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Submitted by Roger Mellor
(1 September 1932 - 19 May 2002)
The Guardian: 24th May 2002
Prolific film critic contemptuous of his trade's doctrinal theories
Raymond Durgnat, who has died aged 69 after a short illness, was one of the best known and most widely read writers on the cinema in Britain. His work was published in every significant film journal in the English-speaking world, with the exception of the establishment's Sight And Sound.
There were more than 15 volumes of film criticism, hundreds of magazine articles, and entries in the Encyclopaedia Britannica - much of it translated into many languages. There were also books: Luis Bu˝uel (1967), Jean Renoir (1975), Films And Feelings (1967), A Mirror For England (1970), WR Mysteries Of The Organism (1999), and a forthcoming analysis of Psycho. In 1969, Durgnat's poetry was anthologised for Penguin Books.
His style was always distinctive; it eschewed the impenetrable terminology of 1970s film theory and offered something of its own, a form of visual onomatopoeia with which he could describe What's New Pussycat as "Lubitsch on roller-skates ... the Kinsey Report as presented by Mack Sennett". His work is spattered with parentheses, associations or contradictions that seem to have come to mind at the moment of writing.
Ray was no scholar; his work may be said to be distinguished by its absence of references and footnotes. Essentially, he was a writer whose imagination took flight with every observation he made. The cinema happened to be the field for which he settled. He covered every aspect of cinema, including animation and experimental film. He was an early member of the London Film Cooperative in the 1960s, and helped shape screenings of the time at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts.
Ray's Swiss parents arrived in England in 1924 as economic migrants. Before the depression, his father worked as a window dresser and, after being laid off in 1932, opened a haberdashery shop in Walthamstow, east London; at Christmas, Ray and his older brother, Peter, would work there selling toys.
During wartime evacuation, Ray was shunted around half a dozen locations in England, including an all-girls' school in south London, where he was mercilessly teased. It was thought in the family, not frivolously, to be the defining moment in his hostility to the feminist movement, or at least the more hysterical side of it.
After St George Monoux grammar school, in east London, he read English at Pembroke College, Cambridge, then joined the film industry as a writer for Associated British Pictures. He had written suggesting novels that could be converted to the screen; fortuitously, he came up with a title that ABP was already considering. Alas, ABP was in decline and soon closed, but at least he had, unusually for a film critic, experience in the industry.
In the late 1960s, he taught at St Martin's School of Art, and did postgraduate research at the Slade School of Fine Art, under Professor Thorold Dickinson. Later, there were teaching forays at American and Canadian universities, the Royal College of Art, Kingston University and the University of East London, where he was visiting professor from the mid-90s.
Durgnat adopted Dickinson's humanistic view, and saw the most important films as those that enabled a receptive spectator to live more fully through challenging experiences. He begged questions, but he was not burdened by false principles or misleading axioms.
He was maliciously considered misogynistic; in fact, he was libertarian, and saw militant doctrines as destructive of open thought. As a result, he had a pronounced dislike of institutions, even those on which he depended financially. He was genuinely shy and unusually private, but greatly valued friendship.
Durgnat's feelings about doctrinal politics were only matched by his response to 1960s and 70s film theory. He could never take it seriously, and considered it an attempt at thought control - "another Marxist trap". The so-called auteur theory, taken up by Movie and the British Film Institute education department, he considered a "moth-eaten dogma".
Earlier than most writers on the cinema, Durgnat recognised that audience participation and involvement was as much a part of the creative process as anything that emerged from the director's own view or personality. He was equally contemptuous of semiology, structuralism and the post-structuralism of the 1970s, although, in reaction, he intensified his own approach, and added more complicated qualification to his work.
Even his earliest writings from the 1960s remain fresh today, whereas the meretricious writings of others that spun off from theory are now almost unread.
He never married.
Raymond Durgnat, writer and critic, born September 1 1932; died May 19 2002
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