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Criticism: March of the film intellectuals by Geoff Brown


covers of Close Up and Film Weekly

In July 1927 a new film magazine arrived, pocket-sized, in a distinctive burnt orange cover. This was Close Up, the idiosyncratic, maddening, invaluable monthly edited by Kenneth Macpherson, and published in Switzerland by POOL, the collective funded by Macpherson's wife, the writer Bryher (Winifred Ellerman). Like The Film Society, Close Up became a focal point for British believers in film art. Its reach was international. Correspondents kept track of productions worldwide, illustrated with stills; advertisements came from Paris, Berlin and New York. The stylistic breadth was equally wide. Experimental literary figures were quickly welcomed: Gertrude Stein sent two pieces, as did the French surrealist René Crevel. The novelist Dorothy Richardson wrote a regular column, 'Continuous Performance', exploring the complex interaction between film and audience; she was also a key player in the magazine's crusade against film censorship. Hardcore film theory played an increasing part: a ground-breaking Soviet statement on film sound in October 1928 was followed by a series of testing articles by Eisenstein ('The Fourth Dimension in the Kino', 'The Dynamic Square', etc.), pored over by all art-conscious British technicians seeking guidance and light. Other articles, by the Freudian psychoanalyst Hanns Sachs and others, pursued psychoanalytical approaches.

Britain's own distinctive contribution was coloured less by rigorous thought than comic invective and fury. The films Close Up preferred were from Germany, the Soviet Union and the irreducibly avant-garde; they were rarely straight entertainment films, from Hollywood or Britain. Macpherson's first editorial swerved into capital letters to pour extra cold water on the 'English film revival': "REALLY the Englishman can only be roused to enthusiasm on the football field.... One doesn't mind that, but in the face of it one does ask WHY attempt art?" (June 1927). Oswell Blakeston, most prolific of the magazine's writers, drew upon his studio experience as an assistant cameraman to gleefully mock British lack of imagination and general ineptitude. Hugh Castle attacked numerous British films, though no film suffered so much, perhaps, as the early talkie revue The Co-optimists (1929), shot down by Ralph Bond: "Monotony beyond conception… It isn't even dead, because it was never alive". Yet the drawbridge wasn't always pulled up. Hitchcock's sound version of Blackmail (1929) was welcomed: Macpherson himself wrote copiously in praise of its sound and image counterpoint in the October 1929 issue. Anthony Asquith's work was also praised in the magazine, though in more guarded terms.

While Close Up both enthused and excoriated with little regard for the mass public taste, a mounting pile of film books, aimed more at a general readership, tried to make sense of the burgeoning scene. Iris Barry's Let's Go the Movies was joined in 1927 by the chatty and optimistic Films: Facts and Forecasts by L'Estrange Fawcett, formerly film and drama critic for the Morning Post. Hollywood was his chief focus, though seven admiring pages were devoted to Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925; not yet exhibited in Britain). The following year saw This Film Business by the young, Oxford-educated Rudolph Messel - equally cheery about cinema's artistic prospects, and equally enthralled by Potemkin. Meanwhile, Blakeston's more jaundiced jollity coloured his POOL volume Through a Yellow Glass, a guide for aspiring filmmakers in the form of a tour of a British studio.

But none of these books, for all their pages, helped film comment in Britain move far beyond the rhapsodic and subjective. Trained in science, Ivor Montagu was particularly keen to explore and codify cinema's mechanics; in 1929 his translation of Pudovkin's writings, Film Technique, concluding with a glossary of technical terms, helped lay the first foundations for an understanding of scenario construction, 'filmic space and time', and, above all, the dynamics of editing. Yet the general reader took more notice of the pronouncements and map of world cinema contained in Paul Rotha's The Film Till Now, published by Jonathan Cape in the autumn of 1930 - an influential survey that continued in print, in different revisions, well into the 1970s. Pointedly, the book was dedicated to "those among cinema audiences who wonder why and think how."

An artist by training, Rotha had found brief employment in 1928 in the art department at British International Pictures: the experience gave a personal, almost venomous twist to his horror of factory product. Carried along by youth's certainties and arrogance (on publication he was just 23), Rotha arranged cinema in a ladder of values, with the 'pure' cinema of abstract film on the top rung and commercial musicals at the bottom. Such a strict ordering went blindly against public judgements and, indeed, some of Rotha's own. His belief that the artistic progress of cinema had been held back by its "misleading faculty for being able to record the actual" would also need to be modified; during the 1930s, both as critic and film practitioner, Rotha moved closer to John Grierson's documentary camp and became much keener to champion the 'real'. His dogmatic opposition in the book to the use of colour and synchronised dialogue ("a degenerate and misguided attempt to destroy the real use of the film") proved equally hard to sustain.

Kenneth Macpherson, writing about The Film Till Now in Close Up, found fault with individual judgements, but considered it "a praiseworthy and conscientious work". Rotha's wondering, thinking audience members certainly took the book to heart. Quirks and biases accepted, The Film Till Now became Britain's standard cinema history, most valuable for its charting of world output up to 1930, country by country. German cinema, with its strong design sense, secured Rotha's strongest admiration; about Soviet cinema he was more circumspect than most. British cinema he found over-praised, timid, with talent easily stifled, though he showed good will with his self-designed dust jacket, featuring images from Asquith's A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929), Grierson's Drifters (1929) and Light Rhythms (1930), an abstract film by Francis Bruguière and Oswell Blakeston.

Preparatory to The Film Till Now, Rotha had contributed articles to a new popular magazine, Film Weekly, edited by Herbert Thompson, launched in 1928. Pages contained the customary fluff about stars' lives and fashions, though there was also notable 'highbrow' input. The second issue, October 29, contained Montagu's translation of a pivotal Pudovkin text; Pudovkin also regularly appeared, in thought at least, in Rotha's articles on the components of film. Between these two extremes lay the knowing journalism of Cedric Belfrage, reporting from Hollywood, and the barbed writings of the magazine's studio correspondent Nerina Shute, who once compared the face of character actress Marie Ault to "an unappetising loaf of bread". Reviews of new releases in Film Weekly were solid, sensible, and packed with information, but no film or star won automatic reverence. By the end of the 1920s, with sharper writers and more knowledgeable readers, reverence had to be earned.

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