Conference Report: Film as Film Today: On the Criticism and Theory of V. F. Perkins

In a two-day event dedicated to the work of a film scholar whose published writings are not vast, it was inevitable that some choice quotes and passages got repeated mention during the conference Film as Film Today (held at the University of Warwick, 4 – 5 September 2018). One in particular surfaced again and again, a straightforward but evidently valuable statement about coherence in cinema, and about the interaction between recording and expression: “The movie is committed to finding a balance between equally insistent pulls, one towards credibility, the other towards shape and significance”.[1] The conference itself could be said to have faced the challenge of balancing competing impulses, bringing together on the one hand many friends, colleagues and students of the late V.F. Perkins in tribute and remembrance to his work, and on the other hand a series of critical questions about his theory and criticism. The distinction was not sharp or uncomfortable, and many contributing papers would answer to both descriptions, but there was nevertheless a palpable duality at play throughout the event – a sense that the value of Perkins’s approach to cinema can only be properly appreciated in relation to his contributions beyond the three short books and the (approximately) 60 articles.

Because there was apparently unanimous gratitude at the conference for those gifts and contributions, the discussions tended not to argue the case for the contemporary relevance or utility of Perkins’s ideas. Following a short introduction by James MacDowell (one of the conference organisers, along with Andrew Klevan), which did register some quiet anger about the long-term underappreciation of Perkins, few speakers felt the need to build a case for the value of his work. Little energy was wasted preaching to the converted. The “today” in the title of the conference was not about whether Film as Film and other work by Perkins is still important, but rather it announced the fact that such importance is now felt and acknowledged more broadly. V.F. Perkins has long had vocal and high-profile champions in academic film studies, but his work (as Robert B. Ray’s paper noted) does not easily lend itself to teaching, or at least to application. If this was one of many complex reasons for his marginalization, the Warwick conference marked the culmination of a profound shift. Screen and Cinema Journal now carry articles explicating Perkins’s terms and methods; the writings of Movie are being revisited and historicized as important documents of 20th-century aesthetic criticism; former students of Perkins are now overseeing screen-studies programmes in many major universities, ensuring that some of his guiding principles – ordinary-language criticism, a belief in the integrity of individual films, the pursuit of reasoned evaluation – do not once again fall too far out of favour.

One thread running throughout the conference was very much attuned to this question of Perkins’s position within screen studies, and explored how his connections to various corners of the discipline are deserving of more attention. James Walters, for example, suggested that the emergence of aesthetic evaluation in television studies significantly coincided with the “rediscovery” of Perkins’s methods, and that students of long-form television drama can find guidance from Perkins in their effort to think through difficult questions of coherence and emphasis. Lucy Fife Donaldson focused on a short passage from Perkins’s “Moments of Choice” in which he reflected on a “moment that made [him] smile” in The Reckless Moment (Max Ophüls, 1949), and asked whether the work of Vivian Sobchack and others has overlooked Perkins’s contribution to our understanding of cinema’s affectiveness. Peter Falconer’s talk on horror, Christopher Holliday’s on animation and Timotheus Vermeulen’s on worldhood in non-figurative art all made similarly refreshing links to unfamiliar case studies and lines of enquiry.

Although it is not easy to extract and isolate principles in Perkins’s work, particularly in the context of undergraduate film teaching, a growing number of emerging scholars have begun to track and trace such principles as part of their postgraduate and doctoral research. Informed by aesthetic philosophy and a methodological attention to particular – and criteria, the work of Dominic Lash (on description), Hoi Lun Law (on significance), Seth Watter (on character), Katerina Virvidaki and Lara Perski (both on credibility) all take Perkins’s writings to be an important object of study in their own right (rather than an aid to film appreciation, so to speak). It was interesting to see such presentations eschew illustrative demonstrations of Perkinsian film study – “here is a scene I’ve chosen and here’s what might be made of it according to the terms of Film as Film – and instead examine and critique the terms themselves. In this regard, the Warwick conference is a clear relation to the edited collection The Language and Style of Film Criticism,[2]  a book which foregrounded the writing of Perkins (and other practitioners of sustained evaluative criticism) as an intellectual and creative achievement, to be studied as such. The 2015 Film Philosophy conference at Oxford, whose theme was “the evaluation of form” and whose speakers included Perkins himself, likewise helped to consolidate a field of interest which neatly mapped on to Film as Film Today.

Balancing this sense of a “new wave” in evaluative film study was a real attentiveness to the historical conditions of Perkins’s emergence and development. Here, the dialogic nature of the conference, its back and forth between anecdote and scholarship, came to the fore: John Gibbs drew on his research into Movie and its antecedents to show how “fully formed” Perkins’s critical voice was in the early 1960s, while Laura Mulvey shared personal recollections of the Oxbridge cinephilia in which Perkins and Peter Wollen and herself were caught up; Sarah Street looked into Perkins’s (somewhat surprising) enthusiasm for Clive Donner’s Some People (1962), while Charlotte Brunsdon recounted how courses at Warwick on British cinema would often feature her interviewing Perkins, in front of students, about his pointed critiques of Sight and Sound, social realism and national film culture in the 1960s.

Later in the conference, an extraordinary panel of presentations by three “American friends” of Perkins – Charles Warren, William Rothman and Murray Pomerance – would throw into sharp relief the Englishness of Perkins, a quality (or set of qualities) that not surprisingly tends to get overlooked by many of his colleagues and students. Pomerance speculated that the conditions and environments of Perkins’s early life would play their part in the critic’s enthusiastic embrace of Nicholas Ray’s “architectural cinema”, and Rothman reflected on Film as Film alongside and against Stanley Cavell’s The World Viewed in such a way as to emphasise the emotional reserve of Perkins’s writing. Laura Mulvey introduced a rare and wry political note into the conference, reminding us that, however English he was, Perkins’s seemingly inexhaustible affection for the films of Max Ophüls was evidence of his Europeanness, and his belief in all that is positive in such a description.

Mulvey’s presence as a keynote speaker was important for Film as Film Today. If the work of Perkins was side-lined in film studies for too long, it was side-lined in favour of something else – and Mulvey’s name has, justifiably or otherwise, become synonymous with certain values and approaches (a distrust of entertaining narrative cinema, for example) that were all but irreconcilable with Film as Film. That Mulvey “came back” to the work of Ophüls, Douglas Sirk and others in later years is not news; her address in Warwick reflected on Ophüls Lola Montès (1955) as a point of shared interest and love between herself and Perkins, and offered an implicit warning against any efforts to erect a Perkins-approved style in which credibility and balance might become absolute markers of value. Lola Montès, like other films valued by Perkins, such as Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954) and La règle du jeu (Jean Renoir, 1939), demands engagement on its particular terms, rather than through the application of criteria. To what extent we can or should abstract principles from the writing of Perkins was a (productively) unresolved question throughout the conference.

In his own keynote, George Toles made the bold move of developing his own, expanded response to a film and a scene (from The Courtship of Eddie’s Father [Vincente Minnelli, 1963]) on which Perkins had already written in Film as Film. Revisiting it in the light of a much later (and apparently Perkins’s own favourite) piece, “Where is the World?”, Toles spoke of how Perkins gave him the confidence to find “the essence of the world in details” (or “world particles”, as Toles describes them), and of the “wrenching psychic shift” in his film viewing induced by “Where is the World?”. Readers of Toles will not be surprised that he placed a particular emphasis on the humanism of Perkins, a vital characteristic of Film as Film and other writings that, for most of the conference, was assumed rather than addressed.

In the closing keynote address, Adrian Martin also noted Perkins’s “humanist aesthetics”, but framed this both as an energizing quality and a possible limitation of his outlook. Martin has on numerous occasions written about his indebtedness to, and admiration of, Perkins, but (like Robin Wood before him) clearly feels that his evaluative criteria and interpretive style only cover so much ground. Speculating about whether Perkins would appreciate Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2017) allowed Martin to clearly spell out what he has learned from Perkins (including the value of “getting into the head” of filmmakers), but also to articulate what Perkins as a critic didn’t quite speak to, carefully reminding the conference that we don’t all need to be humanists to say valuable things about cinema.

That said, the overriding sense at Film as Film Today was of the extraordinary rightness of so many of Perkins’s claims and observations from across his six decades of criticism. Each time a quote of his appeared on a presenter’s slide, nods and smiles rippled throughout the lecture theatre; attendees’ name badges were even printed with their own Perkins “nugget”, like favours at a wedding. The conference showcased a new kind of concerted rigour in the study of Perkins’s criticism and theory, but it was still underpinned by a basic and irreducible pleasure to be had in the condensed wisdom and value of his sentences – even if most of those who gathered at Warwick had already read them many times before. And when we read them again, after Film as Film Today, it will be with a revitalized understanding of their significance.

Thanks to Kathrina Glitre, who also attended the conference, and who shared her thoughts on this report.

[1] V.F. Perkins, Film as Film: Understanding and Judging Movies (New York: Da Capo, [1972] 1993), p.120.
[2] Andrew Klevan and Alex Clayton (eds) The Language and Style of Film Criticism (Abingdon: Routledge, 2011).

About the Author

Adam O'Brien

About the Author

Adam O'Brien

Adam O'Brien is Lecturer in film in the Department of Film Theatre & Television at the University of Reading. He is the author of Transactions With the World (Berghah, 2016) and Film and the Natural Environment: Elements and Atmospheres (Wallflower/Columbia, 2018).View all posts by Adam O'Brien →