V.F. Perkins on Movies: Collected Shorter Film Criticism

Douglas Pye (ed.)
V.F. Perkins on Movies: Collected Shorter Film Criticism
Wayne State University Press, Detroit, Michigan, 2020
ISBN: 9780814346433
US$34.99 (pb)
586pp
(Review copy supplied by Wayne State University Press)

“In the constellation of my personal cinematic imaginary, Film as Film by V.F. (Victor) Perkins and Theory of Film Practice (French title: Praxis du cinema) by Noël Burch are my Mother and Father, though I find it hard to definitively establish their respective genders.” So writes Adrian Martin in his 2004 essay, “That Summer Feeling”, which appears in his fine collection, Mysteries of Cinema – Reflections on Film Theory, History and Culture (UWA Publishing, Western Australia, 2020, p. 23). The image of Martin as a little bundle of joy born of Perkins’ unwavering commitment to classicism and Burch’s dogmatic modernist inclinations is pretty irresistible, and Perkins (1936 – 2016) was apparently amused by the idea.

Perkins’ interests in film pivoted unapologetically on classical American cinema, on films by Nicholas Ray, Orson Welles, Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock and Otto Preminger, and on the work of Max Ophüls and Jean Renoir. The former features often in this invaluable collection of his ‘shorter film criticism’, which looks in detail at and beyond his American work; the latter only in passing, although one of Perkins’ three book-style publications was a meticulously researched monograph for the British Film Institute on Renoir’s La Regle du Jeu (BFI, 2012). A second was on Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (BFI, 1999). And then there was the masterful and massively influential Film as Film – Understanding and Judging Movies (Pelican, 1972). Just as that book was founded on an unwavering insistence on a critical practice driven by a close attention to detail and informed by the gift of insight, so too is V.F. Perkins on Movies. Thoughtfully and sensitively edited by Douglas Pye, a former colleague of Perkins in the Film Department at Bulmershe College of Education in Reading and on the editorial board of the British film journal, Movie, as well as a personal friend, the collection draws together the rest of Perkins’ lifetime’s work.

It introduces him as a 23-year-old Oxford student with very strong opinions, which were first circulated during the late 1950s in a newly-initiated film section in the undergraduate publication, Oxford Opinion (cost: one shilling), and then in Movie, the magazine Perkins founded in 1962 (with Ian Cameron, Mark Shivas and Paul Mayersberg). It bemoaned the impoverished British film culture of the time and, acknowledging the influence of Cahiers du cinéma, laid out an entirely new agenda for thinking about film criticism and the business of film. This collection of his writing comes to a close with his more recent essay work for a variety of magazines (such as CineACTION in Canada, Film Quarterly in the US and, once again, Movie, after its on-line reincarnation at the University of Warwick as Movie: A Journal of Film Criticism) as well as in books (such as The Movie Book of Film Noir and The Philosophy of Documentary Film).

It’s not too fanciful to identify parallels between the arcs of Perkins’ career and Adrian Martin’s in the way each has gone from ambitious and enthusiastic beginnings as Young Turks keen to take on the establishment to internationally respected voices of wisdom, widely admired for their writing, their teaching and their general dedication to the cause of film studies, elder statesmen if you like. Perkins began his professional teaching career as an aid working in the BFI’s Education Department, liaising with schools and colleges. In 1979, he moved from Bulmershe to the University of Warwick to assume responsibility for the BFI-sponsored course there after Robin Wood left for Toronto. He retired in 2004, but, in his painstaking way, continued to write until his death.

Pye provides a useful introductory overview, then unobtrusively steers us through Perkins’ articles and essays, allowing us to discover their various connections, continuities and contrasts for ourselves. The structure of the book allows one to dip in and out rather than read from cover to cover, as I have for the purposes of review. And it’s through the latter kind of reading that the posthumous collection becomes a kind of displaced autobiography, one which, while eschewing the irrelevances of any intimate personal information, still manages to give one a sense of the man behind the writing.

When he began contributing for Oxford Opinion, he – to borrow an analogy from a realm that was completely anathema to Perkins [1] – really came out swinging. “Film criticism in Britain is dead. Hardly a single piece of perceptive criticism has been written here in the last few years. Indeed, it is sometimes difficult to believe that British criticism has ever been alive.” (p. 25) His specific targets were Fifty Famous Films, 1915 – 45, a booklet published by the BFI in support of a National Film Archive program at the National Film Theatre on South Bank, the magazine Sight and Sound, its editor, Penelope Houston, Observer reviewer C.A. Lejeune, and anyone of like mind who happened to stray into his sights. “(I)n an art as new as the cinema,” he concludes, “it demands intellect, perception, and sheer hard work to get to grips with aesthetic questions. And these are gifts which our critics too obviously lacked.” (p.31)

Perkins never pulled his punches when dealing with what he saw as ineptitude, whether it came from critical commentary about film or from filmmakers themselves. Writing a couple of years later in the first issue of Movie, on behalf of the editorial board, he’s scathing about the state of the film industry, contemptuous of those celebrating a so-called “renaissance” whose only success, in his view, was in the way “it disguises the fact that the British cinema is as dead as before” (p. 34). The early films of John Schlesinger, Jack Clayton, Basil Dearden and Guy Green are sweepingly dismissed, Perkins seeing only in Seth Holt, “a director who can create cinematically, where other directors are content with illustrating their scripts” (p. 44).

There is an echo here of the kind of critical disavowal that accompanied the rise of the so-called new Australian cinema in the 1970s, laying siege to the glorification of good taste and to, in Perkins’ words, the celebration of the standard “Quality Film” rather than of “a cinema which has style, imagination, personality, and, because of these, meaning” (p. 35).

Especially worth noting in his early work is an intriguing use of material culled from an interview he did for Movie with Clive Donner about his Some People (1962). Shunning both the personality profile style to which conventional journalism is drawn and the straightforward question-and-answer format that dominates in specialist film publications, Perkins incorporates Donner’s responses into what ends up being an extremely useful exchange – sometimes a debate – about how the film is working, Donner given plenty of room to respond to Perkins’ critique and to explain his intentions. It’s a far more interesting method than one generally encounters in writing about film in either the mainstream media or specialist contexts.

As Pye points out in his introduction, Perkins’ mission corresponded with Movie‘s: the pursuit of “a criticism rooted in the detailed decisions that make up the complex texture of a film” and a commitment to rescuing Hollywood cinema from the dismissive snobbery (and ignorance) that characterised much English-language commentary about it. As Movie developed, its criticism becoming increasingly sophisticated, and so too did Perkins. His critical principles didn’t change, but his practice did.

The early commentaries on directors and individual films that Pye has placed in the second section of the book, “Developing a Detailed Criticism”, are the kind of capsule reviews one might find in long-form newspaper or magazine commentaries. In some cases, they’re not unlike the cryptic overviews that characterise Andrew Sarris’s trailblazing book, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929 – 1968.

Perkins is especially good on Ray’s stylistics and on Hitchcock and Psycho (both pieces written for Oxford Opinion), and he’s also illuminating (for Movie) on Howard Hawks’s comedies and Preminger’s River of No Return (1954). However, his eagerness sometimes leads him astray, as when he writes dismissively of George Stevens, seemingly oblivious to the filmmaker’s pre-1950s work. And his opining goes over the top at the end of the Ray article: “It is a happy thought that we have not yet seen the finest work Ray is capable of producing. The Savage Innocents (1960) – which he considers his best film to date – reached England in July. King of Kings (1961)is now in production and expected to be better still. A wonderful prospect.” (p. 94)

It’s a minor flaw, one which he corrects a couple of years later in a review of King of Kings (1961) for the first issue of Movie (pp. 107 – 111), but it’s a salutary warning to the critic always to trust the tale rather than the teller. With good reason, Perkins was clearly drawn to Ray and his work – the pair later became friends, collaborating on an unproduced script in the 1970s – and this kind of misstep is noticeably absent from his later writing.

In fact, the further the book goes, the better the commentary gets. The brilliant flashes of insight that leave one wanting more in the early part of the book open out into more fully developed and argued essays. “Film Authorship – The Premature Burial”, his brilliant 1990 essay about the limitations of the so-called “auteur theory” and where Sarris went wrong in his musings about it, is especially good and is essential reading for anyone interested in the subject. Rather than simply using the connections between a particular director’s films as starting-points for evaluation, he argues that the auteurists and the structuralist subversives (like Peter Wollen) took them as conclusions. He proposes that, “The emphasis on repetition (the ‘author-code’ traced from film to film) is what marks off versions of auteurism and auteur theory from other views of cinema which acknowledge and celebrate the creative role of the director,” and continues on to say that, “Auteurism does not just observe or welcome continuity from film to film; it insists on continuity.” (pp. 220 – 221)

In short, as Pye points out in his introduction, borrowing the term from Martin, it’s the “particularities” that matter (p. 11). “What a director does well is at least as important as what he does often. That is a matter of skill, certainly, but one that goes beyond skill to embrace such values as eloquence subtlety, vividness and intensity. Adequately to describe a director’s authorship involves an exposition of these and other qualities.” (p. 228; Pye also quotes this passage in his introduction, p. 11).

This essay sits neatly between two others, both forcefully argued and equally insightful. The preceding one, “Moments Of Choice” (written a decade earlier), deals brilliantly with the elements of mise-en- scène (although that’s not a term Perkins ever seemed comfortable with): props, dress, décor, framing, casting (which may be beyond a director’s control), direction of performance and editing. Perkins’ prose here, as elsewhere, is admirably concise and jargon-free: “The camera’s frame and the editor’s scissors provide the means whereby the director carves a particular path through the world constructed on the set.” (p. 215).

“Must We Say What They Mean”, the subsequent essay, also written in 1990, bemoans “the flight from evaluation” (p. 230) in the work of the theory-mongers, taking David Bordwell to task for his wrong-headed mistaking of the role of the critic in his 1989 book, Making Meaning, and for his misreadings of films as a result (in particular of The Wizard of Oz (1939)). Whereas Bordwell’s belief is that meaning resides in what a film “directly states” not its “hidden meaning(s)”, Perkins argues that the critic’s job is to discover what is there for everyone to see, “to articulate in the medium of prose some aspects of what artists have made perfectly and precisely clear in the medium of film” (pp. 247 – 248).

It’s a job which, as this collection amply demonstrates, Perkins tackled with distinction. His essays on Ophüls’ Letter From An Unknown Woman (1948) (the book includes three), Le Plaisir (1952) and Lola Montes (1955) are brilliant evaluations and celebrations of their creator’s artistry. And he also pays credit to other critics where it’s due.

Perkins’ study of Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (1937) begins with a proper acknowledgement of George M. Wilson’s groundbreaking examination of the film in his book, Narration in Light – Studies in Cinematic Point of View (Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1986, pp. 16 – 38). Perkins says that, “Wilson’s essay opened my eyes to You Only Live Once, a movie that I had previously found opaque because, apart from its evident social project, I had not seen a purpose in its meticulous design beyond that of giving power and plausibility to a noticeably contrived tale.” (p. 460) Then he goes on to redirect Wilson’s reading for his own purposes and to demonstrate how, in the first ninety seconds of the film, Lang lays the groundwork for all that follows, warning us to pay close attention to the details of his film, or else to miss the point. Perkins (like Sarris and Bordwell) belongs to that generation of cineastes whom we should thank for the fact that film studies (should that be “Film Studies”?) has found its way into the curricula of schools and universities around the world. Faced with the scepticism of the representatives of more traditional schools of education, and their resistance to such fanciful intrusions into their company, that wasn’t an easy assignment. [2]

Perkins recognised but wasn’t drawn to modernism, as his 1967 essay on Godard’s Vivre sa vie (1962) indicates (published in The Films of Jean-Luc Godard, edited by Ian Cameron for Studio Vista). To describe him as a classicist is not to see him as in any way limited as a film critic, any more than it is to dismiss a cardiologist because he or she isn’t also an oncologist or an ophthalmologist. His focus might have been on American cinema, but the analytical methods he follows and the principles he espouses are equally applicable to any narrative cinema, whether subtitles are required or not. He went his own way with passion and wisdom. His best work opens the door on the infinite possibilities for reading a scene, or simply a detail, and drawing out its implications. The steady, methodical way he goes about this kind of analysis turns the work of interpretation into an art form itself.

Although he’s now gone, he’s left us a fine legacy in his writings. And this collection is a fitting monument to his memory.

Notes:

[1] It’s fair to say that sport wasn’t part of Perkins’ life. Member of the Movie editorial board and of the esteemed Marylebone Cricket Club Charles Barr recalls attempting to educate him in the joys of a day spent watching a cricket match unfold: “Did I ever tell you about Victor and Lord’s? Somehow, in the ’70s, James Leahy and I persuaded him to accompany us there on a sunny day, when it was easy to walk up and buy a cheap Test match ticket. Sobers made a sublime 150, I think his last Test century. Victor half-watched, half got on with his reading, and left politely in mid-afternoon…”
[2] I had direct experience of this on numerous occasions. Two examples should suffice. One occurred in the early 1970s when I was a post-graduate student in the Arts faculty at LaTrobe University where my proposal for a thesis on Joseph Losey and Henry James was greeted with great scepticism. Another happened years later when I was lecturing in Cinema Studies in the Department of Media and Technology at Swinburne University and somehow found myself on a committee chaired by the Vice Chancellor concerned with the future direction of the university. He asked the representatives of the various departments gathered around the table in the board-room, “What has made the name of Swinburne best known around the world?” When my turn came to answer, I said, “Without a doubt, the Film & TV School.” I was virtually laughed out of the room.

About the Author

Tom Ryan

About the Author


Tom Ryan

Formerly Senior Lecturer in the School of Media & Communications at Swinburne University, Tom Ryan is a freelance writer and film critic. His most recent book is The Films of Douglas Sirk: Exquisite Ironies and Magnificent Obsessions, published last year by the University Press of Mississippi.View all posts by Tom Ryan →