstrated by the publication this month, in the on-line journal Senses of Cinema, of a Festschrift in his honour, the work of more than 20 admirers from all over the world, writers and academics and film-makers. It had been designed to mark his 70th birthday, and was brought forward when he became seriously ill, in the hope that he would at least have the pleasure of reading it. In the event, he died just two days before its publication.

Durgnat's parents were Swiss, but he was born and raised in London, and studied English at Pembroke College, Cambridge. After a brief period in the film industry as a story editor he gained, in 1960, one of the initial research studentships in film to be offered in Britain, at the Slade School of Fine Art.

This pioneer department, set up to explore the possibilities of film as a field for academic study, could not have chosen a better head than Thorold Dickinson, whose long experience of the industry encompassed directing, critical writing, and much more beside, or a livelier first student than Durgnat, already a polymath with a voracious appetite for films and for ideas. Dickinson gave him his head, without trying to impose deadlines or word limits; two years of non-stop viewing, reading, writing and arguing produced a flood of magazine articles, and laid the foundation for a remarkable and wide-ranging series of books: Eros and the Cinema (1966), Films and Feelings (1967), the monographs Bunuel and Franju (both 1967), and studies of Hollywood comedy (The Crazy Mirror, 1969) and of popular British cinema (A Mirror for England, 1970).

By now, following the Slade initiative, and helped by the 1960s policy of expanding the university system, the study of film was beginning to establish itself in higher education. For many of us who became involved in this, two bodies of work were especially inspirational: those of Durgnat and of the equally prolific Robin Wood, whose books included studies of Hitchcock and Ingmar Bergman.

Both carved out whole territories within a virgin land; both gave equal attention to popular cinema and "art cinema"; both showed how cinema could reward the same intense and morally engaged scrutiny as any of the other arts. Where Wood was avowedly carrying over into film the principles of the great literary critic and teacher F.R. Leavis, Durgnat had more in common with another charismatic Cambridge figure, William Empson; the most theoretical of his books, Films and Feelings, has something of the fertile, exploratory, free-ranging quality of Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930).

Ironically, neither man was at ease in the set-up their work had helped to create and to shape. For two decades the field in Britain was dominated by a new and more austere generation of scholars, whose understandable desire to fix the credentials of Film Studies as a proper discipline went with a distrust of writers like these two as being dangerously subjective, impressionistic and empiricist.

While Wood based himself in Canada, Durgnat moved between a series of short-term teaching jobs in art colleges, at American universities, and, latterly, at the University of East London. As academia became increasingly preoccupied with the calculated accumulation of single-author books and "refereed" articles, he moved in the other direction, publishing only a single book between 1975 and 1999 (King Vidor, American, co-authored with Scott Simmon, 1988), and giving himself instead to teaching and to a generous and uncalculating profusion of articles written for anyone who asked him. Remembered with enormous warmth by his friends and students, and combative when he wanted to be, Durgnat was seen as something of a loner in his private life as in his academic career, and remained unmarried.

His work leaves a legacy whose value is certain to become more widely recognised as the articles are collected, and as the continued influence of the early books is perceived. To name only one, A Mirror for England was extraordinarily prescient in laying out an enticing map of the long- neglected terrain of British cinema which scholars have only gradually got around to exploring in more detail.

And there is more to come. Before his death, Durgnat completed a new full-length book, A Long Hard Look at Psycho, which brings all his most distinctive gifts to bear on a minutely close reading of Hitchcock's seminal film of 1960. This was the year he began as a student of Dickinson's, and the style has all the intoxicating energy and fertility of that period of his youth, overlaid by a more disciplined mature wisdom. The book's publisher, the British Film Institute, claims that it amounts to "a reinvention of cinema studies", and for once the blurb may be absolutely right.

Raymond Durgnat, film critic and teacher, born London 1 September 1932; died London 19 May 2002.