Friday, 29 July 2016

Theory readings #3 - Film as Film by Victor Perkins

The first piece in the series "Theory readings" was a general introduction and the second one was about Robert Warshow and "The Gangster as Tragic Hero". The next was about "The Death of the Author." Those were about articles but in this post a book is covered, due to the recent death of its writer Victor Perkins, critic and film scholar at the University of Warwick.


Fabulous cover design on the second edition.

Victor Perkins began writing Film as Film in the late 1960s and it was first published in 1972. Before that he had been an editorial member of the influential journal Movie and written film criticism in various other journals and newspapers, and Penguin Books invited him to write a whole book.

In the first chapter Perkins criticises early (1920s and 1930s) film theory for often being too focused on one single aspect of cinema, such as obsessing over "pure cinema" or editing, and the suspicion of reality; that real art was that which was far remove from the ordinary or realistic. "As a result, the theory is most emphatic where it should be most cautious, in imposing obligations on the artist; it is least helpful where it should be most relevant, in developing the disciplines of criticism." (pp. 26-27)

He then follows with a chapter on André Bazin and Siegfried Kracauer, pointing out how they too suffer from the same problem: too much emphasis on one aspect, although now it is the opposite of the earlier theorists. The new generation celebrates the long take as opposed to editing, and thinks great art is that which is as close to reality as possible.
Both theories discriminate in favor of certain kinds of cinematic effects, in other words certain kinds of attitudes given cinematic form. The image dogma would assess quality in terms of the artist's imposition of order on the chaotic and meaningless surface of reality. Object dogma would derive its verdict from his discovery of significance and order in reality. Each of these positions presupposes a philosophy, a temperament, a vision - terrain which the theorist should leave open for the film-maker to explore and present. (p. 39, italics in original)
Perkins instead wants to emphasis the complexity of the medium of film, and that it should not be narrowed down to be about one thing in particular. He is against analysing and evaluating a film from a priori positions, instead the art work should be engaged with from a neutral position and discussed on its own terms. The film is apparently trying to do X but how does the filmmaker go about getting X across and is the filmmaker successful in this endeavour? That is the kind of approach Perkins argued for. "The critical problem is to arrive at descriptions which are both specific and comprehensive enough to be useful. The critic cannot require a movie to fit his definitions; it's his task to find the description which best fits the movie." (p. 62) Instead he emphasises the fact that film is a hybrid medium: part reality, part magic or, if you will, part Lumière, part Méliès. He criticises the charge that films are only about escapism and he is also against the distinction between art films and commercial films. "In its crudest form it amounts to the belief that the quality of a film is inversely proportional to the size of its audience." (p. 162)

But even though Perkins says that he is against preconceived ideas about how a film should be, he still has his own idea. He favours coherence and unity, and an organic aesthetic in which everything works together to form that unity. Synthesis is another word he uses. "I believe a synthetic theory, a theory of balance, coherence and complexity, does carry us towards this goal" (p. 189), the goal being a successful way of discussion subtlety.

Jean Simmons in Elmer Gantry

One key aspect of the successful film for Perkins is one in which meaning and symbolism grow naturally out of the sequence or the imagery. He for example talks about Richard Brooks's use of colour in Elmer Gantry (1960), and compare it favourably with Michelangelo Antonioni's use of colour in Red Desert (1964). In both cases it is highly symbolic but in Elmer Gantry it is all done organically with what is already in the shot, clothes, wall paper and such, whereas in Red Desert the symbolic colours are added afterwards, they do not naturally appear in the actual shot. For Perkins, using what is a natural part of the film is a more impressive achievement than adding stuff that has no place in the shot for no other reason than that the filmmaker wanted it to be there. This is not subtlety, as we cannot fail to see it, whereas in Elmer Gantry we may or we may not notice the symbolism. Another example he uses is the rising stone lions in Battleship Potemkin (1925), in the famous sequence at the Odessa steps. The symbolism is just in Eisenstein's head, when seen in the film they could mean anything. It is, as Perkins put it, "an extreme imprecision of effect." (p. 104)

Another way of expressing this coherence and unity that is so important for Perkins is to talk about connections, that "significance, emotional and intellectual, arises rather from the creation of significant relationships than from the presentation of things significant in themselves." (pp. 106-107), thus the failure of the lions in Potemkin. He stresses that the value of a film comes from the skills with which it is put together, not from the moral of the story or from any intellectual references to "the philosophy of Hegel or the poetry of Goethe." (p. 118)

Although perhaps not an auteurist like Andrew Sarris, the key figure for Perkins is still the director. She or he is the person responsible for the whole film, its very unity and coherence that is so important. Even when the director has not written the script, what matters is still the way a written scene is shot and the meaning that comes from acting, setting, decor and camera angles. There is a long description of a kitchen scene in Vincente Minnelli's The Courtship of Eddie's Father (1963), how it is the setting and the props such as chairs and the cutlery that give meaning and pathos to the scene. He also makes this point when taking about the films that Harold Pinter wrote and Joseph Losey directed, such as The Servant (1963), which is "dominated by the tensions between two creative minds, two styles, two personalities and two attitudes. But it is Losey's version of the Pinter script; and if we are concerned with film as film it is the realization that must claim our interest and judgement." (p. 178, italics in original). Among Perkins's favourites are Otto Preminger and Alfred Hitchcock, and he discusses the way in which they are fundamentally different, such as this: "The contrast between their methods is further reflected in narrative style. Hitchcock tells stories as if he knows how they end, Preminger gives the impression of witnessing them as they unfold." (p. 130)

Courtship of Eddie's Father

Perkins demands from his own and others' writings on cinema what he demands of the films. Coherence and clarity. "We have a duty to ourselves to ensure that our standards are as clear and consistent, as perceptively applied, as we can make them." (p. 192), and in this he succeeded. His writing is so good that it is a source of pleasure in itself, regardless of what he is writing about. But this does not mean that he is free from weaknesses or contradictions. For example, through the book he talks about various films from Hollywood and from around Europe, comparing and contrasting them, such as Elmer Gantry and Red Desert. Then suddenly he says at the very end, on page 190, that Godard's Les Carabiniers (1963) should not be analysed in the same way or by using the same approach as for example Rope (Alfred Hitchcock 1948) or Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray 1954). But why not, if Red Desert and Battleship Potemkin should be. What is the difference there? When he is criticising Antonioni's use of colour in Red Desert it would have been good if he had something to say about Hitchcock's use of colour in, say, Marnie (1964). Does he disapprove of it, even though he otherwise holds Hitchcock as being one of the best, or is it somehow different from the Red Desert. To remain with Hitchcock; Perkins has a discussion about the difference between the characters played by James Stewart (dark and ambiguous) and those played by Cary Grant (light and playful), but in this discussion he conveniently leaves out Notorious (1946), starring Grant, presumably since it would undermine his distinction between the two actors. I also happen to disagree with his interpretation of The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean 1957). "War was said to be futile and experienced as glorious, victory was said to be empty and felt to be magnificent." (p. 149) Perkins says but as I see it there is no victory in the film, only various degrees of failure and futility. I do not see the alleged contradictions Perkins dislikes. (Perkins described it as a friction between the script by Carl Foreman and the direction of Lean, but Foreman had only written an early draft and the actual script was by Lean himself and Michael Wilson.)

But Perkins liked other films, Lean was not for him. This is how he describes his favourites:
The great film approaches an intensity of cohesion such that its elements do not operate solely to maintain or further the reality of the fictional world, nor solely to decorative, affective or rhetorical effect. Of course this is a counsel of perfection, even though it is derived from existing movies. Exodus, Johnny Guitar, Letter from an Unknown Woman, Psycho, La Règle du jeu, Rio Bravo, Wild River: these are the films which I recall as approaching this condition most closely. (p. 131)

During my years as a student in cinema studies I never actually came across Perkins or Film as Film in class or on reading lists. He is one of the many I had to discover on my own. I do not remember exactly when, but I was immediately impressed and delighted, and his writing has been a companion for many years. When he died last week it therefore gave me great pleasure to see the amount of love and affection for him and his life's work that flooded my Twitter and Facebook accounts. If you want to experience more of his work, and tributes to him, please visit the tribute page on Katie Grant's Film Studies for Free:

If you want to read just one article by him I can recommend "Moments of Choice" from 1981, republished on Rouge.

As a side note, or final note, I love The Courtship of Eddie's Father. It is close to perfection, and incredibly moving at times. I think of the goldfish scene at least once every week.


  1. But there must exist quite a few movies where the director is not the key figure which Perkins envisions? Maybe he or she is just inexperienced or simply hired to fulfill the producers' visions (of box office results most likely...)?

    1. Oh for sure, like with contemporary superhero franchises or many films with David Selznick as producer. And Perkins talks about Casablanca as an example of a good film which might not have been due to the director. But I think he was saying that the truly great, artistic achievements are due to the director. But there are more than one issue here, where personal vision is one thing and everyday decision making another.