The essential film book of this or almost any year is The Essential Raymond Durgnat, edited by Henry K. Miller and published by the British Film Institute. It begins with a blast: 12 pages of "Standing Up for Jesus", which Durgnat wrote for the short-lived Motion in 1963, when he was 31. His specific target is Sight and Sound, but he takes broad aim at a vast, three-headed system of dominant tastes and values.
Durgnat saw the British culture around him as: a. profoundly puritanical; b. suspicious and fearful of 'light entertainment' forms as dangerous social drugs; and c. based on education that drilled immature youths on how to evaluate artistic works in terms of whether or not they "reproduced the authentic density of lived experience".
Puritanism and anti-pop culture stances no longer rule many film magazines — quite the opposite. But some form of that last complaint — against what one commentator once called the "finer feelings" school of aesthetic critique — is still relevant.
The Finer Feelings crew today preaches that the best films and TV episodes are full of 'complex human moments' — and that we can only do justice to these moments by responding from the equally complex depths of our individual (and highly cultured) souls. I am not dismissing this tradition — it has, after all, given us some of the best, most engaged and passionate critical commentary that we possess. But...
Jason Jacobs, in his writing on TV, gives us a worthy example of this style. His watchword, adapted from mentors such as Victor Perkins, Stanley Cavell and Andrew Klevan, is 'eloquence'. A scene from Mad Men, in which Joan (Christina Hendricks) shares a wordless interaction with her mother after her husband walks out the door forever:
"The pot is put down: she discards it in one motion, and sits in silence with her daughter, as if in that instant it becomes a quaint irrelevance, once an emblem of servitude now just a raw, gross object. That gesture, the holding with two hands — one on the handle, the other protected by a cloth under it, taking its weight in two ways before abandoning it, seemed to me — still seems — an incredibly eloquent one. But I am caught by my own failure to translate such eloquence into words, by my inability to become expressive in the face of such expressivity."
It's good stuff. But it has little to do with another kind of cinephilia (or neo-telephilia) that derives its taste for 'moments' from another set of co-ordinates, another set of responses. A cinephilia based not, primarily, on the "authentic density of lived experience", but something at once more abstract, more formal and more spectacular.
I am re-watching Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street (1945). Its inaugural 'matrix' situation — Edward G. Robinson misunderstanding what he sees far away, rushing in, knocking down a beastly guy and swiftly ending up in the scheming clutches of Joan Bennett — is as rich and wonderful a moment of cinema as I have encountered. The human gesture — Robinson shielding from himself, with his own arm, the truth before him, and then slowly lowering that shield to bask in the unreal fantasy he projects onto the woman — is indeed eloquent. But it is the logic of the whole scene, its palpable energies and evident ironies, that make it great — not some behavioural secret I must struggle to extract.
In 1965, Jean-André Fieschi chided his comrades at Cahiers du cinéma for "that cinephile's aberration of only seeing in a film that wonderful moment when Jack Elam crushes his cigarette butt into the left eye of a one-legged Apache chief while whistling the 'Marseillaise'"; he called this "the physical pleasure of the spectacle". He was right to warn against exclusively celebrating such 'superficial' beauties. But we fall into a trap on the opposite side of cultural taste if we start equating the eloquence of screen moments only with what is inexpressibly deep and complex in them.