Film as Criticism: the illustrious example of VF Perkins

When I first became a cinephile back in the autumn of 1973 – my life changed, imperceptibly but permanently, when I took a seat in the front row of the Cambridge Arts Cinema to watch Bergman’s Cries and Whispers – I set about learning about the (for me) newly discovered art form as quickly as I could. I took to haunting the stall selling second-hand books in Cambridge market in search of an inexpensive education in film history. At the time there were quite a few Pelican paperbacks about the cinema by writers like Philip French, Penelope Houston, Roy Armes, Parker Tyler and Ivor Montagu, but the one I liked best, and which would have the most influence on my own viewing habits, was VF Perkins’ Film as Film, published just the previous year. The book’s subtitle – Understanding and Judging Movies – said it all. As the blurb on the back cover put it, ‘Perkins shows how a synthetic theory can shape raw cinematic experience and create a framework for constructive criticism.’

Perkins – who went on to become one of the most respected figures in British film studies – had been a founder member of the editorial board of Movie magazine, and the filmmakers whose work he revisited and analysed over and over again remained much the same to the end of his life. (He died almost exactly five years ago, on 15 July 2016.) I greatly enjoyed his two monographs – on The Magnificent Ambersons and La Règle du jeu – for the BFI’s Classics series, but I hadn’t really read him much since the ’70s, so I was delighted to learn earlier this year that Douglas Pye, one of his colleagues at Movie, had edited a collection of his writings for Wayne State University Press. Probably not, I imagined, the easiest book to get hold of. Then I remembered Kindle.

Anna Karina as Nana in Godard’s Vivre sa vie

VF Perkins on Movies: Collected Shorter Film Criticism is a delight that should appeal to anyone who read and found Film as Film valuable, and indeed to all those who appreciate lucid, insightful analysis and interpretation, particularly when it is applied to the work of such fine and perennially fascinating directors as Max Ophuls, Nicholas Ray, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Howard Hawks, Otto Preminger, Sam Fuller and… Jean-Luc Godard, with whom Perkins shared many favourite movies. The book – 484 pages in the print editions – is divided into three sections. The first covers the period 1960-1972, when he and colleagues like Pye, Robin Wood and others were trying to establish alternatives to what they saw as the lazy criticism occasionally to be found in Sight and Sound; there are polemical pieces about British film culture, and reviews and essays rightly predicated on the idea that to comprehend a film one must examine style at least as much as content. (Perkins was always an advocate and practitioner of close textual analysis; one of the chapters in Film as Film was aptly titled ‘How Is What’.) 

The next section, with material written between 1981 and 2013, develop Perkins’ ideas about analysis and criticism; though his writing was firmly rooted in theory – he was, after all, teaching at university level – it was never obscure or jargonistic. Rather than resort to ideological, structural or psychoanalytical theory, as had become fashionable in certain quarters during the ’70s and ’80s, Perkins was concerned with the kinds of decisions directors made during the filmmaking process; film for him was an expressive art form which required practical, logistical and aesthetic choices to be made. The section, therefore, includes a rigorous discussion of the shortcomings of Peter Wollen’s version of auteur theory as proffered in Signs and Meanings in the Cinema (a book, incidentally, which I have a lot of time for); Perkins was determined to distinguish between director-centred criticism and ‘auteurism’, which he found wanting in various respects, and he makes his arguments clearly and robustly. He does much the same with attempts by others to treat the study of film as if it were a matter of scientific research. 

Joan Fontaine as Lisa in Ophuls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman

The third section of the book consists of fairly extensive essays, published between 1982 and 2017, looking in detail at particularly intriguing scenes in individual movies; Ophuls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman receives the most intense attention, being the subject of not one but three pieces, though Nick Ray – another lifelong favourite – is represented with explorations of both In a Lonely Place and Johnny Guitar (picture at top). Hitchcock, Lang and Frederick Wiseman are also brought into sharp focus in this final section, which amply exemplifies Perkins’ sharpness of observation, subtlety of thinking and clarity of language. His alertness to the sheer complexity of the medium’s expressive potential – his awareness that a film’s ‘meanings’ lie not only in its ‘content’, but in its form, style, tone, rhetoric, duration, rhythm, resonance, even in its ellipses, omissions and absences, in some of the things its creator chose not to do – means that reading Perkins usually becomes an illuminating journey of discovery. Even when he has written about a movie you may have seen a great many times, his eye and ear for minute but telling details ensure that it’s very likely you will learn something new about it. And, perhaps, something surprisingly significant. That, surely, is the mark of a great critic.

VF Perkins on Movies: Collected Shorter Film Criticism is available in hardback or paperback, or on Kindle for £24.80. Film as Film and his BFI Classics volumes on The Magnificent Ambersons and La Règle du jeu are also currently available.

Humphrey Bogart as Dix Steele in Ray’s In a Lonely Place

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