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The front cover of Raymond Durgnat's book Films and Feelings

Films and Feelings by Raymond Durgnat, 1967, The M.I.T. Press, ISBN 0 262 54016 9 Available here.

As its title suggests, Raymond Durgnat’s Films and Feelings isn’t concerned with establishing an inflexibly “objective” account of the many movies discussed within it. Instead the book seems to place more of an emphasis on mapping out how these films, and films in general, make the author (and likely many other viewers) feel… which is no doubt more fertile territory. In a 1969 review of the book in Film Quarterly, Ernest Callenbach aptly notes that Durgnat’s criticism could be said to endorse the position that “a film is not what is on the screen, but what happens between the screen and the viewer.” As a consequence of this Durgnat is cut loose from “the idea that criticism is an evaluation of a fixed and finished ‘object.’” Despite this underlying principle, however, Films and Feelings is not the kind of film book governed by an overriding thesis. Instead it functions as a window into the late film critic’s vigilant sensibilities as they relate to a wide array of films and their perceived import, in turn addressing tangential issues concerning (among other things) film style, auteur theory, and spectatorship.

But the preceding paragraph probably makes Films and Feelings sound a lot less fun and occasionally humorous than it really is. To read the book is sort of like being a fly on the wall during a long, inspired lecture by the kind of cool Marxist college professor who’s just as critical of academic sophistry, snobbery, and stuffiness as he is of unstimulating cinema. Thinking of why I find Films and Feelings worthwhile, it’s much less the case that I agree with Durgnat’s opinions and share his political outlook than I enjoy reading a book so densely packed with ideas! In the interest of doing the book justice here, it is necessary to quote some passages of Durgnat’s prose, so here’s a handful of choice excerpts…

Concerning the perennial “content vs. style” debate:

…The question whether style is more important than content is a misleading one. Style is simply those pieces of content which arise out of the way the artist makes his basic points. These may (as often in painting and poetry) be only a pretext, a wire on which to “thread the beads”. If style is “manner of doing”, then we can say that the way a thing is done is often a way of doing a different thing. To say “sorry” superciliously is doing a different thing from saying “sorry” courteously or servilely, etc. Certain tones of voice make “sorry” mean: “Look where you’re going, you clumsy imbecile.” “It ain’t what you do it’s the way you do it.” “Le style, c’est l’homme.”

Concerning the traditional differences between Hollywood and European cinema:

Although many of Hollywood’s directors are auteurs it is quite possible to speak of an overall Hollywood “style”—in that, whether the narrative is fast […] or slow […] there is a certain tautness, a spareness of intention, a lack of distraction from the principal story points. There are none of the asides one finds in, say, Renoir or Becker, and which European directors generally are more inclined to entertain. Hollywood would never have invented such “European” ideas as the temps-mort, or the stylistic potpourri of Truffaut. American films seem to be enclosed by their subjects, and the dramatic tensions are calculated with a Protestant rigour. European directors often deliberately relax the story so as to dwell on the sprawl and irrelevance of “off-moments” (which after all constitute 80 percent of life).

Concerning a film’s presentation of experiential insights:

We have come a long way from the “literary” conception of a film as “explaining” or “analyzing” people’s psychology. The film’s job is not so much to provide “information” about the characters’ minds as to communicate their “experience”, whether intellectual, emotional, physical, or a blend of all three.

Concerning Vittorio De Sica’s film Bicycle Thieves:

But “cold and plain” is the key. The streets down which the workman searches for his stolen bicycle have a bland, callous indifference to the desperate individual. In endless successions, skeins of terrace houses, lofty apartment blocks, become symbols of a society built out of privacy, indifference and a human “absence”. De Sica’s sense of Rome reflects his curious blend of Franciscan sentimentality and Marxist hard-headedness. And the “coldness” of his films prefigures Antonioni’s, whose evocation of “alienation” transposes this critique of capitalism from the proletarian-economic sphere to the bourgeois-spiritual.

Concerning a film’s use of “non-professional” actors:

Unlike the “legitimate” stage, the cinema can accommodate complete amateurs (to whose authenticity or spontaneity the director can contribute the necessary artistic control) and it can accommodate actors who can’t act in any real sense but have an emotional vibrancy of some sort […]. But if the popular cinema can manage without actors, it couldn’t manage without personalities…

Concerning so-called “pure” cinema:

Ever since the cinema began, aestheticians have sought to define “pure” cinema, the “essence” of cinema. In vain. The cinema’s only “purity” is the way in which it combines diverse elements into its own “impure” whole. Its “essence” is that it makes them interact, that it integrates other art forms, that it exists “between” and “across” their boundaries. It is cruder and inferior to every other art form on that art form’s “home ground”. But it repairs its deficiencies, and acquires its own dignity, by being a mixture.

Reading the above quotations, it’s not hard to tell that Raymond Durgnat gives the cinema a lot of thought here. To reiterate, the value of Films and Feelings is not so much that the reader is compelled to agree with the author at every juncture, but rather that the book puts forth a host of insights to brush up against and negotiate oneself in relation to. And in addition to providing a lot of “cultural commentary” or opinions, the book often functions as a fount of information. One example of this is the chapter entitled The Cinema’s Art Gallery, in which Durgnat rates a variety of documentaries concerning visual artists of note. Working my way thought it the first time, I couldn’t help but read it while in tandem checking out various clips of the films on Youtube, which in turn lead me to “discover” Living One’s Life, Evald Schorm’s excellent cinematic portrait of Czech photographer Josef Sudek.

All in all Films and Feelings has a lot to offer. Its main drawback is that it doesn’t cover cinema after 1967, but for most cinephiles that shouldn’t be a deal breaker. And of course it helps to have seen a number of the movies featured in the book before reading about their nuances, though personally speaking I was able to follow most of the book despite not having seen many of the titles discussed. Is Films and Feelings the film book to end all film books? If such a thing were to exist, not quite. But having said that, it contains multitudes, and is, at the very least, a worthy addition to any film buff’s bookshelf.

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