Available to Enjoyment (and Not Just in a Hedonistic Way): An Appreciation of Victor Perkins
I have been an avid reader of Victor Perkins’ work in film criticism/analysis for as long as I've been a cinephile. Proof: at the tender age of 15, in the mid 1970s, I was asked by a dear aunt of mine – who was also a Catholic nun! – for just one, good book that would help her understand and discuss cinema with a bunch of kids in her care who had found themselves both disturbed and compelled by viewing William Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973). So I gave her Victor’s Film as Film, of course! (She thanked me for that later.)
Victor did not publish prolifically, for reasons I was to fully understand only much later. But, throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, each new piece – in Movie, CineAction!, or even that strange encyclopedia-in-weekly-instalments called The Movie which I used to find in my local newspaper shop in early ‘80s suburban Melbourne – was a real event for me, a touchstone in thinking about film style and expression, about classicism and modernism, about auteurs and genres, about artistry and convention. My teacher in Australia, Tom Ryan, had known Victor a little (and studied under Robin Wood), so his method of analysis had much to do with the principles associated with Film as Film – but also taking that approach more in the directions suggested by Screen and Camera Obscura journals in that period, toward ideology, gender politics, and so on. It was only on meeting Victor that I realised what a keenly political human being (with a very healthy, working-class style) he was – something I had not hitherto gleaned (rightly or wrongly) from his writing.
Perhaps the first time I had any actual, direct contact with Victor was in the wake of a little piece I wrote in 2004 for the FIPRESCI website titled (after the Jonathan Richman song) ‘That Summer Feeling’ (a very recent French film by Mikhaël Hers re-uses the same title). In it, I spin a little story (moreover, it’s a true one) about how, in my early teens, the two books that most impressed and influenced me – but in two completely different directions at once – were Film as Film and Noël Burch’s Theory of Film Practice. I say in that article that I consider these books my intellectual-cinephilic Mother and Father, although I am unable to ascribe those roles cleanly along gender lines. I also speculate that their authors, Perkins and Burch, may not have much time for each other’s work, assuming that they are even much aware of it. Victor was highly amused by this text (which a postgrad had slipped to him) – and, in telling me so, he also let on that he indeed found Burch’s film analysis ‘abhorrent’ (I suspect he was probably especially remembering, in pain, the mid ‘70s Afterimage text ‘Propositions’ co-written with Jorge Dana, with its flippant dismissals of Hollywood-era Fritz Lang and other classical greats).
When I finally got to meet Victor and spend a few good hours with him at Warwick (when Therese Davis & I were on a Monash University exchange jaunt) in 2010, I found him completely charming and friendly. And always quietly demonstrating the proof of his generous but also very sharp, critical mind. I am reminded, now, of this rich passage, which is actually very personally revealing, in a Movie editorial discussion of Max Ophüls from 1982, offered by Victor in response to Andrew Britton’s claim that Lola Montès ‘seems a very pessimistic movie’:
But what are you offering against that? What available optimism does it reject? Its creative energy, its commitment to variety, surprise and delight, is the film’s defence against nihilism. (I’d condemn nihilism fast enough for being, among other things, tedious and complacent.) But along the film’s route so much is shown to be available to enjoyment – and not just available to enjoyment in a hedonistic way, but available to generosity, or to kindliness, to sympathy and sensitivity. That’s pretty well the limit of my optimism, too. (1)
Although I am certain Victor was familiar with all the various theories that passed through his many fields of interest (remember, this is the scholar who, for a long time, was fastidiously teaching himself German in order to get closer to the films, cultural background and sensibility of his beloved Ophüls), and while I feel sure that he read whatever his friends or students handed along to him to peruse (as he once declared: ‘My critical commitments involve me also in research into aesthetics and into issues in the theory of film criticism’), Victor never put theory first or let it 'lead' him into films. As far as I can tell, he even disliked using time-honoured terms like auteur or mise en scène – at least, not unless he could find something that expressed his thought simpler and better. Victor's work provided an incredible model of how to respond to a film, and then how to dig into your own response, questioning its biases and prejudices – while at the same time digging right into the film itself, finding all its patterns and resonances.
Criticism – in the noblest sense of evaluation – was everything for Victor, and he was always fixed on the particular detail in the particular film. No one could get the exact tone of a moment in a film as accurately as he could. He also realised that criticism-as-writing is all about a risky translation into words and evocative descriptions of the audiovisuality of film – which can end up down many blind alleys, but never did in his own work. On a Warwick University faculty information page for Victor, one could read this disarmingly direct statement under the heading of ‘Research Interests’:
My main academic aim is to develop a deeper and more clearly articulated appreciation of the work of some great film artists. I have a continuing engagement with films by, for instance, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Max Ophüls, Yasujiro Ozu, Nicholas Ray, Jean Renoir and Orson Welles.
It occurs to me that Victor could have written virtually the exact same declaration at the start of the 1960s, or any of the five decades to follow. How many academics – how many professional critics, even – would be so bold as to declare that what drives them, above all else, is ‘the work of some great artists’? Not society or politics, not theory or philosophy, not pedagogy or creativity, or anything else. The language, the terms of this engagement now seem to come from another era, but it always remained Victor’s language: ‘a deeper and more clearly articulated appreciation’. An appreciation of artists – not something vague and grand like ‘cinema as an art’, but artists, in fact these artists in particular: Hitchcock, Renoir, Ray, Welles, and a few others (not so many, finally) that he returned to again and again in his writing, without once giving the impression that he was merely repeating the same insights (‘Same Tune Again!’ was a title he ironically used for one of his texts on Ophüls), or re-treading over old, established ground.
Brad Stevens recently reminded me of something great and important about Victor. He really never 'published academically' for the sake of it – I guess, being part of that first or second wave of film educators in UK in the '60s, he got to a point fairly early in his career (he’d already done work in television before committing full-time to teaching) where he didn't have to worry about the ‘publish or perish’ imperatives that have bedevilled subsequent generations. But, more significantly, Victor always practiced a politique des copains or (as we’d say in Australia) a ‘mateship policy’ – I mean, as far as I can see, he only ever wrote pieces for the publications of his friends, colleagues and collaborators (whether at Warwick or on Movie-related projects), as well as on the occasions where nice people approached and asked him for stuff, as happened in Film Quarterly between 2009 and 2011. And so, as Brad rightly says, he was always on the magazine (rather than journal) side of film analysis and criticism, in publications such as Movie that perhaps didn't have enormous circulation/subscription, but were pitched accessibly to an engaged, intelligent public, and did get around to at least some members of a ‘general’, non-specialist, film-involved audience – as well as still surviving today in any decent library, if such things still physically exist!
Likewise, I got the impression that, in recent years, Victor did more conference papers than previously, not for any imaginable ‘professional’ reason (what could be worse?), but solely because, once again, people that he liked and respected (such as George Toles and Gilberto Perez) solicited him to do so. (I just re-found the email from early 2015, right after Gilberto’s death, where Victor floated the idea of an essay collection in his honour …) And that type of friendly arrangement gave Victor the impetus to get into preliminary shape certain ideas about certain films that had possessed him for a long time. (I hope one day we can all get to read that small flood of conference talks he gave before health problems stopped him travelling to and participating in such events.) As a result of this intimate politique of Victor’s – and as ‘available to generosity, or to kindliness, to sympathy and sensitivity’ as it undoubtedly was – I get the sense that he simply never became really aware of some other critics around the world whose work independently resonated intensely with his own, in various ways and at various levels: Shigehiko Hasumi in Japan, some of the Positif crew (especially Alain Masson, Jean-Loup Bourget, and Gérard Legrand who may have been the only French person to review, and very respectfully so, Film as Film), and Australia’s John Flaus (more on him below). One implicit thread in my book Mise en scène and Film Style is to draw that virtual ‘family’ together as a critical practice – a family to which I owe so much.
I don’t know about anybody else here, but I have always been fascinated by particular, intellectual antagonisms between key critics – whether that expresses itself as discontinuous sniping from one piece to another, or a more open, explicit debate. I have tried, at different moments, to write on two such critical encounters within the UK scene: between Paul Willemen and Andrew Britton, and between Sam Rohdie and Victor Perkins. Paul, Andrew, Sam, Victor: all these people are now dead. I had varying degrees of contact with three of them, and the fourth (Britton), I am told, once wrote me a long letter, responding to one of my first attempts at serious, analytical film writing – a piece on Hitchcock’s Notorious I had sent (encouraged by Tom Ryan) to Movie in 1978, when I was scarcely past the age of 18 – but I never received that missive, alas.
Sam’s 1972 attack in Screen on Victor – via Film as Film and the anthology Movie Reader – has an opportunistic, take-no-prisoners ring. (It was once suggested to me by an insider that it was merely the first volley in an unwritten series by Sam intent on demolishing various pillars of British film culture of the period.) One point it raises, however, is worth considering: the charge that Victor was unable to cope with the ‘modern’, with ‘new cinemas’ – that he was wedded to a particular model (his own model, elaborated along his whole life) of classicism. There has always been confusion, and a little controversy, around this point. One thing is clear to me: screen ‘realism’ (of the kind pilloried throughout the 1970s and beyond) was not a value for Victor; but a certain kind of verisimilitude – the type of basic believability accruing to the fictional world that allows a (necessarily stylised) naturalness of action, situation, gesture – certainly was.
Victor’s ‘problem’ with modernist cinema (in its many forms), if we can say there was a problem, is that, once this elaborately crafted framework (or context, as he often called it) of naturalness is removed, literally anything goes: film style can make its points in any ostentatious way it pleases (the type of ‘disease’ Victor saw beginning with early ‘60s Joseph Losey, at the start of that director’s mannerist period), and the relationship between dramatic (or comedic) narrative structure, the performance of character, and the work of mise en scène (in its broadest sense) goes completely askew, its ‘secret’ never (or very rarely) to be re-found. This is why Victor held on so tenaciously to his exemplars like Sirk and Lang and Ray – because a certain knowledge of art and craft, something ‘we’ critics and teachers had never fully grasped in the first place, was slipping away at a rapid rate, and we still stood (still stand) to learn from it.
This is also why, in a completely candid fashion, Victor formulated his resistance to Godard’s method, in his superb late ‘60s piece on Vivre sa vie for Ian Cameron’s The Films of Jean-Luc Godard, in the following terms:
… in suggesting these interpretations I am conscious of choosing the least unlikely connections rather than of elucidating meanings developed convincingly in the film’s structure. Godard’s fragmented method of narrative robs us of the stable framework we need in order to make sense of the formal pattern. […] By presenting as a film a series of sketches for a film, Godard protects himself from having to make a complete statement about any of his subjects. […] Perhaps the basic fault is Godard’s unwillingness to allow the movie the degree of anonymity that a fully coherent work assumes. Instead he plays with film as he plays with ideas, very personally. Both games are conducted with passion, curiosity and elegant skill. But the context is severely limiting. (2)
As it happens, I am not exactly on the same page with Victor about this. In my work – which owes an immeasurable amount to Victor’s – I have tried to follow a dual path, into both classicism and modernism, and into verisimilitude and formalism, alike. That’s the result, way down the line, of the dual Perkins/Burch parentage which so amused him to read about in ‘That Summer Feeling’. I have tried to figure out different economies (as I call them) of style and subject, story and form, and keep them equally in play in my own appreciation of things cinematic. One big reason, I suspect, that Victor and I differ on this is that, finally, I do not place such primacy on characterisation in cinema as I believe he did. The ‘human factor’ is less important for me (a matter of temperament that is absolutely foundational without being entirely rational, as it is, differently, for all of us) than for Victor, who confessed to me that a reason he took so long to complete his book on Règle du Jeu is that he was struggling to work out how coherent, finally, one of its key characters (Octave, maybe?) really was – whether everything truly meshed there in the conception, casting, performance, dramatic psychology, plot function, stylistic treatment, and so on.
In this, Victor was much like another of my film critic heroes and mentors, John Flaus, with whom I have shared DVD audio commentary tracks for Ozu’s Good Morning and Sirk’s There’s Always Tomorrow. (It’s a pity these guys were never personally acquainted; their conversations would really have been something.) For me, the essence of cinema (if we can speak in such absolute terms) is not in the fictional embodiment of a ‘full’ person, but in the deep thrill of a camera movement, a cut, a fusion of image and sound, of gesture and space. And for that, half-characters, stereotypes, ciphers, figures, ‘excessive’ actors, etc, will do just fine. This is why, in all likelihood, Victor didn’t waste his time trying to write about Jerry Lewis or Chantal Akerman or Rainer Werner Fassbinder in a similar, disapproving way as he wrote about Godard. He left that task to others more fond of the material, like me. (By the way, the final note I received from Victor, via a mutual friend, is that he had just read my book on mise en scène and ‘disagreed’ with it – of course! I may never get to learn the substance of that disagreement, but I wish I could; I am certain it would teach me a lot.)
But I have heard (tell me if I’m wrong) that Victor did like Kiarostami (also recently departed), and Close-Up in particular. There turns out to be, after all, at least one sense in which modernism did enter Victor’s way of thinking about the movies he loved: in the marking of a limit-point between the work of art and reality, and all that this separation entails. In this, too, he shares something crucial with Shigehiko Hasumi. Victor expressed it very beautifully in one of my favourite texts to which he contributed, the Ophüls Movie discussion cited above:
… determinism does come into play in the contemplation of the relationship between a fictional world and its figures – who both construct and are constructed by that world. To that extent, Ophüls’ movies seem to me to be about the pathos of the situation of an artist’s creatures, who are destined, every time the film plays, to go through the same elaborately orchestrated movements and sufferings. That’s where the determinism comes in: in the contemplation of the finishedness of any work. The prevailing tone of the film is given by the sadness and the hope contained in our awareness of the gap between the closed perfection of the work and the potentially open, continuous but drastically imperfect movement of reality. I deny that the closedness of Ophüls’ films should be taken as an image for the closedness of life. It’s precisely the closedness that defines the difference and the distance between the filmed and the real. (3)
Victor, as I mentioned earlier, did not seem to be a prolific writer – at least, not if one judges by the list of his extant publications over 55 adult years. I found out why when I met him. It was because (as others among his friends had already hinted to me) he was a true perfectionist with very high standards – and he was particularly hard on his own work. But I vividly remember him telling me, that day at Warwick in 2010, that he had many analyses written up in various uncompleted forms (such as his probably hundreds of separate lectures down the decades), and working notes on many more films or parts of films: ‘That'll be work for some future researchers’, he said with a smile, as he rattled off the names of his colleagues and comrades who had already ‘fallen off the branch’: Robin, Andrew, Ray Durgnat ... in that drastically imperfect movement of reality.
But the work stays open, available to enjoyment and use. So, whenever I want to think more about the intermeshing of art and craft, of convention and invention, of event and tone, of gesture and meaning in cinema, I'll be faithfully reading Victor again, and again.
(1) ‘Lola Montès Discussion’, Movie, issue 29/30 (1982), pp. 116-7.
(2) Ian Cameron (ed.), The Films of Jean-Luc Godard (London: Studio Vista, 1969), p. 39.
(3) ‘Lola Montès Discussion’, p. 119.
© Adrian Martin, July 2016