Raymond Williams on Film

Documents

dana
  • Access provided by University of Alabama @ Birmingham (29 Sep 2013 14:52 GMT)
  • 1www.cmstudies.org 52 | No. 3 | Spring 2013 © 2 01 3 b y th e U n iv e rs it y o f Te xa s P re ss Dana Polan is Professor of Cinema Studies at New York University. He is the author, most recently, of Julia Child’s “The French Chef ” (Duke University Press, 2011). Raymond Williams on Film by DANA POLAN Abstract: While Raymond Williams’s television study is foundational for the fi eld, less known is that Williams wrote extensively—and intelligently—on cinema. Based in large part on research in the Raymond Williams Papers at Swansea University, Wales, this essay offers a genealogy of Williams’s continued engagement with fi lm as cultural form. H ad Raymond Williams written nary a word concerning the modern culture of the moving image, his vast body of work would still be of compelling interest to scholars in the areas of fi lm, television, and media study. Williams (1921–1988) is arguably the most important cultural theorist and critic of twentieth-century Britain. His early, groundbreaking intellectual history of En glish thought on the idea of culture, Culture and Society (1958), is readily considered (along with Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy and E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class) one of the triumvirate of works that fundamentally estab- lished the fi eld of Cultural Studies, and his follow-up volume, The Long Revolution (1961), was key to the founding of the British New Left (along with a later text cowritten by Williams and Thompson with others, The May Day Manifesto). His fi rst major work in Media Studies, Communications (1962), was a best seller and made an essential contribution to the discipline in the United Kingdom, and to the in- spired idea of teaching Media Studies through extension programs such as Open University. His works of literary and dramatic criticism, such as The Country and the City (1973) and Modern Tragedy (1966), are models in the unifi cation of techniques of close reading with broader refl ection on literary texts’ place in society. His ef- forts at social theorizing in books such as Problems in Materialism and Culture (1981) and Marxism and Literature (1977) established the value of “cultural materialism” as a mode of analysis. A veritable interdisciplinarian, Williams drew on diverse fi elds of thought in the humanities (and social sciences) to conduct his cultural investigation—from literary criticism to drama, Media and Communication Studies, social thought and politi- cal theory, linguistics and anthropology, and cultural study more broadly. Concepts and phrases from across the range of his work have become key to the ongoing work of Cultural Studies and, in many cases, have become fundamental compo- nents of the lingua franca of the fi eld: think, for example, of the impact of ideas and phrases from Williams such as “structures of feeling,” “keywords,” “culture as
  • Cinema Journal 52 | No. 3 | Spring 2013 2 a whole way of life,” “residual and emergent cultures,” “knowable community,” “there is no such thing as masses, only ways of seeing people as masses,” and so on. Notions such as these have been central to the ongoing project of Cultural Studies, and the general legacy of Williams is in this respect well assured. As I note, Williams would be an essential point of reference to anyone interested in the study of moving-image culture even if he had never written on this particular do- main of contemporary life. But of course, he did write about modern moving images, and here his contributions are no less groundbreaking. In particular, as is well known, his 1974 volume Television: Technology and Cultural Form, is widely considered to be a—if not the—foundational work of Television Studies and continues to have an impact on research and reflection, even as scholars may have questioned the pertinence of this or that idea to the most recent developments in television and new media practices.1 As with his general books in Cultural Studies, Television offered compelling concepts for the study of media, and these again have become inevitable components of the discipline’s fundamental vocabulary: for instance, “mobile privatization” and the key concept of flow, around which there is a veritable industry of secondary scholarship. Certainly, there is still much critical and theoretical work to be done with Williams’s writings on television. For the record, I think the overattention to the concept of flow— certainly a breakthrough concept, but by far not the only idea Williams had to offer about television—has meant that other potentially important aspects of his work on television have been downplayed and even ignored, both in Television: Technology and Cultural Form (where flow is only one topic among many, such as new modes of exhi- bition and critical practice in progressive media making) and in his numerous other writings on television.2 I’d also argue that the common understanding of flow as the undifferentiated and continuous outpouring of images within and between programs has missed how Williams anchors flow to the stabilizing (and to his mind, deleterious) effects of commercials within and between shows. But, although that critical reevaluation is quite necessary, I want to concentrate in the present essay on a much less known—but to my mind no less compelling or con- sequential—aspect of Williams’s engagement with the moving image: namely, what turns out to be his quite substantial body of writing on film. Williams in fact wrote ex- tensively—and, I contend, quite rigorously and perceptively—about cinema, and even if this part of his intellectual output were to be brought to light for purely archaeologi- cal purposes (i.e., to reveal an area of his research that has hitherto passed under the radar in the critical literature on Williams), the effort would seem worthwhile. But as I hope to suggest, Williams’s many interventions into film analysis not only are bio- graphically or archivally interesting but also stand by themselves as potentially useful tools for the ongoing critical projects of Film Studies as a field. The discussion that follows combines a critical account of Williams’s published writings on cinema with 1 Raymond Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form (London: Fontana/Collins, 1974; New York: Schocken Books, 1975). 2 See, for example, the rich, posthumous collection Raymond Williams on Television, ed. Alan O’Connor (New York: Routledge, 1989), which offers concrete engagement, of a depth and detail only rarely on view in Television: Technol- ogy and Cultural Form, with specific television programs.
  • Cinema Journal 52 | No. 3 | Spring 2013 3 archival work on Williams’s papers at the Richard Burton Archives of Swansea Uni- versity, Wales, where the catalog of those papers has recently been put online, offering a welcoming invitation to in-depth research to anyone interested in Williams.3 Raymond Williams’s Early Engagements with Film. From his first extended con- tact with the medium, Williams evinced a passion for the cinema. His enthusiasm first manifested when he came to study at Cambridge at the end of the 1930s from the small, out-of-the-way village of Pandy, where he had grown up. While there was much about the dogmatism, stuffiness, traditionalism, and even political conservatism of offi- cial Cambridge University life and studies that dismayed Williams,4 there were many aspects of its student cultural life that offered a veritable opening up for a scholarship boy like Williams to new cosmopolitan experience and new possibilities for cultural expression in its encounter with metropolitan modernity. Although he had already been politicized at an early age (for instance, he had learned directly about labor strug- gle from his father’s efforts as a railway signalman to offer communications support for coal miners in their consequential strike of 1926 across the whole of the United Kingdom), Cambridge offered new possibilities for collective activism, and Williams became a member of the student-run Socialist Union, which had a very energetic presence on campus. There, he met a kindred spirit, a budding filmmaker named Mi- chael Orrom, and for a long while they became the closest of friends and the closest of cinematic collaborators.5 Under pressure from his father, Orrom was supposed to major in the sciences, but he had been given a motion-picture camera for a birthday in his early teens and was engaging in experiments in this seemingly most modern of modern arts with a view to a full-fledged career in filmmaking. Like so many young people on the Left in the 1930s, Orrom (and Williams soon after) shared in a belief in cinema as the supreme art of modernity in the ways it mediated a direct engagement with reality through the expressive potentials of medium-specific forms and stylistic resources. As for so many others, Orrom and Williams felt the essence of cinematic potential to lie in montage as the revolutionary restructuration of everyday reality, and Orrom militated for the Socialist Union to include weekly (Sunday-night) screenings that simultaneously were social events, venues for discussion of the most advanced efforts in cinematic endeavor, and basic occasions to become acquainted with what was considered the vanguard of filmic experimentation. Specifically, the valorization of montage led to Orrom’s programming of many classics of Soviet revolutionary film, while his concern with the ways filmic codes could contribute to a concerted re- structuring of the givens of everyday reality encouraged him to screen as many works of German Expressionism as possible. In particular, if Orrom and Williams appreci- ated the Soviets for their perfection of montage techniques in the service of political 3 The catalog can be searched at the website of the Raymond Williams Papers, at http://www.swan.ac.uk/crew/research projects/theraymondwilliamspapers/. My thanks to the staff at the Richard Burton Archives at Swansea University for welcoming me there for a week of research and for facilitating access to materials. 4 See, for instance, his oft-cited account of Cambridge elitism in “Culture Is Ordinary” (1958), in, among other publi- cations, Williams, Resources of Hope, ed. Robin Gable (New York: Verso, 1989), 3–18. 5 For the history of Williams’s ultimately rocky relationship with Orrom, see Dai Smith’s canonical biography Raymond Williams: A Warrior’s Tale (Cardigan, Wales: Parthian, 2008), 89 and passim.
  • Cinema Journal 52 | No. 3 | Spring 2013 4 argument, they also admired the Germans for their supposed concern with the total control of the artwork—camerawork, set design, acting, and so on, all of which were conceived to work together for desired aesthetic effect.6 Orrom and Williams lost touch with each other during the war but had resumed their cinema-inspired collaboration by the end of the 1940s. Their sense of the prom- ise of cinema was so strong, indeed, that they seemed to give themselves over fully to consideration of careers in art cinema production and promotion. Orrom had already begun some professional work in documentary film (he would later go on to be a cel- ebrated BBC filmmaker), and for his first film endeavor with Williams, Orrom used his connections to get Paul Rotha interested as director in a project on positive and nega- tive aspects of the modern mechanization of rural society for which Williams would write the script. Williams did in fact write up a fifty-two-page “treatment” titled “Effect of Machine on the Countryman’s Work, Life, and Community,” which, in antici- pation perhaps of his major study years later, The Country and the City (1973), ana- lyzed in detail the contrast between “the old peasant community, with its settled, integrated system, with a contemporary village where there is no real economic centre.” But other than the quick sugges- tion that the film should be in two parts to get at the contrast, Williams’s text offers no hints about cinematic style or struc- ture, just pure sociological and economic analysis. In any case, the project foun- dered immediately when the potential sponsor, the government’s Central Office of Information, declared that it wanted to turn the film into a mere prologue to a longer project, and Rotha, in protest, dropped out as director.7 But Orrom and Williams remained committed to cinema as a veritable life choice. Forming a joint private company, Film Drama Ltd., in 1953, Williams and Orrom set out boldly to create a new aesthetics of film both by writing about 6 In his famous, book-length interview with the editors of the New Left Review, Williams puts it this way: “In the late thirties admiration for Dr. Caligari [Robert Wiene, 1920] or Metropolis [Fritz Lang, 1927] was virtually a condition of entry to the Socialist Club at Cambridge.” Williams, Politics and Letters: Interviews with New Left Review (London: Verso, 1979), 232. 7 “Effect of Machine on the Countryman’s Work, Life, and Community” can be found in file WWE2/1/4/4 (“Film and Cross-Over Works”), Raymond Williams Papers, Richard Burton Archives, Swansea University, Wales (hereafter, Wil- liams Papers). Figure 1. In 1953, Raymond Williams and Michael Orrom formed a joint private company, Film Drama Ltd. They hoped that their written work would serve as a manifesto to undergird the film productions that they planned to come up with in the following years. (Back cover, Williams and Orrom, Preface to Film, 1954).
  • Cinema Journal 52 | No. 3 | Spring 2013 5 the possibilities of new expressive directions in the art and, more important, by actu- ally setting out to script and make films. The critical writing manifested itself as a self-published book, Preface to Film (1954), whose title, as the authors later explained, was meant to capture both the ways in which dramatic traditions before and up to film (i.e., stage drama) had reached expressive impasses that it would be the mission of film to overcome and Orrom’s and Williams’s own desire that their written work serve as a manifesto to undergird the film productions that they hoped to come up with in the following years (Figure 1).8 Indeed, right after Preface, Williams wrote two screenplays for Film Drama Ltd., A Dance of Seeing and Legend, and he and Orrom ex- pended much energy in trying to refine the scripts into workable productions. A Dance of Seeing was abandoned, however, after several drafts. Legend got far enough along for Orrom and Williams to submit the script for financing from the British Film Institute, but it was rejected. Interestingly, the script for Legend in the Williams collection at Swansea includes a two-part critical preface that acknowledges the difficulties of finding funding for art cinema production and turns the financial issues into a justification for new cul- tural policy. Specifically, Orrom and Williams militate for funds to be designated for noncommercial, experimental work by government, industry, and private sponsors, and the two men even go on to the bolder demand that there be set up a new sort of film institution devoted to supporting ongoing effort in experimental film production.9 This emphasis on the articulation of a cultural policy that would push both the state and the private sector to ensure regular resources for creative work is something that remains throughout Williams’s work in the sociology of communication. Nonetheless, the failure to find a direct positive outcome for Legend’s own funding difficulties seems to have soured Williams on this particular project. For personal reasons (including dis- like of Orrom by Williams’s wife Joy), the friendship between Orrom and Williams was foundering. Williams made the halfhearted suggestion that he and Orrom might work up an unpublished novel he had written (an existential thriller called Adamson) into a commercial venture, but Williams quickly declared that the project didn’t engage him anymore, and he gave up on a career in film production. Perhaps that was for the best. No doubt, the aforementioned conjunction in Or- rom and Williams of an emphatically political Soviet cinema and a more artistically intended German one was not without its tensions regarding the essential vocation of cinema: Williams and Orrom’s collaboration did not always resolve the extent to which they were assuming that artistic experimentation on cinematic form was progressive per se, or, rather, needed politically radical intent to make it so. This critical hesita- tion would, I contend, manifest strongly in Orrom and Williams’s practical film work in the 1950s, in which aestheticism threatened to overtake any measure of political commitment. In particular, despite his budding efforts as a government and industry documentarian, Orrom appears to have had a strong investment in imagining cine- matic form not as encouraging a capturing of the real but as conjuring transcendental 8 Raymond Williams and Michael Orrom, Preface to Film (London: Film Drama Ltd., 1954). 9 Williams and Orrom, “On the State of Film as an Art,” memorandum to Legend script, file WWE2/1/4/2, Williams Papers.
  • Cinema Journal 52 | No. 3 | Spring 2013 6 alternatives to it. It is noteworthy, for instance, that when Shell Oil provided a zoom lens for an industrial documentary about the company that Orrom was working on, he immediately thought of the device’s transformative potential: as he put it in a letter to Williams about a fantasy film they were developing, the zoom lens would “begin to give us the cinematic equivalent of what I’ve always been wanting—the equivalent of differential distortion in a flat painting. It really will be exciting.”10 The aestheticizing side of Orrom and Williams’s collaboration perhaps accounts for a mythologizing tendency in the Dance of Seeing and Legend scripts by which humans are deprived of historical situatedness to become instead symbols of universal human significance: A Dance of Seeing is about an artist whose aesthetic commitments lead him to become alienated from his wealthy fiancée until he learns to include her in his aes- thetic ambitions by imagining her dancing with him in a transformative performance that leaves everyday reality behind, whereas Legend is about an artist whose aesthetic commitments lead him to become alienated from the everyday urban world until he flees to a redolent, resplendent countryside where he dances with a mystery woman in a transformative performance that leaves everyday reality behind (with the additional twist that when he returns to the city, he finds it too transformed by his aestheticizing, imaginative powers). More successful are the several critical writings on film that Williams offered in the early 1950s and that took this cultural form as an object of analysis rather than as a mode of artistic practice that he was intending to make his vocation. In the case of the longest text, “Film and the Dramatic Tradition”—Williams’s contribution to the coau- thored volume Preface to Film—the emphasis on film as an object for analysis is perhaps understandable: as noted, Preface was intended by Williams and Orrom to serve as a manifesto for new modes of film production, but the authors took this to necessitate a look back at the existing traditions (and what those both enabled but also blocked), and the task of this retrospective analysis fell to Williams—who was already exhibiting a historical, even genealogical, bent through his scholarly research in the 1950s for what would eventually become his breakthrough book, Culture and Society, published in 1958. “Film and the Dramatic Tradition,” in fact, makes a major claim about cinema’s historical origin and emergence that would remain throughout Williams’s intellectual career (and that would, in the 1960s and 1970s, be extended to television, too): namely, that modern moving-image narrative forms such as cinema are modes of dramatic performance and need to be understood within the longer and larger history of drama. (Williams admits in this respect that his approach works best for the fiction film and not for animation or nonfiction.) Film, Williams argues, is about the performed repre- sentation of the activities of people, although one of his central points is to assert that this is to make no particular claim about the type of activities represented, which may be as much psychological as physical or sensational. For Williams, the idea that film is a representation of human performance needs to remain at that somewhat general, even abstract or vague, level, so as not to constrain any particular effort (cinematic and, before that, theatrical) within dogmatic notions of what is properly dramatic or cin- ematic. Indeed, behind “Film and the Dramatic Tradition” lies a polemic by Williams 10 Letter from Orrom to Williams, September 14, 1953, in file WWE/2/1/4/1, Williams Papers.
  • Cinema Journal 52 | No. 3 | Spring 2013 7 against a certain doxa as to what is the right mode of narration and performance for dramatic work: namely, a naturalism obsessed by notions of superficial accuracy that, as he saw it, was dominating contemporary theater and traded any deeper analysis for the fetish of getting a few gritty details correct. Interestingly, “Film and the Dramatic Tradition” likely contains Williams’s earliest direct reference to a key concept that would run through his career, and that in many ways would be taken to be one of his privileged contributions to cultural study, namely, the complicated notion of structures of feeling. Williams argues in “Film and the Dra- matic Tradition” that while at each moment in the history of an artistic form there is a crystallization of aesthetic practices into a set of conventions (which can then risk becoming dogmatized and ontologized as the essential and right employment of that form), the ongoing movement of social history impels the arts to evolve new conven- tions in order to grasp new life experience. As he asserts, “In principle, it seems clear that the dramatic conventions of any given period are fundamentally related to the structure of feeling in that period. . . . Conventions—the means of expression which find tacit consent—are a vital part of this structure of feeling. As the structure changes, new means are perceived and realized, while old means come to appear empty and artificial. . . . Changes in the whole conception of a human being and of his relations with what is non-human bring, necessarily, changes of convention in their wake.”11 Put simply, conditions of modernity had encouraged new understandings of hu- man beings (for example, psychoanalysis had enabled a new awareness of human interiority) and of their place in the world (for example, social theory increasingly understood humans in a socially extensive context). Some aesthetic forms were well equipped to represent such shifts in the meaning of the human. For instance, the novel was an eminent genre for interiorization, since narrators could tunnel inside charac- ters’ minds and announce their thoughts to the reader. But other forms found that their technical means limited their ability to keep up with changed structures of feeling. For instance (and to cite the example that Williams himself employs throughout “Film and the Dramatic Tradition”), stage drama could gesture only clumsily toward interiority. As Williams puts it, “While drama in the naturalist habit could proceed without dif- ficulty, reproducing its surface actions and feelings with an added lifelikeness of detail, the drama of genuine ‘emotional naturalism,’ of ‘inner realism,’ was confronted by its own distinctive quality with an apparently insuperable technical difficulty.”12 To take just one case noted by Williams, when Stanislavsky, in his stage notes for an adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull, writes parenthetically of one character that a pause in her actions at one point means “that she has evidently remembered her own love-affair,” it might well be that this is what the pause means, but there is no way to ensure that meaning on stage and to have it come across unambiguously to the spectator. Williams would argue, then, that the cinema possesses resources that could over- come this dramatic limitation. Most obviously, a voice-over (whether by the character or by an omniscient narrator) could express what on stage could at best only be hinted 11 Williams, “Film and the Dramatic Tradition,” in Williams and Orrom, Preface to Film, 21–23. 12 Ibid., 43.
  • Cinema Journal 52 | No. 3 | Spring 2013 8 at (unless—and this would seem a clumsy option—the stage production itself used some sort of voice-over). Indeed, just three years after the publication of Preface to Film, Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957) would hone an extensive utilization of voice-over to tunnel inside the mind of its introspective protagonist. Williams would become so enamored of the experiments with subjective expression in Bergman’s film that, when in the 1960s he revised his mid-1950s volume Drama in Performance (a volume essentially about the ways plays are actually staged and performed across the history of drama), and, among other updates, added a chapter on cinema, it was Wild Strawberries he concentrated on, offering a close reading of the film as a sort of performance of Berg- man’s script that used temporal shifts along with the voice-over to capture expansive notions of consciousness and memory.13 If “Film and the Dramatic Tradition” concentrates on film’s past history (including its place in the larger history of dramatic performance) and only hints at future possi- bilities in filmic experimentation, a shorter essay on the cinema that Williams published a year before Preface, “Film as a Tutorial Subject,” helps us understand why Williams might emphasize current and concretely definable conditions over unformed future possibilities. Williams’s first full-length critical engagement with film, “Film as a Tutorial Subject” is the summary of a cinema course that he had taught at the beginning of the decade for the Workers Education Association (WEA), a program of adult education for the working class. The essay offers instruction in the practical criticism of film and is rich in concrete suggestions for rigorous ways to approach the study of the art form.14 In passing, I should clarify that I refer to “Film as a Tutorial Subject” as his first “full-length” engagement with films, since the Swansea archives include some earlier, occasional pieces by Williams on cinema, primarily from his time in the military dur- ing World War II, when he wrote cultural commentary for an armed services news- paper, Twentyone. For instance, in the issue from October 13, 1945, writing under the name Michael Pope, he offered a very brief (and generally dismissive) notice on the Hollywood films Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944) and A Guest in the House ( John Brahm, 1944), which he saw as being little less aesthetically bankrupt than American advertis- ing (which, throughout his career, was the ultimate symbol of creative-cultural sellout). Even earlier, during his Cambridge-student days, Williams wrote notices for a campus newspaper, and these include a very short review of E. W. Robson and M. M. Rob- son’s pamphlet, “In Defence of Moovie” [sic], whose title is a play on Philip Sidney’s “Defence of Poesy” from circa 1579. For Williams, the elaboration of a new aesthetics of the art of film should look not back to the past but to an open, experimental future: “Although the cinema will undoubtedly have a great future, it will not be because of such an urge [to return to older myths of unified national culture, as in Sidney], but because with the cinema freed from its present restrictions, all the scientific force and frustrated art of this century will be turned to the making of films for the people.”15 13 Williams, “Wild Strawberries by Ingmar Bergman,” Drama in Performance (Middlesex, UK: Penguin Books, 1968), 157–169. 14 Williams, “Film as a Tutorial Subject,” in Border Country: Raymond Williams in Adult Education, ed. John McIlroy and Sallie Westwood (Leicester, UK: National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, 1993), 185–192. 15 Williams, “In Defence of Moovie,” Cambridge University Journal 4, no. 5 (1940): 2.
  • Cinema Journal 52 | No. 3 | Spring 2013 9 These earliest pieces were quite occasional efforts indeed, whereas “Film as a Tu- torial Subject” offers an extended reflection on the ways film could become a conse- quential object for cultural analysis. The essay came about as part of an experiment in introducing film into adult education. Williams’s efforts as a WEA tutor constituted his first major postwar employment, and he later would look back with fondness on the opportunity to teach students far from the confines of Cambridge, students who were often much more open to new subject areas than what he regarded as the stuffy elitists he often encountered in the university system. The WEA tutors would travel from town to town and teach a variety of subjects on a weekly or biweekly basis, of- ten mandating written assignments that would be mailed to them for correction and comments before the next on-site meeting. Already in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Williams was including some attention to film in his general WEA classes on cul- ture—for instance, one topic in a 1949–1950 course titled “What Is Culture?” dealing with notions of hierarchies of values in the arts was “Is the Cinema an Art?”—and it seems that the WEA administration for one of the towns on his regular route, Battle, East Sussex, asked him to consider doing a full-semester’s course on cinema. Williams agreed, and “Film as a Tutorial Subject,” which was published in a professional jour- nal for WEA tutors, is his record of the experience. As a report to colleagues on the experiment of teaching a new subject area to adults, “Film as a Tutorial Subject” is filled with practical considerations in peda- gogy and thereby reveals much about how Williams thought the cinema should be approached as an object of study. For instance, the inexorable flow of filmic images and the concomitant difficulty for a cinema viewer to go back over a moment that has already passed meant that students (and their tutor!) often had to rely on imperfect memory when discussing films and had to do so, at the same time, with the disad- vantage of an undeveloped and imprecise critical vocabulary (in the essay, Williams argues that the existing literature on film is weak in its elaboration of concrete critical concepts). Williams’s solution was to screen clips and short films in class and have stu- dents work together on trying to come up with detailed (but also ideologically neutral) descriptions of what they had just seen on screen. While the idea of an objective ac- count of the visuals of a film has its problems (is not every description tendentious and ideological in some way?), Williams’s idea was that these exercises in pure description of a short and manageable corpus would help students hone attentive viewing skills that they could then apply productively to longer works of film. Beyond practical advice, Williams also offered more general reflections on the aes- thetics of film, on the medium’s capacity for true art, and on the nature of a film criti- cism that would be adequate to the task of taking account of such artistic potential. Williams at this point in his intellectual trajectory was still strongly under the influence of the brand of “practical criticism” associated with the imposing Cambridge pres- ence F. R. Leavis. For Leavis, criticism, on the one hand, meant reading texts (from all levels of a culture, high and low) very closely and very immanently, with little atten- tion to authorial identity (the assumption was that works of culture wore their values, high and low, on their sleeves and that their evaluation could be derived from tex- tual features directly), but on the other hand, it also meant reading texts for purposes of discrimination (in other words, it was necessary that there be evaluation to clear
  • Cinema Journal 52 | No. 3 | Spring 2013 10 away the bad from the good). One classic expression of Leavis’s position was his 1933 manifesto, Culture and Environment, cowritten with Denys Thompson, in which “Envi- ronment” refers to all the excrescences of modern life that are threatening the rich flourishing of “culture.” Williams’s first book, Reading and Criticism (1950), is explicitly Leavisite in this respect, to the degree that it uses “environment” in the same fearful manner to indicate the engulfing dangers of contemporary media and, importantly for our discussion at hand, includes cinema as one of these menacing manifestations of dismal modernity: “It is not only in reading that evidence of such methods [of deg- radation of sensibility and crudity in expression] can be found. The cinema film has gained its wide popularity by a related, and frequently more powerful exploitation of similar vulgarities.”16 In this respect, “Film as a Tutorial Subject” comes off as a Leavisite justification of the mission of film criticism, and this mission essentially, then, takes as its first pri- ority a clearing away of environment—what Williams pointedly calls “destructive” criticism. Declaring that perhaps 97 to 98 percent of all films are unworthy of being considered art, Williams asserts that “a high percentage of all art in the twentieth century is bad. That is why so much of the best contemporary criticism is necessar- ily destructive; the rubbish has to be cleared. The clearing process is important, as a practical testing-ground for values.”17 In “Film as a Tutorial Subject,” to be sure, Williams did cite some cinematic ac- complishments that he felt stood out from the morass of crass environment, such as Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and Vesevolod Pudovkin’s Mother (1926), a film on which Williams claimed to have written a full-length study, although no such work has come to light. But for the most part, the WEA essay is not as concerned as “Film and the Dramatic Tradition” with promoting a new art of cinema (including the sort of cinema that, at the time, Williams wanted to make with Michael Orrom). Instead, its focus is on existing film culture and includes, in that respect, a call for pedagogical attention to film as a sociological fact (part of the hegemonic mass-media “environment,” to invoke again that Leavisite term) rather than just an aesthetic one. In other words, Williams wants there to be study not only of what cinema could be- come but also of what current institutions are making it be at the present time (here, he recommends as a key text in the sociology of cinema, Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler). As noted earlier, biographical factors impelled Williams to give up on creative work in film at this time, and for the rest of the decade his attention was elsewhere (above all to the retrospective intellectual history that would culminate in the breakthrough Culture and Society and The Long Revolution). But, then, the emergent culture of the 1960s gave glimpses of new possibilities for cinema—ones that were increasingly framed by Williams in political terms as much as aesthetic ones—and the latter part of the decade and up into the 1970s witnessed a burst of renewed writing and lecturing by Williams to come to grips with new cinematic potential. 16 Williams, Reading and Criticism (London: Frederick Muller, 1950), 18. 17 Williams, “Film as a Tutorial Subject,” 186.
  • Cinema Journal 52 | No. 3 | Spring 2013 11 Williams’s Reengagement with Film: The 1960s and Beyond. Key to Williams’s “rediscovery” of film was his experience as a Cambridge don starting in 1961. As the decade progressed, Williams came to find in his students an intense investment of their own in new cinema as the art of their social-cultural moment. As someone who both studied and attempted creative work, Williams began to sense that, for his students, film was their aesthetically expressive art of choice, not only to analyze but also to make: as he put it in a BBC radio talk, “Film and the Cultural Tradition,” which ap- pears in print for the first time following this essay, “In the universities, now, film is the most important single interest among arts students, and in my experience this has the intensity of attention and, where possible, practice, which in previous student genera- tions belonged to poetry and to experimental prose.” Williams took the younger generation’s investment in film (both the study of it and the production of it) quite seriously, and he did what he could to encourage and cul- tivate their engagement. For instance, when several junior faculty and students, such as Stephen Crofts, Noel Purdon, and Tony Rayns (some of whom would soon go on to offer important writings on film in cutting-edge Film Studies journals such as Screen and Afterimage), decided to begin a new quarterly publication, Cinema, they asked Wil- liams to grant an interview about film for the first issue, as a way of building publicity for the publication, and he readily agreed.18 Purdon in particular was moving in the same political circles at Cambridge as Williams, and they shared a particular interest in Gramsci. In a sense, what the interaction with the Cinema group offered was contact not only with a new aesthetic culture but also with a new political culture, and Noel Purdon suggests that Williams particularly enjoyed learning about the ways in which continental theory, such as French semiology and structuralism, which the students were then gleefully discovering, could inflect the study of popular culture.19 In its concision, Cinema’s interview with Williams offers a veritable compendium of Williams’s thoughts on film at the time. For instance, he notes film’s special appeal to students as the art most relevant to their times (“I’ve noticed the extreme—sometimes even exclusive—interest of undergraduates of what one used to call a literary turn of mind, in films”), and he expresses his concomitant conviction that professors of En- glish needed to come to grips with the new expressive potentials of moving image cul- ture (“an English faculty which didn’t deal with that experience [of the moving image] would be deluding itself ”—the last line of the interview). He also conveys his belief that work in this domain would have to be both theoretical and practical (i.e., produc- tion oriented, with the effort there coming perhaps from what he called “independent companies inside the university”).20 18 “Raymond Williams, ‘Film and the University’: A Cinema Interview,” Cinema, no. 1 (1968): 24–25. 19 In terms of the French theory inflections that were so key to Cinema’s intervention in UK film culture, Noel Purdon notes that the inaugural issue, in which the interview with Williams appeared, also included one iteration of Peter Wollen’s influential cine-structuralism, an essay titled “Notes towards a Structural Analysis of the Films of Sam Fuller,” appearing a year before his groundbreaking book Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (1969, rev. 1972; London: British Film Institute, 2012). Through a series of e-mails, Purdon graciously has helped me understand some of Williams’s engagement with Cambridge film culture at the time. 20 All citations in this paragraph come from “Film and the University,” 25.
  • Cinema Journal 52 | No. 3 | Spring 2013 12 At the same time, it is noteworthy that these many years after his exploratory WEA courses in film, Williams still was adhering to many of the basic pedagogical principles he had experimented with in those earlier times (and had summed up in the short essay “Film as a Tutorial Subject,” discussed above). For instance, Williams begins the Cinema interview by calling, as he had in the early 1950s, for introductory cinema classes to start with close reading of select film sequences so that basic codes of cinema and how they structure meanings are understood in rigorous fashion: “I’m quite sure that there’s one kind of critical work on film, comparable in method though not at all in substance, to the basic work of textual analysis, where you’re simply dealing with the substance in detail—just what a sequence of images related to voices and sounds is—something very like Practical Criticism in that older sense.”21 Now, Williams sug- gests, as he had in his contribution to Preface to Film in the 1950s, any such analysis of the basic conventions of a cultural form such as film cannot merely be formalistic: there needs to be an historically attuned critical approach that examines conventions in their contexts (social and political as well as aesthetic) to determine the forces that either maintain the conventions or push them to change. This, again, invokes the ar- gument that precinematic cultural forms, such as stage drama, can go only so far in representing new structures and feelings of modernity and that film steps in to offer new representational possibilities. As he puts it in the interview, declaring that film is particularly adept at figuring mobility, “This is something which the whole of modern literature had been moving towards, and which is the basic importance of film. This was the point that drama round the turn of the century got to. In a sense Strindberg, in some of the later works like Damascus or the Dream Play, had invented the cinema before the technical invention of it.”22 Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the Cinema interview with Williams comes in a prefatory note in which interviewer Noel Purdon notes that Williams is about to begin a lecture course on film within the English faculty at Cambridge. Indeed, Wil- liams’s sense of the new importance of film—or at least of its importance to the new student generation—had become so strong that he offered several years of instruction on the topic, and his teaching on the topic merits some comment. Unfortunately, the historical background is too sketchy for us to know as much as we’d like about Williams’s Cambridge courses on cinema. In his biography of Wil- liams, Fred Inglis provides some tantalizing hints (but in follow-up e-mails with me was unable to offer any elaboration; as he noted, the research for his biography happened almost twenty years ago). Inglis states, “In the academic year of 1968–69 his lecture course on dramatic forms and tragedy included Eisenstein, Bergman, Pudovkin, Lang, D. W. Griffith. . . . In the spring term of the next year he gave four lectures with a following hour of discussion, much along the lines of his and Michael Orrom’s old textbook Preface to Film and the [Bath] evening class which went with it. By 1971 and 1972 he had run drama into film, and lectured on ‘Strindberg to Godard’ . . . with plenty of time for watching clips.”23 21 Ibid, 24. 22 Ibid, 25. 23 Fred Inglis, Raymond Williams (New York: Routledge, 1995), 222.
  • Cinema Journal 52 | No. 3 | Spring 2013 13 The Williams archives at Swansea hold Williams’s own notebook jottings for a number of the film lectures, and these obviously are of use to the historian, although they are sketchy in their own fashion: famous for being able to speak extemporane- ously, with minimal notes of any sort to accompany his disquisitions, Williams wrote lecture plans of a brevity that is often unhelpful to the archival researcher.24 Reveal- ingly, where, in the Cinema interview, Williams had suggested that a first course on film might proceed in either of two directions—a basic formal training in that sort of close textual analysis which, ever since his WEA film course, he clearly believed was the necessary first step in the rigorous study of film or a more culturally ex- pansive pedagogy that might examine directors or national cinema or genres (an option which, as he says in the interview, “doesn’t involve the close analysis that the other would, [but] would get on to certain questions which perhaps in the end are even more interesting”)—Williams’s lecture notes show him trying to do both in the same course.25 On the one hand, he focused much of the first lectures for the course, which appears to have had the title “Approaches to Film” in at least one iteration, to quite close analysis of select scenes from canonical films, in particular Macbeth (Orson Welles, 1948), Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950), Ivan the Terrible, parts 1 and 2 (Sergei Eisenstein, 1944, 1958), and Billy Budd (Peter Ustinov, 1962). Invoking his contribution to Preface to Film, Williams defined the goal here as the study of cinematic specificity: film picked up on and extended the dramatic tradition, but through its employment of codes specific to it as an integral art form in its own right. As he puts it in the lecture notes, film’s tradition “is not outside that of drama, just new means and methods of achieving the accepted aims.” At the same time, on the other hand, Williams appears to have devoted several lec- tures (or parts thereof—the notes are unclear on this point) to an ideological analysis of the Western and its transformations over time. For instance, modern Westerns like The Man from Laramie (Anthony Mann, 1955) and Little Big Man (Arthur Penn, 1970) were compared and contrasted by Williams to a more classic Western like Stagecoach ( John Ford, 1939). Both modern films maintained certain conventions of the classic form, such as an individualized hero whose recourse to violence is given virtually mythic and premodern justification, and then extended the conventions to account for new expe- riences (for instance, an increasingly critical stance in which Yankee soldiers, rather than the Indians, were often the bad guys). In other words, Williams’s pedagogy was both formalist, using close reading to pinpoint fundamental, medium-specific codes of cinema, and contextualist, using ideological analysis to clarify generic conventions and how these changed over time in response to changed structures of feeling. For instance, Williams notes that by the 1960s the Western had begun to subvert its own conventions (“Italian Westerns play on this,” he says), and his lecture notes con- nect what is happening specifically to a genre like the Western to broader, modernist challenges to classical forms by which artistic codes are systematically and self-reflex- ively dismantled: as Williams puts it, “Uncertainty in 60s of possibility of any art to be 24 The notebooks are filed in folder WWE/2/1/12/14, Williams Papers. 25 Williams, “Film and the University,” 25.
  • Cinema Journal 52 | No. 3 | Spring 2013 14 medium of truth eats at it from inside. Also in novel & theatre in last 15 or 20 years.”26 Here, then, textual and contextual analysis merged, as Williams moved in his lectures through a series of modernist films and modernist directors who were rethinking the basic conventions of cinema to expand its representational possibilities. In this analy- sis, Williams gave pride of place to Fellini and Godard as experimenters who were extending film’s expressive capacity: in particular, he returned repeatedly in his lecture notes to Godard’s Une femme mariée (1964), in which editing patterns led to a rethinking of bodies—and of the social and sexual relationships these bodies entered into (“nega- tive definition of relationship defined by technique,” as he puts it in his notes). For Williams, Godard’s film exhibited a self-reflexivity that enabled it to explore the relations between everyday life and cinematically constructed realities, and thereby to raise questions about the medium of cinema and its representational possibilities (as well as limitations). Williams was emphatic regarding the new cinema’s origins in earlier modernist experimentation in other narrative arts: as he puts it in his notes, “Work of art where issues directed raised is Femme mariee. Self conscious creators. In Novel from Joyce. In Poetry earlier. In Drama Pirandello 1920s (Strindberg).” But it is clear, too, that he was capaciously and generously trying to deal with a specific and irreducible new mode of experimentation that he knew spoke in special fashion to the new generation. Cinema then possessed a pertinence and relevance that was unique to this historical conjuncture. Symptomatic in this respect is the new version of his influential Drama from Ibsen to Eliot (published in 1952) that Williams fashioned at this time. While Williams con- served many of the original chapters—each of which was dedicated to a different phase in the evolution of drama and looked at how each moment involved openness to, or blockage of, the new social values that were trying to be expressed in emergent structures of feeling—the 1960s version of the book added some new chapters and sported a new title that captures some of what was going on in Williams’s think- ing at the time. The newer version, published in 1968, was called Drama from Ibsen to Brecht, and Brechtian notions of critical distanciation and rupture would indeed come to be critical to Williams’s thinking in that period, encouraging him to think again of cinema (and, now, television) as the arts in the most advanced position in the historical moment to employ expressive potentials to socially critical ends. In fact, despite the book title’s suggestion that the drama of Brecht is the end point of critical experimentation in this domain, it is really Brechtian-inspired television and cinema that Williams devotes the last pages of his conclusion to and that he sees as offering the relevant cultural practices for the present context. As he puts it just several pages before the end: It is also necessary to realize that drama is no longer coexistent with theatre, in the narrow sense. . . . The largest audience for drama, in our own world, is in the cinema and on television. . . . It is then very important that many of the developments we have observed, in dramatic forms and conventions have been, in a deep way, towards these new media. . . . In method, film and 26 All subsequent quotations from lecture notes are found in the WWE/2/1/12/14 folder.
  • Cinema Journal 52 | No. 3 | Spring 2013 15 television offer real solutions to many of the problems of modern dramatic form. . . . I see in film and television the evidence and the promise of new kinds of action, of complex seeing made actual in a directly composed per- formance, of new kinds of relation between action and speech, of changes in the fundamental concept of dramatic imagery, which open up not simply as techniques . . . but as responses to an altering structure of feeling, and as new and important relations with audiences.27 Williams’s valorization of new moving-image culture in Brechtian terms receives its most concrete and extended application in a talk, “A Lecture on Realism,” centered on Ken Loach’s BBC telefilm The Big Flame (1969), which he gave to the Society for Edu- cation in Film and Television in the mid-1970s and that was soon after published in Screen.28 Admittedly, since it is an analysis of a telefilm, “A Lecture on Realism” might not really appear to fit directly within the corpus of Williams’s writings on the cinema per se. But The Big Flame was shot on film, and some Loach BBC productions from the time did get theatrical release. Williams frequently mentions film and television together and treats their most political accomplishments in theoretically shared terms, and he clearly didn’t see them as inevitably fully distinct media. In Television: Technology and Cultural Form, for instance, Williams includes movies shown on television as a genre of television. For these reasons, it is illuminating to include discussion of “A Lecture on Realism” in a discussion of Williams’s writings on film. Given Screen’s status in the period as the key English-language journal for a rethink- ing of cinema in theoretical terms (generally derived from French structural, semio- logical, and poststructural models), “A Lecture on Realism” is one of the rare pieces of Williams on moving-image culture to receive regular citation in the critical literature. No doubt, the fact that Williams was publishing on realism (and even defending it, according to one iteration of the essay’s title) in a journal that notably tended to ex- coriate realist cinema gave his intervention into the debate on the politics of realism a polemical tone. Screen stood famously (or infamously, depending on one’s point of view) for an ultra-leftist formalism inspired by French theory’s invocation of a freeing of the signifier from any representational project. And there’s no doubt that the fact that some of the defenders of the Screen position, such as Stephen Heath and Colin 27 Williams, Drama from Ibsen to Brecht (London: Oxford University Press, 1968), 345–346. Mention might also be made here of Williams’s 1974 inaugural lecture “Drama in a Dramatised Society,” delivered when he took up an endowed professorship in Drama, the first of its kind at Cambridge. Despite the august context and the seeming respectability of subject matter perhaps hinted at in the lecture’s title, Williams’s speech is really about how the newest mass forms of moving-image culture are challenging and changing older performative culture. Williams con- centrates primarily on television (which must have been more than a bit scandalous in the context of Cambridge), but he does make passing reference to film. For instance, in the very last moments of his speech he recounts how at the beginning of the twentieth century, filmmakers “were discovering means of making images move; finding the technical basis for the motion picture: the new mobility and with it the fade, the dissolve, the cut, the flashback, the voice over, the montage, that are technical forms but also, in new ways, modes of perceiving, of relating, of compos- ing and of finding our way.” See Williams, Drama in a Dramatised Society (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1975), 20. 28 Williams, “A Lecture on Realism,” Screen 18, no. 1 (1977): 61–74, reprinted as “A Defence of Realism,” in Wil- liams, What I Came to Say, ed. Neil Belton, Francis Mulhern, and Jenny Taylor (London: Hutchinson Radius, 1989), 226–239. References in my text are to this later edition of the essay.
  • Cinema Journal 52 | No. 3 | Spring 2013 16 MacCabe, were former students of Williams added to the complex resonances of his essay’s appearance in Screen. Yet Screen’s attempt to enlist Brecht in the cause of a formalist politics of the free play of the signifier was itself overly polemical, and the journal’s denunciatory con- flation of a socially cognitive content in art (which can in fact enlist all sorts of tech- niques, experimental or not, realist or not, to achieve its critical goals) with a naive notion of realism as a specific and singular technique was certainly overstated. Against this, Williams’s intervention traces changing conceptions of realism to argue that a politically progressive culture may well need to enlist some notion of realism in its desire to say something cognizant of social realities but that this implies no endorse- ment of a simple-minded photographic notion of realism as mere reproduction of the surface look of things, a mere “naturalism.” Brecht, he argues firmly (and to my mind, correctly), was a realist: he wanted art to offer critical statements on social reality, but he felt precisely that mere photographic reproduction couldn’t entail such criticism. Progressive art necessitated breaks from, fissures within, dominant (photographic and uncritical) ways of seeing. Getting away from the mere surface of the world was not a formalist rejection of the real but a way of getting at it. For Williams, indeed, it is the fissures and fractures within Loach’s film that give it much of its interest and make it Brechtian: in Williams’s words, “The intention of interpreting an event, which Brecht made so intrinsic a part of his dramatic form, distin- guishing it from the form which offered an event for mere empathy, seems quite clearly evident in The Big Flame, and is probably even consciously derived from something of the influence of Brecht.”29 In particular, by recounting a dockers’ strike that veers into the attempt to socialize ownership of the docks away from private control, The Big Flame turns, in Williams’s reading, into a work of political hypothesis—of fictionalizing possibilities that haven’t (yet) been realized. In other words, even though it has a lot of surface naturalism in it (it was inspired by a strike that actually had happened, and made use of on-location shooting and nonprofessional actors who were real dockers), the fact that The Big Flame begins to imagine something that hasn’t yet happened—so- cialization of the means of production—means that the film moves beyond the givens of the real into the openness of the not-yet, the hypothetical. This break into the imagining of a new world is then matched by a break of the film’s style into new rep- resentational modes. As Williams puts it: What then happens [when the workers in the film decide to do more than strike and set out to seize control of the docks] is perhaps inconsistent with the narrower definitions of realism in that, having taken the action to that point in this recognizable place, a certain dramatic, but also political, hy- pothesis is established. What would happen if we went beyond the terms of this particular struggle against existing conditions and existing attempts to define or alter them? What would happen if we moved towards taking power for ourselves? . . . Thus if we are establishing the character of realism in The Big Flame, we have to notice the interesting combination, fusion perhaps, and 29 Williams, “Defence,” 233, original emphasis.
  • Cinema Journal 52 | No. 3 | Spring 2013 17 within this fusion a certain fracture between the methods of establishing rec- ognition and the alternative method of a hypothesis within that recognition, a hypothesis which is played out in realistic terms, but within a politically imagined possibility.30 Importantly, Williams tracks such fractures of conventional(ized) ways of seeing given reality not only at the broadest level of narrative structure (the film’s shift from a present to a hypothesized, fantasized, desired future) but also at the more local level of shot-to-shot stylistic effects. For instance, during a confrontation by the dockers with the police, the very position of the camera becomes significant for its differences from the expected. Williams observes: It is quite remarkable, and of course, the reasons are obvious, how regular and how naturalized the position of the camera behind the police is in either newsreel or in fictionalized reports of that kind of disturbance. . . . It is signifi- cant that in The Big Flame, in contrast with the normality of the convention, the viewpoint is with the people being attacked. This is a useful reminder, both for an analysis of this film and for analysis of the many hundreds of examples which must be seen as working the other way round, of the way in which the convention of showing things as they actually happen is inherently determined by viewpoint in the precise technical sense of the position of the camera.31 Once again, we see how established conventions naturalize dominant ways of seeing and how these seemingly formal choices actually reinforce dominant structures of feeling. And, in Brechtian terms, we see how a shift in formal means entails new feel- ings, new structures, new seeing. Williams’s essay on The Big Flame shows the values of close reading—and in this respect, it shows continuity with his film writing from the 1950s, concerned as it was with “practical criticism”—and it once again reiterates how formal analysis is a necessary base for informed ideological analysis. In the 1980s, just before the end of his life, Williams devoted two pieces to alter- natives in film history—alternatives as to how film could have developed and how it actually did develop (reductively, the alternative between a truly open popular and experimental art and a set of practices caught up by dominant institutions with com- mercial objectives) and alternatives also in the historical writing that would set out to judge those divergent paths: “Film History,” originally presented as the preface to James Curran and Vincent Porter’s anthology British Cinema History, and “Cinema and Socialism,” a 1985 lecture at the National Film Theatre.32 “Cinema and Social- ism” is somewhat in continuity with Williams’s newfound interest in the 1960s in the 30 Ibid. 31 Ibid., 236 (original emphasis). 32 Williams, “Film History,” in British Cinema History, ed. James Curran and Vincent Porter (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1983), 9–23, and reprinted posthumously in Williams, What I Came to Say, 132–146; Williams, “Cinema and Socialism,” printed posthumously in Williams, The Politics of Modernism (London: Verso, 1989), 107–118.
  • Cinema Journal 52 | No. 3 | Spring 2013 18 promise and potential of an art of political cinema, but the optimism of that earlier period is tempered by sober assessment (this, after all, was the moment of Margaret Thatcher) of the daunting realities of political struggle in the cultural realm. Starting with the question as to whether (as common conception often has it) cinema is an in- herently radical art in the twentieth century, Williams cautions against any imputation of inherent effect (such as progressive enlightenment) to an art form: any new cultural practice emerges into an historical field where diverse agents can direct it in myriad directions (including reactionary ones) and where any connections to social move- ments (or away from them) have to be built and fought over rather than automatically assumed. Bluntly, as Williams puts it, cinema could have gone in a socialist direction (and Williams notes that Soviet cinema did for a moment “make that kind of use of the opportunities of early film”), but, as he concludes, “it isn’t really surprising . . . to find a symmetry between this new popular form [i.e., cinema] and typically capitalist forms of economic development. Nor is it surprising, given the basic factor of centralized production and rapid multiple distribution [of mass-produced prints of a film] . . . to see the development of relatively monopolist—more strictly, corporate—forms of economic organization. . . . The road to Hollywood was then in one sense inscribed.”33 “Film History” is a broader metareflection on modes of writing film history and on the ways, as Williams sees it, that standard histories separate off this or that part of the story and reify it (typically, for instance, by a technological determinism that sees the technical inventions of the medium as entailing its uses). For Williams, a more expan- sive history is needed—one that situates technical possibilities within larger sociocul- tural struggles as to how the medium should be used and by whom and for whom. As he says, “No account of the technical inventions, or even of the systematic technolo- gies, can function as a prehistory to some unitary version of the history of cinema. . . . Rather, these provided certain new possibilities, at times themselves entailing further technical developments, within the general pressures and limits of a wider social and cultural history,” and it is clear that Williams feels that no film history that doesn’t address this wider history will ever be acceptable.34 He proposes that any effective historical study of film would minimally have to deal not only with its technical history but also with the history of its relation to other forms of popular culture; the history of the attempt to commercialize it in the name of dominant institutions of ideology; and, conversely but also concomitantly, the history of its interactions with the most cutting- edge modernisms of the day. No doubt, the writings published a short time before a major thinker passes away take on unexpected symbolic weight. But Williams’s last pieces on film from the 1980s do seem a fitting final demonstration of his commitment to serious engagement with the art and politics of film. For more than thirty years, Williams addressed the cin- ema, and he did so with rigor, sense of purpose, and the deepest aesthetic and moral commitment. ✽ 33 Williams, “Cinema and Socialism,” 109–110. 34 Williams, “Film History,” 136–137.
Please download to view
1
All materials on our website are shared by users. If you have any questions about copyright issues, please report us to resolve them. We are always happy to assist you.
Description
Text
  • Access provided by University of Alabama @ Birmingham (29 Sep 2013 14:52 GMT)
  • 1www.cmstudies.org 52 | No. 3 | Spring 2013 © 2 01 3 b y th e U n iv e rs it y o f Te xa s P re ss Dana Polan is Professor of Cinema Studies at New York University. He is the author, most recently, of Julia Child’s “The French Chef ” (Duke University Press, 2011). Raymond Williams on Film by DANA POLAN Abstract: While Raymond Williams’s television study is foundational for the fi eld, less known is that Williams wrote extensively—and intelligently—on cinema. Based in large part on research in the Raymond Williams Papers at Swansea University, Wales, this essay offers a genealogy of Williams’s continued engagement with fi lm as cultural form. H ad Raymond Williams written nary a word concerning the modern culture of the moving image, his vast body of work would still be of compelling interest to scholars in the areas of fi lm, television, and media study. Williams (1921–1988) is arguably the most important cultural theorist and critic of twentieth-century Britain. His early, groundbreaking intellectual history of En glish thought on the idea of culture, Culture and Society (1958), is readily considered (along with Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy and E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class) one of the triumvirate of works that fundamentally estab- lished the fi eld of Cultural Studies, and his follow-up volume, The Long Revolution (1961), was key to the founding of the British New Left (along with a later text cowritten by Williams and Thompson with others, The May Day Manifesto). His fi rst major work in Media Studies, Communications (1962), was a best seller and made an essential contribution to the discipline in the United Kingdom, and to the in- spired idea of teaching Media Studies through extension programs such as Open University. His works of literary and dramatic criticism, such as The Country and the City (1973) and Modern Tragedy (1966), are models in the unifi cation of techniques of close reading with broader refl ection on literary texts’ place in society. His ef- forts at social theorizing in books such as Problems in Materialism and Culture (1981) and Marxism and Literature (1977) established the value of “cultural materialism” as a mode of analysis. A veritable interdisciplinarian, Williams drew on diverse fi elds of thought in the humanities (and social sciences) to conduct his cultural investigation—from literary criticism to drama, Media and Communication Studies, social thought and politi- cal theory, linguistics and anthropology, and cultural study more broadly. Concepts and phrases from across the range of his work have become key to the ongoing work of Cultural Studies and, in many cases, have become fundamental compo- nents of the lingua franca of the fi eld: think, for example, of the impact of ideas and phrases from Williams such as “structures of feeling,” “keywords,” “culture as
  • Cinema Journal 52 | No. 3 | Spring 2013 2 a whole way of life,” “residual and emergent cultures,” “knowable community,” “there is no such thing as masses, only ways of seeing people as masses,” and so on. Notions such as these have been central to the ongoing project of Cultural Studies, and the general legacy of Williams is in this respect well assured. As I note, Williams would be an essential point of reference to anyone interested in the study of moving-image culture even if he had never written on this particular do- main of contemporary life. But of course, he did write about modern moving images, and here his contributions are no less groundbreaking. In particular, as is well known, his 1974 volume Television: Technology and Cultural Form, is widely considered to be a—if not the—foundational work of Television Studies and continues to have an impact on research and reflection, even as scholars may have questioned the pertinence of this or that idea to the most recent developments in television and new media practices.1 As with his general books in Cultural Studies, Television offered compelling concepts for the study of media, and these again have become inevitable components of the discipline’s fundamental vocabulary: for instance, “mobile privatization” and the key concept of flow, around which there is a veritable industry of secondary scholarship. Certainly, there is still much critical and theoretical work to be done with Williams’s writings on television. For the record, I think the overattention to the concept of flow— certainly a breakthrough concept, but by far not the only idea Williams had to offer about television—has meant that other potentially important aspects of his work on television have been downplayed and even ignored, both in Television: Technology and Cultural Form (where flow is only one topic among many, such as new modes of exhi- bition and critical practice in progressive media making) and in his numerous other writings on television.2 I’d also argue that the common understanding of flow as the undifferentiated and continuous outpouring of images within and between programs has missed how Williams anchors flow to the stabilizing (and to his mind, deleterious) effects of commercials within and between shows. But, although that critical reevaluation is quite necessary, I want to concentrate in the present essay on a much less known—but to my mind no less compelling or con- sequential—aspect of Williams’s engagement with the moving image: namely, what turns out to be his quite substantial body of writing on film. Williams in fact wrote ex- tensively—and, I contend, quite rigorously and perceptively—about cinema, and even if this part of his intellectual output were to be brought to light for purely archaeologi- cal purposes (i.e., to reveal an area of his research that has hitherto passed under the radar in the critical literature on Williams), the effort would seem worthwhile. But as I hope to suggest, Williams’s many interventions into film analysis not only are bio- graphically or archivally interesting but also stand by themselves as potentially useful tools for the ongoing critical projects of Film Studies as a field. The discussion that follows combines a critical account of Williams’s published writings on cinema with 1 Raymond Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form (London: Fontana/Collins, 1974; New York: Schocken Books, 1975). 2 See, for example, the rich, posthumous collection Raymond Williams on Television, ed. Alan O’Connor (New York: Routledge, 1989), which offers concrete engagement, of a depth and detail only rarely on view in Television: Technol- ogy and Cultural Form, with specific television programs.
  • Cinema Journal 52 | No. 3 | Spring 2013 3 archival work on Williams’s papers at the Richard Burton Archives of Swansea Uni- versity, Wales, where the catalog of those papers has recently been put online, offering a welcoming invitation to in-depth research to anyone interested in Williams.3 Raymond Williams’s Early Engagements with Film. From his first extended con- tact with the medium, Williams evinced a passion for the cinema. His enthusiasm first manifested when he came to study at Cambridge at the end of the 1930s from the small, out-of-the-way village of Pandy, where he had grown up. While there was much about the dogmatism, stuffiness, traditionalism, and even political conservatism of offi- cial Cambridge University life and studies that dismayed Williams,4 there were many aspects of its student cultural life that offered a veritable opening up for a scholarship boy like Williams to new cosmopolitan experience and new possibilities for cultural expression in its encounter with metropolitan modernity. Although he had already been politicized at an early age (for instance, he had learned directly about labor strug- gle from his father’s efforts as a railway signalman to offer communications support for coal miners in their consequential strike of 1926 across the whole of the United Kingdom), Cambridge offered new possibilities for collective activism, and Williams became a member of the student-run Socialist Union, which had a very energetic presence on campus. There, he met a kindred spirit, a budding filmmaker named Mi- chael Orrom, and for a long while they became the closest of friends and the closest of cinematic collaborators.5 Under pressure from his father, Orrom was supposed to major in the sciences, but he had been given a motion-picture camera for a birthday in his early teens and was engaging in experiments in this seemingly most modern of modern arts with a view to a full-fledged career in filmmaking. Like so many young people on the Left in the 1930s, Orrom (and Williams soon after) shared in a belief in cinema as the supreme art of modernity in the ways it mediated a direct engagement with reality through the expressive potentials of medium-specific forms and stylistic resources. As for so many others, Orrom and Williams felt the essence of cinematic potential to lie in montage as the revolutionary restructuration of everyday reality, and Orrom militated for the Socialist Union to include weekly (Sunday-night) screenings that simultaneously were social events, venues for discussion of the most advanced efforts in cinematic endeavor, and basic occasions to become acquainted with what was considered the vanguard of filmic experimentation. Specifically, the valorization of montage led to Orrom’s programming of many classics of Soviet revolutionary film, while his concern with the ways filmic codes could contribute to a concerted re- structuring of the givens of everyday reality encouraged him to screen as many works of German Expressionism as possible. In particular, if Orrom and Williams appreci- ated the Soviets for their perfection of montage techniques in the service of political 3 The catalog can be searched at the website of the Raymond Williams Papers, at http://www.swan.ac.uk/crew/research projects/theraymondwilliamspapers/. My thanks to the staff at the Richard Burton Archives at Swansea University for welcoming me there for a week of research and for facilitating access to materials. 4 See, for instance, his oft-cited account of Cambridge elitism in “Culture Is Ordinary” (1958), in, among other publi- cations, Williams, Resources of Hope, ed. Robin Gable (New York: Verso, 1989), 3–18. 5 For the history of Williams’s ultimately rocky relationship with Orrom, see Dai Smith’s canonical biography Raymond Williams: A Warrior’s Tale (Cardigan, Wales: Parthian, 2008), 89 and passim.
  • Cinema Journal 52 | No. 3 | Spring 2013 4 argument, they also admired the Germans for their supposed concern with the total control of the artwork—camerawork, set design, acting, and so on, all of which were conceived to work together for desired aesthetic effect.6 Orrom and Williams lost touch with each other during the war but had resumed their cinema-inspired collaboration by the end of the 1940s. Their sense of the prom- ise of cinema was so strong, indeed, that they seemed to give themselves over fully to consideration of careers in art cinema production and promotion. Orrom had already begun some professional work in documentary film (he would later go on to be a cel- ebrated BBC filmmaker), and for his first film endeavor with Williams, Orrom used his connections to get Paul Rotha interested as director in a project on positive and nega- tive aspects of the modern mechanization of rural society for which Williams would write the script. Williams did in fact write up a fifty-two-page “treatment” titled “Effect of Machine on the Countryman’s Work, Life, and Community,” which, in antici- pation perhaps of his major study years later, The Country and the City (1973), ana- lyzed in detail the contrast between “the old peasant community, with its settled, integrated system, with a contemporary village where there is no real economic centre.” But other than the quick sugges- tion that the film should be in two parts to get at the contrast, Williams’s text offers no hints about cinematic style or struc- ture, just pure sociological and economic analysis. In any case, the project foun- dered immediately when the potential sponsor, the government’s Central Office of Information, declared that it wanted to turn the film into a mere prologue to a longer project, and Rotha, in protest, dropped out as director.7 But Orrom and Williams remained committed to cinema as a veritable life choice. Forming a joint private company, Film Drama Ltd., in 1953, Williams and Orrom set out boldly to create a new aesthetics of film both by writing about 6 In his famous, book-length interview with the editors of the New Left Review, Williams puts it this way: “In the late thirties admiration for Dr. Caligari [Robert Wiene, 1920] or Metropolis [Fritz Lang, 1927] was virtually a condition of entry to the Socialist Club at Cambridge.” Williams, Politics and Letters: Interviews with New Left Review (London: Verso, 1979), 232. 7 “Effect of Machine on the Countryman’s Work, Life, and Community” can be found in file WWE2/1/4/4 (“Film and Cross-Over Works”), Raymond Williams Papers, Richard Burton Archives, Swansea University, Wales (hereafter, Wil- liams Papers). Figure 1. In 1953, Raymond Williams and Michael Orrom formed a joint private company, Film Drama Ltd. They hoped that their written work would serve as a manifesto to undergird the film productions that they planned to come up with in the following years. (Back cover, Williams and Orrom, Preface to Film, 1954).
  • Cinema Journal 52 | No. 3 | Spring 2013 5 the possibilities of new expressive directions in the art and, more important, by actu- ally setting out to script and make films. The critical writing manifested itself as a self-published book, Preface to Film (1954), whose title, as the authors later explained, was meant to capture both the ways in which dramatic traditions before and up to film (i.e., stage drama) had reached expressive impasses that it would be the mission of film to overcome and Orrom’s and Williams’s own desire that their written work serve as a manifesto to undergird the film productions that they hoped to come up with in the following years (Figure 1).8 Indeed, right after Preface, Williams wrote two screenplays for Film Drama Ltd., A Dance of Seeing and Legend, and he and Orrom ex- pended much energy in trying to refine the scripts into workable productions. A Dance of Seeing was abandoned, however, after several drafts. Legend got far enough along for Orrom and Williams to submit the script for financing from the British Film Institute, but it was rejected. Interestingly, the script for Legend in the Williams collection at Swansea includes a two-part critical preface that acknowledges the difficulties of finding funding for art cinema production and turns the financial issues into a justification for new cul- tural policy. Specifically, Orrom and Williams militate for funds to be designated for noncommercial, experimental work by government, industry, and private sponsors, and the two men even go on to the bolder demand that there be set up a new sort of film institution devoted to supporting ongoing effort in experimental film production.9 This emphasis on the articulation of a cultural policy that would push both the state and the private sector to ensure regular resources for creative work is something that remains throughout Williams’s work in the sociology of communication. Nonetheless, the failure to find a direct positive outcome for Legend’s own funding difficulties seems to have soured Williams on this particular project. For personal reasons (including dis- like of Orrom by Williams’s wife Joy), the friendship between Orrom and Williams was foundering. Williams made the halfhearted suggestion that he and Orrom might work up an unpublished novel he had written (an existential thriller called Adamson) into a commercial venture, but Williams quickly declared that the project didn’t engage him anymore, and he gave up on a career in film production. Perhaps that was for the best. No doubt, the aforementioned conjunction in Or- rom and Williams of an emphatically political Soviet cinema and a more artistically intended German one was not without its tensions regarding the essential vocation of cinema: Williams and Orrom’s collaboration did not always resolve the extent to which they were assuming that artistic experimentation on cinematic form was progressive per se, or, rather, needed politically radical intent to make it so. This critical hesita- tion would, I contend, manifest strongly in Orrom and Williams’s practical film work in the 1950s, in which aestheticism threatened to overtake any measure of political commitment. In particular, despite his budding efforts as a government and industry documentarian, Orrom appears to have had a strong investment in imagining cine- matic form not as encouraging a capturing of the real but as conjuring transcendental 8 Raymond Williams and Michael Orrom, Preface to Film (London: Film Drama Ltd., 1954). 9 Williams and Orrom, “On the State of Film as an Art,” memorandum to Legend script, file WWE2/1/4/2, Williams Papers.
  • Cinema Journal 52 | No. 3 | Spring 2013 6 alternatives to it. It is noteworthy, for instance, that when Shell Oil provided a zoom lens for an industrial documentary about the company that Orrom was working on, he immediately thought of the device’s transformative potential: as he put it in a letter to Williams about a fantasy film they were developing, the zoom lens would “begin to give us the cinematic equivalent of what I’ve always been wanting—the equivalent of differential distortion in a flat painting. It really will be exciting.”10 The aestheticizing side of Orrom and Williams’s collaboration perhaps accounts for a mythologizing tendency in the Dance of Seeing and Legend scripts by which humans are deprived of historical situatedness to become instead symbols of universal human significance: A Dance of Seeing is about an artist whose aesthetic commitments lead him to become alienated from his wealthy fiancée until he learns to include her in his aes- thetic ambitions by imagining her dancing with him in a transformative performance that leaves everyday reality behind, whereas Legend is about an artist whose aesthetic commitments lead him to become alienated from the everyday urban world until he flees to a redolent, resplendent countryside where he dances with a mystery woman in a transformative performance that leaves everyday reality behind (with the additional twist that when he returns to the city, he finds it too transformed by his aestheticizing, imaginative powers). More successful are the several critical writings on film that Williams offered in the early 1950s and that took this cultural form as an object of analysis rather than as a mode of artistic practice that he was intending to make his vocation. In the case of the longest text, “Film and the Dramatic Tradition”—Williams’s contribution to the coau- thored volume Preface to Film—the emphasis on film as an object for analysis is perhaps understandable: as noted, Preface was intended by Williams and Orrom to serve as a manifesto for new modes of film production, but the authors took this to necessitate a look back at the existing traditions (and what those both enabled but also blocked), and the task of this retrospective analysis fell to Williams—who was already exhibiting a historical, even genealogical, bent through his scholarly research in the 1950s for what would eventually become his breakthrough book, Culture and Society, published in 1958. “Film and the Dramatic Tradition,” in fact, makes a major claim about cinema’s historical origin and emergence that would remain throughout Williams’s intellectual career (and that would, in the 1960s and 1970s, be extended to television, too): namely, that modern moving-image narrative forms such as cinema are modes of dramatic performance and need to be understood within the longer and larger history of drama. (Williams admits in this respect that his approach works best for the fiction film and not for animation or nonfiction.) Film, Williams argues, is about the performed repre- sentation of the activities of people, although one of his central points is to assert that this is to make no particular claim about the type of activities represented, which may be as much psychological as physical or sensational. For Williams, the idea that film is a representation of human performance needs to remain at that somewhat general, even abstract or vague, level, so as not to constrain any particular effort (cinematic and, before that, theatrical) within dogmatic notions of what is properly dramatic or cin- ematic. Indeed, behind “Film and the Dramatic Tradition” lies a polemic by Williams 10 Letter from Orrom to Williams, September 14, 1953, in file WWE/2/1/4/1, Williams Papers.
  • Cinema Journal 52 | No. 3 | Spring 2013 7 against a certain doxa as to what is the right mode of narration and performance for dramatic work: namely, a naturalism obsessed by notions of superficial accuracy that, as he saw it, was dominating contemporary theater and traded any deeper analysis for the fetish of getting a few gritty details correct. Interestingly, “Film and the Dramatic Tradition” likely contains Williams’s earliest direct reference to a key concept that would run through his career, and that in many ways would be taken to be one of his privileged contributions to cultural study, namely, the complicated notion of structures of feeling. Williams argues in “Film and the Dra- matic Tradition” that while at each moment in the history of an artistic form there is a crystallization of aesthetic practices into a set of conventions (which can then risk becoming dogmatized and ontologized as the essential and right employment of that form), the ongoing movement of social history impels the arts to evolve new conven- tions in order to grasp new life experience. As he asserts, “In principle, it seems clear that the dramatic conventions of any given period are fundamentally related to the structure of feeling in that period. . . . Conventions—the means of expression which find tacit consent—are a vital part of this structure of feeling. As the structure changes, new means are perceived and realized, while old means come to appear empty and artificial. . . . Changes in the whole conception of a human being and of his relations with what is non-human bring, necessarily, changes of convention in their wake.”11 Put simply, conditions of modernity had encouraged new understandings of hu- man beings (for example, psychoanalysis had enabled a new awareness of human interiority) and of their place in the world (for example, social theory increasingly understood humans in a socially extensive context). Some aesthetic forms were well equipped to represent such shifts in the meaning of the human. For instance, the novel was an eminent genre for interiorization, since narrators could tunnel inside charac- ters’ minds and announce their thoughts to the reader. But other forms found that their technical means limited their ability to keep up with changed structures of feeling. For instance (and to cite the example that Williams himself employs throughout “Film and the Dramatic Tradition”), stage drama could gesture only clumsily toward interiority. As Williams puts it, “While drama in the naturalist habit could proceed without dif- ficulty, reproducing its surface actions and feelings with an added lifelikeness of detail, the drama of genuine ‘emotional naturalism,’ of ‘inner realism,’ was confronted by its own distinctive quality with an apparently insuperable technical difficulty.”12 To take just one case noted by Williams, when Stanislavsky, in his stage notes for an adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull, writes parenthetically of one character that a pause in her actions at one point means “that she has evidently remembered her own love-affair,” it might well be that this is what the pause means, but there is no way to ensure that meaning on stage and to have it come across unambiguously to the spectator. Williams would argue, then, that the cinema possesses resources that could over- come this dramatic limitation. Most obviously, a voice-over (whether by the character or by an omniscient narrator) could express what on stage could at best only be hinted 11 Williams, “Film and the Dramatic Tradition,” in Williams and Orrom, Preface to Film, 21–23. 12 Ibid., 43.
  • Cinema Journal 52 | No. 3 | Spring 2013 8 at (unless—and this would seem a clumsy option—the stage production itself used some sort of voice-over). Indeed, just three years after the publication of Preface to Film, Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957) would hone an extensive utilization of voice-over to tunnel inside the mind of its introspective protagonist. Williams would become so enamored of the experiments with subjective expression in Bergman’s film that, when in the 1960s he revised his mid-1950s volume Drama in Performance (a volume essentially about the ways plays are actually staged and performed across the history of drama), and, among other updates, added a chapter on cinema, it was Wild Strawberries he concentrated on, offering a close reading of the film as a sort of performance of Berg- man’s script that used temporal shifts along with the voice-over to capture expansive notions of consciousness and memory.13 If “Film and the Dramatic Tradition” concentrates on film’s past history (including its place in the larger history of dramatic performance) and only hints at future possi- bilities in filmic experimentation, a shorter essay on the cinema that Williams published a year before Preface, “Film as a Tutorial Subject,” helps us understand why Williams might emphasize current and concretely definable conditions over unformed future possibilities. Williams’s first full-length critical engagement with film, “Film as a Tutorial Subject” is the summary of a cinema course that he had taught at the beginning of the decade for the Workers Education Association (WEA), a program of adult education for the working class. The essay offers instruction in the practical criticism of film and is rich in concrete suggestions for rigorous ways to approach the study of the art form.14 In passing, I should clarify that I refer to “Film as a Tutorial Subject” as his first “full-length” engagement with films, since the Swansea archives include some earlier, occasional pieces by Williams on cinema, primarily from his time in the military dur- ing World War II, when he wrote cultural commentary for an armed services news- paper, Twentyone. For instance, in the issue from October 13, 1945, writing under the name Michael Pope, he offered a very brief (and generally dismissive) notice on the Hollywood films Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944) and A Guest in the House ( John Brahm, 1944), which he saw as being little less aesthetically bankrupt than American advertis- ing (which, throughout his career, was the ultimate symbol of creative-cultural sellout). Even earlier, during his Cambridge-student days, Williams wrote notices for a campus newspaper, and these include a very short review of E. W. Robson and M. M. Rob- son’s pamphlet, “In Defence of Moovie” [sic], whose title is a play on Philip Sidney’s “Defence of Poesy” from circa 1579. For Williams, the elaboration of a new aesthetics of the art of film should look not back to the past but to an open, experimental future: “Although the cinema will undoubtedly have a great future, it will not be because of such an urge [to return to older myths of unified national culture, as in Sidney], but because with the cinema freed from its present restrictions, all the scientific force and frustrated art of this century will be turned to the making of films for the people.”15 13 Williams, “Wild Strawberries by Ingmar Bergman,” Drama in Performance (Middlesex, UK: Penguin Books, 1968), 157–169. 14 Williams, “Film as a Tutorial Subject,” in Border Country: Raymond Williams in Adult Education, ed. John McIlroy and Sallie Westwood (Leicester, UK: National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, 1993), 185–192. 15 Williams, “In Defence of Moovie,” Cambridge University Journal 4, no. 5 (1940): 2.
  • Cinema Journal 52 | No. 3 | Spring 2013 9 These earliest pieces were quite occasional efforts indeed, whereas “Film as a Tu- torial Subject” offers an extended reflection on the ways film could become a conse- quential object for cultural analysis. The essay came about as part of an experiment in introducing film into adult education. Williams’s efforts as a WEA tutor constituted his first major postwar employment, and he later would look back with fondness on the opportunity to teach students far from the confines of Cambridge, students who were often much more open to new subject areas than what he regarded as the stuffy elitists he often encountered in the university system. The WEA tutors would travel from town to town and teach a variety of subjects on a weekly or biweekly basis, of- ten mandating written assignments that would be mailed to them for correction and comments before the next on-site meeting. Already in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Williams was including some attention to film in his general WEA classes on cul- ture—for instance, one topic in a 1949–1950 course titled “What Is Culture?” dealing with notions of hierarchies of values in the arts was “Is the Cinema an Art?”—and it seems that the WEA administration for one of the towns on his regular route, Battle, East Sussex, asked him to consider doing a full-semester’s course on cinema. Williams agreed, and “Film as a Tutorial Subject,” which was published in a professional jour- nal for WEA tutors, is his record of the experience. As a report to colleagues on the experiment of teaching a new subject area to adults, “Film as a Tutorial Subject” is filled with practical considerations in peda- gogy and thereby reveals much about how Williams thought the cinema should be approached as an object of study. For instance, the inexorable flow of filmic images and the concomitant difficulty for a cinema viewer to go back over a moment that has already passed meant that students (and their tutor!) often had to rely on imperfect memory when discussing films and had to do so, at the same time, with the disad- vantage of an undeveloped and imprecise critical vocabulary (in the essay, Williams argues that the existing literature on film is weak in its elaboration of concrete critical concepts). Williams’s solution was to screen clips and short films in class and have stu- dents work together on trying to come up with detailed (but also ideologically neutral) descriptions of what they had just seen on screen. While the idea of an objective ac- count of the visuals of a film has its problems (is not every description tendentious and ideological in some way?), Williams’s idea was that these exercises in pure description of a short and manageable corpus would help students hone attentive viewing skills that they could then apply productively to longer works of film. Beyond practical advice, Williams also offered more general reflections on the aes- thetics of film, on the medium’s capacity for true art, and on the nature of a film criti- cism that would be adequate to the task of taking account of such artistic potential. Williams at this point in his intellectual trajectory was still strongly under the influence of the brand of “practical criticism” associated with the imposing Cambridge pres- ence F. R. Leavis. For Leavis, criticism, on the one hand, meant reading texts (from all levels of a culture, high and low) very closely and very immanently, with little atten- tion to authorial identity (the assumption was that works of culture wore their values, high and low, on their sleeves and that their evaluation could be derived from tex- tual features directly), but on the other hand, it also meant reading texts for purposes of discrimination (in other words, it was necessary that there be evaluation to clear
  • Cinema Journal 52 | No. 3 | Spring 2013 10 away the bad from the good). One classic expression of Leavis’s position was his 1933 manifesto, Culture and Environment, cowritten with Denys Thompson, in which “Envi- ronment” refers to all the excrescences of modern life that are threatening the rich flourishing of “culture.” Williams’s first book, Reading and Criticism (1950), is explicitly Leavisite in this respect, to the degree that it uses “environment” in the same fearful manner to indicate the engulfing dangers of contemporary media and, importantly for our discussion at hand, includes cinema as one of these menacing manifestations of dismal modernity: “It is not only in reading that evidence of such methods [of deg- radation of sensibility and crudity in expression] can be found. The cinema film has gained its wide popularity by a related, and frequently more powerful exploitation of similar vulgarities.”16 In this respect, “Film as a Tutorial Subject” comes off as a Leavisite justification of the mission of film criticism, and this mission essentially, then, takes as its first pri- ority a clearing away of environment—what Williams pointedly calls “destructive” criticism. Declaring that perhaps 97 to 98 percent of all films are unworthy of being considered art, Williams asserts that “a high percentage of all art in the twentieth century is bad. That is why so much of the best contemporary criticism is necessar- ily destructive; the rubbish has to be cleared. The clearing process is important, as a practical testing-ground for values.”17 In “Film as a Tutorial Subject,” to be sure, Williams did cite some cinematic ac- complishments that he felt stood out from the morass of crass environment, such as Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and Vesevolod Pudovkin’s Mother (1926), a film on which Williams claimed to have written a full-length study, although no such work has come to light. But for the most part, the WEA essay is not as concerned as “Film and the Dramatic Tradition” with promoting a new art of cinema (including the sort of cinema that, at the time, Williams wanted to make with Michael Orrom). Instead, its focus is on existing film culture and includes, in that respect, a call for pedagogical attention to film as a sociological fact (part of the hegemonic mass-media “environment,” to invoke again that Leavisite term) rather than just an aesthetic one. In other words, Williams wants there to be study not only of what cinema could be- come but also of what current institutions are making it be at the present time (here, he recommends as a key text in the sociology of cinema, Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler). As noted earlier, biographical factors impelled Williams to give up on creative work in film at this time, and for the rest of the decade his attention was elsewhere (above all to the retrospective intellectual history that would culminate in the breakthrough Culture and Society and The Long Revolution). But, then, the emergent culture of the 1960s gave glimpses of new possibilities for cinema—ones that were increasingly framed by Williams in political terms as much as aesthetic ones—and the latter part of the decade and up into the 1970s witnessed a burst of renewed writing and lecturing by Williams to come to grips with new cinematic potential. 16 Williams, Reading and Criticism (London: Frederick Muller, 1950), 18. 17 Williams, “Film as a Tutorial Subject,” 186.
  • Cinema Journal 52 | No. 3 | Spring 2013 11 Williams’s Reengagement with Film: The 1960s and Beyond. Key to Williams’s “rediscovery” of film was his experience as a Cambridge don starting in 1961. As the decade progressed, Williams came to find in his students an intense investment of their own in new cinema as the art of their social-cultural moment. As someone who both studied and attempted creative work, Williams began to sense that, for his students, film was their aesthetically expressive art of choice, not only to analyze but also to make: as he put it in a BBC radio talk, “Film and the Cultural Tradition,” which ap- pears in print for the first time following this essay, “In the universities, now, film is the most important single interest among arts students, and in my experience this has the intensity of attention and, where possible, practice, which in previous student genera- tions belonged to poetry and to experimental prose.” Williams took the younger generation’s investment in film (both the study of it and the production of it) quite seriously, and he did what he could to encourage and cul- tivate their engagement. For instance, when several junior faculty and students, such as Stephen Crofts, Noel Purdon, and Tony Rayns (some of whom would soon go on to offer important writings on film in cutting-edge Film Studies journals such as Screen and Afterimage), decided to begin a new quarterly publication, Cinema, they asked Wil- liams to grant an interview about film for the first issue, as a way of building publicity for the publication, and he readily agreed.18 Purdon in particular was moving in the same political circles at Cambridge as Williams, and they shared a particular interest in Gramsci. In a sense, what the interaction with the Cinema group offered was contact not only with a new aesthetic culture but also with a new political culture, and Noel Purdon suggests that Williams particularly enjoyed learning about the ways in which continental theory, such as French semiology and structuralism, which the students were then gleefully discovering, could inflect the study of popular culture.19 In its concision, Cinema’s interview with Williams offers a veritable compendium of Williams’s thoughts on film at the time. For instance, he notes film’s special appeal to students as the art most relevant to their times (“I’ve noticed the extreme—sometimes even exclusive—interest of undergraduates of what one used to call a literary turn of mind, in films”), and he expresses his concomitant conviction that professors of En- glish needed to come to grips with the new expressive potentials of moving image cul- ture (“an English faculty which didn’t deal with that experience [of the moving image] would be deluding itself ”—the last line of the interview). He also conveys his belief that work in this domain would have to be both theoretical and practical (i.e., produc- tion oriented, with the effort there coming perhaps from what he called “independent companies inside the university”).20 18 “Raymond Williams, ‘Film and the University’: A Cinema Interview,” Cinema, no. 1 (1968): 24–25. 19 In terms of the French theory inflections that were so key to Cinema’s intervention in UK film culture, Noel Purdon notes that the inaugural issue, in which the interview with Williams appeared, also included one iteration of Peter Wollen’s influential cine-structuralism, an essay titled “Notes towards a Structural Analysis of the Films of Sam Fuller,” appearing a year before his groundbreaking book Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (1969, rev. 1972; London: British Film Institute, 2012). Through a series of e-mails, Purdon graciously has helped me understand some of Williams’s engagement with Cambridge film culture at the time. 20 All citations in this paragraph come from “Film and the University,” 25.
  • Cinema Journal 52 | No. 3 | Spring 2013 12 At the same time, it is noteworthy that these many years after his exploratory WEA courses in film, Williams still was adhering to many of the basic pedagogical principles he had experimented with in those earlier times (and had summed up in the short essay “Film as a Tutorial Subject,” discussed above). For instance, Williams begins the Cinema interview by calling, as he had in the early 1950s, for introductory cinema classes to start with close reading of select film sequences so that basic codes of cinema and how they structure meanings are understood in rigorous fashion: “I’m quite sure that there’s one kind of critical work on film, comparable in method though not at all in substance, to the basic work of textual analysis, where you’re simply dealing with the substance in detail—just what a sequence of images related to voices and sounds is—something very like Practical Criticism in that older sense.”21 Now, Williams sug- gests, as he had in his contribution to Preface to Film in the 1950s, any such analysis of the basic conventions of a cultural form such as film cannot merely be formalistic: there needs to be an historically attuned critical approach that examines conventions in their contexts (social and political as well as aesthetic) to determine the forces that either maintain the conventions or push them to change. This, again, invokes the ar- gument that precinematic cultural forms, such as stage drama, can go only so far in representing new structures and feelings of modernity and that film steps in to offer new representational possibilities. As he puts it in the interview, declaring that film is particularly adept at figuring mobility, “This is something which the whole of modern literature had been moving towards, and which is the basic importance of film. This was the point that drama round the turn of the century got to. In a sense Strindberg, in some of the later works like Damascus or the Dream Play, had invented the cinema before the technical invention of it.”22 Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the Cinema interview with Williams comes in a prefatory note in which interviewer Noel Purdon notes that Williams is about to begin a lecture course on film within the English faculty at Cambridge. Indeed, Wil- liams’s sense of the new importance of film—or at least of its importance to the new student generation—had become so strong that he offered several years of instruction on the topic, and his teaching on the topic merits some comment. Unfortunately, the historical background is too sketchy for us to know as much as we’d like about Williams’s Cambridge courses on cinema. In his biography of Wil- liams, Fred Inglis provides some tantalizing hints (but in follow-up e-mails with me was unable to offer any elaboration; as he noted, the research for his biography happened almost twenty years ago). Inglis states, “In the academic year of 1968–69 his lecture course on dramatic forms and tragedy included Eisenstein, Bergman, Pudovkin, Lang, D. W. Griffith. . . . In the spring term of the next year he gave four lectures with a following hour of discussion, much along the lines of his and Michael Orrom’s old textbook Preface to Film and the [Bath] evening class which went with it. By 1971 and 1972 he had run drama into film, and lectured on ‘Strindberg to Godard’ . . . with plenty of time for watching clips.”23 21 Ibid, 24. 22 Ibid, 25. 23 Fred Inglis, Raymond Williams (New York: Routledge, 1995), 222.
  • Cinema Journal 52 | No. 3 | Spring 2013 13 The Williams archives at Swansea hold Williams’s own notebook jottings for a number of the film lectures, and these obviously are of use to the historian, although they are sketchy in their own fashion: famous for being able to speak extemporane- ously, with minimal notes of any sort to accompany his disquisitions, Williams wrote lecture plans of a brevity that is often unhelpful to the archival researcher.24 Reveal- ingly, where, in the Cinema interview, Williams had suggested that a first course on film might proceed in either of two directions—a basic formal training in that sort of close textual analysis which, ever since his WEA film course, he clearly believed was the necessary first step in the rigorous study of film or a more culturally ex- pansive pedagogy that might examine directors or national cinema or genres (an option which, as he says in the interview, “doesn’t involve the close analysis that the other would, [but] would get on to certain questions which perhaps in the end are even more interesting”)—Williams’s lecture notes show him trying to do both in the same course.25 On the one hand, he focused much of the first lectures for the course, which appears to have had the title “Approaches to Film” in at least one iteration, to quite close analysis of select scenes from canonical films, in particular Macbeth (Orson Welles, 1948), Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950), Ivan the Terrible, parts 1 and 2 (Sergei Eisenstein, 1944, 1958), and Billy Budd (Peter Ustinov, 1962). Invoking his contribution to Preface to Film, Williams defined the goal here as the study of cinematic specificity: film picked up on and extended the dramatic tradition, but through its employment of codes specific to it as an integral art form in its own right. As he puts it in the lecture notes, film’s tradition “is not outside that of drama, just new means and methods of achieving the accepted aims.” At the same time, on the other hand, Williams appears to have devoted several lec- tures (or parts thereof—the notes are unclear on this point) to an ideological analysis of the Western and its transformations over time. For instance, modern Westerns like The Man from Laramie (Anthony Mann, 1955) and Little Big Man (Arthur Penn, 1970) were compared and contrasted by Williams to a more classic Western like Stagecoach ( John Ford, 1939). Both modern films maintained certain conventions of the classic form, such as an individualized hero whose recourse to violence is given virtually mythic and premodern justification, and then extended the conventions to account for new expe- riences (for instance, an increasingly critical stance in which Yankee soldiers, rather than the Indians, were often the bad guys). In other words, Williams’s pedagogy was both formalist, using close reading to pinpoint fundamental, medium-specific codes of cinema, and contextualist, using ideological analysis to clarify generic conventions and how these changed over time in response to changed structures of feeling. For instance, Williams notes that by the 1960s the Western had begun to subvert its own conventions (“Italian Westerns play on this,” he says), and his lecture notes con- nect what is happening specifically to a genre like the Western to broader, modernist challenges to classical forms by which artistic codes are systematically and self-reflex- ively dismantled: as Williams puts it, “Uncertainty in 60s of possibility of any art to be 24 The notebooks are filed in folder WWE/2/1/12/14, Williams Papers. 25 Williams, “Film and the University,” 25.
  • Cinema Journal 52 | No. 3 | Spring 2013 14 medium of truth eats at it from inside. Also in novel & theatre in last 15 or 20 years.”26 Here, then, textual and contextual analysis merged, as Williams moved in his lectures through a series of modernist films and modernist directors who were rethinking the basic conventions of cinema to expand its representational possibilities. In this analy- sis, Williams gave pride of place to Fellini and Godard as experimenters who were extending film’s expressive capacity: in particular, he returned repeatedly in his lecture notes to Godard’s Une femme mariée (1964), in which editing patterns led to a rethinking of bodies—and of the social and sexual relationships these bodies entered into (“nega- tive definition of relationship defined by technique,” as he puts it in his notes). For Williams, Godard’s film exhibited a self-reflexivity that enabled it to explore the relations between everyday life and cinematically constructed realities, and thereby to raise questions about the medium of cinema and its representational possibilities (as well as limitations). Williams was emphatic regarding the new cinema’s origins in earlier modernist experimentation in other narrative arts: as he puts it in his notes, “Work of art where issues directed raised is Femme mariee. Self conscious creators. In Novel from Joyce. In Poetry earlier. In Drama Pirandello 1920s (Strindberg).” But it is clear, too, that he was capaciously and generously trying to deal with a specific and irreducible new mode of experimentation that he knew spoke in special fashion to the new generation. Cinema then possessed a pertinence and relevance that was unique to this historical conjuncture. Symptomatic in this respect is the new version of his influential Drama from Ibsen to Eliot (published in 1952) that Williams fashioned at this time. While Williams con- served many of the original chapters—each of which was dedicated to a different phase in the evolution of drama and looked at how each moment involved openness to, or blockage of, the new social values that were trying to be expressed in emergent structures of feeling—the 1960s version of the book added some new chapters and sported a new title that captures some of what was going on in Williams’s think- ing at the time. The newer version, published in 1968, was called Drama from Ibsen to Brecht, and Brechtian notions of critical distanciation and rupture would indeed come to be critical to Williams’s thinking in that period, encouraging him to think again of cinema (and, now, television) as the arts in the most advanced position in the historical moment to employ expressive potentials to socially critical ends. In fact, despite the book title’s suggestion that the drama of Brecht is the end point of critical experimentation in this domain, it is really Brechtian-inspired television and cinema that Williams devotes the last pages of his conclusion to and that he sees as offering the relevant cultural practices for the present context. As he puts it just several pages before the end: It is also necessary to realize that drama is no longer coexistent with theatre, in the narrow sense. . . . The largest audience for drama, in our own world, is in the cinema and on television. . . . It is then very important that many of the developments we have observed, in dramatic forms and conventions have been, in a deep way, towards these new media. . . . In method, film and 26 All subsequent quotations from lecture notes are found in the WWE/2/1/12/14 folder.
  • Cinema Journal 52 | No. 3 | Spring 2013 15 television offer real solutions to many of the problems of modern dramatic form. . . . I see in film and television the evidence and the promise of new kinds of action, of complex seeing made actual in a directly composed per- formance, of new kinds of relation between action and speech, of changes in the fundamental concept of dramatic imagery, which open up not simply as techniques . . . but as responses to an altering structure of feeling, and as new and important relations with audiences.27 Williams’s valorization of new moving-image culture in Brechtian terms receives its most concrete and extended application in a talk, “A Lecture on Realism,” centered on Ken Loach’s BBC telefilm The Big Flame (1969), which he gave to the Society for Edu- cation in Film and Television in the mid-1970s and that was soon after published in Screen.28 Admittedly, since it is an analysis of a telefilm, “A Lecture on Realism” might not really appear to fit directly within the corpus of Williams’s writings on the cinema per se. But The Big Flame was shot on film, and some Loach BBC productions from the time did get theatrical release. Williams frequently mentions film and television together and treats their most political accomplishments in theoretically shared terms, and he clearly didn’t see them as inevitably fully distinct media. In Television: Technology and Cultural Form, for instance, Williams includes movies shown on television as a genre of television. For these reasons, it is illuminating to include discussion of “A Lecture on Realism” in a discussion of Williams’s writings on film. Given Screen’s status in the period as the key English-language journal for a rethink- ing of cinema in theoretical terms (generally derived from French structural, semio- logical, and poststructural models), “A Lecture on Realism” is one of the rare pieces of Williams on moving-image culture to receive regular citation in the critical literature. No doubt, the fact that Williams was publishing on realism (and even defending it, according to one iteration of the essay’s title) in a journal that notably tended to ex- coriate realist cinema gave his intervention into the debate on the politics of realism a polemical tone. Screen stood famously (or infamously, depending on one’s point of view) for an ultra-leftist formalism inspired by French theory’s invocation of a freeing of the signifier from any representational project. And there’s no doubt that the fact that some of the defenders of the Screen position, such as Stephen Heath and Colin 27 Williams, Drama from Ibsen to Brecht (London: Oxford University Press, 1968), 345–346. Mention might also be made here of Williams’s 1974 inaugural lecture “Drama in a Dramatised Society,” delivered when he took up an endowed professorship in Drama, the first of its kind at Cambridge. Despite the august context and the seeming respectability of subject matter perhaps hinted at in the lecture’s title, Williams’s speech is really about how the newest mass forms of moving-image culture are challenging and changing older performative culture. Williams con- centrates primarily on television (which must have been more than a bit scandalous in the context of Cambridge), but he does make passing reference to film. For instance, in the very last moments of his speech he recounts how at the beginning of the twentieth century, filmmakers “were discovering means of making images move; finding the technical basis for the motion picture: the new mobility and with it the fade, the dissolve, the cut, the flashback, the voice over, the montage, that are technical forms but also, in new ways, modes of perceiving, of relating, of compos- ing and of finding our way.” See Williams, Drama in a Dramatised Society (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1975), 20. 28 Williams, “A Lecture on Realism,” Screen 18, no. 1 (1977): 61–74, reprinted as “A Defence of Realism,” in Wil- liams, What I Came to Say, ed. Neil Belton, Francis Mulhern, and Jenny Taylor (London: Hutchinson Radius, 1989), 226–239. References in my text are to this later edition of the essay.
  • Cinema Journal 52 | No. 3 | Spring 2013 16 MacCabe, were former students of Williams added to the complex resonances of his essay’s appearance in Screen. Yet Screen’s attempt to enlist Brecht in the cause of a formalist politics of the free play of the signifier was itself overly polemical, and the journal’s denunciatory con- flation of a socially cognitive content in art (which can in fact enlist all sorts of tech- niques, experimental or not, realist or not, to achieve its critical goals) with a naive notion of realism as a specific and singular technique was certainly overstated. Against this, Williams’s intervention traces changing conceptions of realism to argue that a politically progressive culture may well need to enlist some notion of realism in its desire to say something cognizant of social realities but that this implies no endorse- ment of a simple-minded photographic notion of realism as mere reproduction of the surface look of things, a mere “naturalism.” Brecht, he argues firmly (and to my mind, correctly), was a realist: he wanted art to offer critical statements on social reality, but he felt precisely that mere photographic reproduction couldn’t entail such criticism. Progressive art necessitated breaks from, fissures within, dominant (photographic and uncritical) ways of seeing. Getting away from the mere surface of the world was not a formalist rejection of the real but a way of getting at it. For Williams, indeed, it is the fissures and fractures within Loach’s film that give it much of its interest and make it Brechtian: in Williams’s words, “The intention of interpreting an event, which Brecht made so intrinsic a part of his dramatic form, distin- guishing it from the form which offered an event for mere empathy, seems quite clearly evident in The Big Flame, and is probably even consciously derived from something of the influence of Brecht.”29 In particular, by recounting a dockers’ strike that veers into the attempt to socialize ownership of the docks away from private control, The Big Flame turns, in Williams’s reading, into a work of political hypothesis—of fictionalizing possibilities that haven’t (yet) been realized. In other words, even though it has a lot of surface naturalism in it (it was inspired by a strike that actually had happened, and made use of on-location shooting and nonprofessional actors who were real dockers), the fact that The Big Flame begins to imagine something that hasn’t yet happened—so- cialization of the means of production—means that the film moves beyond the givens of the real into the openness of the not-yet, the hypothetical. This break into the imagining of a new world is then matched by a break of the film’s style into new rep- resentational modes. As Williams puts it: What then happens [when the workers in the film decide to do more than strike and set out to seize control of the docks] is perhaps inconsistent with the narrower definitions of realism in that, having taken the action to that point in this recognizable place, a certain dramatic, but also political, hy- pothesis is established. What would happen if we went beyond the terms of this particular struggle against existing conditions and existing attempts to define or alter them? What would happen if we moved towards taking power for ourselves? . . . Thus if we are establishing the character of realism in The Big Flame, we have to notice the interesting combination, fusion perhaps, and 29 Williams, “Defence,” 233, original emphasis.
  • Cinema Journal 52 | No. 3 | Spring 2013 17 within this fusion a certain fracture between the methods of establishing rec- ognition and the alternative method of a hypothesis within that recognition, a hypothesis which is played out in realistic terms, but within a politically imagined possibility.30 Importantly, Williams tracks such fractures of conventional(ized) ways of seeing given reality not only at the broadest level of narrative structure (the film’s shift from a present to a hypothesized, fantasized, desired future) but also at the more local level of shot-to-shot stylistic effects. For instance, during a confrontation by the dockers with the police, the very position of the camera becomes significant for its differences from the expected. Williams observes: It is quite remarkable, and of course, the reasons are obvious, how regular and how naturalized the position of the camera behind the police is in either newsreel or in fictionalized reports of that kind of disturbance. . . . It is signifi- cant that in The Big Flame, in contrast with the normality of the convention, the viewpoint is with the people being attacked. This is a useful reminder, both for an analysis of this film and for analysis of the many hundreds of examples which must be seen as working the other way round, of the way in which the convention of showing things as they actually happen is inherently determined by viewpoint in the precise technical sense of the position of the camera.31 Once again, we see how established conventions naturalize dominant ways of seeing and how these seemingly formal choices actually reinforce dominant structures of feeling. And, in Brechtian terms, we see how a shift in formal means entails new feel- ings, new structures, new seeing. Williams’s essay on The Big Flame shows the values of close reading—and in this respect, it shows continuity with his film writing from the 1950s, concerned as it was with “practical criticism”—and it once again reiterates how formal analysis is a necessary base for informed ideological analysis. In the 1980s, just before the end of his life, Williams devoted two pieces to alter- natives in film history—alternatives as to how film could have developed and how it actually did develop (reductively, the alternative between a truly open popular and experimental art and a set of practices caught up by dominant institutions with com- mercial objectives) and alternatives also in the historical writing that would set out to judge those divergent paths: “Film History,” originally presented as the preface to James Curran and Vincent Porter’s anthology British Cinema History, and “Cinema and Socialism,” a 1985 lecture at the National Film Theatre.32 “Cinema and Social- ism” is somewhat in continuity with Williams’s newfound interest in the 1960s in the 30 Ibid. 31 Ibid., 236 (original emphasis). 32 Williams, “Film History,” in British Cinema History, ed. James Curran and Vincent Porter (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1983), 9–23, and reprinted posthumously in Williams, What I Came to Say, 132–146; Williams, “Cinema and Socialism,” printed posthumously in Williams, The Politics of Modernism (London: Verso, 1989), 107–118.
  • Cinema Journal 52 | No. 3 | Spring 2013 18 promise and potential of an art of political cinema, but the optimism of that earlier period is tempered by sober assessment (this, after all, was the moment of Margaret Thatcher) of the daunting realities of political struggle in the cultural realm. Starting with the question as to whether (as common conception often has it) cinema is an in- herently radical art in the twentieth century, Williams cautions against any imputation of inherent effect (such as progressive enlightenment) to an art form: any new cultural practice emerges into an historical field where diverse agents can direct it in myriad directions (including reactionary ones) and where any connections to social move- ments (or away from them) have to be built and fought over rather than automatically assumed. Bluntly, as Williams puts it, cinema could have gone in a socialist direction (and Williams notes that Soviet cinema did for a moment “make that kind of use of the opportunities of early film”), but, as he concludes, “it isn’t really surprising . . . to find a symmetry between this new popular form [i.e., cinema] and typically capitalist forms of economic development. Nor is it surprising, given the basic factor of centralized production and rapid multiple distribution [of mass-produced prints of a film] . . . to see the development of relatively monopolist—more strictly, corporate—forms of economic organization. . . . The road to Hollywood was then in one sense inscribed.”33 “Film History” is a broader metareflection on modes of writing film history and on the ways, as Williams sees it, that standard histories separate off this or that part of the story and reify it (typically, for instance, by a technological determinism that sees the technical inventions of the medium as entailing its uses). For Williams, a more expan- sive history is needed—one that situates technical possibilities within larger sociocul- tural struggles as to how the medium should be used and by whom and for whom. As he says, “No account of the technical inventions, or even of the systematic technolo- gies, can function as a prehistory to some unitary version of the history of cinema. . . . Rather, these provided certain new possibilities, at times themselves entailing further technical developments, within the general pressures and limits of a wider social and cultural history,” and it is clear that Williams feels that no film history that doesn’t address this wider history will ever be acceptable.34 He proposes that any effective historical study of film would minimally have to deal not only with its technical history but also with the history of its relation to other forms of popular culture; the history of the attempt to commercialize it in the name of dominant institutions of ideology; and, conversely but also concomitantly, the history of its interactions with the most cutting- edge modernisms of the day. No doubt, the writings published a short time before a major thinker passes away take on unexpected symbolic weight. But Williams’s last pieces on film from the 1980s do seem a fitting final demonstration of his commitment to serious engagement with the art and politics of film. For more than thirty years, Williams addressed the cin- ema, and he did so with rigor, sense of purpose, and the deepest aesthetic and moral commitment. ✽ 33 Williams, “Cinema and Socialism,” 109–110. 34 Williams, “Film History,” 136–137.
Comments
Top